st andrews traditions.

st. andrew’s thrives on traditions, so i’m dedicating this blog post to all things traditional:

the pier walk:

this is perhaps the most famous of all st andrews traditions. No one really knows where the tradition comes from and there are in fact a few stories that people tell to explain its origin. Of these I know two: the first is that a priest from the local parish used to go and pick up church-goers coming in on boats from far away towns at the pier every sunday before mass, from where he would accompany them to the church. As the story goes, he was such a beloved character that following his death the townspeople still made the weekly pilgrimage down the pier in his honour.

The second story involves a nineteen year old student from the university who heroically saved the lives of men shipwrecked just off the shore of east sands (where the pier is). Although he died shortly afterwards, students commemorate his bravery by walking down the pier every week in his honour.

Whichever story you chose to follow, the fact remains that every sunday after the morning service, students gather in st. salvators quad and head down to the pier together. It isnt mandatory, but most people wear their gowns and the sight is absolutely beautiful—lots of red-gowned students walking down along the coast and down to the pier.

During the pier walk is also when random tourists ask to have their picture taken with you, well, ask…most just take… You cant blame them; what other school do you know of where every sunday the students walk down in their red gowns to the pier? yes, the pier that is conveniently located in their university town. Thats right, on the north sea.

Ok, i know what youre thinking…cool…definitely something id consider…

but ‘gown’? Please elaborate.

Why yes, with pleasure.

the gown:

ok, yes, get it out of your system, its like in harry potter.

And thats what most people here liken it to anyways.

Gowns have been used at the university for hundreds of years, and here again there are a number of stories accounting for the tradition. The one that gets repeated most often is that they were put in place to help regulate student behaviour around the town: if you wore a red gown it meant you were underage, and youd be immediately recognizable so you wouldnt be allowed into taverns and no one  could serve you alcohol.

Today wearing a gown is optional, and theyre usually reserved for more formal school events. But every week the debate society (established in 1794, oldest in the world. no big deal.) puts on a debate and people wear them there. Ditto morning chapel service on sunday. Ditto anytime you feel like it.

And how you wear your gown is also a tradition all its own…

wearing the gown:

the way you wear your gown depends on both your year and area of study. First year students wear their gowns normally—but never done up! Second year students wear theirs slightly off the shoulder. Third year students studying arts wear their gowns with their left shoulder off, and third year students studying sciences wear theirs with the right shoulder off (because science is always ‘right’). Fourth year students wear their gowns resting down on their elbows.

You’ve figured it out: the older you get, the lower you wear your gown. The idea is that as you grow and learn you shed your academic ignorance, and the way you wear your gown is meant to symbolize that.

The thing you have to know is that the gowns are actually really, really warm. Sometimes youre studying and its really cold and you reach for it. And if you think about it, its like the original snuggie.

academic families:

speaking of all things academic, st andrews has a pretty unique tradition in academic families.

All the brochures say that it is a completely spontaneous, student-led tradition. It is, and its a big deal.

Its hard to explain unless youre here, but basically during the first few weeks of a new school year in-coming freshers are adopted by a mom and dad, usually in their third year. Parents don’t have to be married (‘academically married’ is the correct term) or even be friends, your dad could adopt you one night at a party and your mom could adopt you three weeks later during class… regardless of how you are made theirs, your parents guide you through st andrews life.

In reality, they just keep you busy partying.

And the funnest thing is that parents will adopt multiple children so you end up with brothers and sisters…a whole family. Some people end up with really complicated relationships (they have uncles, aunts, cousins…dont ask me how theyve figured it all out…)

Traditionally during the first weeks your parents will invite you over for dinner with the rest of your brothers and sisters and cook you a meal. I went to my dad’s flat and there was a huge dinner for all the children of all the flatmates, so there were eighteen of us in all…and it turns out our dads are excellent cooks!

Thats one thing you have to get used to: everyone refers to their academic family as their family so its hard to keep things straight.

Case and point: we’re sitting to dinner the other day, and one girl starts talking about how she’s doing medicine, and its cool cause her parents both do the same thing. And so someone asks her, wait, what do your parents specialize in? And she said oh no they’re both still in their third year…

(and that’s when you have to make the click…shes not talking about her actual parents)

“Oh! wait, you’re talking about your academic parents

“yeah… if not i would of said my biological ones…”


may dip:

in may students get up before sunrise and jump off the pier into the freezing water for the may dip. The tradition holds that in order to be cleansed of your ‘academic sins’ you have to jump in…and ‘academic incest’ aka, falling for your mom or dad, demands a dip

martyr’s memorials:

another sin for which you have to jump into the north sea to be cleansed is stepping (or worse, walking) on certain spots around the town. In st andrews many people were martyred, especially protestants during the reign of mary queen of scots. Throughout the town markers have been put in to commemorate the sights of these martyrdoms, and these often make use of the person’s initials. Just outside st salvators (a place you are bound to pass at least a couple times a day) there is one of these spots, and if you accidentally step on it legend says you will fail your degree.

Unless of course, you do the may dip.


Small price to pay for not failing your degree…

after all, how cold can the north sea be…

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