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History of St Leonard’s Chapel

St Leonard’s College

St Leonard's College illustration

St Leonard’s College was founded in 1512 by Archbishop Alexander Stewart and Prior John Hepburn. It was intended for the education of novices of the Augustinian Order and was administered by the Priory. Students were educated in arts and theology, under the academic supervision of the University. The College disassociated itself from the Priory in 1545.

In 1579, the Colleges of St Leonard and St Salvator (founded 1450) were reconstituted as colleges of arts and philosophy, while teaching at St Mary’s College (founded 1538) focused on theology.

Declining student numbers and the poverty of the University led to the union of the two Arts colleges in 1747, as the United College of St Salvator and St Leonard.

The United College was housed on the site of St Salvator’s College and in 1772 the buildings and gardens of St Leonard’s College were sold off, with the exception of the college chapel, which remains a part of the University.

The rest of the site is now owned by St Leonards School.

The chapel building

St Leonard's Chapel‌Parts of the building now known as St Leonard’s Chapel pre-date the foundation of the college. As the Hospital of St Leonard, belonging to the Augustinian Canons of the Cathedral Priory, it provided shelter to pilgrims visiting the shrine of St Andrew. The dedication is appropriate, for in the middle ages St Leonard was regarded as the protector of travellers sheltering in inns and hospices.

The earliest parts of the building, the nave and the western half of the choir, may date from 1144 when the Augustinians acquired and probably rebuild an earlier Culdee hospital.

The hospital buildings would have included some kind of chapel. The hospital was endowed with land, and the Kirk of St Leonard, first mentioned in 1413, served this parish. The Kirk was also used for meetings of the newly established University.

The number of pilgrims to St Andrews declined in the 15th century and the hospital buildings were used as an almshouse, before being converted into the new college. The college chaplain, and later, the Principal, was responsible for St Leonard’s Parish.

After the creation of the United College, the congregation of St Leonard’s was transferred to St Salvator s Chapel. Though St Leonard’s Chapel remained the property of the University, it was allowed to decay. By 1772 it had lost its roof and tower. In 1773, during his journey to the Western Islands of Scotland, Samuel Johnson noted:

A decent attempt … has been made to convert it into a kind of green-house… the plants do not hitherto prosper. To what use it will next be put I have no pleasure in conjecturing.

In 1904 the congregation of St Leonard’s Parish left St Salvator’s Chapel for a new building at the west end of St Andrews. In 1910 the University replaced the roof and reglazed the windows of St Leonard’s Chapel. From 1948 extensive renovations initiated by Sir David Russell, the Chancellor’s Assessor, began under the architect Ian G Lindsay, with a grant from the Pilgrim Trust.

The building was re-dedicated on St Leonard’s Day, 6 November 1952, in the first service to be held there for nearly 200 years.

In 1994 an anonymous donor funded improvements including a new organ, altar-cloth, carpets and wall-sconces.


The appearance of the church is now very different from that in mediaeval times.

The west front was reconstructed by Principal Sir David Brewster in 1853. Previously, the tower had joined the church here.

The building was extended eastwards in the mid-17th century and the sacristy on the north side of the choir was probably added at this time. The alterations are visible on the east and south walls. The south wall bears a panel with Prior John Hepburn’s arms and initials.

Against the north wall is an 18th-century grotto.


Before the restoration of 1948–1952, the interior of the chapel was unfurnished, with bare walls and an earth floor. As far as possible, it has been restored to its mediaeval appearance. A central screen, with an organ loft above, divides the nave and choir. The walls have been plastered and limewashed, and the ceiling painted blue, a practice commonly observed in Scotland until the 17th century. Lighting is by wax candles in wall-sconces and three central chandeliers.

The nave

The pulpit, with the lattroun or reading-desk, imitates the early post-reformation style.

In the pavement can be seen the tombstones of John Archibald, Bailie of the Priory (died 1534) and his wife Margaret; Robert Beuik and his wife Janet; and Mariota Graeme, died 1502.

The inscription over the entry to the choir commemorates the support of the Pilgrim Trust in restoring the Chapel.

The choir

Over the entry is a Latin inscription, commemorating the gift of Sir David and Lady Russell, who provided the interior furnishings of the church in memory of their younger son Patrick, a former student of the University, who was killed on active service in the second world war. The coats of arms on the organ loft are those of St Leonard’s College (centre), the two founders Archbishop Alexander Stewart (extreme left) and Prior John Hepburn (extreme right) and those responsible for the restoration, Principal Sir James Irvine (left) and Sir David Russell (right).

Two rows of stalls are set against the north and south walls. The chief stalls on each side of the entry are for the principal master and for the officiating chaplain.

There are three monuments on the north wall. The first (closest to the screen) is of Robert Wilkie, College Principal, died 1611. The next monument is of Peter Bruce, Principal of the College, died 1630. The inscription and flanking pillars have been restored. The third is that of Robert Stewart, Earl of March, who died in 1586, aged 63. The inscription translates: “Safe in harbour, I put behind me the ocean and my fleet: Beholding me, put behind you the whole world and your burdens.”

Behind the altar a painting by Walter Pritchard, 1956, depicts the death of St Leonard. The shackles and the people emerging from the wood symbolise his patronage of prisoners and travellers. Below the nearest window on the east wall is a carved shallow bowl, used to wash communion cups. The water runs away outside.