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Do I hear a Ceilidh?

Navigating Scottish Culture in your new found 'hame'


Dear Fresher, if you haven’t already realised, and somehow missed the sound of bagpipes in Edinburgh, you’re in Scotland! This is rather awkward if you made a wrong turn at England. Anyway, in my best Neil Oliver impression, I welcome you to St Andrews, a cultural centre for Scottish history, sport, and the famed drink we all know as the Pablo. Coming to this town as an international student is undoubtedly a nerve-wracking culture shock to many of you, however, in a town as global and culturally diverse as ours, I hope that you will fit into what I believe is a marriage of the international and national.


Fear not, I will speak to you in English, although I am admittedly tempted to abuse my position as your Scottish guide and bewilder you in my native Doric tongue (the dialect of the North East of Scotland). If I were to begin in Doric, it would sound something like this: ‘Dear Fresher, if yi hidna aridy realised, yer in Scotland an iss is affa akwird if yi mid a wrang turnin it England’. I gather that was probably incredibly confusing for the non-Aberdonians.


Now, if you are still here which I sincerely hope you are, please allow me to enlighten you with a sweeping account of Scottish culture in our little town in Fife, where we most definitely speak English.


To begin, St Andrews is named after the patron saint of Scotland: Saint Andrew, so if you are to be anywhere in Scotland, you might as well be here. For a town with a population of a mere 17,000, St Andrews is an incredibly important location within Scottish history, aside from being the birthplace of golf, which is drilled into your brain via endless golf shops. It’s as if The Old Course wasn’t enough to go by. The ruined landmarks of St Andrews Cathedral, which dominates the landscape, alongside St Andrews Castle, both serve as indicators of the religious and war-fuelled turmoil the town has faced over the centuries, most notably during the Scottish Reformation in the 16th century. As you pass the cathedral and in particular the East Tower, you cannot fail to imagine the sheer size of what was once a towering emblem of the town’s faith.


Walking down Market Street, your first sense of Scotland may come from a local passing by, spouting out the dreaded Fife accent (joking!) and you may be excited, interested or at a loose end as to what they’re saying. Such words like ‘Auld’ (Old) and ‘Aye’ (Yes) may touch upon your ear, but view them not as disposable phrases, appreciate them for their greater value as linguistic relics of Scotland; Scots, is in fact, recognised as a vulnerable language by UNESCO. Language and dialect serves as an important aspect of Scottish culture; Scots is endearing in its ability to encompass both romanticism as seen in poetry by Robert Burns, and the admittedly dry, matter of fact attitude you will likely encounter at some point. Many accents and languages from around the world will fill tutorials, lectures, and cafes in St Andrews, serving as an indication of how a Scottish coastal town has many ties that reach beyond its local parameters.


At the Freshers’ Fayre, you will find many cultural societies which provide an often much-needed comfort and community to international students. St Andrews BAME network is also an esteemed support system for students of ethnic minorities, striving to create a racially diverse and inclusive St Andrews. Those willing to catapult themselves into Scottish culture, however, will find the Caledonian Society who celebrate the traditional dancing practice known as reeling. Reeling is a lively formal dance that involves a lot of twirling and spinning in couples and groups, and which is set to traditional Scottish music. There are more than 10,000 reels on record and these are certainly not for the faint-hearted; expect to cling on to your partner for dear life. The Caledonian Society hosts 2 reeling balls within the academic calendar, in the Martinmas and Candlemas semesters respectively. The balls, which take place in the tranquil surroundings of Fingask Castle in Perthshire, see guests don their finest tartan and attempt the hefty task of remaining on their own two feet for the evening. The society also runs Beach Reels on West Sands throughout the calendar, which provide an extra challenge on unsteady ground.


Reeling should not, however, be confused with ceilidh dancing which, although similar, is considered an easier and more beginner-friendly sister of the reel. While you may be less likely to encounter reeling at St Andrews, I have no doubt that you will be thrown into a ceilidh at some point and take part in famous dances such as the ‘Virginia Reel’ and ‘Strip the Willow’. While the dances involve many steps, be assured that every Scottish person will be there to guide you as these dances have been tattooed onto our feet since primary school. Ceilidh dancing is truly glorious when done right, fuelled by a sense of community and often a few pints.


An unmissable experience is the street ceilidh held on South Street in honour of St Andrews Day, (30th November), one of two days in the year where Scotland celebrates its historic tradition and culture, the other being Burns Night. Burns Night, which takes place on the 25th of January, celebrates Scotland’s most famous poet: the aforementioned Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns. Burns Night celebrations typically include having a feast which places Haggis at the centre, and where some poor soul will likely murder one of Burns’ most famous poems: ‘Address to a Haggis’, and upon reading the line ‘An’ cut you up wi’ ready slicht’, will stick a knife into the haggis. A completely normal tradition I’d say. Haggis is paired with ‘neeps’ (turnip) and ‘tatties’ (potatoes) in order to create one of Scotland’s most famous dishes: Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties…well I did say we were very matter of fact.


Right so I’ve tackled history, language, dancing, and now Burns Night. I need not speak about the weather, it’s likely that these words I’ve written will either be smudged with rain or will be taken away by a gale. Ah! Seagulls… I feel it is my duty to warn you about these flying rats who will either rip your fudge doughnut out of your hands or leave you a surprise on your brand new jacket. At times you will feel as if you are Tippi Hendron in The Birds, but I suppose coming to St Andrews is nothing if not celebrating its wildlife (I’m trying my best here).


So dear Fresher, whether you are from overseas or you are Scottish yourself, I hope that you will embrace the Scottish culture present in our town, whilst contributing to its diversity. As you begin to meander through our town, I leave you with a Scots phrase of well wishes and prosperity: ‘lang may yer lum reek’.


Illustration: Clodagh Earl

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