We wandered into the cloisters, following the signs for the ticket office. The ruins are free… but there is a small museum and a tower. The museum we were not too fussed about seeing, but it just shows you… never miss an opportunity! The place, though small, was amazing…
We descended the stairs into the vaulted crypt expecting very little… only to be met with a fabulous collection of cross marked gravestones from medieval times and fragments of Celtic and Pictish design from even earlier. There are symbols, strange to our eyes, perhaps, but which still have a resonance that we can understand today. Swords and shears are incised on many of them, signifying perhaps the cutting of the cords of life.
Many of the crosses look more like keys and really I suppose this is what they are… the keys to the afterlife… the key to the Kingdom. Carved in faith and hope… and sometimes perhaps in desperation and apology! Not all whose lips mouth prayers live either a good or pious life. One stone showed the geometries used by the mason to construct his pillars… hidden for centuries within the fabric of the building.
On the walls of the restored crypt, there are mason’s marks modern and freshly carved in an echo of an ancient tradition, side by side with older graffiti… consecration crosses, geometric symbols and odd designs that seem like the hieroglyphs of some arcane language. Yet although the idea is good, somehow the fresh, sharp lines seem crude beside the flowing, sinuous curves of the ancient stonemasons.
The first room contained simple cross grave markers. The second, a lovely vaulted crypt, held architectural fragments and the seals of the Abbots and Bishops of St Andrews. It was odd seeing how the central symbol of the crucified saint had evolved over the centuries, from an earlier and graphic depiction of martyrdom to a more sedate and sanitised depiction of the saint with the distinctive cross. Yet all preserve the distinctive vesica shape. Legend has it that St Andrew refused to be crucified upon the same kind of cross as Jesus, deeming himself unworthy, yet the St Andrew’s Cross, the Saltire, is now the emblem of Scotland in his honour.
Deeper into the crypt and there were the ornate tombs of the later centuries, carved with skulls and representations of a personified Death and the triumph of the soul. Many inscriptions are still clear, including one from 1676, “If simple straightforwardness of soul strews our way to the stars… no-one more than thou, brother…”
The symbols are strange to our eyes and understanding as the shift from a very simple faith was coloured by social as much as spiritual standing. We seemed to be being immersed deeper and deeper in the past, seeking to see and understand the minds of those who had gone before. I turned and glimpsed a spectral monk watching from above the stairs… for a moment he looked real and though he would not have been the first thing I had seen on this trip, the shadows of the past are not normally so vivid!
There was still one room of the little museum left to see across the corridor apparently. They had managed to pack as much into these small rooms as we do into a day somehow. There was even a stone that for some reason seemed to have the Egyptian solar disc carved upon it! We were already buzzing with what we had seen so far and expected pretty much more of the same… we certainly weren’t expecting what we found…