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St Andrews is steeped in traditions. Here’s three.

Most students know to avoid debasing the ‘P.H.’ etched in the cobblestone outside of St Salvator’s Chapel. The rumour goes that — if they step on it — they could fail their degrees. The only way to pass after stepping on it is rumoured to be by streaking into the sea at sunrise on May dip.

The history behind the rumour might date back to an early martyr named Patrick Hamilton, according to Chaplain Reverend Dr. Donald MacEwan. Apparently, the Protestant’s initials commemorate where he was burned at the stake for heresy.

Hamilton was first admitted to the University’s Faculty of Arts in 1524 as a student who studied Martin Luther— a seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation who challenged the beliefs of the Catholic Church.

In 1527, Hamilon briefly fled to Germany to study Luterhan’s doctrine before returning to St Andrews later that year, where he preached the Lutheran Gospel -- a controversial move in the sixteenth century. Catholic officials feared Hamilton’s outspokenness could undermine their influence.

In 1528, Hamilton was found guilty of heresy. The P.H. is where he was burned at the stake.

Students might be reluctant to tread on Hamilton’s because of that grim history, MacEwan said.

The pier walk — which happens every Sunday after Chapel — has a more upbeat background that traces back to the first Sunday of January in 1800, MacEwan said, when a ship called the Janet carried five sailors from North Scotland. It faced imminent danger as it neared rocks by the town’s pier. That news quickly spread to students at St Salvator's Chapel.

“The sailors on board [knew] for sure they [were] going to perish”, said MacEwan.

One student, John Honey, resolved to save the sailors. Aided by a rope, Honey swam towards the Janet to ensure that each of the five men aboard made it safely ashore.

Honey survived and earned ‘The Freedom of the City’ — an honour awarded to a civilian in recognition of his exceptional service to the community. Honey’s name and heroism decorated headlines in newspapers across Scotland. “He became a kind of star, a local celebrity”, said MacEwan.

Honey went on to complete his degree at St Andrews and became a minister in the Church of Scotland, though he died in his early thirties. MacEwan said that “it’s believed he died so young because of an illness brought on by the rescue”. Newspapers reported that the mast of The Janet fell on Honey’s chest, which would explain his fatal bout with chest illness tuberculosis.

When students participate in the pier walk today, “it is nice to remember the courage of a fellow student”, said MacEwan. “[It is a reminder that] can inspire us to show those same attitudes in our own life”.

MacEwan hopes that knowledge of the tradition’s altruistic origin encourages reflection in its participants.

While unlikely that a student today would have to rescue several people from a wreck at sea, the story can act as a reminder “to show courage, to show persistence, to take risks”, said MacEwan. He added that such virtues are “important for society, the whole of the world”.

The gowns students wear during the pier walk also date back centuries. According to MacEwan, the University used them to identify students. “Any behaviour they got [up to came] back to came back to the university authorities”, said MacEwan.

To learn more about the history of the University, MacEwan recommended “The Red Gown Collection”— a collection of materials and books held in the University library. He also highlights a University-run blog, “Echoes From the Vault”, which, MacEwan said, contains “great explorations of university history and university traditions”.

“We can be inspired by our fellows from the past, absolutely”, said MacEwan.

MacEwan stressed that, in connecting to the past, students can enliven the present and remember the past events that led to the present day. “It adds a bit to the colour of life to take part in traditions that are unique to a certain place”, said MacEwan.

Illustration: Lauren McAndrew

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