Christina Kay

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No 35: Christina Kay

BORN: NORTH BERWICK, 11 JUNE 1878

DIED: MIDHOPE, WEST LOTHIAN, 23 MAY 1951

THE daughter of Mary Ann MacDonald and Alexander Kay, a cabinet maker, led an uneventful life, but one that would inspire one of the great characters of 20th-century literature: Miss Jean Brodie. From the age of five, Christina Kay was a pupil at James Gillespie's School for Girls, where she would later teach. Between 1897 and 1899, she completed her teacher training at the Church of Scotland college in Edinburgh, where her conduct was described as "exemplary". An only child and a devout Christian, Kay was born and lived in the same flat, at 4 Grindlay Street, Edinburgh, almost all her life. Her father died when she was 15, and she lived with her mother, caring for her until her death in 1913.

Kay devoted her life to teaching at Gillespie's. Since in her early years very few women could take degrees, as younger colleagues later could, she remained a "class mistress", without promotion. But she was an inspirational teacher to her classes of 11 and 12-year-olds, sharing with them her passion for the arts. In 192930 they included the young Muriel Camberg (later Spark), whose literary success she predicted. Spark's Curriculum Vitae (1992), vividly recalling Miss Kay, makes it clear that Jean Brodie was based on "that character in search of an author".

Kay would exhilarate her pupils by speaking in "dazzling non-sequiturs" about her foreign travels, particularly to Italy, and the great art she saw there, reproductions of which adorned her schoolroom walls. She admired Mussolini, and a picture of his Fascisti was given wall space. Kay called her entire class the "crme de la crme", but she also had favourites, including Camberg and her friend Frances Niven, whom she took to exhibitions, theatre and ballet. Most of her pupils found her teaching unforgettable.

Kay kept her coming retiral in 1942 secret, but a tribute in the school magazine said that "service like hers must surely be unique". After her death in 1951, she was buried in Abercorn churchyard.

• From The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women (Edinburgh University Press)