Historic school publications discovered at university offer a fascinating insight into life at secondary long before Facebook
Little Helen Dunn was just 11 years old when she sat down to write of history lessons and long-gone rival monarchs and how tricky it was to remember it all when, after all, you’re just 11. Her brief eight-line stanza was precise. quirky and, best of all, it made its way into the Dalkeith High School magazine.
It shared space with a thoughtful reflection from ten-year-old Agnes Wilson – a wistful tale of a sad postbox starving from a lack of letters – and a dreamy, carefully constructed and charming little poem by 3B classmate Agnes Coutts, of dancing fairies and starlight. All innocent musings from an age when young girls weren’t completely obsessed with One Direction, Moshi Monsters or Facebook.
For this was December 1933, and the girls’ finely crafted work – perhaps something of a creative writing lesson to today’s text message generation – was considered so impressive it was to feature in the new version of the magazine for everyone to see.
No doubt each girl kept a copy for months afterwards, proud to have been chosen over many others to feature in its pages. Yet as time passed, copies of the December 1933 issue landed in rubbish bins, old bits of paper no longer relevant to anyone alive or dead – until now.
Copies of the school’s old magazines from down the decades have unexpectedly surfaced, slightly yellowed with age but otherwise intact, each revealing a fascinating snapshot of times when school was all about learning history by rote, teenage girls wore prim gymslips and smart white blouses and school trips didn’t cost hundreds of pounds and involve flying to the Alps for high altitude skiing.
Instead, they were bracing weekends spent under canvas during a storm at a Borders campsite.
The magazines – starting with the 1933 copy with Helen’s history poem through to the 1970s, when articles became altogether far “angrier”, decrying the likes of Mary Whitehouse and debating sex education – were recently delivered to Midlothian Local Studies and Archives office from Glasgow University archives.
They arrived just as the school itself reached the end of its era – now demolished, the final traces of its building are due to be removed from the Newmills Road site by the end of this month.
Just why and how the magazines came to find their way west isn’t clear. All that’s known is that they were originally owned by a woman called Marion Miller, but why she thought them precious enough to carefully store for decades is a mystery.
What is obvious from flicking through the finely edited pages is how each one is a near perfect reflection of the age in which they were produced.
“They are fascinating,” agrees Ken Bogle, archivist at Midlothian Local Studies and Archives in Loanhead. “You can’t help but be struck by the high quality of production of the earlier magazines.
“They are attractively designed, well printed and fine examples of the art of typography. They contain lots of articles about life in the school including reports about sports matches, clubs and societies, short stories and poetry.
“The advertisements for local shops and companies, many long gone, are of great interest.”
Such as the 1930s art deco-style typeface used to urge pupils to head to now long-gone Thornton’s sports equipment shop at 78 Princes Street. And the 1940s adverts which suggested pupils consider furthering their studies at the Edinburgh Wireless College where they could train to be radio officers with the Merchant Navy – perhaps, tragically for some, a brief career.
By the 1970s, another indicator of changing times came in the warning contained in the Royal Bank of Scotland advert calling on school-leavers to open an account with the excited declaration “Your first salary may be a cheque!” and, in 1974, an invite to consider a job with the police, starting salary a whopping £711 a year.
But it is the pupils’ work which is most provocative and impressive.
Take the stirring editorial which launched the “new series” of the magazine in December 1938, which was delighted to report “extra hours of drill . . . and the weekly hour at the playing fields has been warmly welcomed”, followed by an upbeat analysis of the school camp at Tweedsmuir, where games and swimming in pools continued in spite of mist and storms.
The 1940s issues, thinner because of paper shortages, mentioned pupils and staff on active service and even reported on the irritation caused by a Nazi raid over the Forth which deprived the school footballers of a match. Mr D Brown – quite possibly the same man referred to elsewhere in the December 1940 issue as having left to join the war – reflected: “Did not the raid on the Forth deprive us of the opportunity of meeting our worthy foes of West Calder, and of inflicting upon them a defeat of revenge for the previous season?
“While it was no doubt exciting for you to be attempting to shoot goals as a Nazi raider went gyrating downwards to the grave, it was distressing to find as the season advanced our fixtures grow more curtailed.”
Sadly, issues from the 1950s and 60s are missing. However, by the 1970s, it was clear teens at the school had found their political voice in a string of angst-ridden articles on politics and environmental issues alongside dreamy discussions about pop stars such as David Essex and eye-popping revelations about the riotous behaviour of senior pupils.
Philip Leith, whose scathing reflection on Mick Jagger’s abilities accompanied a cartoon drawing of the star in the June 1971 edition of the magazine, was 17 at the time. While today he can’t recall the actual magazine or his drawing, it clearly was no indicator of where he’d later end up in life – these days he’s no less than a professor of law at Queen’s University Belfast.
“Bit embarrassing now from where I sit,” he says. “I was probably just winding up a classmate who saw himself as Dalkeith’s Mick Jagger. It just seems so long ago. It was an age where teachers were frequently the cause of misery – the belt.
“I suppose I was the second tranche of pupils from modest backgrounds to go to university – there were only about three or four of us who did from my year. It’s a very different world now.
“There was a lot of optimism around and youth were more strident about some things.
“I seem to remember a headmaster somewhere in Scotland had refused to teach a teenager for having long hair and his parents sued for reinstatement.
“The case resulted in a ruling that comprehensive schools could not enforce a uniform code, and we all went a bit wild with jeans, long hair and in my final year I had a moustache.”
Way with words
IF only I knew when Elizabeth did reign,
History to me would not be such a pain.
Yet teacher has told me again and again,
Now! When did Elizabeth reign?
I know about Mary, who was Queen of Scots.
And the Long Parliament which meant such a lot.
But all about Elizabeth, I’ve really forgot!
Oh! when did Elizabeth reign?
• By Helen Dunn, age 11, 1933
“From the ranks of former pupils there are already many who have fallen in defence of home and country. We should like to pay individual tribute to these brave men, singling each out for praise, but such a task is beyond our resources. No pen could paint their valour, no words could measure their sacrifice. Let us then pay homage to them collectively and lay the wreath of memory on the tomb of Dalkeith High School’s fallen warriors.”
• February 1945
In my opinion Mary Whitehouse should have her head shot off. Because if it was up to her we would be watching Andy Pandy all day. Or she might even have something against him!
• Mary Pottinger, 1974