Elizabeth Langlands

Elizabeth Cameron Langlands, school founder and headmistress

Born: 1917, in Glasgow

Died: 16 October, 2002

ELIZABETH Langlands is remembered by many as a remarkable and inspiring teacher, particularly of English literature. Yet she became that almost by chance, without any professional training.

She was born in Glasgow, the eldest of three children. Her father, M Graham Brash, worked in India, where he built up a successful business as agent for London publishers and bookseller. Elizabeth had vivid early memories of India, though the children returned to Scotland with their mother and were brought up in and around Glasgow. Both parents were musical, and music played a large part in Elizabeth’s life.

She was educated at Park School and the University of St Andrews, to which she felt always an intense loyalty. It was there she met her future husband, Robert Langlands; and it was a great pleasure to both that three of their grandchildren became graduates of that university. She worked briefly in publishing in London and in December 1939 married Robert, just after the outbreak of the Second World War. He had already been commissioned in the Royal Scots. So she spent the war years as an army wife and mother, four of their five children being born between November 1940 and 1945. They bought a house in Elie, where she had spent childhood holidays. She loved the beach and the sea, in which she swam enthusiastically, no matter the weather or indeed the season.

In 1947 they bought Drumtochty Castle in Kincardineshire and started a preparatory school for boys. This was a bold venture, and very soon proved a successful one. Elizabeth taught English, Latin and Greek, mostly to senior classes: her enthusiasm and her inability to suppose that what she liked might be above the heads of her pupils made her a marvellous teacher of clever boys.

After a couple of years in her class, a boy was likely to have read, and come to understand and appreciate, eight or ten Shakespeare plays, and to have acquired a grounding in the history of English poetry. She herself knew much of Palgrave’s Golden Treasury by heart. Those who were taught by her up to the age of 13 are amazed when they hear teachers suggest Shakespeare is too difficult for pupils three or four years older than that. Her own pupils regularly won scholarships to leading public schools.

She also produced plays with great gusto and on Sunday evenings throughout the winter put on programmes of classical music on gramophone records. There are many who owe their musical education to these evenings.

Neither Robert nor Elizabeth was businesslike, and Drumtochty was engulfed by financial troubles and had to close in 1971. The much-loved house in Elie was sold to pay the school’s debts. This could have been avoided; both would have thought such a course dishonourable. This destruction of their life’s work provoked neither to self-pity, though Robert was now 61and Elizabeth 54. Instead, they set themselves to make a new start.

After a year teaching at a prep school in Derbyshire, Elizabeth was appointed headmistress of Butterstone House School for Girls in Perthshire. She met this challenge with enthusiasm and remarkable energy. The school flourished. Numbers more than doubled. At Drumtochty, she had mostly taught only the brightest pupils. At Butterstone, she displayed the same commitment to girls of all levels of ability, interesting herself in every aspect of school life.

One of her colleagues has spoken of her "great determination and ability to make sure that every girl reached her potential, as well as maintaining enthusiasm and high standards in every staff member". She demanded much of them indeed, but never more than she gave herself. For 14 years the school was her life, and when she retired, a few months after her 70th birthday, it was with great reluctance.

Her zest for life remained undimmed. Robert and she now moved to the Borders to be near other members of the family, and she took the same interest in her grandchildren and in her great-grandchildren, as she had in those she had taught.

Elizabeth was incapable of cynicism, was always optimistic. Her sense of style and of occasion added greatly to her natural charm as did her obvious delight in frivolity and good company. She loved greatly: books, music, art, landscape, the sea, and all weather; she loved animals and flowers, and managed always to find joy in the little details of her life.

Her marriage lasted more than 60 years and was a remarkable partnership, each depending absolutely on the other. She never fully recovered from Robert’s death in May 2000; the sudden death of their only son, David, a few weeks later was a further sore blow. She leaves four daughters, Elspeth, Flora, Alison and Finella.

A memorial service of thanksgiving for her life will be held in Greyfriars Kirk, Edinburgh, at 12.30 on Friday, 29 November.