The Scottish connection

Cultural traditions have become a central part of Orientation Week and student life

Queen’s Bands was established in 1905 and plays at numerous school events.
Queen’s Bands was established in 1905 and plays at numerous school events.

Orientation week at most universities includes your average frosh week fare: activities, concerts and students finding their footing in a new place.

But Queen’s isn’t like most universities.

All the flavours of a regular frosh week are present at Queen’s, but with a unique ingredient: a deeply-rooted Scottish heritage, from traditions like the use of Gaelic in cheers and songs to performances by highland dancers and bagpipers.

Why all the fuss over Scotland? According to University Historian Duncan McDowall, the traditions stem from the group of Scottish Presbyterians that founded Queen’s in 1841.

“The values of Queen’s were religiously and culturally Scottish. The staff [was] recruited largely from Scotland, the early principals come from Scotland,” McDowall said. “And with that came a Scottish cultural imprint.”

The Ontario government mandated in 1912 that Queen’s become a secular university, meaning professors could no longer preach Presbyterianism in classes.

The Scottish Presbyterian heritage then became entrenched in Queen’s culture and student life, McDowall said.

“This meant the Scottish stuff had to cease being religious, [and] the Scottish stuff went to the cultural side of Queen’s,” he said. “It got commodified as a cultural brand for Queen’s.”

The Scottish brand can be observed in many elements of today’s frosh week. The “Oil Thigh” cheer — officially known as “Queen’s College Colours” — is sung entirely in Gaelic.

Three Gaelic-speaking students wrote the Oil Thigh in 1891 to create a universal Queen’s battle cry for sporting games. The chant’s seminal cheer, “Cha Ghèill”, means “no surrender”.

During Orientation Week, new students also receive Scottish hats known as tams, as an informal induction into Queen’s. McDowall said the tradition has persisted at Queen’s for nearly a century.

Fifteenth-century Scottish warriors wore tams of certain colours to indicate which clan they belonged to during battle.

“[It was worn] so you didn’t lop off the head of someone in your own clan,” McDowall said.

Another major part of Queen’s Scottish heritage, Queen’s Bands, was established in 1905 and still plays today. The band includes bagpipe players and highland dancers.

Queen’s Bands play at Gaels football games and other school events, including Orientation Week.

Brad McVey, a Bands’ pipe sergeant and an executive member of the Queen’s Bagpipe Club, said he grew up with a strong Scottish family heritage, which led him to Bands when he first came to Queen’s.

“The Scottish spirit that is so present in Bands makes me feel at home. I knew it was something I wanted to be a part of,” McVey told the Journal via email.

“[Queen’s Bands] takes a lot of the old focal points of Scottish identity that people like myself were familiar with — bagpipes, kilts, dancing and an underlying sense of spirit – and essentially modernizes them.” Queen’s Scottish traditions connect students with the school’s history and the local community and add more fun to frosh week, McVey added.

“Queen’s has a miraculous ability to breathe new life into many of these old traditions and it’s something more and more young people are getting into,” he said.

Along with the fun, frosh week traditions do serve a higher purpose, according to ASUS President Adam Grotsky.

“[Tradition is] a way to unite the entire incoming class,” Grotsky said. “It’s a new experience coming to university. Having these traditions like the tam and the Oil Thigh — they really connect you, and remind you of the history.”


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