Obituary: Johan Fraser Murray Vass, country school headmistress who spent two years of retirement travelling the world

Former headmistress Johan Fraser Murray Vass 
has died at the age of 96
Former headmistress Johan Fraser Murray Vass has died at the age of 96
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Johan Fraser Murray Vass, headmistress. Born: 28 December, 1920 in Bonar Bridge, Sutherland. Died: 25 May, 2017 in Bieldside, Aberdeen, aged 96

Growing up almost a century ago in the remote highlands of Sutherland life was simple and the outlook modest for most. But two crucial strands of the community were to prove hugely influential for Johan Vass and her future success: religion and education.

Johan, known as Joy, attended the Free Church, becoming a Christian at an early age and her thirst for knowledge saw her become the first member of her family to go to university. She went on to teach Latin, raise a family while returning to work and take charge of a country school in the wild beauty not far from her native Bonar Bridge.

In retirement she became known to her family as the Flying Granny – venturing far from her Highland roots and spending virtually two years of her life travelling to locations including Louisiana, Caracas and Trinidad, enjoying the vibrancy of a world she that she had only ever known through reading.

The younger of two daughters to Barbara and Phillip Ross, her parents were both of crofting stock and she arrived into the world to the sound of Gaelic songs sung at her birth. Her father, a joiner to trade, was such a hard-grafting provider that he did not even take Christmas Day off work but as a result the family lived reasonably well while other, less fortunate, locals sometimes went hungry.

Traditional Highland music and singing were very much part of family life and as young woman Joy was a champion Highland dancer and a talented musician who loved the Gaelic language.

In adulthood she often sang metrical psalms, frequently read her Bible and remained a pianist until just a few weeks ago.

Academically bright, she became the Dux of Bonar Bridge School in 1938 and was soon on her way to the University of Edinburgh, fulfilling an ambition denied her father a generation earlier.

A student for much of the war, she vividly recalled the deafening sound of our anti-aircraft guns on the Firth of Forth fighting off the Luftwaffe intent on blitzing Clydebank in March 1941 – all witnessed from a bomb shelter in Bruntsfield.

She graduated with an MA degree, with the emphasis in Latin, in 1941 and completed teacher training a couple of years later.

Her first post was as a Latin teacher at Golspie High School, replacing a male teacher who was serving his country in the Far East.

Before the outbreak of war she had met Bonar Bridge salmon fisherman Andrew “Percy” Vass, who was also away doing his duty. Called up to the Royal Navy in 1941, he saw action on destroyers in the Battle of the Atlantic, with the Arctic convoys and on D-Day.

By Victory in Europe Day in May 1945 he was safely back home, docked in Portsmouth, and proposed to Joy soon afterwards.

But, as the war with Japan continued, her happiness was short-lived when she was given the news that he had been killed at sea. Fortunately the message of his death proved erroneous when he later turned up on her doorstep.

Quite how the confusion arose was never clear but the couple married not long after VJ Day, in August 1945, and had two daughters before the arrival of twin boys, tragically one of whom died just a day old, followed by a third son.

Joy returned to work in the 1950s, becoming a teacher at Rosehall Primary, 12 miles west of Bonar Bridge, and was appointed headmistress there in 1968. She remained in post at the small friendly school, which served a scattered crofting community, until retiring in 1982.

She and Andrew then moved to his family home by the sea at Hilton, Easter Ross but she was widowed just four years later.

With her daughter Barbara’s support she remained at Hilton for another decade but when her younger son Uisdean’s job took him to Louisiana, Venezuela and Brazil, she began her travel odyssey. She spent almost two years visiting him in New Orleans, Caracas and Rio, also taking in Argentina, Canada, Costa Rica, Mexico and Trinidad.

As a woman who profoundly believed in the power of education and was fascinated by knowledge of any type, she relished all these new opportunities to learn and the experience of visiting the New World left a deep impression.

A particular highlight was Uisdean’s wedding in Caracas in 1996, but that happy event was followed the next year by the greatest sorrow – the death of her daughter Kathleen from cancer.

Her last transatlantic trip, a visit to Rio, was made in 2002 but throughout the vast majority of her widowhood she lived with her family, spending several years with her son Andrew in Edinburgh before moving to Deeside with Uisdean, then to Insch with Andrew and to Aboyne with daughter Barbara.

A country woman at heart, throughout her life she had savoured the seasons, particularly in the Highlands, enjoyed nature study, gardens and gardening.

She also had a lifelong love of poetry, especially the 19th century romantic poets. But faith was at her core and just as Gaelic songs had greeted her birth, they, along with the psalms, were sung to her in her final days.

Predeceased by her infant son, husband Andrew and daughter Kathleen, she is survived by daughter Barbara, sons Andrew and Uisdean and an extended family of four generations.

ALISON SHAW