Magus Muir

In St Andrews, the ruins of the Cathedral and the Castle (the Bishop’s Palace) still stand unrestored. The ruins date from the Scottish reformation in the mid-sixteenth century; the castle was ruined by successive battles between Catholics and Protestants, whereas the cathedral fell into disuse and parts of it collapsed. Some people say that the ruins have been left to remind people of the folly of allowing small differences in religion to degenerate into hatred and violence.

But there are other memorials of later date near St Andrews. In 1679, James Sharp, formerly protestant minister and Covenanter and later Bishop of St Andrews, was murdered by a party of Covenanters at Magus Muir. He was ambushed, dragged from his coach, and killed in front of his daughter and servants. The event is re-enacted by the students in the Kate Kennedy procession every year, but until today I didn’t know where it took place. (I am still not sure, as you will see.)

On what was forecast to be a day of light cloud and sunny intervals, but turned out to bring heavy and prolonged rain, we walked out from St Andrews to Strathkinness, down the hill, and up the other side to Bishop’s Wood. Here is a memorial to Archbishop Sharp, and the graves of five Covenanters who had no part in the murder but were killed and buried near the scene in a disturbing example of the kind of moral arithmetic which this sort of conflict seems to provoke.

Sharp memorial and Covenanters' graves

The spot is of “national historical importance”, but not signposted, and very difficult of access if you don’t have a car; the narrow road south from Strathkinness carries heavy traffic including huge lorries. Indeed, the day showed us some deficiencies in the Fife core paths: the core path from St Andrews to Strathkinness involves walking along a busy road with no verge, while there is no core path anywhere near Bishop’s Wood.

Bishop’s Wood is now a tiny part of the Scottish Millennium Forest. There are only three components of the forest in Fife, the other two nowhere near here, so it is not at all clear what kind of forest this is supposed to be.

The language on the information boards in the wood is also telling. James Sharp was “murdered”, while the five Covenanters were “martyred”.

The information boards suggest that the coach was travelling along “Bishop’s Road”, a track (now completely impassible) running west-to-east through the wood, along the top of the ridge. But Wikipedia puts the murder half a mile north, which would be on the Strathkinness Low Road, in the bottom of the valley. The photo below shows Bishop’s Road today.

Bishop's Road

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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4 Responses to Magus Muir

  1. I meant to add one more thing I learned. The Covenanters had set out to kill the Sheriff of Cupar, who was responsible for their persecution. When they learned that Archbishop Sharp (whom they regarded as a turncoat) was coming, they decided he was an even more appropriate victim.

  2. Bob Bilson says:

    Hello Peter, I enjoyed your piece on Magus Muir and agree with you strongly about the lack of footpaths between St. Andrews and Strathkinness and onwards to the Bishop’s Wood. I live in the village and am a trustee for the Strathkinness Community Trust. We recently purchased the wood from Fife Council and have started a number of developments for the benefit of our village community and visitors. We have several Children’s and youth groups involved. Improving walking access to the woods is certainly an aim.

    Bob Bilson

  3. Robert Bilson says:

    Open day at Magus Muir Sunday 19 March 10am. Chance to view recent developments

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