Amid the turbulence of current shocking news headlines, a less contentious occasion has been taking place, but with some pertinence, I think. Saturday 2 October 2021 was the 150th anniversary of the Edinburgh girls' school I attended from 1956-64. Known as a ladies' college, it no longer exists as a distinct entity, having closed its doors in 1974 and merged with its fraternal boys' school. In the process, it lost the modest grant-aided status with affordable fees I had experienced to become one of the most prestigious private mixed schools in the UK, with fees to match.
My father, state-educated in Scotland, and a state school teacher all his working life, latterly a headteacher (called a rector in his time), was unhappy at having his own children as pupils in the school he managed, and so my brothers and myself were educated in Edinburgh.
When the girls' school opened in 1871, it had a male headmaster and women chaperones in every class. From 1902 until 1974, there were four long-serving headmistresses, two of whom were former pupils. Although none became household names like Miss Buss and Miss Beale, heads of the North London Collegiate School for Girls and Cheltenham Ladies' College respectively, their surviving portraits suggest a similarly formidable, single-minded sense of vocation. The third of these died very suddenly at Easter, 1957, during my first year there, creating a devastating sense of loss. The fourth, who presided over the rest of my education, was a physicist, keen to instill a thorough appreciation of science in girls. She was a powerful presence, tall and angular, and named after the illustrious Abbess Hilda of Whitby. As I well remember, she wasn't a woman to mince her words.
A few years ago, the Edinburgh Robert Louis Stevenson Club asked me to propose a toast to the city at their annual lunch. I had august predecessors in the role. What could I say that was different? So I chose to focus on George Square, built in 1766, some years before the more prestigious New Town. It related to Stevenson, because in his final unfinished novel, Weir of Hermiston
, the Edinburgh residence of the tyrannical patriarch and 'hanging judge', Lord Advocate Adam Weir, is in George Square. So it was prestigious enough at the time of the Napoleonic Wars when the book is set.
The girls' school was based on the site of Melville House, the Edinburgh residence of Henry Dundas, 1st Lord Melville, nicknamed 'the uncrowned King of Scotland', now in the spotlight for his gradualist approach to the abolition of slavery. An old print shows the façade of the house, sideways on to the north side of the square and overlooking a private garden. You can see the break between the buildings accommodating the garden in old maps of the city, available in the excellent Edinburgh, Mapping the City
(Birlinn, 2014) by Christopher Fleet and Daniel MacConnell. By the 1870s, that gap has closed. The garden has been excavated, built over and the surrounding buildings repurposed as the girls' school.
In preparing my speech, I did some googling. There was no separate website for the old girls' school. It was subsumed under the name of the present school. Scanning the list of alumni, there was a significant roll call of old boys who had gone on to fame and fortune. Of the girls, there was a literal handful: the first headmistress, Charlotte Ainslie, the writer Rebecca West (Cecily Fairfield), the television and radio presenter Martha Kearney, a sportswoman, and a Conservative MSP. That was it. I was moved to complain. I knew, or knew of, a number of women academics, writers, a lexicographer, musicians and artists who, I believed, should be on that list. It was politely acknowledged and I heard nothing more...
...until last year. Suddenly there was a whole shift of interest. A Facebook page was set up to attract the attention of former pupils. Old girls were invited to put themselves forward for Zoom interviews by current pupils. I did so and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. More than that, one of the archivists later contacted me with the copy of a transcript I had made of an interview I had done in the early 1990s with the writer, Elspeth Davie, who had been a pupil during the inter-war years. It had been found in the National Library of Scotland, where it had presumably been lodged with her papers after she died in 1995. And with the attachment came the inquiry: Did I have any more recorded interviews with former pupils?
As a matter of fact, I did. Back in the 1990s, between professional jobs, bored out of my mind typing in various offices, and preoccupied with helping my foreign husband overcome the culture shock of settling down in Edinburgh, I wanted something different to do. I had been involved in a reminiscence project following up former residents of the Tollcross/ Fountainbridge area of the city, which had resulted in a couple of books. So I conceived the idea of doing a similar project with former pupils of my old school. There was a grant I could apply for, which the school was happy to endorse, and for the next year or so, when I was free, I undertook over 50 interviews with, other than a handful of my own classmates, women who had been pupils from the time of WW1 to the end of WW2. Elspeth Davie, whose writing I admired, was one of them.
At the time, the school left me to my own devices with the project, but when I returned to teaching and had to give it up, they showed no real interest in it. I wasn't even asked to write a report on what I had done. I transcribed, on an Amstrad, a painstaking process, a number of the interviews, and consigned the audio-tapes and other documents, including envelopes filled with wonderful old photographs some of my interviewees had given me, to a drawer, and prepared for them to languish there forgotten.
Which they were – until now. The archivist's excitement is certainly very gratifying. But it has taken a long time for the girls' tradition to receive a genuine degree of visibility. The merging of the two schools had the unfortunate effect of submerging the girls and their teachers within the boys' tradition. Even yet, I gather, a kind of voluntary segregation of the sexes still operates, as my interviewer, a sixth year keen historian with prior experience of an American co-ed high school, was astonished to discover when she arrived.
So I read the headlines, watch the news and wonder: What is happening with girls and boys, and men and women these days? And who is more afraid of whom?
Gillean Somerville-Arjat is a writer and critic based in Edinburgh