Obituary: George Harvie, teacher

Isobel and George Harvie of Melrose who celebrate their 70th. wedding anniversary on Friday 2.11.2012.
Isobel and George Harvie of Melrose who celebrate their 70th. wedding anniversary on Friday 2.11.2012.
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George Harvie died at West Avenel, Melrose, on 21 March 2017, just over 99 years old. He had been a remarkable gadfly on the liberal education scene, particularly in the 1966-74 years when in charge of the Scottish Teachers Special Recruitment Scheme (TSRS) at the Edinburgh College of Commerce, where he didn’t just back innovation but art from Edward Gage and David Ewans, the “people’s history” of Ian MacDougall, and the music of Neil Butterworth. TV’s original “Mad Scientist” Magnus Pyke was a friend.

George was the son of the office manager of Dalzell Steelworks in Motherwell, but enthusiasm for rugby, singing and theatre meant that he took a third-class MA from Glasgow University.

He bounced back through a varied war as Purser on Clyde evacuation steamers and Captain in the Highland Light Infantry, ending as RAF Flight Lieutenant flying photo-reconnaisance Spitfires. This got him as far as Churchill’s London (his helpful cousin, George Harvie-Watt MP, was the great man’s PPS) but his only trip to Downing Street was for his CO, Herbert Waddell – “the first Grand Slammer” – rooting for more Scots in the Army’s rugby team.

In 1942 he married his Dalzell High School sweetheart Isobel Russell and after air training in Canada, in 1945 turned to teacher training in Glasgow – Jewish refugee kids “taught him” in the Gorbals and he befriended the young Motherwell conductor Alex Gibson. PreFab life near “Babylon Bridge” (Robert Owen’s Orbiston) involved creating a working war memorial, Cleland Park recreation centre, via concerts and propaganda, then he went on to become dominie of St Boswells School, Roxburghshire, 1949-58.

“Bosills” combined Walter Scott’s and Tom Johnston’s Scotlands. George worked for all its folk, from the Ballantyne family – their store the “Fortnums of the Borders” – to workers from the Waverley railway and Charlesfield arms depot, using ideas learned from James Scobbie at Dalziel. Cue extension lectures, library nights, service on the Schools Broadcasting Panel, annual visits by Perth Rep, doing the Statistical Account of a place he’d only just moved to. He broadcast the Coronation to the pensioners in the village hall on Bosills’ only two TVs, chaired candidates’ meetings, founded a drama club which lasted for more than five decades, clashed with a local toff whose dog had injured a wee boy from a needy family and got a new primary school built.

But he wanted secondary school experience so in 1958 went off to teach English at Trinity Academy, Newhaven (in an 1916 annexe “so manky that bairns dropt thru hales in the flerr an surfaced ootside makkin faces in the windaes” – he liked a bit of Doric). His friend Jimmy Russell became an archaeologist and George went to Regent Road Institute, under Bob McLeod, the kernel of Council-run adult education as it expanded into Edinburgh College of Commerce and generated the Teacher’s Special Recruitment Scheme. In a huge 60-person multidisciplinary project in 1971 on The Water of Leith from Pentlands to the docks, his team revived Patrick Geddes’ 
multi-disciplinary ideal.

When the TSRS ended in 1974, as an ecumenical Elder at Greenbank Kirk he joined Catholic Craiglockhart College to teach Primary Education Methods. George’s notebooks show his sympathy for its many Northern Irish students.

He took early retirement in 1980, plunging back into 
Borders activity in Melrose. He was a bass-baritone in the 
Eildon Singers, organiser of Melrose Literary and Music Societies, Liberal Party supporter of David Steel and recorder of 600 videotapes for Tuebingen University and his son Christopher’s British Studies associates Dr Hans Schwarze and Paddy Bort.

With his wife to look after, and selflessly cared for by Wilma Hewitt, he didn’t give in until a 2014 hip injury confined him to bed in Avenel’s front room, with Darnick Tower and Mossilee – “a metre higher than Eildon, you know!” – in view. Plugged into Radio 3, he returned to music. Bruckner, Faure, Elgar and Brahms played him out.

Isobel died in 2014. George was father of Chris, Jane and Steve, grandpa of Ruth, Adam and Alison, great-grandpa to Sasha and Kirsty, and like James Bridie’s utopian “Mr Gillie”, believed teaching was magic.

Unlike Gillie he got the chance, and grabbed it with both hands.

Prof Christopher Harvie