Top universities for strange traditions

Women taking part in a foam run
Connect with the past, whether you like your traditions fun, old-fashioned or distinctly eccentric.

Many universities have unofficial, off-the-wall customs, especially during freshers’ week. A lot are student-organised initiation ceremonies along the lines of kissing an eel or walking around dressed as zombies. At other institutions the traditions are older and odder. How about turning up at university and getting a new mum and dad, walking backwards on particular days, or inviting a mummified man to meetings?

University of Aberdeen

It’s an Aberdonian tradition that whenever a new Rector takes office at the university he or she is carried astride the student mascot, a life-size model of a bull called Angus, down the High Street to buy a pint for each person who carries them. This often means getting beer for members of the University of Aberdeen’s rugby club.

The local great and good attend each Angus the bull ceremony: heads of business and councillors as well as students and staff, of course. The position of Rector dates back to 1495 and is the students’ representative on the University Court, which is one of the university’s governing bodies. The first responsibility of the new Rector is to not fall off Angus the bull as he toddles along the High Street.

University of Cambridge

Like the University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge has a mass of traditions, many of them shared with its Oxbridge rival (although in a subtly different way, of course).

Both universities have formal halls or grand dinners where students wear sub fusc, which means gowns with a dark suit, plus a white shirt for men or a white blouse for women. At Cambridge, sub fusc also involves the wearing of white bands (a type of neck tie) and a white bow tie for male students. Unusual dress sense extends to the university’s own 30-strong police force, whose traditional uniform includes cloaks and hats.

At graduation ceremonies, a university praelector asks four students to hold his or her fingers and then guides them towards the vice-chancellor.

University of Oxford

Ding dong, the bells will chime for 20 minutes at 6.00 am on the first of May each year as hundreds of Oxford students gather at Magdalen Bridge for May Day festivities. But the bells won’t ring before 16 choristers ascend to the top of Magdalen Tower and sing a 17th century hymn ending with the line ‘ovante lingua canimus’, which means ‘our tongues all cheer and sing’.

In the 1980s the May Day tradition got an update. This involved jumping off the bridge into the river Cherwell below. The authorities now take a dim view of this. Leaping into shallow waters is risky at the best of times – more so when some college bars are open all night before the festivities and many pubs across the city are open from sunrise.

And as if to prove the point that time stands still and yet moves forward at the university, on the final Sunday morning of October Merton College traditionalists walk backwards around their Fellows’ Quad drinking port. This is said to preserve the space-time continuum as the clocks go back one hour.

University of St Andrews

Raisins aren’t always small, plump, withered grapes, at least not for first year students at the University of St Andrews.

In ages gone, ‘children’ (aka freshers) would give ‘parents’ (older students) a pound (around half a kilo) of raisins as a thank you for welcoming them to the university. In return, their academic ‘fathers’ would give them a raisin receipt – a piece of parchment confirming that the gift had been handed over, written in Latin.

These days, at Raisin Weekend, freshers are more likely to offer their parents a bottle of wine, and the receipt could be anything from a cuddly toy to a canoe, with the traditional Latin text attached to it (toasters and other electrical goods are banned). It is also customary for ‘mothers’ to give their ‘children’ gifts known as ‘raisin strings’, which are colour-coded according to how many years the ‘mother’ has been a student at St Andrews. ‘Fathers’ and ‘mothers’ then look on as their ‘children’ take part in a massive foam fight. Tradition has become a bit more like a game show…

One other St Andrews tradition to note is that your future is cursed if you stand on the initials of 16th century student and Protestant martyr Patrick Hamilton, which are marked in the cobble stones outside of St Salvator’s Quad.You can break his spell by running backwards naked three times around the quad when classes change – or run into the North Sea with fellow students at sunrise for the traditional May Dip on the first of May.

University of Sussex

Deadline Day is a big old university-sponsored celebration with drinks, food, games and music. It marks a brief but frivolous lull before the storm of the exam season.

But, in a sign that even much loved traditions come and go, Deadline Day has replaced the annual Dissertation Dash Day in which finalists ran between Library Square and Falmer House to hand in their dissertations cheered on by staff and students.

University College London

A preserved head lives in a special room at University College London (UCL).

Professor Jeremy Bentham, a philosopher and proposer of legal reform, left some unusual instructions about the treatment of his remains in the will drawn up shortly before his death in 1832. As a result, his skeleton is still on display in a special cabinet at UCL, seated and dressed according to his request and topped by a wax model of his head. According to a persistent (but inaccurate) myth, this unique relic is still regularly wheeled in to attend meetings of the College Council, and Bentham is recorded in the minutes as present but not voting. His real, mummified head is now kept in a climate-controlled storeroom.

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