Spellbinding times at Heriot's

IT'S SAID to be the inspiration for Harry Potter's Hogwarts, its founder was famous for his "jinglin'" pockets and it's celebrating its 350th anniversary from this term – even though it was founded in 1628.

George Heriot's School is certainly not lacking in character – or characters. It was founded with a bequest by city jeweller George Heriot – known as Jinglin' Geordie – who died, childless, in 1624. Inspired by the Christ's Hospital schools in England which cared for orphans, he left 23,625 10s 3 1/2d sterling, a small fortune in those days, to build a school for the "puir, fitherless bairns" of Edinburgh.

Founded in 1628, it was completed just in time for Oliver Cromwell to occupy it during his invasion of Scotland in 1650. So it was only in 1659 that the first pupils arrived.

Headmaster Alistair Hector said: "We have chosen this date to commemorate our 350th anniversary as this is the date that the school was finally handed over for its intended purpose.

"It was originally a residential school but it changed to resemble something like its current form as a day school as a result of the Education Act in 1886, which also opened the doors for others to come to Heriot's and it became a fee-paying school. The first girls were admitted in the 1970s."

Legend has it that JK Rowling was inspired by the school's architecture while viewing its turrets from the cafes on George IV Bridge where she wrote her first Harry Potter tale.

"We've never had it verified by the author herself," adds Mr Hector. "But she's never come forward to correct it either."

The list of former pupils is spellbinding – including actor Ken Stott, DJ Mark Goodier, rugby players Andy Irvine, Ken Scotland, Iain, Kenny and David Milne, artist Henry Raeburn and Lord Mackay of Clashfern, advocate and ex-Lord Chancellor.

Gavin Esler

Broadcaster and author

"The headmaster while I was there, Dr Dewar, was always regarded in considerable awe. He was actually quite short, but seemed huge in his gown and mortar board.

"I never smoked, but many of my friends did. When I was made a prefect, and Dr Dewar was to retire, I plucked up courage to ask him how he always knew which boys were the smokers and which were not? He laughed and admitted to me that he used a kind of "periscope" which he obtained while watching open golf championships he could literally see round corners or over walls.

"Some of the best moments, and the worst moments, of my time at Heriot's were spent on the rugby field. The best was when we beat . . . well, there are certain schools that you like to beat, aren't there?

"The worst was when it was below freezing, the ground was frosty and I would be standing on the pitch at Goldenacre wondering why I had not taken up some nice warm sport like curling."

Sonya Crawford

Nurse

Sonya was among the first intake of girls to Heriot's in 1979. She lives in Corstorphine with her two children and as a nurse, leads the health care management of pupils in schools across Edinburgh

She says: "I was delighted when my two sisters and I were able to go to Heriot's. I was 15, they were 14 and 12, and our dad Michael Brannan was head of Russian at the school. We'd been to Heriot's many times with him, but we were pleased to be able to attend.

"I vividly recall the school's Founder's Day celebrations when all pupils had to line up in the quadrangle in classes. People used to faint and get taken out.

"At school I really enjoyed sciences, managing to study subjects I wouldn't have been able to take at Dalkeith High School, which I had been attending.

"I have Heriot's to thank for many things, including my love of cycling as I used to cycle to school every day from Dalkeith.

"I made some great friends at Heriot's too, particularly among the boys – there were more of them at the time than girls. I also met my first husband there and we went on to become the first ever Heriot's couple to get married."

Dr Norman Irons

Former Lord Provost of Edinburgh

I attended the school between 1946 to 1959 and when I was there it was an all boys school, with a strict regiment of rugby and the Combined Cadet Force which I loved, of course.

"When I started school, they still had the old wartime air-raid shelters in the yard, but by the time I left the place had changed dramatically.

"In those days, you were expected to jump to your feet whenever the headmaster walked into the room, and the school assemblies were very rigid affairs consisting largely of hymns and readings from the Bible.

"They expected you to learn because, just like today, our parents were paying some quite considerable fees for us to be there, but it was much more egalitarian in those days because we received a grant from the council, which ensured a greater cross-section of society.

"We were helped greatly by the George Heriot's School Foundation, which has always made provision for 'fatherless bairns', which of course there were many more of when I joined the school in 1946 with the number of children made fatherless by the war.

"I am now a governor of the school, so I'm in a unique position to be able to see how the school has changed over the years.

"My son and daughter both attended George Heriot's after me, and I'm very happy to have grandchildren at the school today.

David McLetchie

MSP

"I started Heriot's aged 12 in 1964, having won a scholarship along with three friends from Leith Academy Primary, and left in 1970.

"It was a pretty daunting experience to walk into that imposing building for the first time and sense the history and tradition steeped in every stone.

"It was also unnerving at first to be in a boys-only school having come from a co-educational primary, and one where the boys called each other by their surnames and discipline appeared to be extremely strict. The imposing appearance of the headmaster, William Dewar, affectionately known as "The Dome" because of his bald head, did nothing to dispel this impression. He would cut a swathe through the crowd whenever he appeared in the playground.

"The 60s were, of course, the years of flower power, long hair and revolting students. There was a constant battle between The Dome and boys who went to great lengths to tuck hair behind ears and inside collars to disguise its true length. This rarely fooled Mr Dewar who would dispatch boys to the barbers with dire warnings that they had to be smartened up for the next day's school or incur his further wrath. Current fashion has been for very short hair and I was amused to find that boys in my son James's time at Heriot's, in the 1990s, were warned about having it shaved too short and told to grow it!

"The hair wars not withstanding, Heriot's proved to be the making of me. Not only did I flourish academically and set out on a path for a career in law, but a wide range of sports and other activities were on offer which enhanced my all round education. It was all the many meetings of the school debating society which gave me the skills and confidence to speak in public and parliament in later life.

"Heriot's is one of the great schools of Scotland. I am proud to be one of its former pupils and I know that it does a great job in educating the young people of today (girls now included!). I wish it a happy 350th anniversary and many more decades of excellence to come."

PASSING THE PRESENT TESTS WITH FLYING COLOURS

SO WHAT do the next 350 years hold for Heriot's? Fee-paying schools are facing the double blow of having to prove their charitable status in order to benefit from tax breaks and a recession.

However, headmaster Alistair Hector maintains the school is well set up to handle these challenges.

He said: "Schools are now assessed by the Office of the Scottish Charity Regulator and we were one of the first schools to do the test last year – and I'm happy to say that we passed with flying colours largely through the existence of the George Heriot's School Foundation for children with one parent, as well as the means-tested bursaries and scholarships that we provide.

"The number of inquiries received, applications and the number of children assessed for places is stronger than it has been for a long time, so the recession doesn't show any signs of having a great impact on those who want to come to the school.

"That doesn't mean to say we've been complacent, and we're presently building up resources to help families that may fall on hard times."

TOP OF THE CLASS

Roy Kinnear

Actor

Roy Kinnear, was born in Wigan in 1934, the son of an Edinburgh-born rugby player.

Following his father's death at the age of just 38, Roy's mother took him back to Edinburgh to be closer to family. The star of countless films, from The Three Musketeers to Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, he was a regular visitor to the city until his death in 1988.

Alastair Sim

Actor

Alastair Sim was born on 9 October, 1900. He developed an early interest in languages while learning at George Heriot's, and became the Fulton Lecturer at Edinburgh University, from 1925 until 1930. He became the rector of Edinburgh University in 1948. He went on to create some of the most memorable roles in British films, including a definitive performance as Scrooge in the 1951 A Christmas Carol, and in The Belles of St Trinian's. He died in 1976.

Nigel Tranter

Historian and author

Born in Glasgow on 23 November, 1909, Tranter was educated in George Heriot's, and worked for an Edinburgh insurance company until 1939 when he joined the Royal Artillery.

His first novel Trespass came out in 1937. By the time he became a full-time writer in 1946, he had ten books to his name. He died on 9 January, 2000, at home.

Dr Norman Dott

Neurosurgeon

Dr Norman McOmish Dott was born on 26 August, 1897.

He became one of the most distinguished neurosurgeons in the world. He died in 1973.