A deep dive into the St Andrews culture of secret societies. Do they really deserve all the criticism?
It has always annoyed me when people perceive St Andrews as a boring place. I’ve had this conversation every time I go home with friends and family, who simply don’t understand — and quite frankly, don’t know — half the stuff that goes on here. From red-gowned Gaudies, Wednesday night socials, and mid-morning black tie, St Andrews is a place that benevolently takes the concept of ‘cult’ and runs with it. What I’m considering here are those intriguing, (not-so-secret) ‘secret societies’ that add to St Andrews’ cult culture.
I reached out to members of various secret societies, and most were willing to open this conversation. The boys understand that involvement starts with a jacket and tie, being unafraid to make a fool of oneself, and ideally, to avoid creating a bad reputation for themselves or the group.
I first spoke to the president of XXI, a “predominantly British” society with its 15-year anniversary this year, and “big plans” for the rest of the semester. When discussing the recruitment process, XXI, dare I say, was tame considering what is expected. The club sends prospective recruits' names to the current and alumni groups for approval. “Any one member can veto a name, no questions asked”. Specifically, XXI’s president was initiated in the less-than-aesthetic setting of the Union. After being approached with a delicious blue Pablo, he was taken to meet other boys who were in the club. Other clubs in St Andrews stage interviews that have those proposed are considered sometimes in front of every club member. Another involves the “earning [of] your tie requiring a race to the beach and coming back looking fully presentable” to secure your place at the now-disbanded Breakfast Club’s post-May Dip feast.
When I asked if the club was exclusive, the unhesitating, synonymous “yes” was predictable. However, this idea of exclusivity amongst secret societies is inconsistent. For example, the Kate Kennedy Club (KK) and the Lumsden Club are private societies that reside in the public eye and recruit publicly as well. They formally conduct interviews with applicants and select members from a wider pool of students. Over time, both KK and Lumsden have improved their public image through an orientation to charity and service to the broader community. Similarly, when discussing the exclusivity of certain societies, it must be mentioned that sports teams also promote exclusivity and undergo certain uncouth behaviours. Just because a society is secret, it doesn’t mean that it’s in any way bad.
Continuing on this, secret societies are arguably as inclusive or exclusive as sports and many other clubs. Getting into the top sports teams also requires someone being valued over another, following similar parameters to secret societies where decisions are ultimately made based on character. Other societies like the Global Investment Group and the fashion shows undergo rigorous application processes, including a written submission and interview. Therefore, the exclusivity of secret societies cannot be used to criticise them when other, public presenting groups adopt the same behaviours.
So, what happens in these secret society meetings? Revealing too much would spoil the secret — and much can be left to the imagination. Dinners are commonly hosted in privately booked locations, with bonus points if it has a BYOB policy (Maisha, Cottage Kitchen, and even Saint Sizzle are favourites). Dinner-cum-dares, forfeits, and consequential riotousness, typically encouraged by the mandatory bottle of spirit, chased with wine. However, being part of these societies isn’t limited to these dinners. The president and a fellow member of XXI found themselves 21 pints deep one Thursday afternoon after a call-up. While this may seem extreme, the consensus from speaking to them was that they’re a group of “decent” people who look for “silly…excuses to do something together”. However, despite the fun that participants may have, the main criticism of these groups originates from who is involved with them and, more often, how they act. Years ago, an incident with an intolerant speech occurred. Yet debates remain as to whether this was so inflammatory because it came from a secret society, made up largely of a specific demographic, or because of the explicit dialogue.
Despite their ‘secret’ monikers, the reputations for the good, the bad, and the charitable that these groups have developed seem to suggest that maybe they aren’t actually so secret. Everyone knows they exist, everyone knows someone in one, so really, how secret are they?
Secret societies aren’t specific to St Andrews. Cambridge has The Apostles, The Exiles are of Durham, the notorious Bullingdon boys in Oxford, and even Nottingham has Notts10. Internationally, secret societies like Yale’s Skull and Bones have gained notoriety from TV shows like Gilmore Girls. These notions of mysterious, organised boozing are more quintessentially British. What I found interesting was that some of the members I spoke to didn’t even know about their counterparts within St Andrews’ secret societal landscape. Often the case was that they were unaware of their own until they were in it. I knew more about the existence of different secret societies than the president of one of them.
So, does this secret involvement luckily coincide with a person’s social circle or is it just an extension of St Andrews’ favourite nepotisms? With the unlikely chance of voiding secret societies, should we just let this cult-culture continue between the cracks of North, Market, and South Street?
Illustration: Ruby Pitman