…Fantasy was replaced by the inimitable experience of an Edinburgh primary and secondary school education, and hero worship (and gossip) were swept aside for twelve industrious years.
What was so memorable, or even so Scottish about that school? Not its anthem, which was Jerusalem, causing 1450 Scots girls regularly to belt out mellifluously someone else’s hang-up about England’s dark, satanic mills. Not its social standing — this was a Corporation Day School, its swarming inhabitants referred to as ‘keelies’ by two élite upper bands of girls’ schools in Edinburgh, as regarded darkly by the non-fee-paying band, which was spared our contributions, half obliterated by scholarships, of three guineas a year for the Infant Division, rising to £7 10s for a year at the highest level.
It was Scottish in its egalitarian attitude to those under its roof. One was aware that some girls were dark-skinned and some Jewish (and some even English) but the distinction meant nothing. Few of us ever knew what our friends’ fathers did for a living and the school uniform — navy serge gym tunic over white blouse, black stockings and shoes, maroon and yellow scarf and tie, navy nap coat in winter and maroon blazer over green dress in summer — ironed out all financial distinctions.
It was of its time in its confident expectations of obedience. With 40 lassies per class, and up to five forms in a year, basic learning was inculcated by roate, and authority was as absolute as it was in our homes. No teacher, male or female, was ever addressed other than formally, whatever nicknames they might be given in private. The standard of teaching was preternaturally high (but that seemed universal) and the passing of strict term examinations led without fuss to the eventual sitting of Highers and Lowers. By that time, six different strata had been identified: two academic, dealing with classics or science, and four specialising in variations of music and art, domestic science and secretarial training. Before streaming, everyone was subjected to the same broad curriculum and I insist to my sons, when they deplore early selection, that proclivities can be discerned remarkably early. Pupils who went on to take the Mus Bachs were already hanging with flutes and cellos and fiddles at twelve. And I, at the same age, faced with 25 pieces of navy knicker to assemble and sew, knew (as did my teacher) that I could never solve the puzzle unaided.
The habit of obedience at home made discipline easy. Between the two world wars, there was a period of modest security. I know f no one in my own circle at school whose parents were separated, except by death, and those of us who are still in touch have each been married to the same person for all of our lives. Many schools still used to Lochgelly tawse, and boys could expect strappings at school and probably also at home. Because it happened everywhere, at the same accepted level, it was never questioned : who would want detention when six stingers on the palm would do instead? Girls were exempt: my ebullient, large-moustached art master used to roar his rebellion against this, begging the fates to allow him to thrash us as he thrashed the pupils in his last school. Secure, we giggled. The worse that could happen to us, apart from lines and detention, was to be singled out from our peers, to be shamed, to be subjected to sarcasm. These are harsher weapons and far more effective, but not to be used lightly. We were fortunate. We were not hurt, but we learned that words were as powerful as violence.
War burst us apart in the end. Gone were the sports days, the school dances, the myriad clubs, the operetta performances, the trips en masse to the cinema. The school closed, to allow air-raid shelters to be built, and my father’s Rover, instead of taking my grandparents on picnics, too me to the echoing hall of the school where we exchanged a dozen packets of homework for a dozen set lessons, to be delivered to the homes of all those Corstorphine fellow-pupils who had not been evacuated. In the months leading up to Highers, we were taught first by remote control, and then in the school itself, breaking off during air-raid alarms, false and real, to sit in the underground bunkers, singing through the programme of our last Usher Hall concert.
It was a good school, set on green meadows on the ridge of a hill overlooking the city. The meadows had once been a lake, and seagulls still frequented the trees, diving for bread cast by us and by others. One of our number made a poem about that, published in the school magazine for 1933, which I still have. In later years, I took a television crew to the spot, to film the gulls while the poem was spoken. The producer was restive: the rolling grasslands were quite bare of birds. Until I tossed up a handful of bread and a storm of white wings filled the skies, as they always did.
And the gossip? I heard none for 12 years although, as I have said, I discovered its joys later on. But then, it was being made up for us all, in a delightful way none of us could have conceived. WE should not, I think, have regarded ourselves as the crème de la crème, even had we been whipped. But we were the happy product of a strange, small pocket in time well worth celebrating.
From Dorothy Dunnett’s chapter “Great Grannies” in A Scottish Childhood, Volume II: More Famous Scots Reminisce, compiled by Nancy E. M. Bailey, published by HarperCollins, copyright The Scottish Council of Save the Children, 1998.