On the 1st of May many St Andrews students choose to take part in the tradition of the May Dip. Taking a dip in the freezing North Sea at dawn on the 1st of May is said to promote good luck in exams. For those students who have have been so unfortunate as to step on the PH initials at St Salvator’s tower, the May Dip is said to wash away the incurred bad luck before your exams. While the exact beginnings of this May Day tradition are unknown, the practice has been documented in local and student newspapers going back 60 years.
The May Day Bank holiday falls on the first Monday of May, the traditional May Day celebrations take place on the 1st of May each year. Celebrations to mark the beginning of summer in England include dancing around the maypole, singing and crowning a May Day queen. A well-known May Day tradition takes place in Oxford at 6am when the choristers of Magdalen College choir sing the Hymnus Eucharisticus at the Great Tower of the college.
In Scotland, May Day celebrations go back to the traditional Gaelic festival of Beltane (or Bealltainn in Scottish Gaelic). One of the most important parts of the Beltane tradition was a bonfire, a tradition which has been revived by Edinburgh’s Beltane Fire Society in the annual celebration on Carlton Hill.
According to Florence Marian McNeill in The Silver Bough, there would be a pilgrimage to holy water wells at Beltane and, for the Druids, the most sacred form of water was dew, especially the dew on the morning of Beltane. Young women would wash their faces in the May dew in the hope that it would make them more beautiful.
The Beltane tradition has seen a number of revivals through the years. The Scots poem ‘Peblis to the Play’ (c.15-16th century) references the festival in the first line:
At Beltane, quhen ilk bodie bownis
To Peblis to the Play,
To heir the singin and the soundis;
The solace, suth to say,
Be firth and forrest furth they found
Thay graythis tham full gay;
God wait that wald they do that stound,
For it was their feist day,
Thay said, […]
The border town of Peebles still celebrates the Beltane tradition. Traditions include the crowning of the Beltane queen, common riding and the customary singing of the Beltane song:
At Beltane in the aulden time, it was the custom gay,
To gather on the village green and hail the festal day,
Huntsman gallant and sheperds grey, dought and blythsome men,
And Lassies blooming fresh and fair cam liltin’ doon the glen,
Through the greenwood haste away,… Sing aloud the festal lay,
Busk the the Beltane banner gay, to Peblis and the play.
Song by James Hope Brown, first sung in 1920
The Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael edited the songs, lore and poems of the Gaelic speaking regions of Scotland in the work Carmina Gadelica. Included in volume 1 is this Beltane Blessing:
In St Andrews, the local newspaper the St Andrews Citizen in the 1950-1960s, refers to the May Day traditions practiced by the students. These include washing your face in the morning dew and singing at dawn.
St Andrews Citizen
May 8th 1954
May Morning. – The only people in St Andrews to usher in 1st May this year were a number of students. Some on their way home from a dance went to the end of the long pier at the Harbour and danced eightsome reels at sunrise. The University Madrigal Group braved the cold and at the pier gave their welcome in song. On their way home after the celebrations, some of the girls, still in evening dress, washed their faces in May Dew from the slope of the Kirk Hill.
May 9th 1959
May Dew – In Sheets. – The University Madrigal Singers, who celebrate May Day by rising with the dawn and singing at the Pier, had their activities this year severely dampened by pouring rain. Over a hundred of them rose with the dawn, but decided it was too wet to carry on. Instead they foregathered round the breakfast table at the local café.
The tradition of washing in the May Dew seems to have extended to full bathing by the 1960s as the article of May 8th 1965 informs us that students bathed in the pool at castle cliff, an old salt water bathing pool no longer in use.
May 8th 1965
May Day Greeting. – Students of the University on Saturday greeted May month by singing to the waves at dawn. Many men and women students were up at daybreak and proceeded to the ruins of St Andrews Castle, where they sang Madrigals to the waves and then danced Scots reels to the pipes. A large number bathed in the pool below the castle cliff.
The tradition continued to the 1970s. An article in St Andrews Student newspaper the Aien has the following article from May 5th 1971:
May Day means frolicking lambs, blooming blossoms, clear-eyed maidens bathing in the sun spangled dew, and merry swains gambolling round the Maypole in a rustic ecstasy.
But it was a cold, misty, moisty, morning; a slow chill crept out of the damp old stones of the castle, the trees were black against the sky, and even the clusters of red gowns moving across the wet lawn seemed to merge with the subdued greyness. Nobody was very clear-eyed – all the best people declared they hadn’t been to bed, and the very best people proved it by floating around wanly in evening dress.
The hot dogs ran out early. Some people, it seems, weren’t content to wash their faces in the dew and went for a May morning swim. The very thought sends a wave of sympathetic shivers through the quiet crowd. The Madrigal Group sings thinly, sweetly, sleepily through the heavy air.
As for the frolics – well, the enthusiastic dance cheerfully to the somewhat erratic but definitely gallant strains of a pair of bag-pipes, their chilled feet growing warmer as they thump across the wet grass. Some sentimental traditionalists drift off down the Pier, a line of grey dots moving along the grey wall against the grey sky […]
The following year the correspondent for the Aien reported on May Day celebrations which featured many of the same activities: the Madrigal Group singing, OTC pipers, dancing, hot dogs and a swim in the ‘crystal waters of the North Sea.’
As part of the current May Day celebrations, on the evening of the 30th of April, a torch lit procession, known as the Gaudie, takes place along the pier in honour of student John Honey, who rescued the crew of the “Jane” of Macduff in 1800. For all those who are to take part in this year’s May Day tradition, we hope you stay safe and wish you the best of luck in your exams!
Principal Archives Assistant