Obituary: Martha Hamilton, OBE, former headmistress

'Never a dull moment' with this visionary and much-loved school head. Picture: Contributed
'Never a dull moment' with this visionary and much-loved school head. Picture: Contributed
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BORN: 12 May, 1929, in Edinburgh. Died: 3 March, 2015, in Fife, aged 85.

Martha Hamilton was the longest serving headmistress of St Leonards School in St Andrews (1970-88) and was an educationist of the highest standard with a canny foresight and an ability to explore modern disciplines, thus ensuring the school became an acknowledged centre of education.

St Leonards positively flourished under her stewardship and she introduced novel activities and outings alongside debates and cultural visits. When she retired, a farewell supper was organised in the school hall and Hamilton was presented with a painting by Elizabeth Blackadder. Betsy Lyons, who had taught there for 36 years, gave an address which began: “We are here to give praise for a human dynamo: someone who in each and every aspect of life of the school was so vital, whose eye for detail so amazing and yet whose interest in all of us as individuals was so warm.”

Martha Hamilton came from a distinguished family. Her father, John Hamilton, was a minister from Northern Ireland and her mother, the Hon Lilias Maclay, a doctor. She was the grand-daughter of Lord Maclay, founder of the Maclay-Macintyre shipping firm and a member of the War Cabinet in 1918.

She attended St Denis School in Edinburgh, St Columba’s School in Kilmacolm and then Roedean in Brighton. In 1942, she read history at St Andrews University and gained a Diploma of Education at Cambridge University.

In 1953, she taught at Lansdowne House in Edinburgh before serving as a missionary in India, where she was principal of Paljor Namgyal at Gantok, the capital of Sikkim. The school had 750 pupils and Hamilton learnt Nepali. Her work in India was acknowledged in 1966 when she was awarded the Pema Dorji prize for her “services to education” in Sikkim.

In 1966, Hamilton returned to Edinburgh to care for her father and completed a Diploma in Adult Education at Edinburgh University. She applied for the post of headmistress of St Leonards in 1970 and her appointment was to prove inspired.

Hamilton devoted her energies to broadening the school’s syllabus and inaugurated prudent commercial schemes (such as the Bursary Fund) that stabilised the financial situation, improved the school’s sporting facilities (such as new squash courts) and increased the many cultural activities. Long-standing traditions were modernised and more suitable accommodation was built for senior boarders.

“My four daughters greatly benefited from Martha’s time as headmistress,” Eileen Waddell told The Scotsman yesterday. Her late husband, Robin Waddell, served as a governor and Mrs Waddell confirmed Hamilton’s gracious enthusiasm for St Leonards.

“Martha brought the school into the 20th century. She had a photo of every girl in the school and knew them all by their first names. She had flair and presented a wonderfully humane attitude: she wanted each girl to achieve their personal potential. Respect. Admiration. Affection. That is how I remember Martha.”

Her commitment to the school remained a paramount factor all her life: she served as a vice-president of the school’s committee and was involved in numerous other important educational institutions.

Hamilton was a member of the task force set up to examine the under-achievement in schools in Scotland (1996), served on the court of directors of the Edinburgh Academy and was a governor of the new school at Butterstone, Dunkeld. She was much involved with celebrating the centenary of admitting female students at St Andrews University.

She was a tall, imposing lady with a powerful presence. She was also relaxed and blessed with an informal manner. Her letters to parents often concluded with a few light-hearted jokes and when Princess Alexandra opened the new music rooms, Hamilton introduced a somewhat startled young girl as: “This is our double bass.” Throughout the school, she was known affectionately as “Martha” and her enthusiasm and joyous energy were infectious. Many more sixth formers gained places at universities, and in the year she retired, she saw the opening of a new biology centre and careers department and greatly advanced the teaching of technology. In 1977, St Leonards celebrated its centenary, which Hamilton managed with typical zest and style. The highlight came when the Queen Mother opened the junior library in the vaults of Queen Mary’s Library.

Mary James, who succeeded Hamilton, was fulsome in recognising Hamilton’s achievements. “Her own appearance was a signal. Always elegant and dashing in what she wore, Martha threw herself into the life of the school and set a fast pace. Her leadership was a cavalry charge and there was never a dull moment… She never doubted her leadership role and responsibility, and she carried them with distinction.”

Hamilton married in 1977 the distinguished Edinburgh architect Robert Steedman, who had designed the new music rooms. Hamilton is survived by her husband and three step-children.