Obituary: Iona Cameron, inspirational teacher

Iona McDonald Cameron, schoolteacher: born Keith, Banffshire, 15 April 1933; died Edinburgh, 2 April 2017
Iona McDonald Cameron, schoolteacher: born Keith, Banffshire, 15 April 1933; died Edinburgh, 2 April 2017
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Iona McDonald Cameron, schoolteacher: born Keith, Banffshire, 15 April 1933; died Edinburgh, 2 April 2017

Miss Iona M Cameron, the most senior surviving teacher of James Gillespie’s High School, has died in Edinburgh after a brief illness. Serving at the school from 1968 as Principal Teacher of English, and then from 1972 as an Assistant Head Teacher, she was 83 years old.

Ebullient, grounded and funny, and a native of Keith, Banffshire, Miss Cameron’s career took her by Banff Academy, Aberdeen University and Jordanhill College of Education to her first teaching job at Blairgowrie, Perthshire.

Such were her poise and ability that she was still not 30 when offered the promoted to the post of “Lady Adviser” at the school; she chose instead to relocate to Edinburgh’s Boroughmuir High School, and spurned identical promotion there when she moved to James Gillespie’s High School for Girls, taking over the English department at the age of thirty-four.

The school, then a sought-after “Corporation Grammar,” was an Edinburgh institution and, thanks to former pupil Muriel Spark and her most famous creation, Miss Jean Brodie, is still among the most famous in the world. By the late Sixties, though, it was rather resting on its laurels and increasingly struggled with a rapidly changing society.

On account of her relative youth, Miss Cameron’s appointment was resented by certain colleagues and Miss Cameron had some darkly funny stories of those early years and the fraught politics of Gillespie’s generally, not least of collisions besides with indignant former pupils after she firmly dragged the school magazine away from a format fossilised since the Twenties.

As an Assistant Head Teacher, Miss Cameron’s particular responsibilities included primary-school liaison, “Tutor” to pupils of Roslin House, careers-advice, and command of the Guidance department – which she had effectively founded, and built from the ground up. She took the new non-selective comprehensive order, from August 1973 – and the return of boys to Gillespie’s, after a 44-year hiatus – entirely in generous stride.

Colleagues recall a warm, industrious member of senior management remarkable for her intellect, her diligence, her absolute loyalty to friends and an ebullient sense of humour – to say nothing of an intense love of Scotland. She retired early, at 55, so that a junior AHT with a young family would retain his job – and loved to quote the pompous letter from Lothian Regional Council thanking her for stepping down in the interests of “the greater efficiency of the service”.

Recruited in 2016 to assist with a history of Gillespie’s, Iona Cameron was prevailed upon to make her first visit to the school in over a decade, to the joy of staff who had been pupils in her era. “I took to her immediately,” says current Head Teacher Donald J Macdonald. “She was very calm and struck me as considerate and highly intelligent. I’m so pleased we had opportunity to have her back.”

Erudite, active, and unfailingly funny, Miss Cameron kept in close touch with a host of former pupils from all her schools and in her last autumn cracked how diverting it was that so many were in their seventies. One of her younger charges, author Olga Wojtas, in a June 2015 interview said: “My greatest influence has been my inspirational English teacher at James Gillespie’s High School, Iona Cameron. She gave me a real love of words and books. I still check my grammar and syntax with her – she knows everything. Writing’s a very solitary activity, and there are times when you really need encouragement or you’re just going to sit in a corner and cry.”

“She was certainly the best teacher I ever had,” recalled broadcaster and journalist Edi Stark. “She expected and demanded very high standards and was far from effusive in praise. She introduced us to Scottish poets who were not on the Higher syllabus. Years later, when I interviewed Norman MacCaig, I remembered her excellent insights to his poetry. I owe her a great deal. Mostly, doing a job properly…”

Miss Cameron lost her brother Duncan, her only surviving sibling, last summer, and was visibly shaken by that blow, though she doughtily, in October, attended the official opening of the new school campus and met other venerable colleagues for what, poignantly, proved the last time – a gaggle of redoubtable octogenarians exploring the new corridors at such a lick it was hard to keep up.

She enjoyed Hebridean holidays, spoke always in the highest regard for her great friend, the late Mary McIver (Headmistress from 1967 to 1975) and bought a regular supply of mealworms for the hedgehogs in her garden.

Erudite, urbane and cultured, Iona Cameron never lost connection with her roots – able to the last to break wickedly into pure Doric. One could even finally feel compassion for a certain late and ferocious PE mistress, once Miss Cameron had chuckled in your hearing, “Och… she was awfy hauden doon by her mother.”

Her funeral will in Edinburgh at the Pentland Chapel, Mortonhall Crematorium, on Friday 21 April at 1.30pm.

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