Top author reveals bullying ordeal at Edinburgh private school

BEST-SELLING historical crime novelist C J Sansom has told how bullying at one of Edinburgh's top independent schools drove him to attempted suicide.
George Watson'sGeorge Watson's
George Watson's

The writer described how his “terrible years” at George Watson’s College in the 1950s and 1960s led to him taking a “massive overdose” of his mother’s sleeping pills.

Writing in the Sunday Times he said: “I was there for 10 years, mocked and isolated by the other children while the teachers blamed this on me and sometimes collaborated in it.”

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He said he had been moved to speak out after reading about the case of another Watson’s pupil, known as Kate, whose parents withdrew her after she was bullied.

CJ SansomCJ Sansom
CJ Sansom

Sansom wrote: “So many of Kate’s alleged experiences - the mocking, the exclusion, the taking refuge in the lavatories - mirrored to the last detail my recollections of my own experiences at Watson’s half a century ago.”

Lothian Green MSP Andy Wightman said he had received 25 reports of abuse involving former pupils at the school, most between 1999 and 2017, after he helped to highlight Kate’s case.

Sansom, who started at Watson’s primary school in 1957, said he remembered Watson’s as “more boot camp than school - unless you were academically bright or good at rugby”.

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He wrote: “Those who misbehaved or did badly in class were a nuisance and left to the bullies.

“Some teachers, usually the younger ones, were decent people, looking on me with puzzlement rather than scorn. Others, though, would mock me themselves, knowing it would get a laugh from the boys. One teacher, I remember, got a laugh by describing me as sitting staring into space like a ‘contented cow’.

“By the time I was 14, I was, I now realise, becoming seriously mentally ill: completely isolated, hardly aware of what was being said in the classroom, consumed with rage, plagued by migraines and tormented by thoughts of suicide and burning down the school. There were some compassionate teachers; but, though they tried to help, I was beyond their intervention.”

He walked out of Watson’s as soon as he could legally leave school, at 15, and refused to go back.

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“But the damage was done. Shortly afterwards I took a massive overdose of my mother’s sleeping pills; I was found only just in time.”

He spent a year in a psychiatric hospital, where he said the staff “saved my life, just as I feel my time at Watson’s nearly destroyed it”.

Watson’s principal George Roffe apologised unreservedly to Sansom. He said: “Like any good school, we are constantly looking to update and improve our practices and to learn from the past. We closely guard our responsibility to protect and nurture children.”