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St Andrews University Traditions – Part 1


Founded in 1413, St Andrews University has just entered its seventh century of teaching.  In 600 years, St Andrews has seen many changes, but it has also held onto many traditions which form an essential part of student life and contribute to the unique experience of studying in our small Scottish town.

In celebration of a new term beginning in a few short weeks and a new academic year at St Andrews, we’ll take a look at some of St Andrews’ best known traditions and their origins.



University students on their weekly pier walk

The Academic Gown

Undergraduate students at the University of St Andrews can be distinguished by their bright scarlet robes.  The academic gown is very warm, made from thick wool with a brown or maroon velvet collar. The bright colour of the robes became traditional as it made it easy for townspeople to distinguish the students and prevent them from entering the town’s numerous drinking establishments.

More recently, an additional tradition has developed. It is now customary for students to wear their red gown differently depending on their year of study.   First years wear their gown high on their shoulders (though never fastened!), second years slightly off the shoulder, third years off one shoulder (the right for science students and the left for arts, a tradition supposedly associated with their political leanings) and fourth years at their elbows.

Nowadays, gowns are most often worn for the Sunday Pier walk, when students process from the university chapel after the service to walk the length of St Andrews pier. They can also be worn for formal occasions such as hall dinners or church services. Between these occasions, gowns are often used as extra blankets during the cold Scottish winter.


Academic families

St Andrews is well known for its tradition of academic families, whereby students in their third and fourth years ‘adopt’ first year students and take them under their wing during their first few months in St Andrews.  Often these families are formed in Freshers Week, when new students are adopted by older students they meet in their hall of residence or through a society. With around 150 different societies at St Andrews, covering everything from Film, Literature, Sciences, and Sports, to Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers, Real Ale, Harry Potter, and Gin, it is easy to find a family with shared interests.

Traditionally, fathers choose their children, and students choose their own mothers, but often older students ‘marry’ and adopt children together.  Recently, ‘orphan’ children who have yet to find parents have also been taking to social media to find a family.

Much hilarity results from the tradition of academic families. It is not unknown, for example, for postgraduate students to remain in St Andrews for their Masters or PHD and be adopted by their own children, but many students do take the tradition to heart and from lasting friendships with their brothers, sisters, and parents.  In some instances, academic families can be traced back through several generations.   With all of this to enter into, academic families are a great way for new students at St Andrews to feel quickly included in the close knit student community in the town.


There are just too many great University traditions to fit into one blog, so check back next week to see more of the things that make the student experience at St Andrews University unique!


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