May Dip – why on earth would you?

Final year student Jeannette Viens, writing before this year’s May Dip, tells us what it means to her and why she takes part, despite her reservations.

“At the break of dawn on the 1st May, most people are snug in their beds dreaming away, but the students of St Andrews are stripping down to their bathing and birthday suits and making a mad dash into the North Sea. A notorious St Andrews tradition, members of the University community gather on East Sands, (previously Castle Sands before the official move in 2011 due to safety concerns from the surrounding cliffs) after staying up all night, to watch the sun rise from within the waves.

Photo courtesy of Oli Walker, Tilted Frame Photography

Photo courtesy of Oli Walker, Tilted Frame Photography

While most other pieces have described the May Dip experience as “refreshing” and “worth the sun rise”, I will be the first to say that I am not its biggest fan. The cold sand numbing your feet and squishing in between your toes, the wind howling against most of your bare skin, infected with goose bumps, and the icy cold plunge that takes your breath away; just thinking about it is making me want to cocoon myself in a duvet and never emerge. I’ll even admit that last year, after staying up until an hour before sunrise, the fierce wind and rain that rattled against the windows convinced me to make a pilgrimage to my bed instead of the sea. Yet, I have participated in May Dip twice and fully intend to make once last plunge before my imminent graduation (in a very honest side note, I am not sure which event actually terrifies me more).

Now, why exactly do the students and staff alike of St Andrews, including your dear author, (people who you may have assumed to be sane, intelligent, and rational) fling themselves into the icy waters of the North Sea in the wee hours of the morning? To rid themselves of one of the many St Andrews curses! Obviously, I mean how else do you expect to rid yourself of a curse? Well, I guess you could choose the path less followed and run around St Salvator’s Quadrangle backwards and naked when the classes are changing, but that tradition seems to have gone out of fashion. If you have stepped on the infamous cobblestone PH outside of St Salvator’s main gate where student and martyr Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake, committed ‘academic incest’, or worn your scarlet red academic gown incorrectly, then you are cursed to fail your degree at St Andrews unless properly cured. And there’s no better way to cure a curse than to cleanse yourself in the dark cold waters of the North Sea.

But how did this icy plunge become the chosen cure? Well, the May Dip coincides with the Celtic tradition of Beltane, a festival to mark the beginning of summer and to drive the cattle into the summer pastures. Special ritual bonfires are kindled, but that seems to be the only connection between May Dip (where trust me the feel of the bonfire post-plunge is truly magical) and this olden day celebration meant to protect cattle and crops. So what, if not the mystical power of old Celtic tradition, convinced students to maintain this tradition throughout the years?

Well, as with all trends, someone needs to start it and that honour goes to John Honey. However, unlike the ‘swims’ of students nowadays where their feet largely remain planted on the sea floor, John Honey’s dip was an act of heroic strength and courage. On January 3, 1800 (an evening ensured to be much colder than any May Dip dawn), John Honey swam to and from the sinking ship, Janet of Macduff, five times to carry her weary sailors from their watery graves to the safety of the shore. May Dip thus, in part, honours the bravery of John Honey.

So, when you and I alike (in reality or memory) rush into the sea this 1st of May, under the stretching rays of the rising sun, may we not only cleanse ourselves of academic sin and ensure the passing of our degree, but may we also remember the actions of John Honey and hope his bravery awakens within us as the semester finishes and we go on to tackle new challenges.”