Underground chamber found in St Andrews town centre

The rare 18th century drainage feature unciovered in Market Street.
The rare 18th century drainage feature unciovered in Market Street.

A large 18th century underground chamber - a massive drainage feature - has been unearthed in St Andrews’ town centre during the £1.5 million upgrading of Market Street.

The interesting and unusual find of the soakway feature was initially made by workmen and has been the focus of investigation by a team of archaeologists.

Owing to the historic significance and sensitivity of St Andrews, planning consent for the works’ project carried a condition requiring all stages to be archaeologically monitored. A number of exciting finds and observations have been made, with the most important the unearthing of the site of the burgh’s first tolbooth, the oldest town council building in Scotland, less than 50 yards away from the latest discovery.

The massive stone-lined underground room was connected with 84 Market Street, a large c.1760s townhouse, the ground floor of which is now occupied by Luvians ice cream parlour.

Fife Council archaelogist Douglas Speirs said that he believed that when the Georgian building was constructed, it involved the creation of the chamber in the street outside.

He told the Citizen in an exclusive interview: ”The purpose of this chamber was to receive run-off water from the building. Having no municipal sewer system, water from the roof ran off into the garden and into the street creating obvious problems.

“To remedy this situation, this forward-thinking piece of state-of-the-art 18th century architecture channelled the run-off water into a series of drains at the back of the property. The drains then ran under the building and into this massive chamber in the street.

“We actually saw a drain chute running from the chamber back towards the building. Once in the chamber, the water slowly soaked away into the sandy sub-soil under the street.”

Mr Speirs said that all the evidence clearly pointed to the room being a soakway as the stone of the chamber is very clean and there appears to be no floored surface, only a natural sandy bottom. This strongly suggests that the chamber was designed to receive clean rainwater, rather than sewage and foul water.

It is the only soakaway of its type known in Market Street and is an unusual feature in archaeological terms.

Mr Speirs concluded: ”The difficulty is in trying to explain why every large 18th century townhouse in Market Street didn’t have one of these soakaways. As an architectural feature, such drainage systems are well known in other towns, but this is the only example so far known in St Andrews.

“It does allow us to say with some degree of accuracy that during the 18th century, the only dry piece of pavement and road to be found on Market Street after a heavy downpour would have been outside of Luvians. Everywhere else would have been horribly wet and muddy!”

The chamber has been recorded and filled in and the new street laid over the top of it, so it will be preserved in situ and remain for all time hidden under the street.