Obituary: Alexander (Sandy) Pirie MBE, educational pioneer

Alexander (Sandy) James Pirrie, educational pioneer was a founding father figure for Livingston New Town. Picture: Contributed
Alexander (Sandy) James Pirrie, educational pioneer was a founding father figure for Livingston New Town. Picture: Contributed
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Born 4 January 1927, Murtle, Aberdeenshire; Died 3 April 2016, Laurencekirk; aged 89.

Sandy Pirie was born at the family home, Hilton Farm, Murtle the first of two sons to Alexander and Maud, brother Keith arrived eight years later. A son of the farm he was educated at Cults Primary School and then at Robert Gordon’s College, where he participated in both rugby and hockey on the sportsfields at Seafield with, in his own words, “keenness and enthusiasm but without displaying any natural aptitude or skill”.

His progression was then to Kings College at the University of Aberdeen where he gained an MA Honours degree in English and History from whence a career in teaching lay awaiting, but not before a spell of National Service took him to Africa for two years where he saw service with the Royal Berkshire Regiment fighting bandits in post Second World War Ethiopia. Restored to civi’ street in 1950 he undertook his professional training at Woolmanhill Teacher Training College in Aberdeen before heading northwards to Macduff where he taught for two years in the town’s secondary school.

Promotion initially as a special assistant and thence to principal teacher of history saw him drawn southwards to Blairgowrie where he served for eleven years. It was whilst here that in 1959 he married his lifelong sweetheart Alexina (Rena) Silver. The two had known each other most of their lives, their mothers having been lifelong friends. Marriage saw Rena give up her post at Aberdeen’s Woolwich Building Society to take up her role of managing Sandy’s diary, as a latter day personal assistant; manager; and consort.

Outwith the curriculum Sandy was a committed and enthusiastic amateur thespian more drawn towards production and direction than to performing himself. At Blairgowrie he succeeded in establishing a very successful drama culture in the school which lasted well beyond his tenure there. In the early sixties he was lured northwards as Head of History to Elgin Academy where he remained for five years before finally severing his connections with his own native north east, but not before leaving his mark on the town. His dramatic prowess became known to members of the then failing Elgin Operatic Society and (with Rena’s support) he was ‘persuaded’ to take the chairmanship and mastermind the rebirth of the group, a task which he completed with great relish, leaving it in a very prosperous and healthy state.

In early 1969 Sandy became the last of that generation of headteachers to be appointed direct from the rank of principal teacher when he was appointed to Craigshill High School in Livingston New Town, which in those far off, pre Regionalisation days, lay partly in the old county of Midlothian. This was to be a steep learning curve for Sandy. The school opened it’s doors in June 1969 with 120 pupils and ten staff in ample spacious surroundings, five years later when it was bursting at the seams with 1,500+ pupils (and a staff team of over120) housed in temporary hutted accommodation in the grounds and requesitioned car parks it was a very different scenario.

Undaunted and seemingly unperturbed Sandy had set about assembling a team capable of facing the challenge and succeeded in creating an innovative school that gained an exceptional reputation as a centre of excellence for pupils as well as meeting the needs of the community with a huge number of night classes.

Sandy and Rena took an active role in their cultivation, particularly the Livingston Arts Association that was established in Howden House in 1973. Under his chairmanship the organisation grew and in partnership with the former Livingston Development Corporation saw the Howden Park Centre created from the former Howden Farm Steading.

Over time the facility has morphed into the magnificent Howden Park Centre & Theatre which now features on the major touring theatrical circuit.

Community development and service was always a personal goal for Sandy and in 1974 he became the Founder President of the Rotary Club of Livingston before going on to hold national office with Rotary International in Britain and Ireland where he served as District Governor for Southern Scotland in 1989/1990.

Away from the “day job” Sandy’s main love was his garden. He and Rena had built their own home in a woodland setting to the north of the new town and it was to there that, with spade in hand and flask and ‘piece box’ to sustain him, he quite literally created a tableau to compliment the building and its setting.

A staunch man of faith all his days Sandy became a Kirk Elder whilst resident in Blairgowrie and then Session Clerk of the Livingston Ecumenical Experiment at St Columba’s Kirk in Craigshill, which was pioneered by the Rev Dr Jim Maitland. During this period Sandy also served as a delegate to the Kirk’s West Lothian Presbytery before uniquely becoming the first ever Lay Member to hold the office of Convenor of The Presbytery of West Lothian. He has also served on a number of occasions as a delegate to the General Assembly on the Kirk.

Sandy’s service to his community was only formally recognised latterly.

West Lothian Council honoured him with a Livingston 50 th Anniversary Founding Figures Award at a civic reception in 2012. National recognition followed with the award of an MBE in the 2015 New Year’s Honours List.

Sandy and Rena lived quietly in the home they created in their adoptive home town of Livingston, until Rena’s passing last summer. Shortly thereafter Sandy returned to his native north east to be near his extended family and it was with them that he died on Sunday 3 April 2016. Sandy is survived by his brother Keith his wife Isobel and their sons Graham and David.