Obituary: Dougal Greig, fearless and inspirational founder of Rannoch School

Born: 12 February, 1922, in Leith. Died: 14 January, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 90

Born: 12 February, 1922, in Leith. Died: 14 January, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 90

THERE was never any doubt that Dougal Greig was fearless: legendary tales of his courage abound. Saving stricken wartime pilots from the sea; winning a tussle with a wounded crocodile (subsequently a handbag for his mother); hurtling along at the wheel of an ambulance, his severed finger in a matchbox; lying prostrate in the snow, a human extension to a disappointingly short ski jump.

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All demonstrated his grit and daring, albeit a certain propensity to get himself into the occasional scrape. However, he was also gentle, empathetic, nurturing and kind – a powerful and charismatic mix of qualities that made him the inspirational leader of one of Scotland’s most admired schools.

As a founder and the first headmaster of remote Rannoch School, he oversaw the tutelage of countless boys, fulfilling his dream of offering a holistic education based on the pursuit of all-round excellence.

And though serious illness brought his time at Rannoch to an end after less than a decade, half a century on he is still remembered with deep affection by the “old boys” whose futures he helped to shape.

“When he offered me a place I felt I could belong there,” said one. “That never changed”.

Born in Leith and christened Alexander, Greig was the son of veterinary surgeon John Russell Greig CBE, a director of Edinburgh’s Moredun Institute, and his wife Margaret, daughter of a successful haulier.

He grew up in the family home in Liberton, attending Edinburgh Academy along with his elder brother, Alastair, and was a talented writer from an early age. As a schoolboy he had some poems published and, to avoid playground teasing, used the pseudonym Dougal, a name he went on to adopt permanently.

By the time he left school the Second World War was already under way and he joined the RAF, serving in Air Sea Rescue. As coxswain skipper of a rescue launch, he pulled downed pilots from the bitter North Sea and later from the Atlantic off the coast of Sierra Leone. By nature he was imperturbable and opposed to violence but he served with courage and fortitude.

While stationed in Freetown he braved shark-infested waters to free his propeller and went nocturnal crocodile hunting on the Sierra Leone River, which served as a runway for Sunderland flying boats patrolling the Atlantic. It was full of crocs, a dangerous hazard to locals, and armed with a rifle and searchlight he and his colleague would hunt them down from their launches. On one memorable occasion, with their quarry wounded but still alive, Greig leapt overboard landing up to his knees in mud, and threw a rope round the astonished croc’s jaws before both he and it were dragged back to the boat. In due course, some of the crocodile’s hide made its way back to Edinburgh in the shape of a handbag for his mother.

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After the war, he studied at Oxford University’s Lincoln College, graduating with distinction in politics, philosophy and economics before gaining a teaching qualification at Moray House, Edinburgh.

He taught at Strathallan School and then moved to Altyre house, an annex of Gordonstoun School, 16 miles from the main school buildings. Teaching history, French and running the rugby team allowed his talent for bringing out the best in people to come into its own.It was while at Altyre that the idea for the school that was to be the love of his life was born. He wanted to carve a niche in the educational establishment, a safe and secure place where boys could learn and grow – providing the means for his charges to achieve their potential in the pursuit of the highest standards.

His family money bought remote Dall House on the shores of Loch Rannoch in Perthshire and, together with co-founders Pat Whitworth and John Fleming, he created Rannoch School. The doors opened in September 1959 with 82 boys but, as word spread, pupil numbers rose steadily.

The ethos set by its founders, and especially by Greig, was certainly of academic achievement but it was also one of endeavour, adventure and community. In the early days boys picked stones from the newly created rugby pitch, helped dig the swimming pool and were formed into a loch patrol, mountain rescue team and volunteer fire service. They also survived camping on the side of Schiehallion in plastic bags.

Greig’s interests were purely in his pupils and the school. When he discovered they had made a ski jump that he deemed too short, he lay down in the snow, complete in academic gown, and exhorted them to fly even further over him.

He cared little for material things – striding the corridors in venerable black suit – and his own accommodation was a bedroom in the top turret where the only means of escape in a fire was through the window, via rope tied to the wash-hand basin taps. He once tested the theory with a sack of sand. The taps were yanked out of the basin and the sack, rope and taps plummeted to the ground.

On another occasion, bleeding heavily, he drove himself to hospital in the school ambulance, after losing a finger, thought to be the result of having stuck it in the fire siren while testing the malfunctioning alarm. The recovered digit, transported in a matchbox, was later re-attached.

Affectionately nicknamed The Bat, he cut a striking figure in his billowing black gown and he insisted on standards of dress. He was once caught by surprise, by the arrival of a Rolls-Royce, whilst casually clad and investigating a septic tank. Rather than be seen in such attire, he ordered two boys to salute the passing car while a third dangled him by the ankles over the tank to conceal his presence.

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Despite the energies devoted to Rannoch, he still found time to write. His collection of poems was largely in Scots vernacular – some comic, some serious and moving, many in praise of the natural beauty he saw each day.

Though ill-health forced his early retirement from Rannoch in the late 1960s, it was not the end of his teaching career.

After a period of recovery and a spell in Kenya where his brother was working, he did locum teaching at Edinburgh Academy and various state schools. But he never lost his interest in the “old boys” of Rannoch and they reciprocated.

Many regularly wrote to and visited him, a considerable number attended his funeral while a flood of tributes reflected their admiration and affection for a man who profoundly influenced their lives.

“I feel privileged to have had my formative years under his tutelage and attribute much of my later success in life to my years at Rannoch,” wrote one. “He will live long, and fondly, in my memory”.

Greig, who never married, is survived by three nieces, Anne-Margaret, Fiona and Patricia.