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Autumn Fair at the Heritage Museum

At 2pm on Sunday 26 September, a time which, for the students of St Andrews, seems to occupy that brief window between brunch and the onset of a profound pre-week dread, an easily persuaded friend and I meandered up the length of North Street, bound for the annual Autumn Fair. We walked past red-garbed students on their way to a Don’t Walk event and coalitions of preoccupied birds, until we found ourselves outside the St Andrews Heritage Museum & Garden.

Passing the elevated entrance of the museum, whose dense stone facade is undeniably charming and often missed, we entered its first rooms. Rich wooden floorboards, ceiling beams and antique cabinets occupy the space. The museum’s collection of manifold artefacts—all of which played a role in “the social history of the people and buildings” of St Andrews which the Preservation Trust seeks to preserve—begins through an arched door from the gift shop.

The museum is a densely populated time capsule. Along one wall is the history of dentistry in St Andrews, overlooking rusting dental tools and a walrus tusk. The next door is “The Chemist’s Shop”, with vials, mortar and pestles arranged around stools and ordered on windowsills. There are insights to be read on the evolution of alchemy to chemistry in Scotland, as well as photos and drawings displayed on pieces of original furniture.

This area of the museum also contains some more familiar relics: a panel of wood adorned with gold lettering from the original Aikman’s (Aikman & Terras); as well as a sign for Mitchell’s, albeit advertising “Bogie Roll” and “Thick Black” glass bottles; biscuit tins, ceramic marmalade jars, and snuff boxes with the face of the queen, fill the walls and line bureaus in this cabinet of historically charged curiosities.

Due, in my defence, more to sheer ignorance and Coronavirus restrictions than willful neglect, I had never even seen the Preservation Trust’s garden. The garden is enclosed by a stone wall at the back of the 17th century house, which accommodates the main museum. There, a path winds around the lawn, past shady trees and flowerbeds. I immediately regretted the vague curiosity with which I have always regarded the museum, in passing, feeling that I had entered a very welcome alternate realm. The museum’s website refers to itself as “St Andrews’ Best Kept Secret.” Ordinarily, I would be reluctant to support such claims, but they might, in this case, be true.

Sequestered along the periphery of the garden, stalls had been arranged and done up with bunting. Visitors sampled baked goods and sipped tea, while eyeing homemade jams and tartan doorstops, or leafing through stacks of second-hand books. Some paused for a moment in the unlooked-for sunshine, to make conversation or contemplate the scene.

In an idyllic corner of the garden, we found a well-lit bench at which to drink our tea. On a stool across the way, a woman sat beside her wicker basket, wrapped in a crochet shawl, asked us if we’d sat there because we wanted a story. I admitted that my intentions had not been thus motivated, but we wished for a tale all the same. Several minutes were then happily spent listening to Sheila Kinninmonth, author of Fife Folktales, retelling the spirited tale of 12th century Borders wizard Michael Scott and a dancing curse.

Despite the omnipresence of the picturesque in a town such as ours, moments of unintentional tranquility can feel few and far between. That afternoon, in the garden, amongst overgrown roses and older St Andrews residents (a group we are only recently able to interact with, post-lockdown), I settled almost at once into a sense of unhurried contentment. While the architectural landscape of St Andrews serves as a constant reminder of the town’s ancient origins, the museum’s collection is a symbol of the town’s material and cultural heritage. It serves as an essential recognition of St Andrews’ human history and intergenerationality.

The Heritage Museum & Garden is open Wednesday to Sunday, from 12pm to 4pm, with special events and exhibitions throughout the year advertised on their Facebook and website.

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