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TOWN, GOWN AND TRADITIONS: THEN AND NOW

By Alan Craxford, Christopher Morris and Barbara Boyle (*)

Introduction

This article describes some of the customs and traditions which members of the Class of 69 experienced during their time at University and how these customs have fared over the last forty years. Two authors (AC, CM) are alumni of Queen's College, Dundee and we will be concentrating on their implementation there rather than variations which may have occurred in St Andrews.

St Andrews is a small town on the North Sea coast of the county of Fife, Scotland which these days is synonymous with the game of golf. It is home to a ruined eponymously named cathedral. It is also home to the University of St Andrews. Founded in the second decade of the fifteenth century it is the oldest in Scotland and the third oldest in the English speaking world. (1)

The University's heyday was during the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries. During the next 100 years however, student numbers fell to an almost unsustainable level partly because of its isolated and rural position and it faced the threat of closure. A possible relocation to Perth was rejected and at the same time, plans and developments in Dundee were watched with interest.

St Andrews University shield
Shield of University College, Dundee
Shield of the University of Dundee

Arms: Left: St Andrews University; Centre: University College, Dundee; Right: University of Dundee

University Education in Dundee

The relationship between the higher educational aspirations and establishments in Dundee and St Andrews has been an entangled, tense and often unhappy one. (2) In the 1860s, the concept of an independent college for Dundee, having no connection with St Andrews, was floated, financed by benefactors led by the Baxter family which had made its fortune from the jute industry. The institution was to offer teaching in science, literature and the fine arts to both sexes. Its opening took place in October 1883, commemorated in a poem by Dundee's own William McGonagall.

The Inauguration of the University College, Dundee (Extract)
by William McGonagall
'Twas on the 5th day of October, in the year of 1883,
That the University College was opened in Dundee,
And the opening procedures were conducted in the College Hall,
In the presence of ladies and gentlemen both great and small.
......
The College is most handsome and magnificent to be seen,
And Dundee can now almost cope with Edinburgh or Aberdeen,
For the ladies of Dundee can now learn useful knowledge
By going to their own beautiful College.

I hope the ladies and gentlemen of Dundee will try and learn knowledge
At home in Dundee in their nice little College,
Because knowledge is sweeter than honey or jam,
Therefore let them try and gain knowledge as quick as they can

The issue was clouded by an Act of Parliament of 1889 which placed University College under the authority of the St Andrews Court. A bitter dispute also ensued over the siting of a new Faculty of Medicine. Only Dundee had facilities for clinical teaching, but both places demanded departments of Anatomy and Physiology. This policy was adopted which meant that part of each year's intake started their studies north of the River Tay and half south. The amalgamation of University College into St Andrews was completed in 1897.

Arguments about the division of money, the location of subjects on the two campuses and the further development of the Medical School smouldered on for the next fifty years. These led ultimately to an exhaustive investigation in 1949 and a Royal Commission in 1952. The report established a degree of automony for the two sites, concentrated Medical teaching in Dundee, established a new Faculty of Law - also in Dundee - and saw a change of name to Queen's College.

The late 1950s and early 1960s saw expansion in student numbers and several building projects. A further faculty (of Social Science) opened at Queen's College and in the ten years to 1966, the student population had doubled to over 2000. At the January 1964 meeting of the Court of St Andrews, Principal Sir Malcolm Knox proposed that Queen's College should become independent and the University of Dundee gained its Royal Charter in 1967.

The Undergraduate gown

Undergraduate gown

St Andrews Gown

In early pre-Reformation days, students probably wore the same type of black undergraduate garments that were common to all European universities of the time. By the latter part of James VI's (of Scotland) reign, this had changed and formalised in Scotland at least to scarlet: which was traditionally the colour symbolic of a lower social status. It was also particularly visible and popular legend explains this in terms of discipline: the visible identification of the gown and colour with the university being a deterrent to entering local brothels and taverns. It is certainly true that the designation and granting of gowns and robes to be worn by every eschelon of society (peerage, nobility and gentry) was directed by royal decree (3) in much the same way as heraldry and the bearing of arms and in Scotland this was policed by Lord Lyon, King at Arms. Oliver Cromwell forbade the wearing of scarlet and other gowns during the period of the Commonwealth (1649-60) but after the monarchy was restored in 1660 the robes came out of the closet once more. The distinctive red gowns, which are still in use today, were adopted in 1672.

Airlie Hall (detail) showing gown shoulder positions

Various gown shoulder positions

The St Andrews gown is knee length made of a rough scarlet fabric with purple velvet facings. There was a large inside pocket which would conveniently hold a bottle or can of a suitable libation. It was capable of being fastened at the neck with clasps but it was considered unlucky to do so. Similarly, gowns were not washed or laundered. After the independence of Queen’s College, the University of Dundee adopted a blue facing to its own gown. Gowns were worn at official and ceremonial occasions, for formal high table dinners in the halls of residence, to chapel and excursions such as the Law Walk, and indeed just to keep out the cold!

There was a distinct heirarchy to the way in which the gown was worn which again may have unwittingly reflected the braiding and trimmings found on the robes of the aristocracy which designated the rank of the wearer (3). At Queen's College, bejants were mandated to wear the gown firmly on both shoulders. Second years were alluded to as “Semis” which may have been short for semi-bejant. Their increased stature was reflected by the wearing of the gown off the left shoulder. Tertians (third years) left the right shoulder free whilst Magistrands (fourth years and above) had the gown trailing off both shoulders.

Shafe (4) noted that by 1980 it was a rare event to see a student wearing a university scarf or gown.

Juniors, Seniors and The Hecklings

St Andrews University had a number of traditions which were inculcated into its students, and these were enthusiastically followed in Dundee as well. First year students are called bejants (female bejantines), a word from the French meaning “yellow bill” or fledgling. Shortly after the beginning of the first term bejants were allocated a mentor (or "academic parent") from a higher year of their school who would act as an adviser and help keep the freshman out of trouble. This was your Senior Man (or Woman).

Every faculty had its own arrangement and the Medical Society (MedSoc) was perhaps the most well organized in this regard. The evening event was called the Medical Hecklings. The higher years gathered in the main hall of the students union. At a pre-determined time, groups of first years made their way into an anteroom from where they were paraded individually into the main hall. The bejant was introduced to the assembled throng by their senior man. He then had to perform some form of minor indignity or task (a rite of passage) and after which he was formally admitted into the society. It was also an occasion for the quaffing of large quantities of beverage.

Gaudie Night and the Halls of Residence

It was seen as a duty of new arrivals to learn the words of the medieval student song “Gaudeamus Igitur” which is based on a latin manuscript of 1287. The most recent version of the words dates from about 1781. The music is best known through its use by Brahms in the Academic Festival Overture (Opus 80) composed in 1880.

Gaudeamus Igitur (5)
C. W. Kindeleben 1781
Gaudeamus igitur
Juvenes dum sumus
Post jucundum juventutem
Post molestam senectutem
Nos habebit humus.

Ubi sunt qui ante nos
In mundo fuere?
Vadite ad superos
Transite in inferos
Hos si vis videre.
Vita nostra brevis est
Brevi finietur.
Venit mors velociter
Rapit nos atrociter
Nemini parcetur.

Vivat academia
Vivant professores
Vivat membrum quodlibet
Vivat membra quaelibet
Semper sint in flore.
Vivant omnes virgines
Faciles, formosae.
Vivant et mulieres
Tenerae amabiles
Bonae laboriosae.

Vivant et republica
et qui illam regit.
Vivat nostra civitas,
Maecenatum caritas
Quae nos hic protegit.

Pereat tristitia,
Pereant osores.
Pereat diabolus,
Quivis antiburschius
Atque irrisores.

Continued in column 2...


One Monday about four weeks into the first term, was designated “Gaudie Night”. On that night tradition had it that bejants could be expected to sing the song to their senior man. The words, in Latin, can be seen in the panel on the right. There is an English translation here.

This was applied in varying degrees in the halls of residence and was seen at its most exuberant at Airlie Hall.There was always some rumour circulating for several days beforehand which heightened the tension and barricades and other defensive manoevres were planned. Late that night groups of resident senior men, having acquired bundles of keys, would work their way around the first years’ rooms, forcing entry if necessary, demanding a rendition. If this was resisted or the singing was of poor quality, the hapless bejant would find himself unceremoniously dumped into a bath of cold water.

Raisin Monday

The sequel to Gaudie Night came about a month later during the month of November in the form Raisin Monday (6). In the early days of the University in St Andrews it became traditional for the bejant to present their "academic parents" with a pound of raisins (a quite expensive and nutritious luxury) as a gesture of thanks for their care and attention. As time went on, the senior man would give his bejant a receipt written in Latin acknowledging this gift, which the bejant was required to carry with him for the rest of the day.

This custom migrated to Dundee and by the time of our sojourn in the 1960s, the raisins had been fermented and packaged into a more suitable and acceptable form. Receipts were still issued but could be written on anything imaginable (and usually were!). Bejants could be seen walking around in nappies, sitting in old cars or displaying parts of their anatomy where the Latin script had been written. Failure to carry the receipt could result in a ducking.

The Medical Hecklings of 1988 were particularly notorious (2) leading to graphic exposés in the tabloid press of intoxicated practices and mini-riots in the Union. In the same year Raisin Monday was banned as a response to the increasingly bizarre costumes that students wore to attend lectures.

By the late 1990s interest in all three of these traditions appear to have waned, at least in Dundee. Gaudie Night became a night where the seniors would organise a night of fun (which usually involved drinking large amounts) for their Freshers) and by 2005 it had died out in most of the campus except for law, dentistry and medicine. Similarly Raisin Monday more or less does not exist.

Rag week

Students collecting for Rag Week 1967 - courtesy George Watson Brown

Rag Week 1967

Every year around Easter time the whole student body became involved, one way or another, in the annual Charity fund raising event around the town that was called Rag Week. It was overseen by a Charity Committee and a whole range of activities and publicity stunts would be carried out to attract the attention and stimulate the generosity of the local populace. Proceeds went to various local and national worthy causes. All week halls of residence and societies would decorate a float in secret which would join in a procession through the streets on the Saturday. The rest of us would dress up or parade in our scarlet gowns and rattle a collecting tin. Each year had a "Rag Tag" printed with a motto and mascot (I remember "Sly Puss O'Coyne" and "Samoa Yamuni") which could be pinned to the lapel of your gown. Each year too was the ubiquitous "Rag Mag" which was full of jokes and stories of dubious worth usually purloined from the similar output of other universities and advertisments from local businesses. A female student was elected Rag Queen and the whole event ended in the Charities Ball.

Baxter, Rolfe and Swinfen (2) also noted that until the 1980s these annual campaigns were hugely popular to both town and gown. In 1981 an attempt to combine students from all higher educational institutions into one united appeal led to a substantial loss. Following this the scale of these activities was much reduced.

Rag Week does not exist any more but Dundee being the only university in Scotland not have one, the student body are trying to revive it this year.

Other traditions

Four views of the Law walk

Four views of the Law Walk - October 1965

A long held tradition in St Andrews is the Pier Walk when staff and students walk in procession in their academic dress on a Sunday morning after the morning service at the University Chapel on North Street down to the pier. A similar idea, although a much more protracted and energetic activity at Queens College was the Law Walk. This was held to coincide with the opening of the academic session. Students would gather in their gowns on the lawn outside Old Dines. The procession was then led by a piper through the campus and the streets up to the top of Dundee Law Hill where the Eightsome Reel was danced.

Two St Andrews traditions which did not translate to Queens College relate to historical characters Kate Kennedy and Patrick Hamilton. Katherine Kennedy was the niece of a fifteenth century bishop of St Andrews and the Kate Kennedy Club organises an annual procession in the town in her honour (7). Hamilton was burned at the stake for heresay and his initials mark the place in the cobbles below St Salvator's Tower. It is considered unlucky to step on these before graduation but students are seen to dance at the spot after the ceremony (8). We have no further knowledge of these activities, save that contained in the references provided, but we hope this may be taken up in time by our colleagues who started their studies south of the river.


References

1. Academic Dress, The University of St Andrews: The University pages on wikipedia
2. "Towards Independence: The Foundation of University College, Dundee" in A Dundee Celebration: Kenneth Baxter, Mervyn Rolfe and David Swinfen: University of Dundee (2007)
3. The Robes of the Feudal Baronage of Scotland: Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. Vol.79 1945
4. "University Education in Dundee 1881-1981: A Pictorial History": Compiled by Michael Shafe: University of Dundee (1982)
5. Gaudeamus Igitur: Latin student song and English translation: Newfoundations
6. Profile: University of St Andrews: Times On Line August 15th 2007
7. The Kate Kennedy Club
8. Explore The University of St Andrews at explorescotland.net

* Footnote

Barbara Boyle is Alumni & Development Officer
University of Dundee
6th Floor, Tower Building
Dundee. DD1 4HN


Added: December 6th 2007
Updated: August 11th 2012


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