As the coronavirus crisis forces the postponement of the 2020 Kate Kennedy procession in St Andrews, Michael Alexander speaks to last year’s ‘Kate’ to get an insight into the annual student-led spring spectacular – and learns why the spirit of the event lives on!
Led by a barefoot St Andrew and the City of St Andrews Pipe Band, the annual Kate Kennedy procession sees characters from 700-years of St Andrews history parade through the town.
Characters depicting cardinals, queens and kings to golfers, bishops and even former St Andrews University rector John Cleese fill the cobbled streets in the special event which brings town and gown together.
However, nothing outshines the emergence of the most anticipated character: Lady Katherine Kennedy, the adored niece of St Salvator’s College founder Bishop Kennedy.
Legend has it that ‘Kate’ would come visit her uncle and was idolised by students.
Every procession day, St Salvator’s church bells ring to mark her arrival, one among which the bishop named after his beloved niece.
Tradition dictates that Lady Kate is played by the “most promising first-year member” of the student-run Kate Kennedy Club.
She is drawn through the town in a daffodil-festooned horse and carriage, cheered on amid an atmosphere of spring celebration.
One man who knows exactly what it’s like to emerge from the gates of St Salvator’s College dressed as ‘Kate’ is second year St Andrews University medieval history student Samuel Saunders who played the part of Kate last year.
Having joined the Kate Kennedy Club as one of nine new admissions in first year, and, as tradition dictates, he found out just minutes before the 2019 parade started that he was to play the lead role.
“It’s quite something,” explains Suffolk-raised Samuel who was drawn to study at St Andrews University at least in part because of the immense history of the town.
“I’d never been dressed up in drag before. It’s quite good fun! The best part of it was seeing how much the locals enjoy the procession.
“It started off as a student led initiative but it’s very much done for the town.
“That’s very obvious when you are sitting in the carriage and see the crowd.
“It’s 90% local people and people from the surrounding areas who turn out and money is raised for local charities.”
Samuel, who was appointed behind-the-scenes marshal of the now postponed 2020 procession that would have taken place on Saturday April 11, explained that the three aims of the Kate Kennedy Club are to support local Fife charities, to maintain town-gown relations, and to uphold the traditions of St Andrews.
He described it as an occasion “that reminds us all of the constantly changing nature of St Andrews and the dedication on the part of the members of the Kate Kennedy Club and the Kate Kennedy Trust”.
He explained that while the roots of the procession lie in the mid-19th century, the origins go back much earlier.
Having previously been male only, Samuel explained the club had been co-ed since 2012.
“The procession dates back – if you were being a bit loose – to the 1440s,” he says.
“They say there was sort of a pagan like procession that we are inspired from.
“But sort of more literally it occurred in the 1870s and ended up being effectively an excuse for students to get really drunk and take the mick out of their professors.
“It was banned by the university. Then in 1926, at the time when JM Barrie was the rector of St Andrews University, the celebration, in today’s form, was conceived by Donald Kennedy and James Doak.
These two students of the university, with the help of Principal Sir James Irvine, restored the procession, not as a pagan celebration of spring, but as a historical pageant.”
Samuel said no one is entirely sure if Kate Kennedy ever existed for real or not.
“She’s supposed to be the niece of Bishop Kennedy who was one of the founders of St Salvator’s College,” he adds.
“There is an inscription in one of the bells of St Sally’s Tower – built by Bishop Kennedy.
“It’s said the mystical Kate Kennedy visited St Andrews in the spring and they would hold a procession in honour of her beauty. Now we do it in the spring and it works very nicely with the daffodils coming out.”
Unfortunately the coronavirus crisis means that, following government advice, organisers had to make the decision “with a heavy heart” that the 2020 procession will be “indefinitely postponed”.
This decision was not easy to make, organisers say. In the end the priority will always be the safety of those both involved with the procession, and those who come to watch.
The spirit of Kate lives on, however: Students have pledged to put the procession back on “whenever the government decrees it safe to do so”.