Obituary: Donald Charles King, teacher and Assynt crofter

Donald King: Much-loved Lathallan teacher who brought TV to Clashnessie crofters in the 1960s
Donald King: Much-loved Lathallan teacher who brought TV to Clashnessie crofters in the 1960s
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Born: 21 June, 1925, in Sevenoaks, Kent. Died: 8 January, 2015, in Ullapool, aged 89

When he learned that a new science lab was to bear his name, his reaction was typically self-effacing: “Extraordinary,” was Donald King’s quiet verdict.

To the school where he had spent his entire teaching career it was simply a fitting gesture in recognition of the senior master who had nurtured, with a combination of kindness and the sort of Boys’ Own spirit seldom seen today, the minds of generations of pupils over more than 30 years.

But since he had been retired from his post at Lathallan, one of Scotland’s most spectacular and prestigious schools, for almost as long, it was a move that left the inherently shy history teacher utterly astounded.

Factor in his introduction of the Nuffield Foundation’s innovative science curriculum, early computing courses and a propensity to go off script, digressing on a fascinating variety of subjects, which ultimately held his pupils’ attention more effectively than any dry lesson, and it is much less surprising.

Then there was his model-making, Scalextric track and management of the school’s film shows – introducing action-packed movies like The Cockleshell Heroes, Zulu and Ice Station Zebra – all guaranteed to capture the imagination of small boys.

He did not know it but to them he was the personification of Mr Chips, the shy and retiring public school Classics teacher of James Hilton’s novel who inspired countless youngsters over an enviably long career.

Beyond Lathallan, he built his own house, became a crofter and brought television to the remote Clashnessie community in Sutherland where he was closely involved in establishing the Assynt Crofters’ Trust following the epic fight to purchase the 21,000-acre North Lochinver Estate from a private landlord.

Yet Donald King was born more than 600 miles south, in Sevenoaks, Kent. The son of Frank King, a hairdresser and posticheur, or wig-maker, and his wife Frances, he was the second of their four children. A bright youngster, who would later become a member of MENSA, he won a scholarship to Sevenoaks School where he was a good all-rounder, keen sportsman and head boy.

Growing up as a teenager at the start of the Second World War, not far from RAF Biggin Hill, he witnessed the Battle of Britain being fought out in the skies overhead, an experience that made him determined to become a fighter pilot.

Swayed by the fact that St Andrews University had an air squadron based in Leuchars, he opted to study in Fife and embarked on a physics degree. From there he was posted, aged 19, to South Africa where he trained in Johannesburg, firstly on Tiger Moths and then on Harvard aircraft. The war was won before he could see active service and he ended up as a sergeant pilot, ironically dismantling Spitfires, the aircraft he had most wanted to fly.

In 1946 he returned to St Andrews where he captained the university’s cross-country running club and changed course academically to do a two-year ex-serviceman’s degree in history. He graduated in 1948, at the same time as his future wife, Eileen, a fellow St Andrews student. They both went on to qualify as teachers, doing their education diploma Dundee, and, after a spell working as potato roguers to build up some money, they married in 1950. The couple spent their honeymoon touring the Highlands and Islands in their Morgan three-wheeler and visited Clashnessie for the first time.

That same year, King had secured a post at Lathallan, then a boys’ boarding prep school, which had just moved from Fife to a new site at Brotherton Castle near Johnshaven. He was one of the first masters employed in the new venture and the job came with a house, a converted lodge – an important bonus in the post-war housing crisis.

Originally taken on as a teacher of history, Latin and Scriptures, he also became heavily involved in sport and later introduced the Nuffield Science syllabus as well as bringing the school into the computer age in the 1980s, running courses on Sinclair ZX80s and 81s.

Outside work he helped, for a time, to run the Air Training Corps in Inverbervie.

Meanwhile King, who was a DIY enthusiast, had acquired a turf-roofed ruin of a property in Clashnessie that had been abandoned several years previously. From the late 1960s onwards, he set about demolishing and rebuilding the property, spending the Easter and summer holidays working on the project.

He also brought television to Clashnessie in the 1960s, using his ingenuity to pick up a terrestrial signal via huge reflective panels that he’d had to carry to the top of a cliff. The exercise involved his family – by now he and Eileen had a daughter and son – hanging colour-coded towels out of the windows to indicate when a signal had been picked up.

The success of the venture was witnessed by a gaggle of old men who gathered in the cottage, around a television set lying on its side, to watch a transmission of Andy Pandy.

By the time he and his wife retired north in 1984 they owned the house and had acquired the croft that went with it – which they also later bought – along with 11 Cheviot ewes. He also took up hydroponic cultivation, growing tomatoes in strange spots and at odd times of the year, and thoroughly enjoyed the outdoor life, fishing and hillwalking.

During this period a campaign within the community, to enable crofters to own the land they had lived and worked upon, was gaining momentum.

Many of the locals’ ancestors had been cleared from the land by feudal landlords and attempts were being made to raise funds to buy the North Lochinver Estate. King became involved on the steering committee of representatives of the local townships who negotiated the tenant buy-out.

The historic deal was successfully completed at the third attempt, in December 1992, and thereafter King went on to serve for a short time on the Assynt Crofters’ Trust’s board of directors.

He continued to have some project or another perpetually on the go but latterly became increasingly incapacitated, though he remained an ingenious lateral thinker, one who encouraged others to do the things of which they dreamed and who maintained there is no such word as “can’t”.

Over the years his former pupils continued to visit him and he was delighted to hear of the forthcoming new science centre at Lathallan, where a laboratory will be named after him, and of the school’s progress in the field of science, the teaching of which he had revolutionised there. As a mark of the respect and fondness in which he is still held, a memorial service is planned for him at Lathallan on 29 August.

He is survived by his wife, daughter Pamela and son Alistair.