The many traditions of St Andrews

News editor Tom Williams explains the many ancient, and sometimes strange, traditions that St Andrews is known for.

The University of St Andrews was founded in 1413 making it the third-oldest university in the English-speaking world, and the oldest university in Scotland. Throughout its over 600 year history, St Andrews has accumulated many traditions.

The traditions you will experience will be on the rather more bizarre end of the spectrum than your friends who are beginning to attend other universities. Their traditions may include staying up all night to finish an essay (due tomorrow – do tomorrow), or accidentally signing up for too many email lists during freshers week. These traditions you will experience as well, but other universities rarely extend the experience further than this, especially in comparison to St Andrews.

The more recent additions to the list of St Andrews traditions such as the infamous Pablo drink and Friday night karaoke at the Union, unfortunately have far less grandeur to them than those developed over hundreds of years.

The first and most important tradition you will come into contact with as freshers, is that of academic family.  When you overhear another talking about their ‘mum’ or ‘dad’, more often than not they are not referring to a relative. This can sometimes cause confusion.  As a fresher, you may be inundated with third years, and second year medics attempting to adopt you into their family. The tradition is not formally organised by the University and students are not required to take part. Nonetheless, the tradition plays a crucial role in integrating students among different years, classes, halls and nationalities.  

The quintessential St Andrews academic family is very much alike a modern one. It’s very normal for students to have two mums or two dads or parents who split up and don’t talk anymore. The students union has previously organised events to help academic orphans find a family.

Some academic families themselves can often turn into entire dynasties, you may often meet an academic grandparent, uncle, aunt or cousin that you never knew you had.

Not surprisingly, with St Andrews being such a small town and academic families being so close, ‘academic incest’ is rife. Family members often enter relationships with one another. This is known as an academic sin, which we will touch upon later.

The main event for an academic family is undoubtedly the Raisin weekend. On Sunday 22 October, you will attend a ‘tea party’ at your academic mother’s house, which usually involves more alcohol than caffeinated drinks and scones. From there, you are carted off to your father’s for yet another round of drinking in the afternoon.

[Raisin Weekend 2020 postponed until 2021 due to COVID-19]

Students are often required to pace themselves for the events of Raisin Monday, which involve getting up before midday.

Academic siblings are given a Raisin receipt by their father on the morning. This is often something embarrassing or inconvenient for them to carry around for the remainder of the Raisin celebrations. After collecting the Raisin receipt, children head to their mother’s to be dressed for the final event in costumes their mother has prepared for them. Costumes usually follow a theme resulting in the largest fancy dress party known to mankind.

Once in costume, children march to St Salvator’s Quad on North treet either clutching or collectively carrying their Raisin receipt however inconvenient it may be. From there a shaving foam fight ensues between 11am and 12 pm. Make sure you stock up on shaving foam well in advance, stores usually run out. Also make sure to keep an eye out for your photos appearing either in The Saint or the horde of national media outlets which arrive to photograph the event.

One of the most noticeable student traditions in St Andrews is undoubtedly the red gowns worn by undergraduate students. Those in the School of Divinity wear different gowns, which are black with a diagonal purple cross.

Gowns are not a requirement of students and are only worn on special occasions. Nonetheless, the investment is unequivocally worth it as they double as a rather comfortable dressing gown in the winter months.

Students wear the gowns on occasion such as formal hall dinners, University chapel services and pier walks, which take place every Sunday. Students meet in St Salvador’s quad before processing down to the pier, climbing the ladder all the way to the top and walking very carefully along the thin precarious walkway back to safety.

Students also wear their gown on the annual Gaudie. On 30 April every year, students walk down the Pier to commemorate fellow student John Honey. In 1800, Honey risked his life in order to rescue five seamen from their wrecked ship during a storm. Making five trips out to the sinking ship to retrieve each crew member. He is further commemorated in a stained glass window in St Salvator’s Chapel. Students gather at Younger Hall wearing academic gowns and receive torches for the walk.

Students wear the red gown in different ways depending on which year they are in. First years wear theirs fully on the shoulders, then in second year slightly off the shoulders. Third years wear the gown off the left shoulder if they are arts students and the right shoulder if they are studying science. The easiest way to remember this is ‘arts is in the heart (left), and science is always right’.

A fourth year student will wear the gown off both shoulders, across the elbow often trailing the majority of their gown on the floor behind them. A trip hazard you will only find in Fife.

Another famous tradition that many students choose to take part in is the May Dip. On this day, thousands of students strip off their clothes and run into the North Sea at sunrise.

There are a number of reasons why students do this. Again whilst it is not a university-run event, their website claims that it is ‘to promote good luck in upcoming exams’.

The view more commonly held is that by running into the north sea, students will cleanse themselves of any academic sins they may have committed prior to this time. Academic sins are said to spell bad luck for your exams if they are not appropriately address beforehand.

Other academic sins asides the one I have already mentioned, include wearing your gown incorrectly or stepping on the PH mark outside St Salvador’s quad on the spot where the Protestant martyr, Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake. If you stand by the spot, you will notice students walking around it and others cursing themselves for failing to remember that it was there in the first place.

One of the final traditions you will experience as a student of St Andrews is a soaking. After your final undergraduate exam, friends and academic family will meet you outside the exam hall to shower you with cold water and celebrate the end of your degree.

You may also notice a strange statue of a cat sitting between South and Market street. This is no ordinary ginger cat.

Embodied forever in a £5000 bronze statue, Hamish McHamish was the love of the town and a popular tourist attraction.

Hamish was owned by a former BBC producer Marianne Baird however, he was never at home, always wondering the three streets that St Andrews has to offer.

He had his own ‘Hamish recommends’ section in Waterstones, which was stocked with everything from fish cookbooks to cat-based tales and often slept in the sun in the South Street estate agents. In 2014, Hamish also had his own ‘biography’ published -Hamish McHamish, Cool Cat About Town, by Susan McMullan.

The bronze statue which immortalises him was unveiled by Provost of Fife, Jim Leishman. It has also been compared to Edinburgh’s Greyfriars Bobby dog. It was realised after the editor of the St Andrews’ Focus, Flora Selwyn, launched a bid to raise funds in 2013.

All festivities are optional and students do not need to take part in what they don’t feel comfortable doing. Nonetheless, traditions are what binds St Andrews together and there’s always something for everyone.

As you are just beginning your time at St Andrews, and have likely noticed that the majority of our traditions are intrinsically linked to alcohol consumption. I will leave you with the wise words of our most successful geography alumni, Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge: “You leave the university in either one of two states: either married or an alcoholic.”

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