Life Like Honey: Selflessness on the Shores of St Andrews

On the shores of East Sands two hundred and twenty years ago, the town of St Andrews witnessed one of the most astounding acts of bravery known to its population.

Stained glass window depicting John Honey’s rescue mission at Salvator’s Chapel, St. Andrews.
David Bean, March 2007

On the fifth of January 1800, John Honey was attending a church service at St Salvator’s Chapel. The news broke to the congregation that the Janet of Macduff had run aground just outside of St Andrews harbour. There were men still on the boat, and with no lifeboat in the town they were stranded and likely to drown.

Honey rushed to the beach where several rescue attempts had already failed, yet he was determined he would not leave without trying to save the stranded men himself. He tied a rope around his waist, handing it to his fellow students, and struck out towards the sinking Janet of Macduff. Initially, he was pulled back to shore by his concerned friends, however, he struck out again and soon boarded the fast submerging boat.

The men aboard were exhausted and unable to make the journey from the wreck to shore. Honey swam back and forth between the boat six times in total, each time carrying another crew member with him to safety. As he rescued the final crew member and pulled him back towards the shore, the mast of the boat crumbled and fell, striking Honey hard in the chest. Undeterred, Honey continued to swim into the bay, saving the last, and youngest crew member of the Janet of Macduff.

With all safe on the beach, John Honey collapsed with exhaustion, and by some accounts, died then and there from the exertion of his heroism.

He did not, however. John Honey awoke, albeit injured and exhausted, and was celebrated across Scotland by all who heard of his bravery, receiving the Freedom of the Cities of St Andrews, Perth, Forfar and Auchtermuchty, the highest honour the towns could bestow on him. He also received a silver cup, now known as the Honey Cup.

The Honey Cup

Created by John Emes, the Honey Cup is a large, two handled cup, in a neo-classical style. The commemorative cup is delicately engraved with reeds, flowers and scrolls, with an inscription running down the side of its bowl. The Honey Cup takes pride of place in the Wardlaw Museum’s Heritage Collections, where it will be available to view at its opening.

John Honey sadly died at the age of thirty-two, from health issues relating to his injury on the day of the rescue. He had lived his final years out as a Minister with his wife Ann, the daughter of a St Andrews Professor, and their three sons.

Since then, his memory has been commemorated by St Andrews students and locals alike, with Honey becoming a hero of the University. On the thirtieth of April every year, Students celebrate his courage by participating in the Gaudie, walking to the East Sands Pier in a candle-lit procession, led by pipers. At the end, a wreath is cast into the sea in remembrance of Honey and the bravery of his act.

The Gaudie celebration with a view of St Andrews Cathedral

In the Chapel of St Salvator, where John Honey rushed from to undertake his rescue mission, a stained-glass window memorialises his actions of that day. Honey stands between the other fallen heroes of St Andrews, Patrick Hamilton, and those who lost their lives in World War One.

St Andrews today has its own lifeboat, and the chances of a boat being run aground at its shores are slim. At present, East Sands, where the concerned community of St Andrews stood willing Honey and the crew to safety two hundred and twenty years ago, is empty, as we continue a prolonged period of lockdown and isolation. The actions of Honey are inconceivable to imagine taking place today.

At a moment in our lives where the most selfless thing we can do is to stay home, it seems a strange time to think of a bravery like Honey’s. It would be easy to forget about it too, when the usual celebrations of his heroism can no longer take place. The Pier, this year, will remain unlit by a procession of torches, the waters empty of commemorative wreaths.

A view of the celebration on St Andrews Pier

We should not forget though. The St Andrews community, although displaced in ways unprecedented, stretches across the globe, united by the successes of each of its members. Whilst John Honey’s act may seem inconceivable, daily heroism is taking place by the students, staff, residents and alumni of St Andrews.

At a time where many of us will have felt as helpless as locals on a beach awaiting a rescue mission, or as stranded at sea as the crew of a wrecked boat, the story of John Honey is worth remembering. We see the bravery of John Honey in every single person who continues to keep the community of St Andrews, and indeed, every other community, afloat in these troubling times. We may be confined to our homes for the most part, but reaching out to friend or stranger may stop someone from feeling like they are drowning. Although we are distanced, we can all be like John Honey and his friends, and help pull someone back to shore.

Words by Mia Foale