A charming museum steeped in local history

St Andrews Heritage Museum and Gardens explores the social and working lives of the people of St Andrews. Our museum is set in a charming 17th century house and garden in the heart of the historic quarter of St Andrews, neighbouring St Andrews Cathedral and St Andrews Castle. The house was once home to generations of fisher-families before being sympathetically restored in the 1930s by local architect James Hoey Scott. The house has many stories to tell.

Photo reference: P034
Photo caption: Fisherfolk of the Ladyhead – Langlands, Black, Scott, Duncan, Melville, Bell, Gourlay, Campbell, Anderson, Brown, Watters, Grey. Circa 1920.

Early History of the House

The house is located within the oldest area of settlement in St Andrews. Once part of the pre-12th century Celtic abbey named ‘Kinrymont’, with the building of the Cathedral in the 12th century St Andrews became the ecclesiastical capital of Scotland and a centre for pilgrims from across Europe, bringing vast trading opportunities. Up until the 16th century, St Andrews was the epicentre of religious, economic and political life in Scotland and this area of Town was at its heart.

In the 16th century, the Scottish Reformation saw St Andrews fall in importance.

The John Geddy map of c1580 shows a two storey structure existed on the site of the current museum and it is thought that the house as it is today was built no later than the 17th century. Constructed from random rubble, the house would have originally had a thatched roof and a form of harling or limewash to its exterior walls.

The earliest recorded owner of the house was Alexander Bell in 1723. The house was owned by a succession of wealthy merchants who let out the property, normally to local fisher families who worked at the nearby harbour.

The House in the 19th century

Census records from 1851 – 1891 tell us that the house was divided into four rooms, with each room housing a different family of up to 10 people. At this time, the house had three front doors, the middle door leading up to two first floor rooms and net loft with the two side doors leading to the rooms on the ground floor. Each room had a fireplace, including the net loft. A pend ran down the side of the building, offering access to the outside toilet and wash-house that was, at that time, shared by eight families. The small garden area immediately at the rear of the building would have been used to keep animals and grow vegetables.

The over-crowding and lack of running water resulted in poor living conditions that did not go un-noticed. The famous physician and pioneering photographer, Dr John Adamson, published a report on the housing at the east end of North Street, known as the ‘Ladyhead’, for the Poor Law Commission in 1842. In the report, he noted: “The east end of North Street… is covered with offal of every kind and upon the back of many of the houses there are dung-hills filled with mussel-shells, dung from pigsties… the houses of the fishermen are… in a very dirty and miserable condition, and would be insufferable by any other class of inhabitants.”

While Dr Adamson did not take into consideration the many factors, including low income and lack of facilities, that resulted in these living conditions the report does give an insight into the unsanitary and tough conditions experienced by generations of families that lived at 12 North Street.

The House in the 20th century

At the end of the 19th century, the fishing industry in St Andrews had been in steady decline resulting in a decline in the number of fisher families in the area. By the turn of the 20th century, much of the housing at the Ladyhead was deemed unfit for human habitations. The Housing Act of 1919 led to St Andrews Town Council laying down plans for the first social housing scheme in the Town, the first of six to be developed between 1920 – 1929. The main aim of the scheme was to rehouse working class tenants living in unsuitable homes.

Initially, the Town Council wished to avoid the demolition of housing stock as the demand for housing in St Andrews was so great. However, in 1928, Dr G. M Fyfe’s report on the health of residents of St Andrews highlighted that fatal diseases such as pneumonia, diphtheria and scarlet fever ‘most commonly occie in North Street’, owing to the dense population, poor housing conditions and ‘immigrantion of suspect and able persons’. While the fisher families were still being partly blamed for their poor health and housing conditions, the Town Council took action through the 1930 Housing Act by demolishing slum housing in St Andrews. Owners of the slum housing were served with a prelimainary notive and given the opportunity to come forward with a proposal for developing their property.

by 1930 most fishing families had left the area or had been rehoused into social housing. In 1935, 12 – 20 North Street was subject to a demolition order, such was the poor condition of the property.

Local architect James Hoey Scott purchased 12-20 North Street with the intention of sympathetically restoring the house.

Tenants of 12-16 North Street, 1881

12 North Street

Thomas Brown (40) & Catherine Brown (40).

Thomas & Catherine lived at 12 North Street with their 5 children; Catherine Brown (13), Helen Cuthbertson Brown (10), James Brown (6), Thomas Brown (4), William Dickson Brown (1).

14 North Street

George Lyall (50) & Elizabeth Lyall (59).

Thomas Goodfellow (56) & Margaret Goodfellow (59)

16 North Street

Janet Melville (30)

Janet Melville lived at 16 North Street with her 5 children; Christine Melville (11), Robina Melville (7), William Melville (5), Janet Melville (3), James Melville (1month).

If your family once lived at 12-16 North Street we would love to hear from you. Please contact

Would you like to walk in the footsteps of the fisherfolk?

Download the ladyhead tour and discover what life was like for this once thriving community.