Living history: the legendary PH

Illustration: Dillon Yeh
Illustration: Dillon Yeh
Illustration: Dillon Yeh

“Don’t step on the PH.” It is the explicit rule that every St Andrews student knows implicitly.  Stepping on the PH is like receiving a death sentence from the academic ghosts of years past. The punishment for stepping on it? Well, as with all myths, it varies according to whom you ask. Different students have different responses, varying from failing the end of term exams to failing your final fourth year exams to flunking out of St Andrews altogether. Thankfully, though, there is an antidote for stepping on the dreaded PH: May Dip. May Dip, of course, is the cure-all for any mistake one might make while at university (excepting STDs, which will stay with you unless you go to a doctor). Furthermore, it is a rite of passage, tantamount perhaps to a St Andrean baptism.

A few weeks ago, someone though it might be a bit of a laugh to post a sign over the PH that read, ‘Attention students: Stepping on the PH is now traditionally acceptable.’ Thankfully, our student body is jut a little too superstitious to accept such pronouncement. But this prank begs the questions: Why are we all so afraid of a bunch of stones? And what is history behind the myth?

The legend of the PH stones began around the time that the man, the myth, the legend Patrick Hamilton was burnt at the stake in 1528. Hamilton actually arrived in St Andrews four years earlier after finishing up university in France. He meant to become a professor, though it is not clear what subject he planned to instruct in.

Hamilton is believed to have come in contact with the Protestant faith through William Tyndale’s English translation of the Protestant Bible. This was quite controversial because St Andrews stood as the Catholic epicenter of Scotland at the time. Thus, Hamilton’s beliefs soon attracted the attention of the archbishop. Unwilling to face Catholic scorn (and, really, who is?), he fled to Germany, birthplace of the Reformation.

He later returned to Scotland and was determined to spread the good news, despite the fact that our country, of course, remained staunchly Catholic. Back in St Andrews, he devoted himself to preaching.

In February of 1528, he was ordered to stand trial and, refusing to renounce his beliefs, he was condemned to be burned at the stake for his Protestantism. He was the first of four people to be sentenced to such a death in St Andrews, and, as such, he is regarded as the first martyr of the Protestant Reformation in Scotland.

Of course, unbeknownst to Hamilton or his executioners, Scotland would indeed later become a predominantly Protestant nation under the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots.

According to the Museum of St Andrews (MUSA), the Reformation marked a fundamental change in the structure of the University, as most entrants then were likely to enter the clergy upon graduation. Thus, St Andrews shifted away from its Catholic foundation and was transformed into a Protestant settlement.

Hopefully, this clears up any confusion surrounding the PH and allows you to better ingratiate visitors into our weird University subculture. In fact, the PH is so engrained in the St Andrews experience that the University website even includes a shout out. Prospective students will be glad to read that, ‘Fortunately, St Andrews today is unlikely to treat its students in quite the same way as it did Patrick Hamilton!’ To which I have to say, thank God.


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