Headmaster’s Headlines

Headmaster’s Headlines

13th January, 2015


I chose to speak to the School about the topic “It’s just bant-ah”.  Unexpectedly, my words tied in neatly with the Chaplain’s words to us all on the importance of self-censorship.  Rev Blair described an excellent acronym, which is actually from Mrs Blair, which advises as follows: Before you say anything, THINK: Is it True; is it Helpful; is it Inspiring; is it Necessary; is it Kind As ever, we leave no stone unturned with regard to bullying.  I thought it would be helpful for readers of Headmaster’s Headlines to show you the message as it was delivered to the School.

“I attended a boys’ boarding prep school in Kenya and then a boys’ boarding senior in the south of England.  In both, I had for many a day and a year tough times.  Believe it or not, I was very sensitive.  I also had a mop of blonde hair and I was accelerated through the year groups for sport.  I was perceived to be an outstanding games player so I played for the top teams in cricket, hockey and tennis from the Shell upwards.  Accordingly, I was singled out, and paradoxically, bullied.  I became the butt of banter, teasing and bullying.  Running away from School for real from London to Newcastle to my granny’s, my only relation in the whole of the UK, and attempting self-harm, was the level to which I fell.  In those days, in boarding schools, you were normally expelled for behaving like this.  It was to the huge credit of the School that some extraordinary schoolmasters looked after me (which is why I entered the teaching vocation and profession) and ultimately, somewhat bizarrely, I ended up as Captain of School.  One of my first moves was to abolish (with the support of my prefects) ‘personal fagging’ throughout the whole school.  Personal fagging belongs to Tom Brown’s School Days.  Essentially, as prefects we had a younger pupil who was our underling, and we were quite entitled to ask this younger pupil to polish our shoes, polish our CCF boots, clean our coffee mugs, make us toast, clean up our pots and pans after cooking baked beans on toast or scrambled egg on toast and the like.  So, when I started as Captain of School I meant business, for I felt this was a gross abuse of other human beings, and effectively was a form of bullying.  After all, I had experience of being bullied myself.”

“My heart sinks when I occasionally hear Housemasters saying that pupil x or pupil y is unhappy because others are making him unhappy.  Now, I know that you will always understand that I seek nothing less than the ideal and nothing less than perfection.  This is the reverse of my use of le mieux est l’ennemi du bien: the best is the enemy of the good; the perfect is the enemy of the good; the better is the enemy of the good.  Essentially, this Voltaire saying from 1772 might suggest if you are too ambitious and try to make something better than you are capable of, you may ruin it.  But in this particular area, I think that no stone can be left unturned in the pursuit of zero tolerance of bullying.  And of course, this may start with banter.  In all schools, there has been an extraordinary rehabilitation of banter.  I read an article in the TES this weekend, by Tom Bennett, a teacher in Essex, entitled: Intolerable Cruelty and it tells the story of a ‘big-boned boy’ who took every opportunity to loudly tell everyone his edgy opinions on race, gender and class.  Any thought was instantly downloaded into his mouth and launched; except one day, he told anyone in range that he had been baptised at the weekend.  “Was it at Deep Sea World?” replied another pupil in the class.  The class fell about laughing at the ‘big-boned’ pupil.  The boy fell silent for perhaps the first time in his life as the ‘monkey troops’ whooped and shrieked with pleasure at the wound.  Ah, banter….”

“Banter is rarely without victim, and at its heart the motive really is ‘cruelty’.  What is so interesting is that banter in a friendship group is based on profound trust and camaraderie, and this is fine, but if one is outside the close friendship group, one will not necessarily see this as banter and perceptions=reality.”

“And of course, there is no point in trying to ban banter!  But, we must ensure that we all refuse to allow ‘cruelty’ to each other to disguise itself as masculine, muscular, burly banter.  If banter is happening outside the very tight friendship group based on trust and camaraderie, then I am afraid it is simply one reason among many to hurt other people for the entertainment of other boys.  I urge you to consider what type of banter you might be using.  Is it banter leading to what someone else might consider to be intolerable cruelty or bullying?”

“This YouTube clip has been produced by Laura Iles for the Fixers Project through which young people are using their past to fix the future.  Whilst this is from the point of view of a young woman, it has a valid message for us all.”

How apt are the final words of this clip: “Words can hurt, words can bruise, so think about the words you use.  What seems like a simple comment to one, could make someone else feel like the smallest person on earth.”


mandarinWe had a huge range of activities reflected in the gathering, and first, I congratulated some Sixth Form students who were entered in December for the official Chinese exam HSK for Level 2 and 3.  The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (HSK) is an official examination designed to assess the Chinese language proficiency of non-native speakers.  It is probably the only exam that Chinese companies/institutes would recognise.  I congratulated William and Charlie who for the level 3 scored 220/300, and 271/300 respectively.  For Level 2, I congratulated Philip and Drew, who scored 170/200 and 181/200 respectively.  Iruaridh was delighted to hear that Mrs Hsu-McWilliam told me these young men worked really hard to prepare for this exam and that they enjoyed the process, not least because it followed a very different format from UK school exams.

Turning to music, I congratulated Ruaridh (for those of you who have not seen him drumming, do ensure that you give yourself the opportunity to do so!) who has passed his Grade 8 Drumming with Merit.

ottomanaffairTurning to creative writing and young writers … Before Christmas, I was delighted to hear from Graham Wilson (Merchistonian) who attended Merchiston from 2005 to 2010.  Graham is a Scottish boy who was born in Melrose and he attended an extremely good prep school, St Mary’s Melrose, before coming to Merchiston.  At Merchiston, he was Drum Sergeant in Pipe Band, Corporal in CCF, Senior Prefect, Deputy Head of House, member of 1XV, athletics team and Young Enterprise.  He excelled in English Literature, History and Classics.  One of his greatest achievements was publishing his first novel before he left School in 2010 and titled roadtodresdenThe Ottoman Affair.  After he left Merchiston, he attended Exeter University and graduated in 2013 with a degree in Classical Studies, and he is currently at Edinburgh University doing his fourth year law conversion course.  Before Christmas, I received a copy of his second novel, The Road to Dresden.  There is a copy of this novel, as there is a copy of The Ottoman Affair, in the Spawforth Library.

This is remarkable.  I hope that we will be able to invite Graham back to School in due course to speak to us again about his novel writing feats.  But, creative writing starts in small but significant places.  In November, we heard that many of the youngsters at School had been successful in having poems published in the Young Writers’ National Writing Competition: War of Words.  We wrote wonderful conflict-themed poetry and many of you have been chosen for publication in War of Words – Scotland and Wales.  Having work published is not only something to be proud of, but it will encourage these young men to continue to develop their writing talent.  Remember Graham Wilson started somewhere, and it’s small acorns … Accordingly, it was wonderful to congratulate so many young writers:

First Form: Robbie, Oliver, Patrick, Hamish, Tom, Callum, Hadrien

Second Form: Douglas, Bertie, Angus, Austin, Angus, Matthew, Torquil, Fred, Freddie, Matthew, Ben, Thomas, Tom, Thomas, Jamie, Charlie, Max, John, Niles, Max, Noah, Marcus, Marcus, Angus, Lucan, Tristan, Ubanni, James, Oskar, Kenny, Ben

Third Form: Andrew, Orlando, Tom, David, Alex, Alexander, Magnus, James, Hamish, Jamie, Brodan, Christopher, Max, Euan, Rory, Hector, Josiah, Jacobo, Marc, Jack, Oscar, Rory, Johnny, Charlie, John-Paul, Robert, Alvaro

Fourth Form: Cameron, Robert, George, Matthew, Ben, Rory, Stuart, Alex, James, Jacob, Ahmad, Benjamin, Matthew, Douglas, Hamish, Charles, Jamie, Daniel, Finbar, Cameron, Bassam, Lachlan, James, Hamish, Michael, Douglas, Owain, Anatoly, Diego, Riley, Max, Steven, Nicolas, Marcus, Osten, Tom, Stuart, William


For sure, I did a lot of handshaking in that bout of congratulations, but I am delighted that creative writing in Pringle and Chalmers West is going so well.  At the end of last term we also heard that some of the youngsters have work published in Spine-tinglers: A Collection of Ghost Stories.  We will acknowledge this success on a separate occasion!

Turning to sport, we all know that the weather has been a tad challenging of late!  So, we literally almost had a wash-out over the weekend but I am delighted that our Fives teams played against The Jesters.  They all lost their matches, but the Invitational VI won.  The Jesters were founded in 1929 by a schoolboy, Jock Burnett, who wished to encourage the playing of racket sports: squash, tennis, real tennis, fives and racquets.  There is an active fixture list in all these sports which are played against other clubs and schools.  The Jesters is now a worldwide organisation of over 3000 members.  Members are elected and candidates are selected on the basis of playing ability, sportsmanship and contribution to the game.  I was extremely fortunate to be elected a member of The Jesters Club in 1985 for squash and whilst I cannot play squash anymore, I believe firmly in the principles of The Jesters Club.  These principles should be espoused by all those who play sport at Merchiston.

At the end of last term we received the LTA Team Tennis Schools’ Boys’ Final Year End Rankings 2014 up to and including the Year 8 and Year 10 National Finals.  I am delighted that Merchiston is placed second out of 22 schools, gaining 80 points from the National Championships, 40 in the Year 8 National Finals, and 30 in the Year 10 National Finals, making a total of 150.  So, many, many congratulations to our tennis players.

stuartI congratulated Stuart who was selected to represent Lothian region at badminton in an annual under 14 Anglo-Scottish team event in Newcastle at the end of the Christmas holiday.   The Lothian team was unbeaten in the tournament and won the trophy with Stuart helping by winning every match he played!

I congratulated our U12 football team which won the Merchiston Invitational Tournament at the weekend, defeating Ardvreck, Cargilfield, Loretto and Clifton Hall.

finnNow this is a new one for me.  It was marvellous to congratulate Finn who has been selected for the U11 Scottish National Ice Hockey team and he will play in two international tournaments in France and England this spring.  To my knowledge, this is a first in the rich sporting history at Merchiston!

cameronThe annual Anglo Scottish Skiing Cup, a British open event attracting many French-based racers, was held in Chamonix during the holidays.  Charles achieved a 2nd place in the U14 Giant Slalom event, while Cameron achieved 7th place in the U14 Slalom.  On the back of Cameron’s win in the Lothian Ski Racing Association’s U14 Slalom in November the boys have made a good start to the season.  These two youngsters have made a very good start to the season and it was a pleasure to congratulate them.


I have one this week.  We are highly fortunate with our facility, the Memorial Hall.  Indeed, this is one of the reasons why Governors moved the School from its original location in Merchiston to the Colinton location in 1930 because the planners would not allow the building of a memorial hall.  As we know, this serves many purposes, not least a mixture of the secular and the spiritual.  But of a Whole School Sunday Chapel Service (and last Sunday was the first Sunday after Epiphany) it brings together a remarkable gathering of the whole School, many, many parents and staff.  The gathering starts early at 9am as boys are dropped off for Choir rehearsal.  To all readers of Headmaster’s Headlines, if you have travelled a considerable way, please remember that our Old Library is open from 9am onwards; coffee and tea is served in here and this is a good warm space to read your papers (and even use our wifi) and/or do some work!  These Whole School Sunday Chapel Services to my mind are a remarkable manifestation of the moral and spiritual compass of the School.  They are also very sociable occasions, and following the Service this week we all enjoyed sharing refreshments in the Houses.  Such a Chapel Service is also given much dynamism by the quality of the speaker and indeed the Choir.  I congratulated the Choir on performing the anthem Joy to the World so confidently.  It was a pleasure to welcome our speaker Mrs Tara Devlin, from the Christian Aid agency Tearfund, who lives locally, in Balerno, with her husband Adrian.  In August of this year Tara led a Scottish Tearfund team to the Thai /Cambodian border, working and encouraging the CHO (Cambodian Hope Organisation) and their work against Human Trafficking, especially of children.  She is passionate and committed to awakening the church at large, as to how it can, and should be motivated to making more of a difference.  Mrs Devlin’s address was certainly powerful and timely, and I hope the School will rise to the challenge that she set – to research the junior section of the charity,  It is interesting that we have a Merchiston connection at Tearfund as Merchiston parents, Mrs Julia Ogilvy and Mrs Stephanie Heald, sit on the charity’s Board of Directors.


phelan familyI would not normally do this, but I was so pleased to see Nathaniel’s parents and his sister in our midst.  Nathaniel came to Merchiston all the way from Australia on exchange for a period of time in Chalmers West, and he returned as a full-time Merchiston pupil in Chalmers East.  How wonderful it was to see this family at our Chapel Service, and how fortunate it was that it was Nathaniel’s 17th birthday too.  So, before we listened to the organist, Mr Turner, playing a voluntary to encourage us to take some time out and peace for reflection, we sang Happy Birthday to Nathaniel.  And only afterwards did I realise Johnny, also in the Lower Sixth, turned 17, Hamish in the Shell turned 15 and Tomas turned 12 on Sunday!

This Week

There is much to achieve this term on the academic front and I encouraged the Fifth Form and Sixth Form to work with an increasing sense of urgency with coursework deadlines for some and Fifth Form mock examinations starting imminently!

How lucky the boys are that our Head of English, Mr Williams, has set about Book Groups running throughout the School, and on Monday night there was a stimulating discussion of David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks and notes which you may find interesting if you too have read the book.

We look forward to the Scholars’ Dinner when we are pleased to welcome to Merchiston our visiting speaker Mr Simon Mills, the new Head of Robert Gordon’s College in Aberdeen.

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