Gowns, Golf, and Strange Goings-On

In the Scottish county of Fife an old university town of saints and scholars mixes history and tradition with sport and tourism.

Many people know that Oxford and Cambridge Universities (which people sometimes call "Oxbridge") are the two oldest in Britain, but the third oldest can be found far, far away up north in the small town of St Andrews situated on the wild east coast of Scotland. Records show that the first degrees were awarded in 1415.

As you might expect of such an old institution, the University is full of unusual traditions. Students used to wear bright red gowns, or cloaks, when they walked around the town, which made it easier for their tutors to see if they were getting into trouble. They still wear them now on special occasions and at the weekly chapel service. Many years ago they had special hats, too, but legend has it that when it was announced women would be able to study there, the men threw their hats into the sea in protest!

New students are also given academic "parents", undergraduates in their final year who introduce them to life at the University. At the annual Raisin Monday parade they dress them up in strange and often embarrassing costumes (bin liners, for example!). The parade is a thank you to the "parents": every new student has to buy their parent a bottle of wine, hence the "raisins"! Other traditions include the singing of the University song at the end of the pier at midnight once a year to celebrate the bravery of John Honey, a former student, who rescued five sailors from a sinking ship in 1800. There is also the Rectorial Drag, where the Rector, a person elected by the students to help them deal with the University authorities, is dragged, or pulled, in a cart around the town by a team of the University's best athletes and sportsmen and women. The Rector is often someone famous: the poet Rudyard Kipling, who wrote the Jungle Book, and Monty Python comedian John Cleese have both held the position. Nevertheless, despite this love of tradition, the University is not completely stuck in the past, and remains one of the top universities in Britain today.

St Andrew himself is the patron saint of Scotland and St Andrews was once the religious centre of Scotland. As well as boasting a castle overlooking the sea, a magnificent cathedral was built above the harbour. Unfortunately both these buildings are now in ruins. It is quite unusual for a cathedral to be so neglected that it collapses, but the one in St Andrews never had a proper roof so it is hardly surprising it didn't survive. But the towers of both buildings form a dramatic and romantic skyline for anyone arriving in the town from the sea. Moreover, there are many other very old and beautiful structures to be found in the town's three main streets.

Most visitors to the town, however, don't come to see the University buildings or the cathedral ruins - they come for the golf. The game was invented in this region, and the St Andrews "Old Course" is the oldest and perhaps most famous golf course in the world. It runs along the sea next to the beach, making it very windy and difficult to play. People come from all over the world, particularly America and Japan, to play on the Old Course, and this summer the British Open, the only one of golf's four Major tournaments that takes place outside the United States, was held there. The St Andrews golf club, "The Royal and Ancient", is one of the most prestigious and most difficult to join in the world.

St Andrews is the largest town in what is known as the "East Neuk (corner) of Fife". The area has miles of beautiful, empty coastline with dangerous rocky cliffs and several small, quiet fishing villages. Tourists who are looking for peace, and don't mind some unpredictable weather, come here to escape the stress of city life. Students at the University often complain that there is not much to do in the town itself, which might explain why the University has the highest rate of intermarriage, that is, students and former students marrying each other, of any university in Britain!

Fife is connected by the gigantic Forth Bridge to Edinburgh, the Scottish capital. This is one of the most beautiful cities in Britain - "the Athens of the North" - and hosts many exciting cultural and artistic attractions, including the Edinburgh Festival, Britain's biggest arts festival, which takes place in August each year. It also stages the world's largest New Year's Eve, or Hogmanay, party on its streets. Scotland has recently been given its own regional parliament, which gives Scots greater control over their own affairs, but St Andrews people will tell you that this is nothing new. Scottish parliaments sat many years ago in the University's Parliament Hall, still used today by students for debating many different issues - some of them serious, others less so!

Although it may not be as famous as Edinburgh, Glasgow and the Loch Ness Monster, St Andrews has played an import..ant part in Scotland's history, and today has many attractions for tourists. It's not just gowns and golf. When Prince William commences his studies next year, they'll be coming prince-spotting, too.