Obituary: James Rainy Brown, school master

Born: 6 June, 1937. Died: 29 April, 2013, in Edinburgh, aged 75

James Rainy Brown. Picture: Contributed
James Rainy Brown. Picture: Contributed

Every so often in the life of a school there is a teacher who has the natural gift to inspire and influence the lives of its pupils over several generations. James Rainy Brown, or “JRB” as he was known to staff, pupils, parents and friends, was one of these rare and gifted schoolmasters.

One of a family of five boys all educated at Merchiston Castle School in Edinburgh, James was an outstanding all-rounder, playing for the 1st XV, captaining the athletics team, leading the Combined Cadet Force and winning the school art prize. He studied physics at Edinburgh University and was a keen member of the university athletics and cross country teams.

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In 1960, he returned to teach at his old school, taking up the post of house tutor in the junior house where he made an immediate impact with his enthusiasm and energy inside and outside the classroom, being actively involved in so many areas of school life.

He combined teaching physics, chemistry and mathematics with coaching rugby, athletics and cross-country, as well as being editor of the Merchistonian, and in 1963 he set up the school’s mountaineering vlub.

His prowess on the hills was legendary and his long, springy strides left his companions envious and occasionally breathless. His love of the outdoors was infectious and he had the gift to make the boys’ expeditions exciting and enjoyable in all weathers.

In 1967, James was given the task of starting up a new venture which was Merchiston’s Pringle House for junior boys under 13. He leapt at this opportunity and his skills and dedication as a housemaster ensured that the younger boys joined a caring environment in which they could rapidly make friends, settle down and gain confidence.

He had a remarkable ability to see each boy as an individual, to find out what they enjoyed, and then to share that enjoyment with them. In that way he helped them to cope with problems in both life and school.

A former pupil recalled that there was no time for boredom in his house – his spontaneity and energy when time lagged ensured that there would be an expedition into town or an adventure into the countryside.

Pringle House thrived and expanded under JRB’s leadership, adding new buildings and more facilities, underpinning the school’s successful growth. In 1994 he handed over his housemaster responsibilities and continued to look after the Pringle outdoor pursuits in addition to his teaching and coaching work.

In addition to the long standing Pringle camps at Blakerston, James had a deep love for the Western Isles and each year he would take a party of boys to the privately owned island of Ru’a Fiola where they would learn to climb, abseil and kayak in an unspoilt wilderness.

He had an ambition to visit all of the inhabited and uninhabited Western Isles and his idea of relaxation also included being stormbound for two weeks on St Kilda with some of his braver teaching colleagues.

A keen and gifted landscape artist, James used what little spare time he had in the school holidays to paint in the Scottish countryside and many of his friends and colleagues have been grateful recipients of that talent.

Another of James’s great passions was care for the heritage of Merchiston. He was deeply knowledgeable about the history of the school and the move from Merchiston to Colinton in 1930.

Also, as one would expect from an artist, the aesthetics and how Merchiston looked and appeared to one and all were rightly very important to James. Hence with others, he tended the campus like a shepherd over his flock and the tree-planting programme was all about preserving Merchiston for the boys of tomorrow.

Above all, James will be remembered for his commitment, integrity and loyalty to his school. The high standards he expected were always applied first to himself.

He leaves behind three brothers, nieces and nephews and a host of admiring and grateful former pupils, parents and friends, so many of whom felt the better for having known him.