Obituary: Eileen McCamley, deputy principal of Edinburgh’s Mary Erskine School

Eileen Rose McCamley, deputy school principal and lecturer. Born: 26 February 1932 in Liverpool. Died: 1 June 2020 in Edinburgh, aged 88.

Eileen McCamley

Eileen McCamley was the indomitable deputy principal of Edinburgh’s Mary Erskine School whose spirit of dedication guided the institution through its initial twinning with Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College.

She arrived at the school during a fraught period when its future was uncertain and subsequently found herself plunged into the planning to merge the historic seats of education. Determined to maintain all that was best about girls’ education, she regarded herself as the custodian of the girls’ school soul.

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But though a staunch supporter of the single sex model for girls, she could also clearly appreciate the advantages of garnering the best of both worlds.

And ultimately her diplomacy, diligence and brilliant intellect, not to mention a huge helping of good sense and humour, all combined to help make the fight for survival and the amalgamation a success.

Greatly admired by both colleagues and pupils, she was still attending school functions almost a quarter of a century after retiring and a mark of the esteem in which she was held was her appointment as honorary president of Mary Erskine Former Pupils Guild, a move which thoroughly delighted the schoolgirl from Knotty Ash.

The daughter of Irish migrants to Liverpool, she was born during the Depression but worked hard in the classroom to win a scholarship to Notre Dame High School for Girls. From there she went to the University of Liverpool, graduating in 1953 with a first class degree in German. The following year she gained a diploma in education with distinction and then began her teaching career as assistant German mistress at Warrington’s High School for Girls.

The 1960s saw her appointed head of the German department at the Liverpool Institute High School for Girls before moving to the city’s CF Mott College of Education as lecturer, then senior lecturer, in German and Teaching Method.

She was also involved there in a team running an advisory service for mature students and, as a fan of the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was most proud of teaching German to the father of the celebrated Liverpool-born conductor Sir Simon Rattle.

She decided to leave the Liverpool college as its future was under threat. Ironically, soon after arriving at Mary Erskine’s in 1973 as assistant head teacher for curricular development, she found the institution in a similar predicament.

The school had been co-founded in 1694 by Mary Erskine and the Company of Merchants of the City of Edinburgh. According to an interview she gave to the school magazine, Miss McCamley determined it would have to fight hard for its survival when she realised change was on the horizon.

The Merchant Company reportedly decided on a radical change resulting in the junior school losing its autonomy when it combined with Daniel Stewart’s and Melville College’s junior school. A merger of the senior schools followed, with one principal in overall charge.

Whatever her personal feelings, she strived assiduously to make it work, deploying tact, a sense of duty and her own wit and humanity in support of three principals over her 19 years at the school.

An outstanding German teacher, in addition to her management responsibilities, she privately nurtured pupils and colleagues and displayed impressive stamina for a miscellany of tasks.

She wrote every university or college admission application reference for school leavers – an onerous undertaking which must have involved many extra hours giving each girl careful consideration. She participated in Christmas pantomimes, displaying star quality and an excellent singing voice, and organised every Founders’ Day and Prize Giving.

She also played host to the Duke of Edinburgh when he opened the school’s new technology centre in 1991. As an ardent Royalist she was delighted to welcome him and thrilled to be invited back, not long after retiral, when the Queen unveiled a Margery Clinton mural in the dining hall in 1994.

Like many dynamic women, retirement did not mean taking things easy: she volunteered at St Peter’s Primary School, where staff had no idea of her position at Mary Erskine’s, and was heavily involved in St Peter’s Catholic Church. She regularly served as reader at daily Mass, shared the duties of sacristan and organised Christian Aid and World Day of Prayer events.

For almost 20 years she was St Peter’s representative on the board of Open Door, Morningside, an ecumenical community centre for the elderly and vulnerable, volunteered one day a week in its coffee shop and, for a time, was the board’s vice chair.

Her pauky wit and enduring faith are the two core characteristics many remember her for, along with an innate kindness and humility. And among her admirers remain countless grateful former pupils who kept in touch down the decades. Almost 25 years after retirement she received a note from one which appealed to her sense of humour: “Dear Miss McCamley, Thanks for teaching me German,” it read. “It was vital when I was in hospital in Munich. Sorry for any offence I caused you.”

She was buried in the family lair in Knotty Ash and is survived by nephews and nieces, one of whom bears her name.

ALISON SHAW

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