As a special marker of their ten-year anniversary, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge returned to the place where it all started 20 years ago when they were undergraduates of the University of St Andrews.
“Needless to say, the town where you meet your future wife holds a very special place in your heart.”
The Duke of Cambridge,speakingbefore returning to St Andrews with the Duchess in 2021
The Duke and Duchess (known as the Earl and Countess of Strathearn when in Scotland) visited on Wednesday 26 May 2021 as part of a whirlwind tour of Scotland. In a speech to the Church of Scotland before ‘coming home’, the Duke said: “I spent four very happy and formative years studying in St Andrews. The town and the students left me alone to get on with student life, allowing me to share their freedoms – and their pubs.”
The graduates last returned officially to the University to launch the 600th anniversary campaign in February 2011. Speaking then as Patron of the Anniversary appeal, Prince William declared St Andrews by “far and away the best University in the world”. A full decade after first arriving in St Andrews as an Undergraduate he said: “St Andrews still has that uncanny knack of feeling like home.”
A further ten years on and the Royals returned as a married couple. “It was wonderful to be back in St Andrews and walk down memory lane together,” the Duke said later in his closing address to the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly.
During the visit, Catherine (History of Art, 2005) and William (Geography, 2005) were accompanied by St Andrews Principal, Professor Sally Mapstone, and the outgoing President of the St Andrews Students’ Association, Dan Marshall.
“The connection alumni have to St Andrews and our current students is so important. St Andrews is a unique place and the close knit nature of our University I think builds a real sense of St Andrews identity that people take with them throughout their life. That really shone through with the Duke and Duchess; they remembered so much about the town, the University and what it was like to be a student here.”
Dan Marshall, Association President
Outgoing Association President Dan Marshall was one of the few who were privy to the news of a Royal visit earlier this year, but he had no idea who was actually coming. When he found out, he started having nightmares about tripping up the Duchess as he led her around the University. Happily, he didn’t.
“I first heard about the possibility of a Royal visit way back in March but at that time I had no idea who it would be or what it would involve,” he said. “Over the past few months, it’s been great to be part of planning the visit and it has been fantastic that the visit was such a great showcase for the amazing things our students have done this year in partnership with staff.
“On the day, my role was to host the Duchess, to guide her around the University and introduce her to students. It was an incredibly nerve-wracking experience especially as there were so many people on The Scores wanting to say hello to the Duke and Duchess, but both of them were lovely and put me at ease straight away.
“I had been having a recurring nightmare for weeks about tripping up the Duchess as we walked up Butts Wynd, so as soon as we were in the Quad, I was able to relax!
“The Duke and Duchess were both very keen to hear about what the last year in particular has been like for students and how they have been supported by the University, Students’ Association and each other. They also seemed very keen to reminisce about their time in St Andrews and to discuss how much has changed since they had last visited, such as the Quad, but also the things that have stayed the same, like our student traditions and the way students always look out for one another.
“Upon first arriving on The Scores, the Duchess recalled attending Art History lectures and admiring the view in what is now University House. She also mentioned that she had once tried dancing in her first year, something which the Duke seemed rather surprised by!
“The Duke and Duchess have a well-documented interest in mental health, particularly among young people. They were very concerned to know about how students had been able to build connections with each other and support each other through the pandemic, as that is such an important part of student life in St Andrews.
“They seemed really interested in the Can Do approach as they remembered from their student days how much of life in St Andrews revolves around things students organised for themselves. So much of Can Do has been about creating spaces, resources and support structures and allowing the creativity of students to do the rest. The Duchess was also really interested in the way the Feminist Society has continued to host events, provide spaces for reflection and spark conversations through the pandemic.
“All of the students I have spoken to commented on how relaxed the Duke and Duchess made them feel and how they really seemed to have in interest in student wellbeing and the things that have changed in St Andrews since they were students here 20 years ago.
“There was also a real sense of excitement from both of them that was so nice to see as it is something I see often from other alumni when they return and I know it’s something that I will feel returning to St Andrews in the future,” he said.
One of the priorities of the visit was for the Cambridges to meet and talk with current students involved in the St Andrews ‘Can Do’ scheme, a joint initiative by the University and the St Andrews Students’ Association with one simple aim: to create a warm and safe place in which students could organise and attend Covid-safe events. As keen advocates of mental health issues, the Duke and Duchess were especially keen to hear how students were supported by the University, and each-other, during the difficult year of lockdown.
During their first stop – quickly switched from the Quad to the cloisters due to the morning downpour – they met current students involved in Can Do events. They chatted with students from the BAME Student Network, Students’ Association Education Committee (School & Faculty Presidents), Nightline and our ‘Lifers’ (lifelong learning students).
Introduced in September 2020, Can Do sought to address the frustration and mental health challenges faced by students prevented from experiencing traditional university life, through supporting safe socialising and events. The original intention was to ask the Duke and Duchess to help paint the socially distanced hearts on St Salvator’s Quadrangle lawn, one of the emblems of the Can Do initiative. Instead, they paused to chat with students under the cover of the cloisters and painted an indoor version instead (this version has now been planted in front of the St Andrews tree in the corner of the Quad).
Ben McAuley, a fourth year Arabic and Maths student from Strathaven, was one of the two students on-hand to help the Duke and Duchess paint a miniature heart. As a Recruitment and Training Officer for Nightline, Ben was able to speak to the couple about the experience 2020 freshers had of settling into a distinctly different University life and those who graduated during the pandemic.
Speaking afterwards, Ben said: “It was very exciting to be involved, but also difficult to keep the secret from friends! I joined a group of five other students in discussing student life during the pandemic, and painted a Can Do heart in the quad with the Duke and Duchess.
“It was nerve racking at first but after we spoke more about St Andrews and heard their memories of studying here, it felt just like talking to other St Andrews graduates – it was nice to have that St Andrews connection with them.
“I spoke about the activities of Nightline during the pandemic. They were very keen to hear about the lived experiences of students. They asked about freshers settling in, and graduates who were leaving in uncertain times.
“They reminisced on their time here, and knew exactly what we were talking about when we mentioned traditions like Raisin. It was clear they loved the time they spent together here.
“They were interested to hear about mental health, the types of in-person and online classes that we’ve had, and the support that has been available to University staff and students.
“They thought the hearts were a really lovely idea and were keen to know if students come and sit in them – certainly not on the wet day when they visited, but as the weather cleared up last week it was nice to see students out in the Quad sitting in the hearts like the one we painted with the Duke and Duchess. It was fun to paint them!
“I think the St Andrews Alumni network has potential to open so many career opportunities in the future. My conversation with the Duke and Duchess showed that, even after 20 years, St Andrews graduates still love to talk about their time here,” he said.
Ben was joined by incoming Students’ Association President, Lottie Doherty. Lottie, from Kent, will be conferred her degree in Art History and Philosophy virtually in 2021.
“Because the University and the town are quite small, there’s a real sense of community, and I think that this endures even when we graduate and move away from the town.”
Lottie Doherty, Class of 2021 and incoming Students’ Association President
Lottie said, “I thought that meeting the royals was going to be more nerve wracking than it actually was. It was a really fun experience and they were very easy to talk to! It was really interesting to talk to them about their experience of student life at St Andrews, and it was great to see that they really care about student mental health and the impact of the pandemic.
“We mostly talked about how the pandemic has affected the student experience, and what we have been doing to make sure that the university experience has been good in spite of the unusual circumstances. They mentioned that when they were at university, mental health and well-being was not talked about anywhere near as much as it is now, and that it’s great to see these important issues at the top of the agenda.
“They spoke about how important traditions like Raisin weekend and May Dip are for the St Andrews experience, and thought that it was such a shame that many students have been unable to participate in these activities because of the pandemic.
“They were keen to hear what each of us was planning to do for the next year, whether continuing study or entering a graduate job. They were particularly concerned about the mental health impact of the past year, and how ongoing uncertainty related to the pandemic would cause stress and create difficulties for graduates.
“I think they loved the idea of the hearts, and the Can Do initiate more generally. Painting them was really fun! It’s a shame that it rained and we were unable to paint one of the big ones with the Duke and Duchess, as it was quite a fun activity. However, because the heart we did paint was much smaller, it meant that we had more time to talk to them as a group, so that’s a positive!”
The Duke and Duchess then paid a visit to the Can Do marquee, meeting students who were able to plan and host their Covid-secure extra-curricular activities and society events in the space on Lower College Lawn. The Can Do marquee has hosted a diverse range of more than 500 events since its launch, acting as a vital morale boost for students on campus. The Royal couple met with students taking part in a crafting event, representing members of the Charities Campaign, Saints LGBT+, Charities Campaign, Feminist Society and One for the World Society, as well as the Environment Subcommittee, Covid Saints and the Disabled Student Network.
On their way to the space, they paused to reflect on the student-led memorial to Sarah Everard, which features message of love, support and solidarity from St Andrews students.
Anna-Ruth Cockerham (below) recently finished her fourth year of a Mathematics degree to take a sabbatical year as Director of Wellbeing. Anna-Ruth, who is from Livingston, is also Disabilities Officer for the SRC. She was one of the students making bunting in the Can Do tent, and spoke with both the Duke and Duchess about mental health and how the pandemic has affected disabled students.
She said: “I found out about the visit about two weeks in advance. It was really exciting to be asked to be involved. Meeting the Duke and Duchess was a fantastic opportunity, and it was great to see students being recognised for their efforts this year.
“I took part in the craft workshop making bunting with the Charities Campaign. The experience was really enjoyable and interesting. Meeting the Duke and Duchess certainly isn’t something you get to do every day and it was interesting to speak to them and all the other students involved. The workshop was fun too!
“I only got to speak to the Duchess briefly, but I spoke to the Duke about student mental health throughout the pandemic and what the difficulties will be for students over the coming year. We also spoke about how the pandemic has affected disabled students, and how some of the changes implemented during the pandemic could actually support disabled people in the future.
“The Duke was interested in student mental health and how students had found the pandemic, as well as how we plan to tackle mental health concerns and isolation in a post-Covid St Andrews.
“I think the St Andrews Alumni connection is important. It’s fantastic to have such interesting alumni like the Duke and Duchess, and I’ve also really benefited from the alumni networks throughout my time in St Andrews, whether for careers advice, insights into a past St Andrews, or to find out more about the different fields and areas of interest that people work in.
“It is great to be connected to such a wonderful community of people, and I know that when I graduate I will want to maintain this connection to St Andrews for years to come and give back to future generations of students.”
Meanwhile, Students’ Association Chair Morgan Morris was on-hand to talk to the Cambridges, sharing memories of Geography dissertations and talking about life as a pandemic graduate.
Morgan, who was recently awarded the Sandy Mackenzie Prize by the Students’ Association for going above and beyond in his activities within the Association, will graduate virtually in June with a BSc in Biology and Geography.
He said: “When I got the invite, I felt so pleased and exciting to be ending my time at St Andrews with such an important visit. I am very grateful to have been chosen.
“I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience; it was so nice to be able to meet their Royal Highnesses and actually get to talk to them about my student experience. They were so friendly and kind, we honestly could have chatted for hours!
“I spoke with the Duchess for about five minutes during their visit. We spoke about how this year has been for me as a student studying during a pandemic, we spoke about my future plans as I am graduating this year, and then we also spoke about my geography dissertation, where the Duchess made a joke, telling me to ask the Duke what he wrote his geography dissertation on when he was a student to see if he could remember. We also spoke about my roles in the Students’ Association and what I have done as a student here.
“I ran the Students’ Association SRC, and they asked how we managed to continue working during the pandemic, and asked if it had been hard for us. Which overall, yes, it has been very difficult, but the Can Do tent has been a great addition to keeping students going through the pandemic.
“They were obviously very fond of their time in St Andrews and they seemed to have enjoyed being back in town for a flying visit. I think it is SO important that we connect with our alumni in St Andrews, as it is such a unique experience you get at our University. Everyone has so many fond stories of St Andrews to share. They also have so much experience and advice to tell current students which help them on their way to meet their career goals.”
Next door, the couple joined an interfaith discussion with students from the University’s School of Divinity, the student-run St Andrews Coexistence Initiative, and the University Chaplain to hear how the University encourages inter-faith dialogue, and how different faiths have come together to understand each other better and provide emotional support. Students from the Hindu, Jain and Sikh, Jewish and Catholic Societies, the Queer Faith Community and representatives from Church of Scotland and Muslim faiths were involved.
“St Andrews is unique and I think the alumni connection is really important here as everyone has such fond memories and no one really wants to let them go.”
The final stop in the Can Do marquee was a live demonstration by the BALLADS (Ballroom and Latin Dance) Society, which they seemed particularly impressed by. Led by Kirkcaldy-based dance teachers Jim and Karen Millar, the Duke and Duchess were treated to a series of routines by dancers led by Society President Isabela Martin, a final year Neuroscience student from Edinburgh.
Isabela’s task was a simple one: attend the class as if it were any other class. As the 2020-2021 President of BALLADS, she led her fellow students in learning and performed a Cha Cha and a Waltz for the royal visitors. Both dances were designed to fit in 2x2m socially-distanced squares.
“It was wonderful getting to dance on a real floor for the first time in a while,” Isabela said. “But it was also incredibly exciting being able to showcase what I’ve learnt over my four years at BALLADS and to showcase how the teachers and I overcame the issues raised by the pandemic.
“When they came down the Duke and Duchess seemed really happy with big bright smiles on and they applauded us after each dance. When we came over to talk to them, they were telling us about how much they loved it.
“They congratulated myself and Johnny Millar on our various wins at online novice world championships and we discussed how online competitions worked and how we’ve been encouraging beginners to try them out. We talked about how we overcame the social distancing regulations to dance, dancing in the marquee, in halls, on Zoom, in driveways and in the field. We discussed how BALLADS won the Most Innovative Society Award and how valuable it has been for the wellbeing of all of our members to have a regular class to attend outwith academia.
“The Duchess told us about how she had taken some ballroom dancing classes when she attended St Andrews. BALLADS is only around seven or eight years old, so this was a very exciting revelation that there must have been a ballroom society here previously that BALLADS resurrected. The Duke and Duchess were very sympathetic with the struggles of dancing over Zoom and commended us for keeping going as their children have been attending Zoom ballet classes also.
“St Andrews has a way of holding onto people and it will always have such a fond place in my heart.
“I feel a true sense of accomplishment graduating from St Andrews as it is such an esteemed institution, but also somewhere where I have been able to really grow as a person. St Andrews is unique and I think the alumni connection is really important here as everyone has such fond memories and no one really wants to let them go.”
Finally, the Duke and Duchess planted the first tree for the St Andrews Forest, one of the key initiatives in the University’s action plan to become carbon neutral by 2035. Conceived by students on the University’s Environmental Sustainability Board during the pandemic, the forest will have multiple sites across the world.
It will help draw down carbon from the atmosphere, provide new habitats for wildlife, green spaces to aid mental health and wellbeing, and opportunities for education and research.
St Andrews alumni, friends and supporters are being asked to support the Forest initiative by planting trees across the globe, and signing up to a crowdfunding effort to help maximise the impact of the ambitious carbon reduction scheme.
Abi Whitefield, a Geography and Sustainable Development PhD Student, PGR Rep, PG Academic Convenor and Environmental Sustainability Board Member, was one of the students on hand to explain the new St Andrews Forest initiative. Alongside Deanna Coleman, she patiently waited as this was the ‘last stop’ of the visit, but was just happy to be back at her first in-person University event in over a year.
Like most students involved, Abi was told of a VIP visit around a week in advance, but wasn’t fully aware who was coming until it made the press.
“I was really excited (and anxious) to be asked to be involved,” she said when she found out the Cambridges were coming. “I think I spent the first couple of hours after being invited in shock. I was told it was a direct invite from the Principal, so it felt really meaningful to be invited.
“My role (with Deanna) was to speak to the Duke and Duchess about the University’s Environmental Strategy (net zero by 2035) and the St Andrews Forest. We were the last ‘station’ that the Royals visited, so had plenty of time to build up the nerves. We also asked the Duke and Duchess to plant the first tree in the St Andrews Forest in the Quad.
“The experience was great! It was all so exciting and made us feel like VIPs ourselves. When arriving in St Andrews there were already crowds outside eagerly waiting, so it was exciting to be in the know about what was happening. People tried to get information out of me about when they would be visiting as they had somehow heard about my involvement – so it was fun trying not to tell people any information.
“It was the first real in-person involvement I’ve had with the University for well over a year, so it was really fantastic to get to meet some of the people in-person I’ve been communicating online with. Meeting the Duke and Duchess was really exciting, although also nerve-wracking. I don’t think I stopped shaking the whole time!
“Deanna and I were mainly tasked with introducing them to the Forest and Strategy. The Duchess asked us what species the tree was, which I was really glad I had tried to find out earlier. The Duke joked about asking people to sail across the Atlantic (‘Why not?’) when Deanna said that we couldn’t ask that as an institution.
“I think they were excited about the prospect of the St Andrews Forest and evidently have a good understanding of the environmental issues we’re facing. I think they talked a little about how big the tree might be when they visit next. They seemed to have a great time planting it.
“I think it’s great to hear where people have gone once they’ve finished their degrees. It’s inspiring. I think work shadowing through the careers centre really provides a great way of connecting – although I don’t think we’ll be invited to shadow any Royals anytime soon. The Duke and Duchess are obviously very special alumni, so it was great to actually meet them after hearing about their time here for so long.”
Abi was filmed alongside other students talking about their experience of meeting with the Duke and Duchess…
As a member of the University’s Environmental Sustainability Board, Deanna Coleman single-handedly researched and proposed the St Andrews Forest Initiative which seeks to offset emissions from student travel to and from university.
Deanna, a graduating International Relations student from Chester, marked her last day in town meeting the Royal couple, describing it as the “most surreal experience of my life”.
She said: “I was very honoured to be asked to be in the event and to finish off my time at St Andrews in such a grand way.
“I can’t put into words how incredible it was to see a proposal that I wrote be put into fruition by the world-renowned couple. It’s the biggest compliment and most surreal experience of my life.
“We spoke about the impact of international travel on individual carbon footprints, and how that ties into the St Andrews Forest project. The Duchess was interested in the scope of the Forest, I.e., how many trees would be planted.
“We explained that such a figure is based on a lot of different factors, such as changes in the aviation industry or the number of students. Overall, they were very impressed and made sure that I knew that!
“I think all alumni are incredible resources for the development of students, so long as they are actively participating and want to help their alma mater. It is great to have the couple as an alumni connection, especially as they promote so many student-led projects which are pivotal for their futures.”
As they finished their week-long tour of Scotland, the Duke and Duchess gave a final nod to their alma mater with an Instagram post, featuring a previously unseen sketch of the St Andrews skyline from the West Sands.
“It was wonderful to be back in St Andrews and walk down memory lane together.”
The Earl of Strathearn