This evening I attended a local screening of Ever To Excel, a film celebrating the 600th anniversary of the founding of my alma mater, The University of St. Andrews. It is narrated by Sean Connery – sorry, that’s SIR Sean Connery to you and me – with plenty of closeups of the distinguished 83-year-old actor, who was born and raised in Edinburgh.
An avid golfer, Sir Sean popped up to St. Andrews – otherwise known as “the Home of Golf” – frequently when I was a student there, and each visit triggered murmurs around town of Connery sightings. Friends and I may have even slipped down to the golf hotels on The Scores once or twice, in response to those rumors.
His voice is a bit more gravelly than when he played 007 in Bond films, or William in “Finding Forrester”, but Sir Sean Connery is still easy on the eyes. He has long been a friend of the University, which awarded him an Honourary Doctor of Letters in 1998.
I arrived at the screening a few minutes early, for a small wine and cheese reception. The first person I introduced myself to – a sweet young woman named Grace – graduated from St. Andrews in 2012. When I shared my graduation year, from a previous millennium, she gasped and said “Oh,WOW”. Seriously. That has never happened to me before. When I recovered from my initial shock, I found the incident pretty funny… until I shared it with another woman who graduated the same year I did, from a different university. Her son is in his second year at St. Andrews, making him about 19 years old. Wow, it seems we can run from our age, but we can’t hide.
The film opens with a recent St. Andrews graduation ceremony, and here I received the second half of my double-whammy. For years, I believed that each graduate who crosses the Younger Hall stage kneels down, and receives a tap on the head with John Knox’s breaches. Yes, THAT John Knox — the Scottish clergyman and a leader of the Protestant Reformation. It’s tradition. It’s also a myth. The piece of fabric is in fact an ancient cap, not a bit of old trousers. And it didn’t belong to John Knox; it belonged to a different John, who was a renowned physician in his day… but no religious reformer. Buzz kill!
Beyond a little disappointing myth busting, I learned some fascinating facts about the University of St. Andrews that I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t already know. For starters, James Wilson – one of our founding fathers – is an alumnus. He is purportedly the signer who recommended starting the Declaration of Independence with “We the PEOPLE”, rather than “We these United States”. Coincidentally, I am currently reading Jon Meacham’s excellent biography of Thomas Jefferson. Wilson’s key edit to the Declaration is not mentioned in the book, although the author did note that Jefferson didn’t take kindly to wordsmithing of the document by fellow revolutionaries.
More new knowledge: Sir Robert Spottiswood was the son of an Archbishop of St Andrews, who had an aggravating habit of borrowing library books, but not returning them. He was beheaded in downtown St. Andrews (on Market Street) in 1646 – not for overdue books, but for treason against Charles I. Immediately following his execution, the library petitioned Parliament to get the books back. As was noted in the film… sometimes it’s easier to just pay a fine.
I also learned the story behind students walking along St. Andrews pier on Sundays after church, wearing their red gowns. Legend has it that on a Sunday centuries ago, a preacher from Dundee was scheduled to appear for services, but never arrived. His ship sank in a storm. Students have taken the pier walk ever since, to remember him. (To be honest, I only did this once – the same number of times I went to Sunday services, I suspect.)
Others say the pier walks originated to commemorate the heroism of John Honey, a student who rescued five men from a ship sinking in St Andrews Bay in 1800.
Whether it’s the drowned preacher or John Honey, legend has it that SOMEBODY haunts the pier, wearing a cloak and large hat, and casting a very spooky shadow on the stones. BOO!
Finally, I now know the history behind the University’s coat of arms. The crescent moon represents Peter de Luna, aka Pope Benedict XIII who issued the bulls of foundation of the University in 1413. The lion from the Royal Arms of Scotland represents King James I (1406-1437). The gold diamonds are taken from the personal arms of Henry Wardlaw, Bishop of St Andrews who issued the original charter, which incorporated the University in 1411/12. The open book of course represents learning, and the blue and white triangles represent St. Andrew’s Cross (the flag of Scotland).
Ever to Excel is 90 minutes long with some jumpy editing in the middle, so at times I found myself squirming — until shots of the town, the beach, the Quad and St. Salvator’s Chapel glued me back in my seat. I still feel proud and privileged to have attended Scotland’s oldest university, with its colorful and auspicious history – even if as a youngster, I didn’t take the time to learn much that didn’t involve gruesome reformation-era burnings at the stake.
It was a different millennium, after all. And you know what they say about Millennials…