Every St Andrews student knows three sacred truths: the Pablo is the finest beverage invention of the century, academic incest is inevitable, and every Sunday there are people outside the library rehearsing medieval battle re-enactments but you’re not really sure what exactly they’re doing.
Well, wonder no longer. Scott McDonald, society president, has taken the time to share with us the history of the Shire.
So, because I don’t know anything about your society, let’s start from the beginning.
We’re the university’s medieval reenactment society, the Shire of Caer Caledon. We’ve been around for about twenty, twenty-five years (I think we started in the early 90s?). The main thing we do is combat reenactments and the training for them, but we also have four huge feasts throughout the year, hold medieval crafting events, and have a pop-up market in April. We actually won an award for our market, for best Town and Gown event! Although we’re run by students, a lot of people fighting in battles are locals or graduates who have stayed around after graduation. So, training is “local” in that sense.
It’s important to us that our fair isn’t geared towards either students or locals – it’s for everyone and allows us to be point of contact between the students and the town, with a tie-in to academic history!
Where did the name come from?
We’re the Shire of Caer Caledon (Fortress Caledonia, or fortress Scotland in Gaelic). Groups like ours are all named based on size, and we were the size of a shire at the time it was named, even though we’re far larger now! But, yeah, the name kind of stuck after that. Plus it’s catchy – just calling it, like, “the Shire” is nice. We’re always getting lots of questions about Lord of the Rings, though.
What is your average member like?
Our average member is an undergraduate, who’s obviously interested in history but isn’t necessarily a medieval history student. We actually have a lot of non-history students. At one point we had a lot of chemists, which is odd, but true. Our committee has had Phds in Theology, IR students, Ancient History students, Physicists… But we have about 100 members total, so there’s obviously a lot of variability!
We also allow people to specialise in whatever medieval era they’d like, and there can be more variability in there than you think. It allows everyone to explore their own interests. I could be there fighting next to a person dressed from a totally different era than I am, but we roll with it.
Does the Shire do anything other than the fight training?
We also have several guilds that you can join within the Shire. We have the fighters, brewers, artisans, clothiers, bardic, and cook guilds.
These groups are like interest groups, and feed into each other. So someone can specialise in a certain area, but clothiers are needed to clothe the fighters, cooks prepare the feasts for everyone, and the bards play at the feasts. Artisans include calligraphy, tablet weaving, jewellery. In my experience, fight training is a bit of a gateway. People start there and get dragged into other groups whether they like it or not!
Tell me more about these feasts and this event in April.
Basically the feasts are just a whole lot of food and drinks, in full dress of course.
But the majority of the activities we do during the rest of the year feed into both events. All of our training is preparing for the big battle we have in April. Other reenactment groups come to participate, and there are lots of craft stalls up, music playing. It’s good fun!
We also have social events that aren’t entirely in medieval theme. We just recently had a pub night, and each year we have a tavern night. We get to eat a lot of pies, drink, and play medieval board games!
I have to ask, do you guys know that so many people watch you from the library?? It’s pretty hard not to notice you guys.
Yes, of course we know! We know that people are watching and we actually like that they are. One of the reasons we practice behind the library is that it allows us to be seen! I mean, if anyone sees us out there and is keen, membership is £3 on the spot. Come down and talk to us if you get curious.
What’s your least favourite part of being in Shire? What’s the hardest thing about being the President?
Ok, this is a weirdly specific thing, but it’s actually sourcing materials / clothe for the clothiers guild. Linen has gotten a lot harder and more expensive to get, so that’s a bit stressful.
How did you personally get involved in the group?
I got involved in 2010. I had one friend that was interested in going to the feasts and one that did a lot of fighting. So one of them took me to a feast, and one took me to a fighting session.
I was looking for something new to do, something that wasn’t like anything that I was doing at that point. So I came along and discovered that I just really enjoyed it. And since then it’s slowly taken over my life! I’m doing my PhD at St Andrews, so I’ve been here a decade, too.
If you could say one thing to convince people to try fighting, what would it be?
It’s just so fun, and you learn a lot! Also, this might be weird but it’s surprisingly good exercise… I know it sort of looks like we just stand around there but actually we all go back home and pass out.
I’d also specifically mention that we don’t require any experience. We’re aware that this isn’t something that you go through high school doing, you know like, “I signed up for hockey! What about you?” “Oh, well I signed up for medieval fighting!”
I also think everyone should do one thing at university that they’re not going to get the chance to do after they graduate. You’ll probably not get the chance to do something this unusual again, so do it now!
I think everyone, as a child, pretends that a stick is a sword and play fights their friends. We’ve just refused to stop giving into that impulse.
Any parting thoughts?
Just to remind people that fighting practice is at 12 pm each week behind library!