A Beach With A View

Alumni relations intern Francis Newman has a look at the history of West Sands in St Andrews.

The view from West Sands became iconic when it was used in the film Chariots of Fire in 1981. Ever since then the same view of the town from the Sands has been captured on the cameras of countless students, alumni and tourists.

But the scene has been impressive since long before that, and here we explore the different uses of the beach over time. In 1767 – 250 years ago this year – John Oliphant visited the town and sketched the familiar view, in a drawing now held by the University Library’s Special Collections division.


Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library – OLI-5

One of the first actual photographs of the town from this direction was taken in 1860 by Thomas Rodger, who studied at the University and lived most of his life in a house in Market Street, now the University Careers’ Centre.


Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library – ALB-67-6

Later in the 19th century the Sands became common places for recreation, as shown by the bathing huts in 1887.


Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library – DHF-19C

The notorious tides of St Andrews Bay occasionally proved treacherous to ships at sea. An unknown ship ran aground in front of the town in 1890: this picture was taken by John Fairweather.


Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library – GMC-F-11.B

In the early 20th century aircraft became a common sight over the skies of St Andrews, and West Sands was sometimes used as a landing strip for light aircraft. Occasionally, however, a landing would go wrong, as happened in 1934. George Middlemass Cowie (1902-1982) was on hand to take this photo.


Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library – GMC-4-1.9

Cowie was a prolific photographer, who lived and worked in St Andrews from 1930 until his death in 1982. His entire collection – around 60,000 negatives and original prints – now belongs to the University. West Sands was used for motorsports both before and after the war: this car race, again captured by Cowie, took place in 1950.


Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library – GMC-33-6-1

A more familiar use of the beach – dog-walking – is seen here in 1985 in a photo taken by Lawrence Levy, who is better known for being one of the foremost golf photographers of his time. His collection is also now held in the University Library.


Photograph © Lawrence Levy Photographic Collection.
All rights reserved. Image courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library, 2008-1-6751

And finally, here is the familiar view more recently, in a photo taken in 2016.

MUST NOT be used for any other purpose than that described below.

Also, have a look at our video of a walk down West Sands this winter!

All photos and drawings except the last one are from the St Andrews University Library Special Collections Unit, and the originals are held by the Library. They also have a blog about their collection. The final photo is from the University Imagebank, which holds more recent photos of the University, town and surrounding area.


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