St Andrews then and now: A rephotography project: Part II

Wednesday 9 October 2019

This is the second instalment in a series of five blog posts featuring close juxtapositions of early photographs of St Andrews selected from Special Collections, with the same views today. Published during the 2019 Photography Festival, this project aims to bridge 180 years of photographic history by inscribing these comparisons both within the context of their creation, and within the broader history of St Andrews. To view the interactive juxtapositions, click on the illustrations.

The Cathedral

Our photographic stroll through Victorian St Andrews continues with early photographs of the cathedral, already in ruins when photographed in the nineteenth century.

Plan of St Andrews locating the vantage points used to make the photographs featured in this blog post. Original lithographic print published in Charles Roger, History of St. Andrews (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1849).

Begun in the 1160s, St Andrews cathedral was consecrated in King Robert Bruce’s presence in 1318 and completed by the late fourteenth century. The largest building in medieval Scotland, its monumental proportions and magnificence were designed to host the remains of the Apostle Andrew, allegedly brought to east Fife in the fourth century by a Greek monk named Regulus (or Rule).

This formidable structure was also a sign of religious, political and economic power. Attracting increasingly high numbers of pilgrims from the 10th century onwards, the relics of Saint Andrew provided for a steady source of income. Their possession granted legitimacy to the priors and bishops of St Andrews, and made for a potent symbol of Scottish power and independence from England. So central was the influence of St Andrews in Scotland that the Apostle became the country’s patron saint and his symbol, the saltire cross, the national emblem.

In last week’s blog post, a photograph of Blackfriars chapel by Thomas Rodger called the troubled days of the Reformation to mind. In June 1559, a series of sermons on the theme of ‘Cleansing the Temple’ were pronounced by John Knox in Holy Trinity Church. This is said to have galvanised the local population, already stirred by recent persecutions, into raiding the seats of Catholic power in St Andrews and erasing all signs of ‘idolatry’.

The mob ransacked Blackfriars and Greyfriars monasteries as well as the cathedral, destroying its sculptures and the books of the Augustinian community. Not much of the building itself was actually torn down, but it was left to decay for more than two centuries.

Thomas Rodger, The Cathedral, St Andrews, albumen print, 1850. ID: ALB-10-82-2.

This composition by Thomas Rodger, St Andrews’ first professional photographer, shows the west front gateway and the east gable in one frame. Quite remarkably, apart from minor restorations and losses, the ruins have not changed much in the past 170 years.

To create this photograph, Rodger used the collodion process invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851. Involving a glass negative coated with a layer of collodion, it produces sharper images than the calotype process and allows for quicker exposure times. A good deal of care and precision are still needed to obtain a good negative, however, as it must be exposed and developed while the emulsion is still wet. The drier it gets, the less photosensitive it will be.

Rodger animated the scene by having three men pose in the middle ground. The higher position of the east gable in my reproduction shows that Rodger’s lens was actually placed lower than mine.

David O. Hill & Robert Adamson, St Andrews Cathedral, salted paper print, 1846. ID: ALB-23-7.

The lighter tone and more graphical texture of this print by Hill & Adamson tells us that it is a salted paper print made from a calotype negative. It is quite faded, but this does not take away the balance of the composition, framed from the burial ground surrounding the cathedral. In comparison with my reproduction, the scene seems almost entirely unchanged. The greater number of gravestones, the tree that grew over Hill & Adamson’s viewpoint and the Fairmont Hotel in the distance are the only obvious differences.

To the left of the composition stands the east gable of the cathedral, completed in the late twelfth century along with the choir. It was partially rebuilt in the fifteenth century after a fire that significantly damaged the cathedral in 1378. To the right of the east gable is St Rule’s Tower, along with the remains of this church’s choir. Erected during the first half of the twelfth century, it was possibly designed to host the relics of Saint Andrew before it was superseded by the cathedral.

David O. Hill & Robert Adamson, East Gable of the Cathedral, salted paper print, 1846. ID: ALB-66-11.

In this composition, a man is sitting on the remaining base of the choir’s outer wall. His presence provides a scale for the monument, but also anchors the scene in time, giving it a meditative quality that echoes the melancholy surroundings and their tragic history.

Considering that the camera was probably operated by Robert Adamson, the sitter may well have been David Octavius Hill. He looks to the southeast, where a few yards away, just outside the frame, Adamson would be buried less than two years later. Little did Adamson know, when he took this photograph, that he would die of illness on 14 January 1848, at only twenty-seven years of age.

David O. Hill & Robert Adamson, Cathedral from the Northeast, salted paper print, 1846. ID: ALB-66-13.

The passing of time is more apparent in this juxtaposition, the number of gravestones having dramatically risen since 1846. Once again, the cathedral’s ruins appear almost unchanged, as does the building in the background. Formerly known as the Archdeacon’s Inns or Manse, it is now called Dean’s Court.

Originating in the twelfth century and remodelled in the late sixteenth century, Dean’s Court is considered the oldest residential building in St Andrews. Formerly privately owned, it was bought for the university in 1930 and converted into a residence for postgraduate students in 1951.

The main subject of this photograph – the west front of the cathedral – was rebuilt in the 1270s after the previous structure had collapsed during a storm, and was again remodelled after the fire of 1378. It seems to have stood in rather good shape until the early seventeenth century, when, as recounted by Charles Roger in 1849, the north tower fell right after a group of people attending a funeral had passed under it.

David O. Hill & Robert Adamson, Cathedral and Precinct Wall, salted paper print, 1846. ID: ALB-66-12.

In this picture, Hill & Adamson depicted the east gable from the northeast, beyond the precinct wall. Although the gable looms in the background, the centre of the composition is occupied by one of the thirteen turrets adjoined to the wall.

This square structure is known as the Haunted Tower, as the ghost of a lady wearing a white dress is said to appear nearby. Whether one believes in such stories is irrelevant – it is an interesting element to consider when looking at Hill & Adamson’s photograph, in which the figure of a man is looking up at the tower. Wearing a light frock coat, he seems to be examining it and pondering over the stories associated with it.

In order to reconstitute the view, it was crucial that the photograph be taken in the morning. In the afternoon, both the gable and wall are engulfed in shadow.

This instalment in our rephotography series comes to an end. Next week, our journey through time will go on with photographs of the Pends and the Harbour.

Édouard de Saint-Ours
PhD candidate, University of St Andrews,
Université Le Havre-Normandie


I would like to thank Rachel Nordstrom for her continued support and advice throughout this project. My gratitude also goes to Alex Cohen, who generously gave some of his own time to proofread these posts.


Brown, Michael and Katie Stevenson, eds. Medieval St Andrews: Church, Cult, City. Woodridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2017.

Crawford, Robert. The Beginning and the End of the World: St Andrews, Scandal, and the Birth of Photography. Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2011.

Grierson, James. Delineations of St Andrews. Edinburgh: Peter Hill; St Andrews: P. Bowler; London: Vernor, Hood, and Sharpe, 1807.

Johnstone, Karen A. ‘Thomas Rodger, 1832-1883: A Biography and Catalogue of Selected Works’. MPhil dissertation, University of St Andrews, 1997.

Lyon, Charles Jobson. The History of St Andrews, Ancient and Modern. Edinburgh: The Edinburgh Printing and Publishing Co.; St Andrews: M. Wilson; Cupar: G. S. Tullis, and Gardiner and Anderson; Kirkcaldy: J. Cumming, and J. Birrell; Dundee: F. Shaw, and J. Chalmers; Perth: J. Dewar; Arbroath: P. Wilson; Montrose: J. and D. Nichol, and Smith and Co.; Aberdeen: Brown and Co.; London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1838.

Morrison-Low, A. D. ‘Dr John Adamson and Thomas Rodger: Amateur and Professional Photography in Nineteenth-Century St Andrews’. In Photography 1900: the Edinburgh Symposium, edited by Julie Lawson, Ray McKenzie and A. D. Morrison-Low, 19-37. Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 1994.

Morrison-Low, A. D. ‘Brewster, Talbot and the Adamsons: The Arrival of Photography in St Andrews’. History of Photography 25, no. 2 (2001): 130-41.

Roger, Charles. History of St. Andrews. Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1849.

Stevenson, Sara and A. D. Morrison-Low. Scottish Photography: The First Thirty Years. Edinburgh: NMS Enterprises Limited-Publishing, 2015.

Related topics

Share this story

One reply to "St Andrews then and now: A rephotography project: Part II"

Leave a reply

By using this form you agree with the storage and handling of your data by this website.


Enter your email address here to receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 6,452 other subscribers.