Horsey Shires – a Standing Ovation
Who can forget Horsey? Our music teacher who was the butt of many a prank. On leaving the high school in Regent’s Road he was the only teacher can recall who received a standing ovation from everybody in Assembly. Poised on the grand piano, he played himself out with a fitting song to which we all joined in. In acknowledgement of his nickname to which we thought him ignorant, the song was “Horsey, horsey don’t you stop!”
I assumed that Horsey got his name from Shire horse, but who can tell?
Don’t Mention the Royal High
I spent some time filling in (as a teacher) at Firhill where I met Horsey Shires. I introduced myself and told him I had been at Royal High and he seemed to cower.
Happy Days – Pongo et al 1941 to 1951
Mr. Forbes personal hygiene was beyond reproach.
There is some dispute over roots of Mr Forbes soubriquet, I was apparently mistaken in believing it came from his resemblance to the mischievous dragon in the amusing children’s TV puppet show ‘Rubovia’, while Ian Cuthbert (1945-50) writes – “Pongo is a term of mild contempt used to refer to army personnel by the other services. I think that it dates back to the Second World War and since the man turned up at the school in 1941 just as the conflict was getting into its stride – the invasion of Russia in June ’41; Pearl Harbor December 7th ’41 – and, furthermore since he was associated with the JTC, an army cadet force, the name seems appropriate. If you want to dig further into the etymology, consider the slang word “pong” and its connotations, then think of the colour of an army uniform and reflect: what is the same colour and pongs.. Get the connection now? Just my theory, but you have to admit that it does fit.I hasten to add that Mr. Forbes personal hygiene was beyond reproach.”
However Gerald Hall (1939-46) asserts – “My understanding was that the nickname derived from the P.G. Wodehouse character, ‘Pongo’ Twistleton.” . I feel we should bow to Gerald Hall’s senority until further evidence emerges.
Pongo Forbes was a mainstay of the French Department during my time at the RHS, though he never taught me personally. I always understood that he acquired the nickname as a result of running the Junior Training Corps (JTC), the School equivalent of the Army Cadet Force and Army people are always referred to as “Pongoes” by the other services, particularly the RAF. He was certainly known as Pongo in 1945, long before TV gripped Central Scotland in its stultifying grasp. Looking at the photo on the website, something seems not quite right. I do believe that he had a moustache in my day. Hoppy Innes ran the ATC squadron such as it was. As an air-minded youth I joined as soon as I could, then in the school year 49/50 the two outfits were amalgamated as the Combined Cadet Force. We air section lads were then taken under the wing of the University Air Squadron which is how I came to get some Tiger Moth time in my old cadet’s logbook. Real Biggles stuff, open cockpits, helmet, goggles, the lot.
After I sent off last night’s message, two further items occurred to me. One was the song, sung to – what else – “John Brown’s Body”. It went something like this:
- Pongo had an army of fifty-three cadets
- Pongo had an army of fifty-three cadets
- Pongo had an army of fifty-three cadets
- And the whole damn’ lot got shot
I don’t remember the chorus, thankfully, but I heard this sung when we returned from an exercise on Salisbury Crags one summer afternoon. The air section acted as the enemy and we watched a hilarious game of Cowboys and Indians while we fired blanks.
The other thing was professional. Pongo had evolved a technique for teaching boys to pronounce the letter “r” in French. The trick was to say “loch” as any Scot would a few times, then try to say “lorch”, i.e. putting an “r” after the “o”. Keep at it and it begins to sound like the French word “lorsque” (we all know what that means, so I won’t ask for translations). I found myself that it actually works. Bravo, Pongo!
Memories of “Pongo ” Forbes
Memories of “Pongo ” Forbes and the PPA are fresh in my mind. Pongo was a great fellow, and I enjoyed my years in the Cadets. I was in the pipe band and used to spend hours underneath Pongo’s room at the small bore rifle range, firing at targets at the back of the room, playing in the sand map, reading copies of “Soldier” magazine, and practicing drumming. We had great times at the Annual camps at places like Carnoustie (getting chewed to pieces by the cleggs, called by the English “sand flies”) and Catterick in Yorkshire where we had rides on the Centurian tanks. At Catterick, the School collected a pile of name signs from the different schools in England and sadly, we were told to take them all back again. How more of us didn’t fall off the outside of the trains as we changed carriages, I shall never know.
Attacks at Salisbury Crags
I well remember the antics of the attacks at Salisbury Crags, where the key aim was not to become No 2 on the Bren gun and have to lug the thing all over the countryside. (Usually up a hill to provide covering fire). The bren, (a spring and gas operated light machine gun with a rounded magazine holding 28 rounds) didn’t fire blanks. When as a rifleman, the order was given for each man to fire his two rounds of blanks, the uninterrupted rate of fire power of five of six mighty men echoed around the hills for ever and ever. I never worked out where all the extra ammunition came from. The key trick was not to stand in front of somebody as the bits of blacked paper and hot rush of explosion came out the spout of his rifle. People used to stop running in the final charge, and bend over to reload, and then run up behind to catch up. It was the dreadful job to clean the rifle with the oil and great chunks of 4 by 2, kept in the rifle butt. The cloth on the pull through kept sticking in the rifle bore. There was always somebody who came back home to the inspection point with a round still in the breech. I remember Mr Goble, the Captain of Cadets, at the sports field at Holyrood, ducking down rather hastily, as the smokened bits of rubbish and fire came out of a raised rifle, past his white face. The rifle butts at the back of Salisbury Crags were a popular spot in my time in the CCF, shooting over a longer range with the .303 live ammunition. Everybody had sore shoulders afterwards.
Hope and Confidence Won the Day
All that spit and polish, and white blanko to clean the spats on the band uniforms. I remember everyone was most particular about keeping the khaki ammunition pouches and packs absolutely square and at right angles. Jack Wren filled his pouches with text books and just about expired when we went on a long, long walk. The weight nearly killed him. Everybody going to lectures on camouflage in order to pass the Certificate A , Parts 1 and 11, and being asked questions in the exam at Redford Barracks that nobody had ever heard of. Having the Field marshall’s baton in our backpacks, and coming from the Royal High enabled us to pass with flying colours, and wear the red badge on our uniforms. Hope and confidence won the day. With a compass and a map, we would have become the most dangerous soldiers in the British Army
Pongo could swing a belt in his class, and nobody I knew, ever went back twice for a second helping. Everyone was looking for the cold metal on the desk to cool their throbbing hands,and trying not to cry. When tears came into your eyes, you always showed others, the red marks on your wrist to explain the intense pain and the damp, flickering eyelids.
Bobo the Revolutionary?
Bobo used to ride his bicycle,rain hail or shine, and keep his bike in the shed racks near the main assembly hall. He used to take boys on cycling trips around the Borders. You would see every item of Scottish importance. Riding across a desolate piece of country, miles from nowhere, and just about off the Baltholomew map, he would suddenly ask everyone to stop, and spreading out ten yards apart, all crawl into the long grass. And there it was, unknown to everyone in Scotland but Bobo, would be a milestone of ancient memory.
He controlled the classes I was in, by dictating notes non-stop at a thousand miles an hour for the whole lesson. You would walk out of the class with cramps in the hand, numb to the elbow. Later when you looked at your notes for an exam, they looked as if they had been written in Cunieform script or Ugaritic. Didn’t Scotland Yard detectives visit Bobo when the Stone under the Westminster Abbey chair was stolen by Scottish Nationalists? Everyone hoped the visitors were authentic. Perhaps they came to interview him about his worn bicycle tyres.
I remember Micki Mole. His classes were in the small geography room, with all the geographical gear from Canada like peace pipes, feather bonnets in the huge glass case, given to the School by a Former Pupil, who was a member of the Palliser Expedition down Kicking Horse Pass near Lake Louise, and were a riot. Everyone used to laugh at his jokes for at least ten minutes after they ceased to be funny. Laughter would suddenly cease as Mr Kennedy came into the room. Micki had the method of drawing quick geographical maps, a parallelogram for Ireland etc. I remember using the method in an exam and being downmarked for my efforts. But I can still draw a map of Ireland. (Everybody thinks that I am doing geometry). He used to give us tests listing every little bay and promontory in Scotland, and asking us to to place their locations on a blank map. I used to feel that the exams were based on the well known small lakes of Tibet or the major cities of the Lapland hinterland. We were all lost. Hardly knew which country we were in, apart from recognising the shape of the blank map of Scotland. I bet that the local Gaelic speaking natives who lived in these bays didn’t know where they were, either. I do know my work on the Congo and the Amazonian equatorial regions of Brazil that we studied. Hope that they at least are still where they once were. I think that I still know what a confluence is, though I am a bit vague about a conurbation, especially if it is in modern Scotland.
Courageous Fifi, Mimi, Letty and Miss Beaton
The lady teachers at RHS were each very good at their subjects. Courageous souls among a school full of men. We had Fifi, Mimi and Letty. Miss Phillips, Miss Minck and Miss Whiteside. The lady who took the prize though, was Miss Beaton, a gorgeous student teacher, who managed not only to have her designated class turn up to a lesson in the main Geography room, but about half the rest of the school as well. There was a spectacular stampede about ten minutes afterwards, when the Rector, Dr Imrie, walked in, and every one suddenly remembered that they were, on reflection, in the wrong class room. The moments in time that fill your memories from School. I can’t for the life of me, remember what the lesson was about. It may not even have been geography. But I do remember the teacher’s name.
My Form teacher in 1951 was Mr Cochrane who ran the Camera Club in the Annex. He used to be the secretary of the Edinburgh Cinematography Society, and bring reels and reels of silent movies to the main Geography room after School. It was fantastic. Everyone used to roll on the desks killing themselves laughing. Silent movies made by an early comic genius: they filled our lives with laughter.
We had George Howie for English and Latin He was the last period on a Wednesday afternoon after Rab Forman. The whole class in a state of undress running down the stairs to the first Annex, past the metal work room, into Regent Road, while George Howie at the top of the Annex 1 stairs, leaned across the bannister and shouted at us to hurry up. We were always late. Lessons never started on time. We took about six months to get through the first page of “Caesar in Britain and Belgium”. Everybody learnt the translations off by heart. “In Britain the winters are early, Caesar therefore resolved to cross into Britain” goes the text. The Walter Scott text of Lord Marmion was even worse. I met George many years later when I was at the University of Sydney, He invited me to his home for dinner with his family and proudly showed me his academic gown with George Howie, Royal High School, still visible on the name tag. I liked Latin and learned a lot from George Gray and Duncan Campbell. I found all the amo, amas, amat , and mensa, mensa, mensam stuff quite a useful grammatical background when I studied Greek later.
Bill Bowie..not so bad after all!
Bill Bowie was a great teacher. He was my rugby coach when I was in the Under 15a’s. I used to marvel how he could teach different year groups in the School, the singing parts of the Hallelujah Chorus and put it all together at the last minute for the School concert in the Usher Hall. I used to go the BBC Scotland studio, I think down Queen Street, with the choir and sing for the Scottish Children’s Hour. We once sang a song in German, that I still don’t know the meaning of. We saw a different side of him when he used to lead the Scottish Schoolboy Camps. He was fantastic in his participation at campfires etc. I remember sitting in one of his classes in the Great Hall one afternoon, sitting down at the front by the railing, near the organ, watching every minute and second, tick by on my wrist watch, because everyone in the class thought that the world was to come to an end by 3.17 pm. We must have had the wrong day. Perhaps I needed a new watch.
We were fortunate in our school and in our teachers. I learned most from those I was scared of, and certainly knew which teachers that I had to do my homework for. My regrets were that I didn’t have Hector McIver, Charles McAra and Alex McEwen as my regular teachers. I did enjoy Mr Burgoyne, Mr Bell in Mathematics and David Penman in the PE Dept. Hope that I haven’t gone on too long and bored you off your computer stool . Happy days and happy memories are the School days at Royal High.
Kind regards and best wishes, James Donaldson
The Fabulous Fifties
With regard to Bobo, I can’t say where the name came from, but he was always one of the most popular (and most unmercifully ragged) characters in the school. I remember one occasion when we collected all our chunks of cheese from the refectory (The Grubby?), wadded the whole malodorous mess into something resembling a greyish-yellow basketball, and waited in class until someone signalled that Mr Aitken was on his way. It was in the middle of winter, and the huge old-fashioned fireplace in the classroom had been stoked to the point of meltdown. We immediately scooped a hole in the blazing coals, dropped in the cheeseball, and covered it with fresh coal. The nexty forty minutes are gone from memory, save that we were all gasping for air, and the more scientifically-minded pupils were probably calculating whether or not carbon monoxide was a by-product of best Ayrshire cheddar. Throughout it all, Mr. Aitken refused to show any sign that anything was amiss, and steadfastly refrained from opening the door or a window.
I will not attempt to describe the olfactory Armageddon accomplished by our next prank, save that it involved several dozen pairs of soaking-wet — and in many cases not-recently-washed — socks piled on the wire-mesh fireguard after we’d been caught in a heavy lunchtime downpour. My interest in History was at that time non-existent (not helped much either by Jocky Cunningham’s remark on one of my essays: ” a surprising mixture of maturity and irrelevance.”) In fact, my interest in anything at all involving swotting and hard work was non-existent, taking a decided second place to the pubs on Rose Street, and the Palais in Fountainbridge on Friday nights.
Looking back, I believe it was the authoritarian nature of our educational system which aroused a kind of passive rebellion in some of us. Authoritarian? Good grief! Anybody who had Fifi as French teacher would know what the word meant: the woman was made of titanium, and about as approachable as a polar bear — and was capable of reducing the most obstreporous pupil to a quivering jelly with just a few vitriolic words. Even though I towered over her by a full inch by the time I was fifteen (and the rest of the class by considerably more), the half-pint left us in no doubt about who was boss. And she swung a mean tawse.
Come and have a smack
Sometimes, though, I wondered why we were generally so passive in the face of what later generations would consider over-the-top behaviour on the part of the teachers. I remember one morning Bill Bowie kept us in after the service and declared he would not let us go off to our various classes until a particular menace to society revealed himself. Bill had spotted the miscreant across the pitch at Murrayfield the previous Saturday — or at least somebody wearing a black-and-white diagonally-striped scarf, and blatantly smoking a cigarette, thereby disgracing the School. I don’t think any of us considered that this didn’t really fall within the ambit of pedagogical authority: Saturday wasn’t a school day, Murrayfield was not on school property, and smoking was not a crime. After about five minutes (it seemed longer), a sheepish member of the criminal underclass (a Pict, I think) shuffled to his feet and was led away to be introduced to Bill’s Lochgelly Special, probably with Bill’s characteristic silky whisper “Come and have a smack.”
Some teachers believed in mass punishment. On one occasion, I was running an errand for one of the masters and arrived a couple of minutes late for a maths class. The class was filing in slowly, to the regular whack of leather on flesh. At the end of the line, I stuck my hand out meekly for the lash, and joined my fellow-pupils blowing on our hands as the lesson began. I learned later that some of the boys had been making a noise outside the classroom and the master had decided to belt them all, even the latecomers. Why we didn’t turn on him in a demented fury is perhaps something best explained by psychologists. Nor did we pause to consider that schools constituted almost the only British institution in which corporal punishment was still a daily, and unremarkable feature. Later, I used to wonder why the deep thinkers at Jordanhill couldn’t come up with better ways of teaching pedagogues how to maintain classroom discipline.
I mentioned that my interest in History at that time was non-existent. Well, History is full of ironies. After leaving the School, I went to Canada, decided I had better pull my socks up when it came to academic work, and graduated from the University of Western Ontario in 1964 with a First in Honours History (being beaten out of the Gold Medal by one-half a percentage point, which I consider to be Clio’s just revenge for my previous slackness).
Mr Aitken at Leith Academy
A few years later I visited my grandparents in Edinburgh, before going to Paris to do research on my doctoral dissertation for the University of Toronto. I found out that Mr Aitken was then teaching at Leith Academy, and went to see him. Naturally, he didn’t remember me, until I mentioned the names of the brighter members of my class, and reminded him of the Great Cheese Fireball Incident. When I told him I was working on my third degree in History, the expression of confused disbelief on his face was something to be forever imprinted in my memory. Perhaps the School did have some beneficial effect on me after all.
Remember Charlie McAra? Wullie Gatherer?
To conclude: I earned my Ph.D, worked on Parliament Hill in Ottawa for a few years as a legislative researcher then, after a detour into journalism, returned to my alma mater in London, Ontario as professor of History. My wife and I decided on early retirement in 1999 and moved back to Ottawa (She has a Ph.D in Russian Literature, twice as many functioning brain cells as I have, and enjoyed a productive career on the Administrative Staff of the university).
Next year, we’ll be moving to Vancouver Island, where the rest of the Portobello Kerr diaspora is enjoying the benefits of life on the Pacific Coast. I hope this helps enlarge your portrait of the School in the Fifties. Anybody remember Charlie McAra? Wullie Gatherer? (Now THERE was a character!)
Best wishes from the New World.