A Glass of Retsina

an account of my first 18 years

Andrew Colin



Many autobiographical notes start with apologies or excuses.


“The writer was urged by his dear friends to note down some of his fascinating experiences.”


“The writer felt he was making a significant contribution to the historical record.”


I offer no such explanation. I wrote this memoir simply because I like writing. Autobiography must be one of the easiest forms of literature, since the characters, the story and the various episodes are already there in your mind.


The two most interesting things in life are Sex and Death.  Since this memoir deals only peripherally with either of these topics, expect it to be of merely minor interest, and read at your own risk!


The title marks my first grown-up act, when I was no longer under discipline as a child, but could choose what to do for myself.


The photographs of Wester Elchies and Aberlour House were kindly provided by the Gordonstoun Archive, and copyright remains with them.


I would like to thank my wife Veronica for proof-reading the text and suggesting the title.




1          My Family

2          Birth

3          Evacuation to Canada

4          Jamaica

5          Journey back to wartime England

6          Transition

7          La Soleillette

8          Wester Elchies

9          Aberlour House

10        Gordonstoun School

11        Laverock Bank

12        Dunkinty

13        Cumming House

14        Duffus House

15        Cephalonia 1954


Appendix 1:  My mother’s account of leaving Russia


1.      My Family


My father Andrew was born in 1892, in St. Petersburg.  His father – my grandfather -  was a railway engineer at the top of his profession. His company built 2000 kilometres of the Trans-Siberian Railway.  He also worked for the Russian Admiralty, and ran a factory that made heavy guns for cruisers.  He died young, of meningitis, some twenty years before I was born.



My father (right) with brother

Vladimir and sister Nina



The family name was Guershoon – a Russian Jewish name.  The family had converted to the Russian Orthodox faith some time in the nineteenth century, whether as an act of piety or of expediency, I cannot say.  At that time (as now) there was a strong element of anti-Semitism in Russia, but its basis was religious rather than racial. There was little discrimination against Jews who converted to Christianity.


My father adored his school, and did exceptionally well. He then went on to study law at university.


When he was still a student, his old headmaster, Mr. Brok, arranged for him to tutor a boy, Kima Moës, who was weak in Mathematics.  The boy’s family spent the summer on their estate at Krynki, and it was there that my father first met the boy’s younger sister, Vera, who was to become my mother.


When he was qualified, my father once defended a man accused of stealing a samovar. He cross-examined the witnesses and showed that their evidence was contradictory and added up to nothing. He fully expected to win the case.  Just before announcing the verdict, the judge asked the accused,


            “Have you anything to say?”


The man fell to his knees, crossed himself vigorously, and said,


            “By the Holy Mother of God, I confess! I did steal the samovar.”


Sadly, my father’s legal career in Russia was cut short by the war and the revolution which followed.


St. Petersburg at that time was blighted by the presence of Rasputin, the rascally monk who had an overwhelming malign influence over the Tsar’s family. The youngest prince suffered from haemophilia, and they believed, quite irrationally, that Rasputin was the only man capable of curing it.


One day my father was having dinner with a girl in a fine restaurant, when suddenly Rasputin barged in, accompanied by his gang of toughs and whores. All were drunk.  Rasputin demanded that everyone else should leave, and created a great disturbance.


The owner called the police, but they did not dare to do anything. They referred the problem back to the St. Petersburg Chief of Police, who was also too scared to take any action. Finally they contacted the Minister of the Interior, who personally gave the order to remove Rasputin and his cronies.  The next day the Minister was thrown out of the Government.  


Then the war with Germany started, and my father was called up for officer training in the army. He remembers ordinary recruits, peasant boys, who had never learned to distinguish left from right.  The sergeant made each of them tie a bundle of hay to their right leg, and a bundle of oats to the left. Then he would shout orders:


“Quick march! Oats! Hay! Oats Hay …”


In 1916 Rasputin was murdered (much to everyone’s relief), the Tsar stepped down, and a young politician called Kerensky became head of a democratic government.


My father was still in training when the revolution started soon after. He was a supporter of Kerensky, and watched with dismay as the Duma (the Russian Parliament) was invaded by Bolsheviks with guns and broken up.  Eventually he found himself fighting with the ‘White’ army who were doing their best to stop the Bolsheviks. He has told me very little about this period, but I believe the fighting was savage – no prisoners on either side.


About this time my father’s parents divorced and his mother re-married. My father loathed her new husband, and called him “Tarakan” (The Russian for “Cockroach”). The marriage did not endure, since Tarakan was more interested in little girls ….


For a while my father served as an interpreter with a British Expeditionary Force which was trying to help the Whites to no avail.


When the Whites were finally defeated my father found himself in Odessa. Since he had been a White army officer, the Bolsheviks had him on a list of wanted people, and he had to live in hiding. He only ventured out at night, and made his living by playing the piano to accompany films at a cinema.


Eventually he was caught and sentenced to death, but he managed to escape with the help of the prison doctor. He got a job as a stoker on a British ship, and landed in Britain with only his pay (one shilling) in his pocket.


At first times were very hard, but with his excellent knowledge of English and several other European languages, he soon found employment in the watch and clock import trade.  A little later he founded his own firm (Andrew and Co.)  which employed some thirty people, and provided the family with a good income.


Although he proved to be successful in business, he was an intellectual at heart. He had a passionate love for Russian literature (specially Chekhov) and gave talks and wrote articles on this subject. In 1933 he earned a PhD in Russian Literature from London University. His thesis was a collection of Russian proverbs, which is still available in book form.


After the war, while still running his business, he spent two days a week teaching Russian to officers at the Greenwich Naval College. He is still remembered by some of his pupils there.


My father’s health was damaged by the typhus he had caught while on military service.  He suffered from heart problems and died in 1957, aged only 65.


My mother, Vera, was born in St. Petersburg in 1902, into a wealthy family called Moës. This is a Dutch name - the Amsterdam phone book is full of Moës – and the family traced its descent from a line of Dutch protestant pastors.  Her father had the rank of “Tsarskii Sovetnik” (this means – roughly – “King’s Counsellor”) but this was a sinecure. My mother never spoke of her father doing anything useful.


My mother’s mother, Clara, was a woman of great beauty, which she retained well into old age.



Clara Moës


My mother had two brothers  Kima, who died aged 18, and Yura (George).


As a child my mother was extraordinarily sensitive, and suffered excessively. There is a Russian Nursery rhyme, in which a fierce bear sings


Toopatoo, Toopatoo,

Ya na svad’bu idoo!


(Toopatoo, Toopatoo, I’m on the way to a wedding!)


Someone told the little girl that when she pulled the plug in the lavatory this bear would come up the pipe and eat her up, and for years she feared this would happen every time she went. She pulled and ran for her life!


Once an unkind governess told Vera she was ugly and would never marry, and she believed this for a long time.


The family was based in St. Petersburg, but would spend the summer months at their estate in Krynki, which is now in Belarus.  It was huge, with fields and woods, a peasant village, and a fine mansion at the centre.  It was also the first estate in Russia to have electricity in all the houses.


My mother, with her brothers and cousins would run wild, exploring the forest, picking mushrooms and galloping over the fields on horseback.  One day the four boys set up a competition to see who could pee the furthest, and my mother was made the referee.


Family life was not happy; there was a lot of friction between my mother’s parents. There was a row at almost every meal, and my mother would run out in tears.


Vera’s mother neglected to buy her daughter clothes, and she had to wear old things that did not fit well. One day her father took her to a smart shop and bought her a new outfit. This infuriated her mother and led to another family row.


When she was about 12, this young man called Andrew Guershoon came to tutor her elder brother in Mathematics, Latin and Greek. My mother says she fell in love with him then, and never had any eyes for any other man.


Shortly before the revolution, my mother saw Lenin making a speech from a balcony in St. Petersburg.  He was shouting the slogan “Steal anything stolen!” There was such a crowd that my mother found all the buttons on her coat had been ripped off.


By the time the revolution started, my mother’s parents had divorced. My mother was alone at the estate with her mother and brothers.  One day the Bolsheviks took over the estate. A few days later a faithful retainer came with a warning:


            “The Bolsheviks are thinking of shooting you!”[1]


They threw a few things into a suitcase and caught a series of trains to Riga. Once they found themselves in a compartment with a woman and her teenage son. On the way the train stopped and Bolshevik troops came through, searching for possible enemies. They picked on the boy and dragged him out on to the track.  As the train started again, they heard shots. My mother could never forget the woman’s agonised screams.


Once in Riga, life proved hard. Kima joined the White Army, and died of tuberculosis. There was starvation, and a couple of rotten potatoes constituted a treasure.  Only the (Red) army seemed well supplied. Every morning a cart loaded with newly-baked loaves made its way from the bakery to the barracks. It was followed by a mass of children, each one hoping to pick up a loaf that fell off, and sometimes my mother and her brother were lucky enough to get one.


Eventually, when the war ended, all three managed to reach Berlin. Vera’s mother married again, and her younger brother was sent to a boarding school.  Vera was left to fend for herself.


The family connection with Siemens, the electrical firm who had installed power at the estate, proved useful.  They gave my mother a job. The work was extraordinarily dull – just typing lists of machine parts – but it paid the rent,



My mother in her youth


My mother shared a room with another girl. Apart from using the kettle they were forbidden to cook, so they used to boil spaghetti in the kettle and pour it out through the nozzle.



German banknote dated 1923

My mother remembered the time of hyper-inflation, when prices for normal goods would be raised every few hours, and rich people became paupers almost overnight.  She managed to survive because Siemens paid their staff in their own private money, which you could spend in shops within the factory.  My mother managed to negotiate a rent in kind – two kilos of butter a week.



A Siemens note


All this time my mother and father had remained in contact by letter, and as soon as he could, my father went to Germany, married my mother and brought her back to London.[2]




My parents on holiday in Switzerland

2.      Birth


Up to the time they were married, both my parents had lived eventful and often tragic lives. In contrast, I have been extraordinarily lucky. I belong to a generation that has never had to fight in a war; shops have always been stocked with food, and I have always had enough money to buy it. My parents loved each other greatly and their marriage was solid throughout their lives.  My health is good, and I have had the great good fortune to be happily married for 47 years (so far).   For all this I am extremely grateful; but the narrative that follows is not nearly as interesting as these brief accounts of my parents’ lives.


I was born in 1936, during the shortest night of the year – June 22nd, and christened at St. Stephen’s Church, Rosslyn Hill, some four months later.  It was the brief reign of Edward VIII, and there were no computers, no internet or world-wide web, no antibiotics, no television, no records lasting more than five minutes, and air travel was the preserve of the very rich, Trains were pulled by splendid steam locomotives belching sooty smoke, and traffic jams in cities were just beginning.



The Flying Scotsman


In Germany Hitler had secured the support of almost the whole nation, and his plans to conquer Europe and exterminate the Jews were well advanced.  In Russia, Stalin ruled with unimaginable cruelty, building an industrial nation based on the forced labour of millions of slaves.


I had two elder sisters. Marina was aged nine when I was born, and Lydia, seven.


Marina already showed all the signs of being a talented artist, and while still at school she became an expert on Renaissance Art.  She also studied music, obtained a GRSM degree, and became a music teacher.


Sadly she suffered a serious nervous breakdown while still young. She never recovered, and was unable to work for the rest of her life.  She lived at home with my mother until her early death, aged only 54.


Lydia was also good at art, but went to Cambridge and studied Russian. She eventually married an Italian doctor, and now lives in Rome. Like me, she has children and grandchildren.


I have used some of Lydia’s and Marina’s drawings to illustrate this memoir.


The language spoken at home was Russian, so I grew up bilingual. Unlike Lydia, I have made very little use of my Russian and have never visited Russia. There’s still time to go!


Of the fateful events that led up to the war, I remember nothing. 



3.      Earliest Memories – Evacuation to Canada


The war with Germany began when I was three. My father put a bottle of champagne in a cupboard, and declared that we would drink it the day the war was won.


No part of Britain was considered safe, so my father sent the whole family away to Canada.  He himself stayed behind in London. At 47, he was already too old for military service, but he put his extensive knowledge of languages to use by joining the Censorship. He was to spend the whole of the war in various places, reading letters in some twelve different languages.


About this time my father changed the family name to Colin, while keeping the name Guershoon-Colin for himself.  There were real fears that the Nazis might invade Britain, and they would have murdered anyone with a Jewish-sounding name.


My first real memories are of the voyage to Canada in 1940. We arrived at Liverpool only to finds that the departure of the ship was delayed. We waited in a vast dimly-lit shed, hour by hour, far into the night.  All around were family groups sitting on piles of luggage.


Eventually we were allowed on board and the ship sailed. I’m told that I was very seasick the first few days.  I don’t remember this, but clear in my mind is the time I was well enough to sit on deck, warmly wrapped up, as a steward brought round bowls of broth to sustain recovering sufferers.





We stayed in Montreal for a year and a half.  We lived in a flat several floors up. In winter it was so cold that we used to fill balloons with water and hang them outside the window, and in the morning we’d peel off the rubber to find perfect spheres of ice.


The climate was similar to that my mother had known in Russia as a child, and she loved it; she certainly knew what clothes to buy and we never felt cold, even in the depths of winter.


I was sent to three different schools. The first was unsatisfactory, and I was removed after only three weeks. The second one lasted for a year, but was a ‘kindergarten’. We were taught songs and generally kept happy, but there was no real study.


Just before we left Canada my mother moved me to a ‘big’ school which catered for children up to 18. I was of course in the bottom class where we were still not taught anything.  Half-way through the morning the various forms were sent to the lavatory in strict rotation. One day I missed my turn and had to go later. I remember being terrified as I had to push for a place at the urinal, only to be jostled aside by much bigger boys.


My fifth birthday occurred in Canada. I remember it well because it was on that day, June 22nd 1941, that Hitler attacked Russia. This was an obvious mistake on his part, since there was a ‘non-aggression’ pact between Germany and Russia, and the Nazis would now have to run the war simultaneously on two fronts. Like Napoleon, Hitler reckoned that Russia would be a push-over, and, like Napoleon, he was mistaken. This rash act changed the balance of power and ultimately led to the Allied Victory. Of course I didn’t understand this at the time, but I remember the sense of excitement, almost of relief, amongst the grown-ups round me.





The family choosing a dressing table

(Artist: Marina Colin)


In the summer of that year we went for a holiday at Chateau Gai, on the St. Lawrence river. We hired a ‘holiday house’ which turned out to be a leaky shack.  The weather was often terrible, and once, as we were having breakfast, a bolt of lightning struck literally through the table! In spite of these problems, my mother said it was the best holiday she’d ever had, because no-one was ill.   I spent my time either swimming in the river or making up ‘poison for Hitler’. I had a plan to win the war by posting him a Coca-Cola bottle full of some palatable but lethal beverage. To this end I concocted foul mixtures of lemonade, mud, boot-polish, turpentine, and the like.


In mid-1942, my father was posted to Kingston in Jamaica, and we decided to uproot ourselves from Canada and join him.  My sisters and I were excited at the prospect of living in a new country, but my mother loved Canada and was sad to leave.  After a long train journey to Halifax, we sailed on the Scythia, bound for the West Indies.





4.      Jamaica


On the Scythia, I was old enough to take in much of what happened.  The weather gradually got hotter as we travelled south.  On the way we stopped at various ports, such as Bermuda, and I would spend hours watching cargo being unloaded from the hatches.  One of the ship’s officers gave me a shiny naval button which I cherished for years before losing it.


In was on the Scythia that we met a certain self-styled Captain Liezer.  This gentleman’s capacity as a trencherman set a standard that I have never known to be equalled. The ship’s dining room was quite small, and every meal had two sittings.  Captain Liezer ate every meal twice, and it was understood that he had paid double fare for this privilege.


When we arrived in Jamaica, it was the hottest time of the year. I enjoyed the heat (as I have always done since) but the people around me found it oppressive.


I was sent to “Miss Campbell’s School”.  Jamaica was even then a racially mixed country, and I suppose the children at the school must have represented all the races and blends, but I cannot remember what colour any of them were. Are children colour-blind before some specific age?


In Miss Campbell’s school we were at last taught something useful.  Literacy opened up a whole world of knowledge, and I became an avid reader of stories, books on science, comics, newspapers, and anything else that came into my hands.


Soon after we arrived in Jamaica we moved to a small house in the suburbs of Kingston. I don’t think we stayed there long, because I can only remember two things.


One day I was given a toy saw, and I immediately went in to the garden to try it out.  I managed to cut down three banana trees before I was stopped.




Lydia on her bicycle (Artist: Lydia Colin)

Another memory is even more vivid.  One afternoon we heard a car arriving, and my sister Lydia (who was then about 12) crept out and crawled up the veranda steps like a wounded crab.  She refused all help; she was in such pain that she could not bear to be touched.  We learned that as she got off the school bus, a cyclist riding between the bus and the pavement had knocked her down and broken her collar-bone.  Lydia was strapped up for six weeks, and even now, she says, the bone aches when the weather changes.


After a few months we moved to a grander house. It was some way beyond Half Way Tree, and was a large single-storey structure, with slats instead of windows. There was a garden with chickens and some outhouses where the servants lived.


We had three servants: a cook, a washerwoman called Estelle, and a garden boy called Stalin. I got on very well with all three. Stalin and I used to sit on the garden steps and I would teach him Russian.




The legend translates as:

Andrew teaching the garden boy to read Russian. The maid and I look on.

(Artist: Marina Colin)


The food in Jamaica was strange to people brought up in Europe. Bunches of bananas were sold at the door and cost sixpence a hundred.  There were strange sweet-tasting vegetables like breadfruit, yam, sweet potato, and paw-paws, while northern vegetables were hard to get. Meat was stringy, but there were vast quantities of rum distilled from sugar-cane waste. Petrol was scarce, and some people were rumoured to run their cars on rum instead.




Bananas for sale


Our neighbours in the new house were a mixed couple (a black doctor married to a Scottish lady) and I spent much time playing with their son Jackie, who was roughly the same age as I.



Jackie (rider) and horse (me)


 Across the street lived the De Paz’s, a large family which included David, a boy of about my own age. Mr. de Paz was in the habit of flogging his children, and several times I had to leave the room while David was beaten, with a large leather strap, for some minor crime.


The de Paz’s derived their income from making and selling mattresses. This industry was carried out in their own back yard, where there was a workshop employing a dozen people. I used to watch the mattresses being stitched and stuffed with enormous speed and agility.


Our parents had an active social life and often arranged cocktail parties.  Captain Liezer belonged to the social circuit, and it was standard practice for anyone who invited him to provide not one cake but two: one for Capt. Liezer and one for everyone else.


My sister Marina once observed him hanging about towards the end of a party, when most of the guests had left. Thinking himself unwatched, he quickly picked up and drank the dregs of every glass in the room.


In Jamaica I was often ill. It was there that I was first stricken with the dreaded asthma, and I was bed-ridden for about six weeks with pneumonia. Our family doctor was a German, who was nominally interned; but since the island was very short of doctors he was given some limited freedom to practice. He was violently anti-Nazi, and found the restrictions on his life awkward and difficult to bear.


When I was convalescing, my parents hired a gentle spinster to ensure that my education was not neglected.  We used to sit on the veranda with humming-birds hovering all around, while she tried to teach me spelling and arithmetic.  One day she made the mistake of showing me an atlas with a plan of the Solar System. I was fascinated, and immediately learned by heart the names of the planets, their major moons and their distances. I don’t think I talked of anything else for all the remaining lessons.


Kingston was hot and stuffy all the year round, and we would go to other parts of the island for holidays. One Christmas we went up into the Blue Mountains for a few days and enjoyed a temperate climate among pine-trees.  I remember being furious at being made to eat an early supper with the other children instead of being allowed to dine properly with the grown-ups.


The next summer we spent a week in Montego Bay. Normally this is one of the most expensive resorts anywhere, and is patronised mainly by American millionaires. In war-time, however, there was no foreign trade and prices were at rock-bottom – that is, within reach of ordinary people. The rate for full board, complete with four-course meals, was £4 a week.


In Montego Bay we swam in the warm sea and just lazed on the beach. Once we went out in a glass-bottomed boat, so we could see the sea-bed many feet below. The boatman offered to swim down to the bottom and eat a banana under water, just for sixpence. Much to my dismay, my parents refused.


Sometimes the sun went in and the wind began to blow. Coconuts began falling from the trees, and my mother would rush me back to the hotel, protecting my head with her hands.


The main rail link between Kingston and Montego Bay was serviced by rail-cars, each the size of a bus. As we went home I was allowed to sit beside the driver.  About half-way back to Kingston we came across a fat pig sitting on the line. The driver hooted and the pig ran off directly down the line. We followed it for several miles, tooting loudly, but the unfortunate animal did not have the sense to get off the rails. Eventually, the driver muttered something about having to keep to his timetable and accelerated right over the pig, to my enormous distress.


After a year or so, both my parents began to find the heat unbearable, and my father requested a transfer back to London.  This was agreed, and we were told to get ready.  However, all transport movements were closely guarded military secrets and no-one told us when the journey would take place.  We sold all our furniture, packed everything else into crates, and for about six weeks we lived in a completely empty house out of a couple of suitcases.


Eventually the summons came. I was taken out of school in mid-lesson and we went to Kingston’s sea-plane terminal.  We boarded a large passenger sea-plane, climbing down through a hatch in the roof. To our dismay all the windows were blocked up for reasons of military security, and we were denied even a last chance to see Jamaica from the air.


I still have a memento of Miss Campbell’s school. The day we left Jamaica I was in a Scripture lesson.  When I was called I left holding the class text-book, not expecting anything special to happen.  The book was called “Precept upon Precept”.


5.      Journey back to War-time England


After a four-hour flight we landed on the river at Barranquilla, Colombia.  We took a taxi into town and found a splendid hotel. Our room had a balcony, and the balcony on the other side of the street – an easy stone’s throw away – was crowded with goats, chickens and pigs.


I had been told that Colombia was a neutral country, not involved in the war. The next day a German family with a boy of about my own age arrived in the hotel.  There was no reason to suppose that these were ‘good’ Germans, like our doctor in Jamaica.  For one thing, they actually spoke German, in public! I wanted to attack the boy and fight it out to the death, and I was restrained with some difficulty by my parents, who told me it was against the rules of war to fight on neutral territory.


After two days in Barranquilla we took a (land) plane to Panama.  Here we put up in another hotel while my father went to the American Consulate to arrange transit visas. In the end we all had to go there to have our passports stamped. We travelled in a taxi through a tropical rain-storm. The roads were full of naked children happily wallowing in the mud.


The next morning we boarded the Cape Town Castle for the voyage to New York.


My father had relations in New York, and we saw a great deal of them.  We had meals in their houses and flats; we went to Radio City, the Zoo and, to mark my seventh birthday, the Empire State building[3]. We had to live carefully. My father had only a certain number of dollars, and we had no idea how long we would have to wait for our passage to England, or which ship we would sail in.


One morning the call came. To our surprise the ship was the Cape Town Castle, and we were reassigned to our old cabins.  The captain called together all the passengers and told us solemnly that we would not be travelling in convoy because the ship was fast enough to be safer on its own.  Under no circumstances would it stop and present a sitting target to German submarines. If anyone fell overboard they would simply be abandoned.


On the ship I became friendly with another boy. We used to pretend to be shipwrecked, and one day we played a three-hour fictional drama in one of the ship’s lifeboats, under its canvas cover. When we emerged, it was to a mixture of blows, tears and kisses from our mothers. They had been searching the ship for hours, and gradually become convinced that we had been lost overboard.


After a few days the ship docked at Liverpool. It was a grey, drizzly morning, but loudspeakers were blaring jolly music to celebrate our safe arrival. We took the train to Bedford, where both my grandmothers lived.


6.     Transition


I think of the next period as a transition. It was a temporary stay at home, starting with a return from the tropics, and ending with a departure to a foreign country.


We arrived in Bedford in July 1943. There was a heat-wave, and everybody suffered and grumbled, but after Jamaica we found it cool and comfortable.


At that time both my grandmothers were sharing a house in Bedford together with Maud Law, an old friend of the family.


We called my father’s mother Baia, although her real name was Theodora. She was Polish by birth, and was well-known as a writer and broadcaster in pre-war Warsaw.  She used to keep open house for the numerous Polish fighter pilots seconded to the RAF and stationed near Bedford.






Many of these men had lost everything at the hands of the Nazis – houses, parents, wives and children. They had the reputation of being not so much brave as suicidal in combat.  They were driven by an overwhelming blend of patriotism and hatred of the Germans, and their lives were full of tension and danger.  My grandmother offered them a chance to relax and to talk about something other than the war. The house was always full of Poles in blue uniforms.


We stayed in Bedford only a few weeks before returning to London.  The first thing I noticed were the barrage balloons, huge silver gas-bags tethered to the ground by wires.  There were hundreds of them, and they prevented raiding aircraft from flying low enough to take good aim at their targets.


Our house at 16 Howitt Road had been let while we were away in Jamaica, so for a few weeks we stayed with the neighbours at number 14.  Mrs. Cave had a crippled son, Robin, who must have been one of very few young men not to be in the army.  She bred Pekinese dogs, and every morning we were awakened by yapping and snarling as the dogs were fed.


Soon we moved back into our own house. I was enrolled into the Hall School (some 15 minutes’ walk away) and fitted out with a uniform: grey shorts, a pink blazer and a pink cap with a black Maltese Cross.





Two views of the Hall School


What was war-time London like?  Here are my childish impressions:


During the day there was no apparent difference to a peace-time city, although the traffic was very light and there were numerous gaps where buildings had been destroyed by bombs. All the underground trains had their windows covered with a kind of sticky paper mesh, to stop glass splinters from flying about after a near miss. Food rationing was in force, but we were never hungry. The shops did not seem particularly empty, but I had nothing to compare them with.


At night the war was much more evident. All windows had to be covered with special light-tight frames lest any light escape to guide the Germans to their target.  Blackout wardens patrolled the streets and hammered furiously at the door if the smallest chink of light could be seen outside.


Soon after dark the raids started. The sirens wailed, and the inhabitants of London sought shelter – or some of them did, while the rest preferred to chance it.


A few minutes after the siren you could hear the steady drone of German bombers approaching, and then the guns on Hampstead Heath began to fire.  The bombs dropped, each one far enough away to make a loud dull bang. Then the raid was over, and the sirens sounded the all-clear – a long steady note.


During the raids we always took shelter of some kind. If the raid was late at night we went down to the platform at Belsize Park Underground station. The platform was full of bunks used by people who slept there regularly, and we generally sat on the approach steps at the bottom of the lift shaft.[4]


If the raid was earlier in the evening we crawled under the Morrison Shelter. This was a large steel table installed in the kitchen. In theory it was supposed to be strong enough to withstand the house falling on it, and keep the occupants alive until they were dug out by the rescue services.  To be effective you had to close in the sides with a wire mesh to keep out odd bricks and bits of plaster.


Sometimes the air-raid came just before dinner.  Then we took shelter but my mother stayed at the cooker and fed us Russian cutlets[5] through the bars of the mesh. We would make jokes and laugh about the Howitt Road Zoo.  I was never afraid – not even when the bombs fell near enough to make the house shake. I somehow knew that nothing would happen to me.


Nevertheless, after a few months my parents decided that London was still a little precarious. Lydia and I were evacuated again. She went to Berkhamsted, whilst I went to Tintagel with my mother’s mother, whom we called Bussia.


Tintagel is a small but lively village on the north coast of Cornwall. It is distinguished by cliffs, beaches, and Arthur’s Castle, a prominent ruin on a headland.





In Tintagel we stayed in various places.  The food at the Fairseat Hotel was exceptionally poor.  Dinner was half a slice of corned beef on a leaf of lettuce. Any complaint was met with a gruff,


“Don’t you know there’s a war on?”


I was temporarily enrolled at the Kingsley School, which had been evacuated from London. The Head Girl at the time was Myra Harvey-Samuel, who was to be a life-long friend of my sister, Lydia.


Myra, who was also staying at the Fairseat, was a believer in doing things properly. One day I watched her pumping up the tyre on her bicycle.  It was becoming hard work, and her face grew red.


I pinched the tyre (which was quite hard) and said,


“Isn’t that enough?”


“Oh no, it has to be really hard.”


Pump – pump – pump …


“Surely that has to be hard enough now?”


“Certainly not.“ she said breathlessly. “Got a long way to go!”


Pump – pump – BANG!


The tyre exploded. Myra had to walk to school until she managed to get a new inner tube.


At school I struggled with long division, which I found hard to understand.  We also started French, and when I was told of the words “Nous” and “Vous” I didn’t believe it possible. I thought the teacher was making it up.


Somehow we found plenty of time to spend on the beaches.  One day, on Castle Beach, we found several crates of chocolate, flotsam from a ship sunk in the Atlantic.  No-one had seen such a quantity of chocolate for years. People hurled themselves at the crates and spread the contents out to dry in the sun; but all the chocolate was ruined by the salt water and completely inedible.


After a few months my mother decided to pay us a visit. The date she had chosen was June 6th 1944 – the very day of the first Allied landings in France, and a closely guarded secret until the event.  When she started her journey she found the rail system in complete chaos, since many thousands of soldiers and tons of stores had to be moved to the Channel very quickly. My mother arrived in Tintagel after a fifteen-hour journey, only to find me ill in bed with bronchitis!


We returned to London a few months before the end of the war. The raids were far less frequent, but you would still hear the occasional V2 rocket. This was the first ballistic missile. It would drop from the stratosphere at several thousand miles per hour. There was no warning and no defence against it.[6]


German V2 Rocket


My father, who was stationed in London, regularly used to have lunch at Gamages store in Holborn. He was always served by the same waitress.  One day, very near the end of the war, she was not there and my father learned that she and all her family had been killed by one of the last V2 rockets ever to fall on London.

In May 1945 the war with Germany finally ended.  This made almost no difference to everyday life.  Food rationing was actually extended: for example, bread was not rationed until after the war. Politicians told us that Britain was bankrupt and everybody had to live a life of ‘austerity’.


I was now in a fairly stable period at the Hall school, to which I had returned. I was then already the despair of the art teacher, showing a lack of artistic talent which has endured all my life.


For lunch we would all march in crocodile to the nearest ‘British Restaurant’ one of a chain of eating-places set up by the government to offer minimum nourishment for a low price.  The food was  - well, what do you expect me to say?  Grissoles[7], boiled potatoes and saltless cabbage boiled to a green slime.  At least, no one was actually poisoned there.


 I still have vivid memories of my experience with the Wolf Cubs, of which there was a so-called ‘pack’ at the school. On cub afternoons we would put on green jerseys and caps, and neckerchiefs held by leather ‘woggles’. We would begin the session by chanting gibberish at a plaster dog’s head on a pole, and then settle down to learn woodcraft (in the middle of a city!) and pass various tests.



Wolf Cubs (not my pack)


The first milestone, which you had to pass to be allowed to wear the uniform, was the ‘tenderfoot test’[8]. You had to be able to tie a reef knot and hoist the Union Jack the right way up.  I learned these two skills easily, although I have now lost the second due to lack of practice in hoisting flags.


The next goal was the ‘First Star’. The tests were essentially physical, and included items such as walking twenty five yards with a book balanced on your head, turning a somersault, and performing 30 skips.  I could not skip (although I learned this skill later) and never received my first star.


The ultimate challenge was to gain the Second Star. This was important, because you were allowed to earn proficiency badges for all sorts of achievements such as cycling, making a cup of tea, and so on; but you could not display these badges on your arm unless you had both stars.


The tests for the Second Star had an intellectual flavour, such as “Memorise a five-word message and repeat it correctly after walking round the block” or “Given a compass, indicate North, East, South and West”.  None of these tests gave me slightest trouble.  Unfortunately, one of the requirements for the Second Star was “Have the first star”. I never got anywhere in the Wolf Cub hierarchy. I passed all the Second Star tests, and I had a pocket full of badges that proved I could do all sorts of interesting things, but because I couldn’t skip, my cap had to remain undecorated with the coveted stars, and my sleeves bare of the symbols of glory.  On cub afternoons I used to come home in frustrated rage; hurl my cap into a corner and jump on it.


About this time my uncle George[9] (my mother’s younger brother) was demobbed from the RAF. He gave me a medal he had acquired in Germany – an “Iron Cross” with a swastika at its centre. I still have it.


I began to learn independence.  My mother was a great believer in warm underclothes, and one cold winter’s day she sent me to school wearing a pair of underpants so long that they showed below the hem of my shorts. Not surprisingly I was laughed at. Other boys grabbed the underpants and tried to pull them down, and I had to keep on tucking them up to keep them out of sight.


When I tried to explain to my mother that the other boys didn’t wear such long pants, even in winter, she replied that their mothers couldn’t love them as much.  I just refused to wear the pants another day, in spite of my mother’s entreaties.


Throughout this period I used to get frequent attacks of asthma. The air in London was filthy, and there were frequent pea-souper fogs of choking off-white fumes. Eventually my parents were advised that I should be sent away to a place where the air was clean, and at the very end of 1946 they made arrangements for me to go to Gryon, in the Canton de Vaud in Switzerland.  Thus ended my first and only protracted stay at my parents’ home in 16 Howitt Road.



6.      La Soleillette


As you motor up the Rhone Valley, from Montreux, you pass many turnings that lead to places high up in the mountains on either side.  If you turn left at Bex, you will eventually get to Gryon, a small village at 1050 metres of altitude, most of the way to the skiing resort of Villars.  Gryon is built on a steep wooded hillside, and consists almost entirely of wooden chalets on concrete foundations.  Just across the valley there is a sharp ridge leading up to the Petit Muveran and the Grand Muveran, both rocky alps over 3000 metres high.




                        Gryon                                                     Les Muverans

(Les Diablerets in the background)


We didn’t drive to Gryon.  In the early part of January 1947, my parents took me to Geneva by train, where we spent a couple of days while they equipped me with winter clothes suitable for high altitudes.  Then we took another train, past the shores of Lac Leman.  I knew something interesting was about to happen, and I remember the butterflies jumping in my stomach as we approached Bex.


At Bex we changed on to a little red tram that I was to get to know extremely well. At first the tram rolled through the streets of the town just like any other tram; but then suddenly, the tram lines became rails on wooden sleepers, and a toothed rack appeared between them. The tram began to climb steeply up the mountainside.  We went through tunnels, over narrow viaducts spanning deep valleys, through woods and snow-covered meadows. It grew steadily colder and more wintry as we climbed.  After a while we arrived at Gryon and took a taxi to our destination: La Soleillette.


This establishment was essentially a children’s convalescent home, run by a Mademoiselle Türler and her assistant.  Most of the children were there to recover from minor operations, and all were much younger than I was. The average length of stay was four weeks; I was to remain there for eight months.


The first overwhelming impression was my inability to communicate. I spoke English and Russian, but hardly a word of French. Nobody round me spoke any English at all.  I was not totally isolated; I could use sign language and I had two little dictionaries, the size of large postage stamps.


Being a child among other children is surely the best way to learn a new language. Everything I wanted to say had to be turned into French, at first laboriously with the aid of my dictionary. As an added incentive I would be laughed at if I got the grammar wrong!  I made some comic mistakes, like trying to buy finger-nails at the hardware shop, but I was soon fluent, and eventually I was mistaken for a Swiss!


The regime at La Soleillette was highly suitable for its main purpose. Lots of excellent food, tobogganing or skiing in the morning, a compulsory two-hour rest in the afternoon, no lessons at all, and very early bed.  This was fine for small children getting over tonsillectomies, but extremely irksome for a boy with lots of energy released by the sudden cessation of nightly asthma.  In despair I phoned my father, who arranged for me to be allowed to go for walks instead of resting in the afternoon, and also – eventually – to go to school three times a week in Villars.


The mornings were delightful.  It was always sunny, and we would walk about half a mile through the snowy woods to a hollow clearing, where we would sledge down hard, frozen slopes with howls of delight. 


After a few weeks I was promoted to the skiing class, which was taken by the local instructor.  He taught us to ski without sticks, a method believed to be good for the balance.  I was not gifted, and often used to sit down in order to stop, but I enjoyed it and have always wanted to take up the sport again.[10]


The house itself was a large wooden chalet. It was warm, and the upper floors were organised into dormitories with four or five beds each.  During the night we were not supposed to leave the room, so a capacious chamber pot was provided.  In my dormitory it became a matter of honour to fill it to capacity – and not with water! We used to sneak out to the bathroom and drink countless glasses of water, and the pot would generally get filled to within a millimetre of the brim. The servant girl whose job it was to empty it never complained, although she must have wondered why the kidneys in that room were so active …


After a couple of months my schooling resumed in earnest. Three afternoons a week I would go to Villars (supposedly by tram, but I would usually walk the five kilometres) where I had individual tuition in English and Maths.


The English teacher was a Swiss lady with an almost perfect English accent, but with a tendency to mispronounce domestic words: potatoes were pot o’toes. 


The Maths teacher was more memorable. He was a mad Russian.  The lesson usually began with him lecturing me in Russian about Algebra and Geometry.  The blackboard filled up with equations and diagrams. It must have worked since I still remember and use the material he taught me.


Gradually the lecture digressed from the purely technical and acquired a political tinge.  Equations were no longer abstract but would be concerned with grain and steel production in the Soviet Union.  By the end of the lesson Mathematics was forgotten and I was listening to a full-blown political rant, delivered with the voice of practiced eloquence and the blazing eyes of utter conviction.  My teacher was either a rabid communist or and equally fanatical anti-communist, but I can’t remember which!


Back at La Soleillette, my French was improving daily but I really missed speaking English.  Every week my mother used to send me comics – the BEANO, DANDY and FILM FUN. I would read them from cover to cover, several times over.


On one occasion, perhaps three months after I arrived, a fellow inmate – a little Swiss-German girl – was visited by her mother. The lady must have taken pity on me, as I was invited out to tea with them both.  The girl’s mother understood and spoke English well, and I monopolised the conversation to the exclusion of her daughter. I now realise that this was the first chance I had had to speak my own language freely and fluently for several months, and it wasn’t surprising that I could not stop talking.


As the spring came on, we had to give up skiing. However, my afternoons became longer.  I often used to walk down to Bex and back, following the railway line.  The drivers got so used to me that they would wave as the train went by.


When I felt lazy I would hang about the station at Gryon instead of going for a walk. I knew the train timetable by heart, and I longed to be allowed to change the track points.  One day I climbed on to a goods wagon parked in a siding and began idly turning the brake handle.  To my horror the truck began to roll down the slope (which I had not noticed). I immediately turned the handle the other way as fast as I could, but without effect. Soon the truck hit a set of wooden buffers and stopped with a massive creak.  This was just as well, since the ground behind the buffers dropped away steeply.


I jumped off the truck and saw the station master running towards me. I made off in the other direction and got away without being caught. Afterwards I didn’t dare go near the station for two months.



The Red Tram


Much later I took my family to Gryon. Nothing at the station had changed except that the wooden buffers had been replaced by a concrete block weighing 40 or 50 tons.


Medicine in that part of Switzerland was sometimes primitive. One boy of eight or so – I don’t know what was wrong with him – was cupped by the local doctor.  This was done with a set of glass pots. Each one was heated with a match and placed on the victim’s back. When the air cooled it made a vacuum that sucked the blood out through the skin.  Afterwards the boy’s back was covered with big red circles which persisted for weeks, but otherwise the process didn’t do him much harm.


In May I had a visit from M. Cosandier, an old Swiss gentleman who had been one of my father’s teachers in St. Petersburg. They had great respect for each other, and had kept in contact ever since my father’s schooldays.  It was a mark of esteem that M. Cosandier, who was already over seventy years old, should make a journey of three hours in each direction, just to visit his pupil’s son.


Unfortunately the visit turned out to be a disaster. M. Cosandier had written to Mlle. Türler to say he was coming, and she forgot to tell me.  I went out for my usual walk, and returned quite late, only to find M. Cosandier had arrived just after I left and had been waiting several hours.  We only had a few minutes together before he had to leave.


As summer drew on it became very hot and made me wonder how much longer I would have to stay at La Soleillette.  In July I had a visit from my father, who often went to Switzerland on business.  He came with Herr Triebold, the owner of a watch factory. Mr. Triebold was a remarkable man: hugely successful in business, he typified the ‘nouveau riche’.  He drove a Cadillac car that had belonged to an Arab princess, and he had trained both his sons, from an early age, to distinguish excellent restaurants from the merely good.  If they thought a place to be insufficiently high-class they would turn up their noses and say,


“Daddy, we don’t like this dump. Take us somewhere better.”


In April, Mr. Triebold had sent me a stop-watch as a gift. It was great fun – indeed I was told off for organising races for convalescent children – but the watch was not built to last and quickly broke down through over-use.


When Mr. Triebold arrived with my father, he immediately demanded to see the stop-watch. When I told him it no longer worked, he was furious and could talk about nothing else for the whole day.


Latyer my father told me that Mr. Triebold had great faith in the excellence of his watches, even though they were among the cheapest made in Switzerland.  One day, my father said, he and Mr. Triebold were discussing business in a hotel room eight floors above the street.  Mr. T. claimed that his products were absolutely unbreakable.  To prove his point he offered to throw a sample out of the window.  He phoned down to the hotel lobby and had them send a page-boy into the street to pick up the watch and bring it back.


The watch was duly thrown. My father and Herr Triebold waited – and waited – and waited. After half an hour there was a knock, and an embarrassed page boy held out a few bent and broken gear wheels on a grubby palm.


“I’m sorry, Sir. I couldn’t find all the bits.”


At last, in August, my father came and took me away.  I had learned to speak, read and write good French, and had had no asthma for nearly a year.  I had missed the winter of 1947, one of the worst in memory.  I had also learned what it was like to be away from home …


We returned to London just in time for the start of term at the Hall School.  I spent one day there and then was struck down by asthma again. Dr. Herzberg, our family doctor, said it would be better if I could live away from London permanently.




8.      Wester Elchies


When I was born, my parents registered me for St. Paul’s School in London. When it became clear that I could not live there without serious asthma problems, they decided to send me to Gordonstoun instead.  This was done mainly on the basis that Kurt Hahn, the founder and headmaster, was a distant relation of my father.


As I was not old enough to start Gordonstoun yet, I was sent to Wester Elchies, the preparatory school associated with Gordonstoun.


I was sad to be leaving home again so soon after returning from Switzerland, but my parents gave Wester Elchies a great build-up. It was supposed to be a wonderful modern school near Craigellachie (which they pronounced as two words: Craigel Latchie)[11].


In the event, the school was a disappointment.  At La Soleillette we were at least warm and well-fed. At Wester Elchies we were neither. 


My mother and I set out by sleeper one evening. The next day we arrived at Craigellachie, which is by the river Spey in the Scottish Highlands.  We took a taxi, which delivered us at Wester Elchies.  My mother handed me over to Mrs. Delap the headmaster’s wife and returned to the hotel at Craigellachie where she was staying.[12]


The school was housed in a seventeenth-century manor, on a rise above the Spey valley. 




Wester Elchies (Copyright Gordonstoun Archives)


The building was innocent of any modern developments.  There was no electricity, and at night the rooms were lit by acetylene gas, generated from large drums of calcium carbide in a smelly shed.  There was no central heating, in fact no heating at all except in the teachers’ quarters. When the wind blew, icy drafts were inescapable.


Some of the classrooms were separate from the main building. I well remember trudging through the snow to a circular classroom called the ‘Obs’ where we sat with our feet soaking and teeth chattering while Colonel Davidson made us learn the dates of the kings.


At Wester Elchies I learned a useful habit. It isn’t that I don’t feel the cold; I do, but the sensation is not unpleasant.  I am quite comfortable working in a room at 15oC.


In general, the teaching was unusually bad.  Mathematics was taught (if that is the right word) by Mr. Brereton. He had a supply of Victorian drill books, as thick as bibles. The first hundred pages contained addition sums, then next hundred, subtraction, and so on.  Mr. Brereton started us at page one and told us to get going.  At first I tried to get through the problems as quickly as possible, but I was soon overwhelmed by the sheer volume of drudgery. I lost heart and effectively gave up, doing the minimum necessary to avoid punishment.[13]


To balance this dismal report, I should mention that Mr. Brereton was an excellent biology teacher. He showed us amoebas and parameciums through a microscope, and taught us to identify plants and flowers by observing their characteristics.


The school dining room was a wooden shed attached to the back of the house. Here we received meagre supplies of food – typically half a slice of bread with baked beans for supper. Although there was plenty left over there were no ‘seconds’  as there would not have been enough to go round everyone. The remnants were fed to the pigs.


The sanitary arrangements were extraordinary. We were all supposed to have a bath every night, but to save energy we would all use the same water, one after the other. By the time I got in, it was lukewarm and black.


When we got out, naked and shivering, we had to display our genitals to the matron, to make sure that we were not infected with ring-worm.


To be sure, there were some good moments.  On the occasion of Princess Elizabeth’s wedding to the Duke of Edinburgh, we were all invited to listen to the wireless in the Headmaster’s living room. For a couple of hours we were actually warm!


The field in front of the school was planted with potatoes.  Some time in October teaching stopped for three days and we went potato picking. We dug out the potatoes with our hands and put them into buckets, and Mr. Brereton drove round in a tractor and trailer to collect the crop.  We were paid (!) two shillings a day.[14]


When I joined the school, it was in the process of moving to a larger and more comfortable home at Aberlour House.  I was only at Wester Elchies for one term.

This was perhaps the worst period of my childhood. Form then on, things got steadily better.


I am sure the headmaster could have found excellent reasons for the way the school was run.  The war had only recently ended. Food rationing was in force and the whole country lived in an atmosphere of ‘austerity’.  Good teachers were almost impossible to recruit …   and so on.


On a recent trip to the area I enquired about Wester Elchies, and learned that it had been declared to be in a dangerous state of decay, and totally demolished.  We visited the site, which was quite flat and grassy except for a few blocks of stone.




9.      Aberlour House


As we sat, shivering in our classroom in Wester Elchies, Mr. Delap told us about Aberlour House, the new branch of the school to which many of us would be moving next term. Mr. Brereton was to be the headmaster. We could expect something “much more like Gordonstoun” with two cold showers a day, and a ‘morning run’ during wearing only shorts and gym-shoes.  It sounded like a descent to an even deeper level of Hell. 


Aberlour House is a grand Georgian mansion set in large grounds. In front of the house there is a formal lawn and a huge column built to glorify the first owner.




Aberlour House (Copyright Gordonstoun Archives)


Inside, the house is noticeably more modern than Wester Elchies. There are a few hot pipes, and you can walk through all the passages without crouching.  Sensibly, all the dormitories and wash-rooms are upstairs, and the class rooms and dining room are on the ground floor.


As well as some 60 boys, there were a few girls at the school – mainly the daughters of staff members.  They had their own dormitories and wash-rooms. There were too few of them to have any impact on our lives, and I can’t remember much about them.



Aberlour House – another view showing the columns and (new) science labs

(Copyright Gordonstoun Archives)


We arrived at Aberlour House on a cold January day in 1948. I had been brought up to believe that I was a ‘delicate child’ with frail health, and I was certain that running around half-naked in winter would kill me.  To my surprise I survived the first run, and the second.  I took several years to be thoroughly convinced, but in fact I enjoy excellent health.   Overall, the dreaded Hell never materialised.


I was at Aberlour House for two years. The school policy was a mixture of enlightenment and incompetence.  For example, Mr. Brereton continued to be a disaster as far as Mathematics was concerned, but an inspiring teacher of Biology. He organised a competition with points being awarded to the first finder of every species of plant and flower, with bonuses for stating both its common and Latin names correctly.  His dissections of frogs and rabbits were revolting but fascinating, and he used to leave lying around several thick books on human anatomy and physiology.  We read them furtively (they always fell open at the same places) but I now understand that we were meant to read those very passages.  Just before I left Aberlour House I was called in to Mr. Brereton’s study for the customary sex talk.


            “Well, Colin, you know all about it, don’t you?”


            “Yes, Sir.”


            “Alright. You can go.”


Our English teacher was a Mrs. Stewart, whose one-legged husband was the school bursar.  Mrs. Stewart had favourites; she was admired by a few and loathed by the rest.  Nevertheless, she taught me the elements of English Grammar – how to identify a part of speech and parse a sentence. She encouraged us to read widely, and was the first to persuade me that the Readers Digest was not the acme of English Literature. On balance she was one of the better teachers.


The same cannot be said of Col. Davidson, nicknamed Colonel Dodd. A tall, elderly gentleman of military appearance, he ran the school bank (with cheque-books) and taught History. We had two History lessons a week. On Tuesdays we had to learn the dates of British kings by heart, and on Thursdays this knowledge would be tested.  I did extremely well, and got excellent reports without actually learning any History!


Notwithstanding his methods of teaching, Col. Dodd was popular with the boys.  One boy had filled up a lemonade bottle with urine and was trying to sell it for two pence as orange squash.  Col Dodd guessed what was going on, bought the bottle, and then made the boy drink it himself.


Riding was taught by Miss Reckitt, a tall young woman who presided over the horses in the stable. I was her pupil for three terms, but I hated riding so much, and was so bad at it, that eventually she gave up hope and my riding lessons ceased.


Music was the province of Mr. Milton, an excellent pianist and teacher. He managed to teach the recorder to a whole class. I still play it today.


Soon after he came to the school his wife left him, and he had an affair with Miss Reckitt.  It was given out that he was teaching her the ‘cello, but matters were so blatant that they were obvious even to us twelve-year-old children.


Mr. Haines taught Latin and Geography. Latin was excruciatingly dull. Mr Haines was a rock-climber, and he became interesting whenever he talked about outdoor pursuits such as map-reading or orienteering.


Once he took a party for a camping week-end by Loch Morlich (near Aviemore). It was brilliant sunshine and we spent the whole time swimming or following compass courses across the hills.


The dormitories upstairs were of various sizes – from four to thirteen beds.  It was a matter of principle that we should sleep with the windows wide open, and in winter it was common to wake with your bed covered with a dusting of snow.  It didn’t matter- the temperature in the dormitory was below freezing so you could just shake the snow off and brush it away.


The food situation was much better than at Wester Elchies; I don’t remember feeling the same degree of hunger.  Nevertheless, during the two years I was at Aberlour House I grew twelve inches and remained the same weight.


Mealtimes were often strained and unpleasant.  If you didn’t like something, you could ask for a small portion, but you were not allowed to refuse it altogether.  I had to struggle with bits of liver and rabbit which I detested[15] and I don’t think the experience did me any good. On one occasion we all had to eat rabbit covered in maggots.  Did you know that kippers glow in the dark if you leave them too long?


One boy was allergic to cheese, which made him vomit. This was not considered sufficient to be excused from eating it, and he was regularly sick after Welsh Rarebit on Tuesdays.


For reasons I have always failed to understand, the school gradually introduced draconian rules about personal food.  First we were banned from buying any during our walks to the village; then parents were prohibited from sending food in parcels, and finally it was announced that any parcel addressed to a boy was to be opened in his presence by the matron, who would extract and confiscate anything edible.  One boy’s mother (I understand she was a widow) had saved her ration of sugar and chocolate for months to bake and send her son a birthday cake. The parcel was duly opened, the boy was allowed to admire the cake, and then it was removed. According to one report the staff were seen eating it late at night when the boys were supposed to be asleep.


To get round these regulations my mother invented an ingenious technique. She used to send me pairs of sock with salami sausages inside them. They always got through the search undetected.


Do you think I shared these delightful items with my friends and colleagues?  Think again! I would run off at the first opportunity, climb my favourite tree and eat the salami sausage all by myself.


On the matter of personal freedom the school was enlightened, more so than many schools today. After a term or so your name was put on a ‘privilege list’. This entitled you to go on expeditions in the surrounding countryside. We all had bicycles and would go to such places as Auchindoun and Balvenie castles, Aberlour, Rothes and Elgin.  In Craigellachie there was an inn which served a superb high tea, as much as you could eat, for 2/6 (12 ½ pence).  Furthermore it was safe – the lady who ran it would not give us away to the school.


Some of the boys at Aberlour House were memorable characters. Martin dreamed of having his own Rolls Royce, with a chauffeur, by the time he was thirty. Watson had a great stock of rude jokes. 


Gill was much given to dangerous experiments. He could make empty carbide drums explode by putting in a dribble of water, and a spark plug connected to a spark generator.  Later, at Gordonstoun, he turned on the gas in a chemistry fume cupboard without lighting the Bunsen burner. Some time later he climbed on to the roof and dropped a burning match down the chimney …


Some of us decided to form an ‘aero club’. It never got very far, but I remember the first meeting. We had a long discussion about the constitution, and we decided that any member who didn’t pay their subscription of sixpence a term would be dismembered. However, if they paid up later, they could be remembered.


I made several good friends at Aberlour House.  Tony Finlay, Jock Anderson and I formed a trio, and we would often visit local castles or take picnics out to the country on summer days.  Jock died young, but Tony and I remain firm friends.


On reflection, I am surprised by the amount of freedom we had. We were even allowed to go on mountain expeditions by ourselves. One day Tony Finlay and I set out to climb Ben Rinnes, a substantial local mountain almost 3000 feet high.




Summit ridge of Ben Rinnes (on a fine day)


 We had no map or compass, and when we were near the top the mist came down. We descended the wrong side of the mountain, and were lucky enough to get a lift – otherwise we would have faced a 15-mile walk home.


One of my good friends was Sutton. I can’t remember his first name because we didn’t use them. He had a reputation as a ‘bad boy’ and he often did things which earned him severe punishment.  He was, however, a gifted model aircraft constructor, and he taught me much of what he knew about this craft.  With his help I made the most successful model I have ever attempted. It flew perfectly and lasted a long time, until it landed in a field full of cows and was trampled to bits.


I never knew anything but kindness and consideration from Sutton. He once told me that at the age of eight he had killed another boy by arranging for him to ride a bicycle into a tree at full speed. According to Sutton the incident had been taken as an unfortunate accident.


Later, Sutton and I went on to Gordonstoun at about the same time. Sutton continued to get into serious trouble, mainly for drinking and smoking.  One day they found a bottle of brandy under his pillow, and he was expelled. I remember him packing his trunk under the supervision of a prefect. I came up to say goodbye and shake him by the hand, but I was not allowed to speak to him. He was already a non-person.  To this day I do not know what happened to him.


I cannot end this chapter without mentioning Mrs. Wilkinson the Art teacher.  Professionally I must have been her despair, for I could not – and still can’t – draw even a pin man.  Personally she was one of the warmest, most understanding people I have even met. She was about 35 at the time and separated from her first husband. She would go on walks with us boys and talk to us as equals about the school, politics, our careers, hopes and fears.  She, more than anyone on the staff, made life worth living by providing human contact.


Life at Aberlour House was often enjoyable, but over it all hung a vast shadow – the spectre of Gordonstoun.  It was rumoured that the rigours of Aberlour were as nothing compared to the constant hardships of the ‘main’ school. Sometimes boys who had gone on to Gordonstoun would come back on their bikes for a few hours, in their new grey uniforms.  When we asked them about Gordonstoun, they would assume looks of stoic bravery and say, through gritted teeth,


“Yes – it’s tough.  I don’t think I should tell you too much.”


Two or three times a year we would actually be taken to Gordonstoun to see a play or hear a concert. The fact that all the boys seemed fit and happy did nothing to dispel our fears. We came to think of the move to Gordonstoun as something akin to death. It would come, inevitably, and we would face up to it with courage and fortitude.











10.    Gordonstoun School


I spent almost five years of my life at Gordonstoun. This chapter describes the school as it was then, and says nothing about subsequent changes.


The school was founded in 1933 by Kurt Hahn, a German Jew, second cousin to my father.



Kurt Hahn


As a young man, Kurt Hahn was an athlete who once held the world record for the standing high jump for two days.  He had strong links with Britain. Just before the First World War he spent a year as an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford. Although he never returned, he remained on the college books, and was sometimes referred to as “Our oldest and most distinguished undergraduate.”


During the First World War cousin Kurt was an administrator in the German government.  Looking around him, and thinking of his own education, he became disillusioned at the single-minded pursuit of academic studies to the neglect of all other qualities. He determined to found a school, based on the pattern of a British public school, which would offer an education with a much wider base. Hahn was convinced that a healthy body, a feeling of compassion, and a devotion to public service were just as important as brilliance in academic subjects.


The result was the school at Salem, which was launched in 1923.




The Entrance to Salem



By 1933, it became obvious that the Nazi creed negated everything that Salem stood for. Hahn began to make public speeches denouncing Nazism.  At one of these meetings he was warned, just in time, that the secret police were in the building and about to arrest him.  Mr. Norman Pares, one of his colleagues, smuggled him through a back door and out of Germany in the boot of his car.


Kurt was in some ways a naïve man, but he was brilliant at raising money for his educational schemes.   He quickly collected enough to buy the estate at Gordonstoun, near Elgin in Morayshire.  The school he founded there was based on his existing school at Salem – that is - two removes from the standard English public school. This was enough to make it markedly different from other schools in Britain.




Gordonstoun House


The boys wore a uniform that consisted of shorts, and a jersey worn over an open-necked shirt. No ties, blazers or boater hats! We had a blue set for the morning and a grey set for the evening.  



Gordonstoun boy in morning uniform



There was no fagging (the common system by which younger boys are the servants of older ones), and virtually no bullying.  It is widely believed that single-sex boarding schools are hotbeds of lust and erotic attachments of one kind or another, but during the four and a half years I spent at the school I never witnessed anything of the kind.


The rest of this chapter describes Gordonstoun as it was in 1950. Since then there have been many changes (including the admission of girls), but then this is a personal memo.


Near Gordonstoun House itself are two other large buildings:  The Round Square and Cumming House.


The Round Square was once a stable block. Two stories high, and made of granite, it is built on a circular plan with an inner courtyard. The curvature is readily visible even inside the building; the side walls of every room are curved, and no two end walls are parallel,




View of Gordonstoun House and the Round Square


Cumming House is modern (ca. 1936) and is built of wood and concrete, somewhat like a huge and austere chalet.



Cumming House


The three main buildings are complemented by other, smaller structures such as the Sanatorium, a dovecote, and dozens of black Nissen huts built by the army during the war. The whole complex of buildings is set in a large tree-filled park. To the North there is a lawn easily big enough for a game of cricket. Southwards lies another set of lawns separated by paths, and beyond that, in easy view of Gordonstoun House, there is a long artificial lake.  An observer with good eyes might just see a rope stretched across the far end of the lake.


The school is approached by two drives, East and West, both about a mile long.  The surface of these drives was reportedly damaged by the army, for it is appalling – bumps, potholes and huge areas of mud.


The three houses near the geographical centre are called the ‘home’ houses, and they each accommodate about 50 boys.  The school also has several remote houses, including:


  • Duffus:                 About a mile away: 50 boys
  • Hopeman Lodge: About four miles away by Hopeman village: about 40 boys
  • Laverock Bank:   In Lossiemouth, about four miles distant: 35 boys
  • Dunkinty:            The other side of Elgin about eight miles away. 40 boys.


All classes are held in the main school, and boys who live in the remote houses must commute by school bus or bicycle. Although in winter there are only six hours of daylight the whole school is near enough to the sea to ensure that really cold weather is rare.


The daily timetable for all the boys in the school is this:



Get up, go for the morning run, have a wash and cold shower, get dressed, make bed


Housework: sweep out dormitory, clean bathroom, etc.


Inspection of shoes and lockers




Assembly in Gordonstoun House: prayers, bible reading hymn, announcements


Lessons: First period


Second period




Third period


Fourth period




Rest (20 minutes lying down listening to music)


Afternoon activity: Sport, Practical work or Services


Second wash and cold shower




First afternoon period


Second afternoon period




Free time (for homework, music practice, etc)


Junior bed-time


Senior bed-time


Five minutes silence


Lights out.



On Saturdays we are allowed to get up a little later, and have no morning run. Instead of formal lessons we pursue projects, which we can choose for ourselves: they range from engineering and building radios through Art and Drama, to musical composition. Sundays are even more luxurious; we may lie in bed until 8.30, and apart from a Church service we can do what we like.


The school is run by the colourbearers, which includes most masters and many (although not all) the older boys. In formal terms I must describe this group as a self-selecting oligarchy.  On the whole the group governs well; boy colourbearers are not permitted to hand out severer punishments.  In any case, as J. Gaythorne-Hardy explains in his book The Public School,  revolt against the oligarchy is both impossible (they’re bigger than us) and undesirable since every junior boy hopes one day to become a colourbearer.


Beneath the colourbearers there is a complex hierarchy of ranks.  Every new boy starts at the bottom of the pile, and is not even allowed to wear the grey version of the school uniform.  Towards the end of his first term, if he has not disgraced himself, he is awarded the  “Uniform” and is no longer immediately distinguishable from the rest of us.


The next step is the award of the ‘Junior Training Plan’. Each boy has a number of specific personal tasks to do each day: cleaning his teeth, having two cold showers, doing five press-ups and 60 skips. He also has a duty such as tidying a particular room. New boys, and boys who had just been awarded their uniforms, are asked every night if they have fulfilled these obligations; but the ‘training plan’ is a chart, kept by the boy himself, in which the items are recorded day by day.  Everybody with a training plan is trusted to keep this chart and fill it in honestly. Inspections are rare.


At the age of about 15 you might be promoted to a “Senior Training Plan”, which has a few more obligations and corresponding privileges, such as being allowed to study without supervision.


The next stage is the award of a ‘white stripe’ to be sewn on to the uniform.  This gives you a minute amount of authority over other boys; something like a highly-diluted lance-corporal.


The colourbearers use the ‘white stripers’ as source material for their own group. If you are in favour, you will be elected to be a colourbearer candidate, (“CBC”) and after some time the election is confirmed and you reach the full status of colourbearer.[16]


The most senior of the (boy) colourbearers are designated ‘helpers’. There is generally one to each house. The highest point of authority is the ‘Guardian’ (the title is borrowed from Plato’s Republic) who is effectively the Head Boy. Helpers have their own rooms, and the Guardian has a suite in Gordonstoun House.


The school has a complex system of punishments. For ‘ordinary’ offences, such as being cheeky to a master, you may be  awarded a number 1, a number 2  or a number 3 depending on the severity of the crime. Each of these punishments has to be served by getting up very early and walking a set distance, before the other boys get up.  A number 3 takes about one and a half hours, and walking it off is a matter of trust.  [17]


For more serious offences the school has a gamut of penalties. Often boys are made to walk to Elgin and back – some 15 miles. During these walks it is forbidden to speak to anyone, except in dire necessity, and then as briefly as possible.[18]


A standard punishment for any serious crime is to be demoted to the status of ‘new boy’.[19]


The ultimate sanction is expulsion. The commonest causes are drinking and smoking[20], followed by unrepentant dishonesty.  First offenders are usually demoted and warned.


One of Kurt Hahn’s ideals was ‘Service to the Community’, Every boy chooses to belong to one of the four services: The Army Cadet Force, the Sea Cadets, The Watchers, who operate a coast-guard and rescue service in the Moray Firth, and the Fire Service, who run the local fire brigade.  Like other volunteer fire stations, this is part of the Regional Fire Service, and is often called out from the headquarters in Aberdeen to handle fires in the vicinity.


Another aim which finds expression in the school is that of excellence in physical activity.  You can learn seamanship, sailing cutters on the Moray Firth.  Mountain expeditions are strongly encouraged.


Games are compulsory, and one period every morning is spent on athletics – running, jumping, throwing and tackling an obstacle course.  The final obstacle is the rope across the lake. You lie on your tummy, one leg hanging down for balance, and pull yourself across with your arms.  If you fall in, the penalty is a dose of castor oil![21]


Fortunately the level of performance you reach in these activities is not crucial, as long as you’re seen to be trying …


The school caters for pupils of varying academic ability, and some of them go on to Universities.[22]


The school sometimes exchanges pupils with its parallel foundation at Salem. The boys from Salem tend to be older than us, because some of them have been forced to put on military uniforms at the age of 12 and defend Berlin against the allies in 1945, and have missed out several years of schooling.


One such boy was a talented putt-shot thrower, and was entered for the Scottish School  Championships, which he won easily. When they asked him to confirm that he was under eighteen, he replied,


“No, I am tsventsy sree.”



At this point, you know rather more about Gordonstoun than I did when I arrived at Laverock Bank in January 1950.  What was it like? Read on …




11.    Laverock Bank


My first House was Laverock Bank. It was located in Lossiemouth, some four miles east of Gordonstoun. The house was surrounded by hotels; indeed it was once a hotel itself, and has now reverted to its original status.



Laverock Bank


When I arrived, Laverock Bank had just been opened as an experimental house for the induction of new boys. There was salting of ‘experienced’ boys collected from other houses, but the overall proportion of new boys was much higher than normal.  The plan was to move us to other houses as soon as we had got used to the Gordonstoun system.  The housemaster was Major Downton, nick-named the “Hebe”.


In Laverock Bank we were gradually and quite gently introduced to the rules of life at Gordonstoun.  As the days passed I came to realise, with some surprise, that things might not be quite as dreadful as we had been led to believe at Aberlour House.  The food was incomparably better, and we were not forced to eat things we didn’t like.  The teaching was effective, there were no restrictions on buying things outside, no censorship of letters, no embarrassing female supervision,– in short, we were treated like adolescents, not as small children.


The ‘training plan’ was required of us straight away.  The first evening I was asked by the boy in charge of the dormitory whether I had fulfilled my list of obligations: cleaned my teeth, etc. When it came to ’60 skips’ I had to confess that I had not mastered the art of skipping. 


“Never mind,” he said. “Just step over the rope sixty times.”


I did this daily, and in three days I managed the sixty skips without a break!


Although we lived in Lossiemouth, most of the day was spent in Gordonstoun.  The school bus which fetched us was not big enough to take everyone, so we cycled twice a week by rota.  The route crossed Lossiemouth Naval aerodrome, and about a mile of it lay directly along the perimeter track.  There were no fences or other security measures, but a man with a flag would stop us to let taxi-ing aircraft past.


In my first term I chose to take Physics and Chemistry.  The Physics teacher was a Russian, Dr. Barlen. He spoke English with a thick Russian accent which took everyone about six weeks to understand – and then we began to learn Physics! He was a superb teacher. He was known to be so fierce, and to give such frightful punishments, that behaviour in his class was perfect.

I had the same Physics teacher all my time at the school.[23]    


At Laverock Bank, most of the new boys were not from Wester Elchies but from other schools. There was Brian Ellis, who could make a joke about anything. 


“What would you do if you kicked the bucket? You’d turn a little pail.”


There was Gordon Arnott, who specialised in torturing other new boys with pliers.


There was Frizell, a fat rich boy, who, as we discovered to our surprise, couldn’t actually write at the age of fourteen.  He was not at all stupid; but in his previous school he had paid another boy to do his writing for him. Night after night, Frizell was to be seen with a pen clutched in his fist, tracing large shaky letters.


On Saturdays and Sundays we would walk round the town and look at the fishing boats in the harbour. As spring approached and the tourist season started, we began to frequent the putting green (three pence a round) and ride our bikes over the grass bunkers on the golf course until we were chased away. 


At Lossiemouth there is a superb sandy beach, terminating in Covesea Lighthouse (as shown on packets of Players’ cigarettes, and pronounced “cow-sea”).




Covesea Lighthouse



I tried swimming once or twice, but the water is icy, even in summer. I remember family groups on the beach, blue with cold, pretending that they were enjoying themselves.


My mathematical ability had somehow survived the stultifying experience of Mr. Brereton’s methods at Aberlour, and with Major Downton’s teaching I was making rapid progress.  In the summer of 1950 it was decided I would take the Scholarship exam for Gordonstoun (at 13 I was still eligible to do so).


As the examination came nearer I studied moderately hard. (I didn’t experience really hard work until I went to University.) The day before the exam I was cutting myself a slice of bread in the kitchen when the knife slipped and I managed to cut half-way through my left thumb.[24]  There was lots of blood, and it was decided that the wound needed hospital treatment.  Major Downton took me to Elgin in his Austin Seven. As he drove he breathed on the windscreen and gave me a final revision session, drawing diagrams on the screen with his finger.


When we got to the hospital, I watched with interest as my thumb was jabbed with a local anaesthetic and sewn up.  I sat the entire scholarship exam with my left hand in a sling – it was just as well that it was the left hand, and not the right!


After two terms we were deemed to be sufficiently inducted into the ways of Gordonstoun, and we were distributed among the other houses. I was sent to Dunkinty, a move which delighted me because my best friend, Tony Finlay, was already there.



12     Dunkinty






Dunkinty was run by another ex-Military gentleman – Colonel Bannerman.  We were so far away from the main school that we felt vaguely privileged.  Elgin was within easy walking distance, the house was warm and comfortable, and the community was small enough for everyone to know everyone else.   There was a large garden. A whisky distillery stood nearby, and our garden backed on to its cooling pond.


Much of our spare time was spent on or near the pond. We had a jerry-built aluminium boat which leaked so severely that it would only stay afloat for a few minutes unless we bailed continuously.  I spent a lot of my pocket-money on pot-menders, but without noticeable effect on the pond-worthiness of our boat.


The pond had a small island, joined to the shore by two wires, one above the other. It was quite easy to cross, holding on to the upper wire. One day the lower wire gave under my weight and I found my self up to the waist in mud and up to my neck in water above that.


At that time I was just becoming interested in radio, and I built a series of crystal sets. Elgin is a poor place to learn about radio, because the signal from the nearby Burghead transmitter swamps everything else.  You could receive the Home Service loud and clear just by connecting a crystal and a pair of earphones to the bedsprings, but receiving any other station was impossible. Coils, condensers, directional aerials – nothing made any difference.


On Sundays we used to go to an evening service in Elgin. One day the visiting preacher delivered a powerful sermon about the importance of giving money to the Church. He was quite explicit. Looking straight at me he intoned,


“”If ye don’t sacrifice generously, an ‘ gie a’ yer bawbees tae the Kirrrk, ye are damned to Hell forever!”


A few minutes later the plate was passed round, and I discovered I had left all my money back at Dunkinty.




Dunkinty (1951).  I am in the third row, second left. Tony is on the left in the front row.



Looking at a group photograph taken later that year, I can still remember the names of all the boys, but some stick specially in my mind.   Baker[25], a large boy who was often teased about his resemblance to a gorilla, was already a competent driver and desperately keen to get some practice.  One night he and a couple of others crossed the fuses in Col. Bannerman’s car and went out for a joyride.  To their horror the car ran out of petrol about five miles away. They tramped back, collected about a dozen other boys, took them out to where the car was stranded and pushed it all the way back.  Apparently they all got to bed just before we were ‘woken’ for the morning run.


Another boy I remember was Isbister, an Orcadian. He was about 18, easy-going and well-disposed to everyone. He was obviously attached to Edna, the young cook, who in her turn was not entirely indifferent to his attentions.


When Isbister left Gordonstoun he joined the Merchant Navy as an apprentice officer.  A few months later we heard that he had died of a ruptured appendix, two hours before his ship could reach a port with proper hospital facilities.


All through the year I was gradually discovering who really ran the school.  Kurt Hahn was still the nominal Headmaster, but he was often away, and I never had the chance to speak to him until I myself had left the school.[26] The Deputy Headmaster was Mr. Henry Brereton, the elder brother of the biologist at Aberlour House. He was nicknamed “The Bear”.  A third figure was Dr. Erich Meissner, who could be seen striding about followed by his poodle Ponto.  He had some vital but undefined function that I never understood.


No boy can go through Gordonstoun without spending a great deal of time on physical activity. I was unusually bad at every form of sport. On my first day playing rugger I made a painful discovery: if you touch the ball you are likely to be assaulted.  From then on I was careful to keep away from the dangerous object.  This required some subtlety.  If you run away from the ball when everyone else is running towards it the master in charge is liable to stop you and impose some form of punishment. If you run parallel to the ball’s course and some 20 yards away, you can always say that you are placing yourself for a pass (whatever that means).  You are quite safe – none of the serious players knows you are there, or would dream of throwing you the ball even if he did know.


Every morning we had a period of athletics.  The various houses were in competition with one another, and we were supposed to score points by reaching certain minimum standards, related to age.  For example, at age 14 you were supposed to throw a discus 55 feet and run 100 years in 13 seconds,  I reached very few of these standards although I tried hard enough. My worst event was the high-jump, where I never managed more than one foot nine inches.  (Later in life I could clear three feet without any trouble.)


Soon after moving to Dunkinty I joined the school choir as a treble. But my voice was breaking and after two weeks I was sacked.  The way my voice changed was unexpected. It didn’t just slide down in range, but I developed another, lower voice as well as the one I had been used to. For a few months I could choose either voice at will, and I had a range of over five octaves. I used to sing alternate verses of hymns in treble and bass. Eventually the upper voice atrophied, but some of it remains as falsetto.


When the voice had settled down I rejoined the choir as a bass. I enjoyed choral singing and have been doing it every since.


The choir was conducted by Mr. Godfrey Burchardt (a.k.a.”Plug”). His main academic task was the teaching of Latin and Greek, but he was a superb all-round musician: a good pianist and a competent performer on both french horn and double-bass.


The chief music teacher was Frau Susie Lachmann, a German lady of great charm and wit, except during violin lessons, when she seemed to turn into a witch.  When I went to the Music Room for the last period before lunch on Thursdays, she had already dealt with three pupils producing agonising sounds from their instruments, and she would be in a foul temper.  As I struggled hold the violin correctly she would beat my hand with her bow and shout. 


I was no better than the rest.  Music was not allowed for in the timetable, and we had to practice at times when other boys were free to relax. If we had a heavy load of homework, it was impossible to find any time for practice at all.  I realised, even then, that the lessons must be as agonising for her as they were for me.


Outside the music-room, Frau Lachmann was excellent company. She once took a group of us for a picnic, and after we had eaten she produced the four parts of a Haydn wind quartet.  We sang through it, with me taking the bassoon part.


Her most impressive achievement took place during an amateur concert in Elgin. They were playing Bach’s third Brandenburg Concerto, which is scored for three violins, three violas and three ‘cellos. Frau Lachmann had the middle viola part. During one passage most of the other players lost their place and gave up, but Frau Lachmann kept the piece going by playing all the important parts on her viola at the same time. Gradually the other players found their places and came in, so that they all ended together.


When I had been in Dunkinty for a year, it was decided to close the house down for economic reasons.  Both Tony Finlay and I were transferred  to Cumming House under the housemastership of Mr. Burchardt.


13    Cumming House


Life at Cumming House should have been more relaxed, because we no longer had the daily commute into Gordonstoun.  But I don’t remember it to be so. I had my own desk and table-lamp to study for ‘O’ levels, but there were plenty of other distractions – expeditions to the mountains, mornings spent sailing in the Moray Firth, singing and playing in the School Orchestra.



The School Orchestra  (Mr. Burchardt on the Double Bass)


The success of our expeditions depended entirely on the weather. They would always start by putting on heavy rucsacs loaded with tents and food, and cycling thirty or forty miles to places such as Tomintoul or Dallas.  There we would pitch camp in a field near a stream (having asked the farmer), light a fire and brew up tea or soup.  Farmers tended to welcome us generously, and to make us presents of milk and eggs.


If the weather was fine we would spend the next couple of days walking in the hills before returning to Gordonstoun weary, dirty, but thoroughly pleased with the weekend.


If it rained, we would pass the whole weekend sitting in our tent, playing Monopoly and eating cold beans out of a tin.


At that time the School was careless in its appointments.  I was allocated to a young new Maths teacher called Dr. Ford.  He taught us all about logs and indices, and made an excellent job of it.  One day he remarked to me that he was on the Governing Body of the City and Guilds Institute, which regulates technical qualifications.  As I had recently taken the Radio Amateurs’ exam, I had all the documents. I looked up the Governing body, and there was indeed a member called Ford, but the initials were incorrect.


A few weeks later “Dr. Ford” disappeared.  It turned out that he was completely unqualified, and just had a great desire to be a teacher. I hope that he eventually managed to reach this goal legitimately, for he had all the right talents.


One morning Mr. Burchardt and his young wife Mary invited me to breakfast in their private flat.  It was a welcome change from eating with all the other boys![27]


I eventually gained eight ‘O’ levels, including Russian, for which I did not have to study at all. There was only one other boy who managed as many that year: James Weatherall, who is now a Knight and a retired Admiral.


At the end of the year, Mr. Burchardt moved to Duffus House, taking most of his boys with him.


You may have formed the impression that we never had any holidays.  In fact holidays came regularly, and I used to count the days, and then the hours, before the blessed moment when I would board the train and start the long journey back to London.


When I was at home my mother used to spoil me abominably. I would get breakfast in bed, and quite often not get up till mid-day.  For Christmas I would get a pillow-case full of presents. I would spend the days building radio sets, or hanging about Lyle Street (near Leicester Square) which was then full of shops selling electronic components at prices I could afford.[28] 


My asthma was now completely under control, and only came on if I came in contact with cats. Nevertheless my parents felt that I should continue treatment, so several years running, in the long summer holiday, my mother and I went to Mont Dore in France. 


Mont Dore is a spa in the Auvergne in the centre of France. It nestles in a valley at some 1200 metres of altitude, and boasts several mineral springs, all of which are supposed to be good for asthma.


We stayed in a hotel. Every morning I would get up early and go to the Etablissement, and take the cure. This consisted of spending about two hours in a series of steam rooms at different temperatures.  I would always take a paper-back to read, and they would always get soggy with the steam – but they passed the time!  I specially enjoyed the adventures of the Saint (detective stories by Leslie Charteris).


After the steam room, it was a couple of hours in bed, and then back to the Etablissement to gargle with mineral water, drink it  or squirt stinging gas up my nose.


In the afternoons my mother and I would generally take a funiculaire up the hill to a café and skating rink, where I learned to roller-skate and she drank coffee and read the paper.  Sometimes, specially in the later years,  we would go for walks, clambering over steep rocky paths.  Thinking back, I am amazed at the agility my mother showed in her wooden sandals.


I’m sure that Mont Dore did many people a lot of good; but this was probably due to the altitude, the clean air, and the holiday from the stresses of daily life. I don’t think the waters had anything to do with it. 


14     Duffus House


My last two years at School were spent in Duffus House. I was now a ‘senior’ boy and started my preparation for University. I chose to follow the Science route and dropped all subjects except Maths, Physics and Chemistry.



Duffus House



My Physics teacher was still Dr. Barlen. He gave me an excellent grounding for the Engineering course I was to pursue at Oxford.


Chemistry was taught by Mr. Sime, whom I remember chiefly in the title role of Hamlet.  In Chemistry, he preferred rote learning to theory, so he never explained why we have NaCl and CaCl2, and not – say – Na3Cl or CaCl­­7 . 


As I explained earlier, we all had to do two afternoons of ‘practical work’ on the estate.  Mr. Sime used my services, one afternoon each week, to mix up reagents for the chemistry laboratory.  I would dilute down concentrated acids and alkalis, titrate them to a specific strength, and top up the reagent bottles.


This continued until a serious accident occurred at another school. A girl doing the same job as me dropped a bottle of vitriol and burnt her legs very badly.  When news of this event reached Gordonstoun I was switched to other jobs in the lab.


My Maths teacher was Mr. Ruscoe. He was the best teacher I have ever encountered – patient, encouraging, and happy to go at my own pace.  He taught me so well that I still remember and use the material he covered.


When I first came to the school I chose to join the Fire Service, After years of training, I was now made a Fireman, and became part of the team that was called out to local conflagrations.


We kept a fire engine in a Nissen hit, together with our uniforms and helmets. The appliance was equipped with ladders, two pumps, lots of hose, a selection of branches (nozzles to the layman) and a mass of other gear such as ropes and jacks to open out iron railings and release children’s heads.


When we were called out (which happened two or three times a term) a siren sounded. We would immediately drop whatever we were doing, run to the Fire Station and be on our way to the blaze.  This would take some three minutes, an excellent figure for a station staffed by retained firemen.


The fires I attended mainly involved hayricks or burning moorland.  Once a hayrick catches fire there is no point in putting it out, since the animals find the hay uneatable. Our job was to protect other hayricks in the vicinity, which we did with huge quantities of water.


Our training involved various techniques, such as the Fireman’s Lift for rescuing people, and methods of removing animals from burning buildings. To rescue a cow you put your thumbs in its nostrils and walk backward; the cow follows you. I never had to use these methods in practice.


A couple of times a term we used to have a “Services Parade” . The boys in all the services – Army Cadet Force, Sea Cadets, Watchers and Fire Service would put on their uniforms, polish their shoes, and march past some important visitor who would ‘take the salute’.   One occasion the visitor was a retired general, and we had a band from the local Naval Air station. Just as we were marching, the band struck up with “Colonel Bogie”, for which the following set of words had just gone round the school:



We are the night shite shifters,

Shifting shite by night!


Hitler has only got one ball

Göring has two but very small


Has something similar

And poor old Goebbels has no balls

At all!


We all exploded with guffaws of uncontrollable laughter.  Just then the Army Cadets, who formed the last group to march past, received the order “Eyes Left!”


In his summing up later, the general said complimentary things to the Sea Cadets, the Watchers and the Fire Service. But he was furious with the Army Cadet Force. 


“They dared to laugh at me!” he spluttered.


Once in my life, I was a member of a winning sports team.  The sports master decided that one rainy afternoon the whole school would take part in a cross-country race. He laid out a roughly rectangular course of about six miles along country lanes. The method of scoring was that only the first four boys, and the last four boys from any house would count.


I am much too lazy to run that far, and I walked much of the distance. I was last to cross the finishing line to jeers, laughter and a slow handclap.   The results were announced immediately: my House was last.


As the afternoon wore on, reports began to trickle in of boys who had cut corners. Later that evening the revised result was declared: 


            Duffus House:           First. 

            All other Houses:       Disqualified.


One day there was an accident just outside the house.  One of the School’s Maths teachers was a Commander Wood, whom we used to call “Scratchwood” since he was always scratching his beard. He drove a very old car with the steering wheel tied on with wire.


On this occasion Scratchwood knocked down a boy called Hickman. He jumped out of his car and said,


“Oh I hope I haven’t hurt you!”


“Oh yes you have, Sir.” came the reply. “You’ve broken my bloody leg – Sir!”


Early in 1954 I went down to Oxford to take the entrance test. I remember writing an essay about Einstein and Relativity, and I met Eric MacIldowie (from Sedburgh) who was to be my Best Man and a lifelong friend.


My interview was not what I expected. After waiting some time I was called by name, and entered a room with a long table covered in a green cloth.   Chairs on one long side and the ends were occupied by elderly gentlemen. The other long side had a single chair, to which I was directed.


After a while, one of the gentlemen asked,


“What is your name?”


I told him, but they must have known since they had just called me in.


“Do you play Chess?”




“Do you play it well?”




“Alright. That will do.”


In 1953 there was a bad earthquake in the Greek Island of Cephalonia. The following is quoted from www.cephalonia.org:



On 9 August 1953, tremors reaching 7.2 on the Richter scale juddered the Ionian islands of Zakynthos, Cephalonia, Ithaca and Lefkada, continuing until 14 August, to complete the havoc.

The damage was appalling: in Cephalonia, sparing only a few spots in the north, entire towns and villages were razed, more than 600 people died and the injured and homeless were in their thousands, the streets choked with rubble, and chasms yawned in the earth.

As it was the middle of the day and people were cooking, fires also broke out and raged through the town.

Since 70 percent of all constructions was demolished, towns and villages were rebuilt to new plans, with strict anti-seismic specifications, so that there is now little risk of a ceiling tumbling about your ears.

The tragedy brought wide international response and support, especially from the United States, Britain, France, Sweden and Norway, who sent aid for the victims with generosity and speed

At that time also, many desperate Cephalonians left their island to seek a better life abroad



Kurt Hahn’s group of schools, which included Gordonstoun, Salem in Germany and Anavryta in Greece,  proposed to mount an international expedition to help repair some of the damage.  The School announced the scheme and asked for volunteers among the older boys. I put my name down, but only got as far as ‘first reserve’. Then another boy pulled out and I was in!


In the summer of 1954, all exams finished but two weeks before the notional End of Term, we set off on our final school activity – the trip to Cephalonia.


15     Cephalonia  1954


Our expedition to Cephalonia started with a two-day journey from Elgin to Munich, in Southern Germany.  This involved two successive nights sitting up in trains, a brief stop at home on the way through London, and a rough channel crossing during which the waiters had to serve the soup only half a plateful at a time.


We arrived in Munich about midday, and collapsed on the bunks in the Youth Hostel.


The next day, very early, we were bussed out to a military airport where we met our German colleagues and boarded four DC3 Dakota planes which belonged to the Greek Air Force.  At some stage they had been repaired with tin bearing the legend “KLIM”, which was the name used for dried milk during the war.


We sat on metal benches down the sides of the fuselage, and towards the back there was a big pile of parachutes. Before taking off the pilot told us briefly how to use them.


After a long flight we landed at Patras. As our plane touched down it bounced several times. Each time we heard a roar of laughter coming from the pilots’ cabin.


We were given a supper of bread and olive oil, and then taken to the Machetes, a Greek Naval ship.  The Greek contingent of the expedition arrived, and the ship sailed for Cephalonia.


As it was hot and stuffy below I slept on deck. I awoke to bright sunlight, with Cephalonia coming up over the horizon.  From a distance, the town we could see seemed perfectly normal, but as we approached I realised that the church tower was leaning over, and most of the building were just ruins.


We landed in Argostoli, the main town of Cephalonia. All the houses had fallen down, and people lived in tents and temporary wooden barracks. We were billeted in wooden huts with concrete floors.  The toilets were just holes in the ground, buzzing with flies – it was all too evident that diarrhoea was a common complaint.

We were set to work on two projects: building an old people’s home and making a new coastal road.


Our contribution was to supply unskilled labour.  The team on the old people’s home included two architects and a number of builders, all Greek.


The first day was particularly hard.  The old folks’ home was to be built on a firm stone foundation, and we had to get the stones from the collapsed town prison.


I worked together with a Greek boy. We would clamber over the rubble, find stone blocks which were undamaged, and carry them down to a waiting lorry.  You can imagine what it was like when the sun rose high in the sky!


1954 was when the troubles in Cyprus had just started.  EOKA was a terrorist organisation trying to get rid of the British.   I asked my colleague what he thought all this.


“I hate the British! I hate them!” he answered as we staggered down the rubble with a particularly large stone. “But I like you!”


The second day was a marked contrast. I was part of a team that had to collect sand for cement. A lorry took us to a secluded beach with fine white sand. We soon filled it up and then watched as it ground its way up the steep track leading back to the town. It didn’t return for another 20 minutes – and so the day passed,  ten minutes work shovelling sand, followed by twenty minutes to swim or lie in the sun.



One the beach near Argostoli


After that we spent most of the time on the building site. We mixed up mortar, in the right proportions of cement, sand and water.  When a batch was ready we’d shout “Cimento!” and the builders would collect it in buckets for the foundation.


When the foundation was complete, they brought pre-fabricated wooden sections for the walls.  The building, like all the others going up at that time, was deliberately designed to withstand earthquakes, and to cause only minimal injury if it did fall down.[29]


Laying the foundations

To our dismay, the sections did not fit the foundation.  It seemed that one of the architects had measured the foundation out wrongly.  The other architect exploded with rage, and they fought before our eyes.


In the end, some of the sections had to be recut to size. If you ever visit the old folks’ home, you’ll find that the walls are not parallel…



Getting  the walls to fit.


We found the food quite strange.  Breakfast was coarse brown bread, olive oil (which we were supposed to drink) and large pieces of water-melon.  In the morning they brought us big tomatoes and more bread, which we ate eagerly. For dinner they might give us cheesy potatoes and more water-melon,


Our stay lasted about a month. About half-way through we were visited by King Paul and his family, who arrived on the Royal Yacht. We were invited on board and I met Prince Constantine, who was then about 16. [30]  They gave us sweet creamy pastries, which made me very ill the next day.



King Paul, with Queen Frederika and Princess


One day, we realised that back home it was the end of term. We were no longer under School discipline! We removed the badges of rank from our jerseys, and that evening we went down to the local bar and drank a symbolic glass of Retsina wine – an act which would have brought expulsion or at least demotion while we were still at school.


The local Greeks were extremely friendly. In the evenings we’d sit in tented cafés, drink coffee or orange juice, and have long conversations in two languages. We had no idea what our Greek companions were saying, and they didn’t understand us, but it made no difference – they obviously appreciated our presence.


When the old folks’ home was finished, and we had built about a mile of road, our stay in Cephalonia ended. The Greek government put the Machetes at our disposal, and for a week we cruised around Greece, visiting Delphi, Olympia, Corinth and Athens.  There we went to an open-air concert in an ancient theatre.  We heard Glinka’s overture to “Ruslan and Ludmilla”, and whenever the well-known tune came round the man next to me would sing along to it:


“Dum – di di di dum, di di di dum dum dum dum di dum dum.”


The next day we went for a drive in four army lorries.  They were seemingly driven by lunatics. They had a game like leap-frog, by which the last lorry would overtake all the rest and go to the front. Oncoming vehicles were ignored.  I remember looking out of the back of the lorry and seeing a car in the ditch, with its driver shaking his fist.


I felt my clothes were a bit loose, and I put a coin into a weighing machine. Its reading was so far from what I expected that I didn’t believe it, and weighed myself on a different machine.  It was true: in the month in Cephalonia I had lost two stones (about 13 kilos).


That evening we had a reception at Anavryta School, near Athens. The king presented us all with medals.


The next day it was time to go home. I chose a plane that was due to go to Geneva.


The first unexpected event was an unscheduled landing at Ciampino, in Rome. There was something wrong with the plane.


The next day we took off again. We had just crossed the South Coast of France, and I was in the pilot’s cabin, when there was a frantic conversation with Ground Control.


“You are flying over a military zone without permission. Land at once.”


“But I’m just going to Geneva with some kids.”


“Land immediately or we’ll shoot you down.”


Reluctantly the pilot turned and landed at Istres, a French military airfield near Marseilles.  As we climbed out of the plane we were guarded by soldiers with guns and dogs.


We were put in a barrack-room which was comfortable enough, and given excellent food, but no freedom.  When we asked how long we would have to stay at Istres, no one knew.


Some of us decided that it would be better to leave and catch a train, but we were not allowed to go. It was explained that there was no-one on the station who had the authority to examine our passports. The only exception was made for an Indian boy whose father was the Ambassador in Paris.


We were, however, released the next day. Our plane followed the Rhone river, and roared through the narrow defiles between Lyon and Geneva.  It landed, we shook hands all round, and went our separate ways.  I caught a train to Lugano, where my parents were staying on holiday.


So ended my schooldays and my childhood.  I have much to be grateful for.


Wester Elchies showed me that nasty things don’t last for ever.


Aberlour House taught me not to fear death; like Gordonstoun it’s inevitable but it may not be as bad you think.


I have Gordonstoun to thank for nurturing my love of music, for  giving me a solid background in science, and for inculcating a love of the wilderness which has given me a lifetime of enjoyment in the hills. The motto of Gordonstoun is Plus est en vous  (“There is more in you than you think”).  How apposite was this motto in my case! I joined the school convinced that I was a delicate child, and left with a degree of self confidence that has served me well in every aspect of my life.



Appendix 1:      My mother’s account of leaving Russia


When I said that I have many small incidents dating from my childhood to relate, I did not realise that nearly all of them were sad. Only the very close relationship I had with nature in the country in company with my brothers and cousins stands out as something bright and enchanting.


Russian forests and fields, the very smell of grass and wild flowers had something specific in them. Gathering mushrooms and wild strawberries in the deep of the forest, knowing exactly where to look for them was a delight. We knew exactly under which trees and on what soil they were growing. I, personally, being probably sentimental loved the trees to such an extent that, when knowing myself alone I used to embrace them and kiss their bark.  When the moment for our flight arrived, it was the parting with the Russian earth that affected us most.  My younger brother went weeping through the park surrounding the house; he also put his beloved toys on the veranda so that the children of our workmen could find them when we were gone.


During the Kerensky regime we still stayed on; it was only after several weeks that the Red Army appeared in our district. They at once invaded the house leaving us two rooms.  They broke the keys on the grand piano, tore down the curtains, found the wine cellar and drank.  Late at night our foreman came in secretly and told us:


“Go away early in the morning. Put all you need in a big trunk and I will come at 5 o’clock and help you get to the station.


“I heard the soldiers talking, discussing whether to shoot you or not.  Then they asked me what kind of life we had with you. And when we said that we saw nothing but good from your whole family, they did not like the answer at all.”


So, during the night, my mother threw whatever she thought most necessary into the trunk, concealing some jewellery between the stockings.  Of course, she could not really think or know what to take, as the house was large and filled with beautiful things.  At five o’clock sharp our brave Ivan was before the house with a cart and we went on foot to the station.  Augusta stayed behind in the hope to save some precious objects for us. When the train arrived it was already full – people stood in the corridors and even the lavatories were full of people. Somehow we got in and the long, painful journey to Petrograd[31] began.  In Petrograd we were met by the lady whose son was saved from death by Gorki’s wife. She told us that our flat was occupied by the commissars and she took us to her place.


Then, a friend of ours, a Latvian baron (there were innumerable Baltic barons in Russia, specially in the North) procured for us Latvian passports and with this we could leave Russia. As far as I remember Latvia was then occupied by the Germans. Of course we were terrified lest somebody would speak Latvian to us at the frontier[32].


We left Petrograd one morning in a cattle truck. It was full of people sitting on the floor. Nobody complained of the discomfort. At the frontier we were searched but luckily the few jewels my mother had concealed in the trunk were not discovered.  Then we were taken to a refugee camp. We slept on wooden boards and received two meals a day – soup and bread. It was very clean.  After three days may mother, who spoke fluent German and was strikingly beautiful, spoke to the commandant of the camp, who took pity on us and put us on a train to Riga, where luckily we knew some Baltic barons who had fled before us. Our “special” baron had found two rooms for us in a flat of two old maids. By selling one of the jewels we were able to pay them.


Very soon my elder brother, only 17 at that time, joined the White Army. He was very delicate-looking due to all that had happened before we left.  Alas, he was not long with us as the Bolsheviks overran Latvia very soon after our departure. There was only one ship available for those who wanted to leave and evidently they took members of the White Army first. So my dear brother left us, leaving mother, myself and my younger brother behind.


After a few weeks food in the shops disappeared and a period of hunger began. We ate dried potato peelings, two slices of black bread which was full of straw, and soup, which was distributed to the population from a soup-kitchen. My brother and I took turns to fetch it; sometimes we stood two hours in the queue but it was worth-while, because the soup had potatoes and peas in it and was nourishing.  We replaced coffee with dried acorns and did not despise frozen potatoes (two pounds of frozen potatoes were a present from the Baron on my brother’s birthday).


Very soon our friend, the Baron, found himself in prison, as did some other friends. Out of the window we at times could see many people surrounded by soldiers; they were led to the fields, where they had to dig the graves into which they were shot. Those who hung behind received blows from the soldiers’ guns.


Luckily one of the rooms in the old maids’ flat was occupied by a sailor, who was very quiet and did us no harm – on the contrary he probably saved us from being arrested.  He only stole mother’s gold watch and my gold bracelet, but this was nothing in comparison with some kind of safety his living in the same flat gave us.


In spite of hunger and fear I still took piano lessons and both my brother and I went to school. We did not learn much, because much of our time was spent going to the country where in exchange for some clothing one could find vegetables and potatoes.


I remember one day my brother and I saw a soldier’s van, loaded with bread, driving down the street.  Some pieces of bread fell on the road and we did not think twice, nor were we ashamed, to pick them up.


This state of affairs lasted seven months.  On the whole we were in good health except chilblains and boils (my brother on his neck, myself in the ear). One day, returning from visiting my friend, I saw the streets full of cars, trucks etc. and along the pavement the soldiers running in a solid mass. Luckily a fence was behind me and I grasped it firmly with my hands trying to keep standing up.  A few bullets flew about.  I arrived home safe and sound, only the buttons of my coat were torn off and my blouse was torn. Thanks to the fence I was not trampled underfoot.


Then our liberators, ‘Latvian Whites’, arrived, bring with them loaves of bread.  We rushed out to the prison where our friends were imprisoned.  The streets were strewn with corpses. It seems strange to me now that I felt nothing when I saw the dead, some of them with their heads smashed.  But it is true, I felt nothing: no pity, no sorrow for these poor fellows, most of whom did not understand what they were dying for.


Arriving at the prison gates we say our friends coming out pale, but radiant. We felt relieved that the nightmare was over and planned to go to Berlin. We had friends from pre-war times in Berlin, we spoke German and as we would have to earn our living in some way, we, like many Russians, went to Germany. But before we could do so, we received tragic news. My dear brother had died of tuberculosis.  The shock was terrible for my mother and us. I can truly say that since his death I could never again experience the same strength of grief.  The poor boy had gone through too much in Russia and later in the White Army, and the whole tragedy had affected his health.


So we went to Berlin. During nearly the whole time in the train my mother and I were crying.  But I do not want to go into my experiences as an emigrant in Berlin. I was just 16; I was not trained to do anything at all – I could speak French and German, but I had no time to finish school. Another important event was that my mother, after her divorce married a man 16 years younger than herself. It was impossible for me to live with them, so I was alone. But this is another long chapter in my life and has nothing to do with my childhood.










[1] After writing this I came across my mother’s version of these events (see Appendix 1).  She describes them in far greater detail

[2] The tragedies and disruption of my mother’s youth meant that she missed out on her education. When I had left school she fulfilled a long-term ambition by gaining several A-levels and enrolling as an undergraduate at Kings College, London. She chose Spanish because, she said, it was a language that no-one else in the family could speak.


She obtained her degree and went on to do a Masters in research in Spanish Literature. Her special subject was “The influence of Tolstoy on Galdos”.    She contributed several papers to learned journals, and continued to correspond with Spanish scholars all over the world until her eighties.

[3] I visited the Empire State building again only four years ago. The view from the top was the same, and nothing inside had changed.

[4]  Incidentally these steps have remained completely unchanged up to the present day.

[5] Russian cutlet – a kind of rissole made with mince-meat and onions

[6] V2s did far less damage overall than ordinary bombs. They penetrated the ground so deeply before exploding that the blast was directed upwards instead of sideways.

[7] Grissoles –a portmanteau word composed of Gristle and Rissoles

[8] Presumably the boy in the picture wearing a stripey jersey has not passed the Tenderfoot test

[9] Uncle George had an interesting war.  Initially he enrolled in the RAF as an aircraftsman, and since he had some experience of clocks and watches, he was put to repairing aircraft instruments.


After a couple of months someone looking at his details noticed that he spoke Russian. He was immediately promoted to Lieutenant and dispatched to Murmansk in the North of Russia as an interpreter for the RAF delegation stationed there.


The journey took twelve hours in the belly of a bomber. It was so cold that my uncle and the two admirals who were the other passengers lay in a huddle on the floor under all the blankets they could find.  They still arrived frozen and had to be thawed out with vodka.


Uncle George’s departure was so sudden that he did not have time to have an officer’s uniform made. He wore his badges of insignia on an aircraftman’s battle dress. 


“Lieutenant Moës, why aren’t you properly dressed?” became a standing joke in the officers’ mess.


As time went by, George’s wife Peggy had several uniforms made and sent to Russia. In every case the ship was sunk en route, and Uncle George never had the right uniform until he came back to England.


After the war ended he was sent to Germany, where he acquired various military mementos.


[10]  I actually did resume skiing, aged about 65. I had great fun until I fell and snapped the ACL in my knee.  Sadly, that put an end it

[11] The correct pronunciation is  Craig  Ellachie, with the accent on the E and a Scottish ch sound.


[12] Some years afterwards, my mother told me that she was so upset at parting again that she sat in the hotel and wept. The owner took pity on her and gave her a drink of such strength that nothing mattered any more!

[13] Very many years later I met Mr. Brereton at an Old Boys’ weekend at Gordonstoun. I had always longed for the chance to ask him what he had thought he was doing to damage our education so badly, but by now he was very old and infirm, and I thought it would be kinder to let the matter drop.


[14] About £3 in today’s money (2007)

[15] I’m a vegetarian now, thank God!

[16] It is of some lasting regret that I never made this rank. I was appointed a CBC for my last few weeks at the school, after I had already gained admission to Oxford. In later life I have occupied some positions of authority (such as the Head of a University Department) and the experience of being a colourbearer would, I’m sure, have been useful.


[17] I have always loved solitary walking and I thoroughly enjoyed these ‘punishments’, even in winter when I walked over ice and snow in bright moonlight.


[18] One boy claimed tat he was striding along on a cold wet day when a kindly lady stopped her car and offered him a lift.

“No thanks,” he said. “I’m in a hurry.”


[19] We noticed that boys who received this treatment were then rapidly promoted past their original rank.  The rise from ’new boy’ to colourbearer could take place in less than a year provided you had drawn attention to yourself by doing something really bad, like visiting a pub in school uniform and getting drunk…


[20] Drug-taking was unknown in those days


[21] Supposed to counteract the effects of swallowing the untreated water in the lake.


[22] I have the impression that all of us – masters as well as boys – were having far too much fun to be bothered with studies.  This is not to say that there were not some excellent teachers on the staff; I had the benefit of their skills during my last two years at the school.


[23] With hindsight I often wonder why he didn’t use Calculus to prove some standard results (such as the properties of rotating masses) but relied on doubtful algebraic processes instead.


[24] The scar is still visible.

[25] Not his real name


[26] At Oxford, I returned to my rooms one evening to find a note from Kurt Hahn –


“Come to breakfast at the Randolph Hotel tomorrow morning (8.00).”


I duly turned up the next morning, in the company of several other Old Gordonstoun boys. One of them told us of a frightful nightmare. He dreamed that Kurt Hahn was shaking him by the shoulder, and saying  “Breakfast in half an hour!”.  Then it dawned on him that this was not a dream at all; it had actually happened.


A few years later Kurt invited my wife and me to dinner at Brown’s Hotel in London. One of the guests was a distinguished chest surgeon.  Half way through the meal, Kurt asked him,


“Are you on call just now?”




“Does the hospital know where you are?”


“Well – no.”


“Go at once, my boy, ring them up and tell them! Brown’s Hotel”.

[27] Much later in my life, Godfrey and Mary visited me in Glasgow. My own wife Veronica was away on tour with the Scottish Ballet. As dinner-time drew near Godfrey and I sat sipping sherry in our drawing room, while Mary and my younger daughter Kate (who was nine at the time)  prepared a meal in the kitchen.  This scene would have been unimaginable to me as I sat in Cumming House having breakfast with the Housemaster!


[28]  These shops have now all been converted to massage parlours and the like.   Lyle St. is no longer the right place for a young person to hang about!

[29] It seems that earthquakes in that part of Greece recur at fairly regular intervals of about 120 years.  In the years immediately after an earthquake everyone remembers its horrors, and new buildings are designed accordingly.  Gradually, as the years pass, the earthquake fades from living memory, and a century later they go back to tall stone buildings. And so the cycle repeats itself …


[30]  Constantine eventually became King, but was forced to flee into exile when the Colonels took over Greece.  He never regained his throne.

[31] The name of St. Petersburg was changed to Petrograd at the beginning of World War 1.

[32] The Latvian language is entirely different from Russian