Tradition: something to embrace or eradicate?

Photo: Harry Gunning

This quaint Fife town, perched on the cliffs above the North Sea, is steeped in tradition. Walking down the wynds and streets you are acutely aware of the history which surrounds you. From the remains of Blackfriars, to Queen Mary’s Hawthorn, the fisherfolk’s cottages on North Street and the castle and cathedral there is a multitude of tales to be told. Students, books in hand, for hundreds of years have trodden the same steps. The flash of a scarlet red gown and the sound of bagpipes melodiously filling the streets on a misty morning is all part of daily life in St Andrews. It really is impossible to escape the plethora of traditions that punctuate our calendars. However, this is the essence of the charm of this university. The traditions begin before you have even arrived as you sign the Latin oath Sponsio Academica. Then, almost as soon as you have unpacked your bags into halls and said a teary goodbye to your parents, you traipse to Younger Hall where young voices fill the room with the words of Gaudeamus proclaiming “Long live the University, long live the professors, long live each and every member; may they flourish!” As the semester progresses your Facebook feed is increasingly covered with pictures of scantily-clad friends jumping off the pier and immersing themselves in the chilly waters of the North Sea.

The other weekend we experienced perhaps the most iconic St Andrews weekend: Raisin. Need any more be said? A weekend of bizarre mayhem, which culminated with costumed freshers processing down North Street— dressed as anything from unicorns to grapes, and the Spice Girls to the Hungry Caterpillar. Additionally, as if that was not enough tradition for one weekend, these same freshers clutched, dragged or carried objects inscribed with Latin to Sallies’ Quad as Raisin Receipts which were later thrown into a skip before what can only be described as an eruption of shaving foam.

October does not mark the end of university traditions. Spring sees the Kate Kennedy procession, The Gaudie, and perhaps the most infamous of all the St Andrean traditions, May Dip. Yes, it might come as a shock but St Andrews students are not angels — they may have stepped on the cursed ‘PH’ where Patrick Hamilton was put to death in 1528, and perhaps committed incest with their academic brother or sister. Then, to conclude the year, students gather with an assortment of containers from casserole dishes to bins, and buckets to washing up bowls to soak their final year friends with water (and, if you’re lucky, a shower of glitter) after they complete their annual undergraduate exam.

Even outside of ‘the Bubble’ traditions pervade our everyday lives. We all look forward to specific celebrations which are spread through the year which the nation embraces with aplomb. As you read this we await Guy Fawkes’ Night, an evening filled with hot chocolate and bonfire toffee as the community congregates around a huge fire wrapped in thick scarves and coats. Catherine wheels and rockets are set off filling the sky with an explosion of colours as well all chant “remember, remember the fifth of November.” It really is quintessentially autumnal and not a day to overlook.

Then comes Christmas which, even if you are not of the faith, comes with has a slew of wonderful traditions: candlelit carol services, stockings, turkey with all the trimmings, Christmas pudding, the list could go on. Britain also has a myriad of strange traditions which are specific to individual areas of the country: cheese rolling in the Cotswolds, the dress of the Pearly Kings and Queens in London, and the Straw Bear Festival in Whittlesea just to name a few. Individual families have their own wonderful traditions which they keep each year too — from leaving milk and mince pies out for Father Christmas, to eating ice cream for breakfast on your birthday. These are precious because they bring back memories of happy times and unite the family. It certainly seems that both as a university and as a nation we love tradition.

Tradition binds the community and unites generations since it is a constant in an ever-changing world. As philosopher Roger Scruton articulated, traditions express a “partnership between the living, the unborn, and the dead. ” The beauty of tradition is the continuity it provides even whilst it evolves. This means that today we can enjoy and partake in practices which have existed for centuries. For example, the iconic red undergraduate gown was originally introduced in St Andrews in 1672 to enable tavern owners to identify students. Today, the gown no longer serves this original purpose and is worn predominantly for formal events and occasionally when the wind gets too rough.

Historically, in St Andrews children gave their academic parents a pound of raisins to add flavour to their porridge and to thank them for their guidance (hence the name ‘Raisin weekend’ was born). Today the sentiment remains but the gift is in another form of the noble grape, a bottle of wine.

Some may attack our traditions, arguing that these aspects of St Andrews life are pretentious and pompous. They rage at the students, stereotyping them as middle-class snobs who wear pearls, puffers and pashminas with no real experience of hard work who spend their days sipping skinny lattes and prancing in their gowns down the pier. This is far from the truth. Traditions in St Andrews are a celebration of the University’s past, and are enjoyed by students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

So many of the traditions in this town are commemorative, and it is these traditions which are most conducive to the creation of a thriving community. Individuals from across the globe gather to remember individuals who served the community they enjoy being part of. Such traditions are not harmful, but rather a heart-warming symbol of the appreciation of selfless behaviour. The Gaudie torch-lit procession, for example, remembers the bravery of former student John Honey who risked his life in 1800 to save survivors from an off-shore shipping accident.

The haunting lines of Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem say, “they shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning we will remember them.” These lines are intrinsically linked with Remembrance Sunday, another commemorative tradition. As the poppy wreaths are laid, the silence is held, and then the euphonious sounds of Last Post heard, we as a nation are called to remember those who have served, and in many cases died for, our country in conflict.

It only seems right that such selfless and noble acts must be celebrated, refuting the claim that traditions are pointless. This is the behaviour which we should promote, endorse and celebrate. The past does not, as L.P. Hartley suggested in his novel The Go-Between, have to be another country. Tradition roots us in the past, enables us to live in the present and not fear for the future.

Some are still opposed to tradition based upon the belief that it stymies us and blinds us from modernity. Yet tradition and innovation are not diametrically opposed, and this is encapsulated by the University. Modern teaching techniques, ground-breaking research, and new buildings are underpinned by traditional academic dress, celebrations and architecture. The creation of new traditions within the University highlights the synthesis of the old and new. For example, to celebrate the 600th anniversary of St Andrews, a black gown was introduced for postgraduate students of St Leonards College. Tradition and innovation are both important, but neither should exist in isolation.

It is essential to acknowledge that some tradition can be harmful. It is saddening to read of the injurious traditions which remain in countries around the world. We recognise that there are certainly some traditions that should not be endorsed or celebrated. Challenging traditions that are harmful is a difficult task because it requires the cooperation of community leaders and those who struggle to look ahead.

We can see many examples of harmful traditions within this very country. For example, the absence of universal suffrage until the mid-twentieth century suppressed the rights and voice of women and other subjugated groups. When discussing the relative benefits and vices of tradition is essential to differentiate between these different forms.

Just as the grass withers and flowers fade, not all traditions stand the test of time. Traditional skills are being lost, with few members of ‘Generation Y’ being able to knit, sew, weave or make jams and chutneys. What is more, traditional foods are being abandoned in favour of world cuisine — few students come home from their lectures and tuck into Pease pudding or Bath Chaps. Instead, the classic pesto pasta or perhaps a Maisha curry is more the norm.

For tradition to be preserved we must actively engage and embrace it. It is beneficial as it creates and binds a community which transcends generations.

We should not fear embracing the past, and remember that it is the foundation for the future. In 1922 the Rector of St Andrews, James M. Barrie, urged students to “fight for the old red gown till the whistle blows.” The past of this university has created the institution it is today. The traditions of this university are in our hands. Will we, the students, fight to preserve these practices or will we let them evanesce?


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