Comann Eachdraidh Ionadail Phortrigh

Portree Local History Society


The Best Days of our Lives

(Reminiscences of Portree High School)

I G Macdonald
Retired Depute Head Teacher

Having spent 38 years of my life at Portree High School it was thought, by some, that I might be best-placed to reminisce about our old alma mater.

I began school with the Easter Primary 1 intake of 1956. To be honest I remember little of that particular day other than that several of my new classmates were weepy, upset and missing their mummies. In those days there were no Sgoiltean Àraich or Cròileagain to break us in! Our Primary 1 classroom was Room 4 in the “Old Building”.
In later years this became one of the English classrooms, the domain of the redoubtable Alan Whiteford (Buddy), and later the benign Alister Ross. Our teacher was the darling Mrs Sheila Urquhart whom we loved dearly.
For Primary 2 we simply moved next-door to Room 5 which for years had been Mrs Rodina MacFarlane’s classroom, but she had recently retired, so our teacher was a young lady who lived at Sconser whose name, shame on me, I can not remember. Was she married to a Maths teacher in the Secondary who had a little blue sports car?
Later Room 5 was to become Mrs MacDairmid’s room and then the school library.
For Primary 3 we moved out to the horsa huts and Mrs MacLean, aunt of Ian Stewart from the hardware shop.
Primary 4 was Jetta Ross, later to become another Mrs Maclean.

I looked forward with anticipation and some trepidation to Primaries 5 and 6, as I knew Mrs Nicolson from church and Mrs Michie was our next-door neighbour.
There was considerable pressure to conform and behave well, as Portree was a particularly close community at that time.
Woe-betide-you if your parents heard bad things about you from the teachers or Sandy Ruadh and John Campbell (Cheely) the janitors, whose duties included shovelling coal and stoking several boilers!

My main memories of Primary school are of the daily free milk (and seconds), the coal fire in Mrs Michie’s corrugated-iron hut, exquisite football and shinty at the “playtimes”, pink custard in the canteen, learning to swim in Annie Weir’s canvas pool and my favourite - athletics with Farquhar MacLean, “The Bopper”, later to become my great friend, neighbour and colleague.
For Primary 7, the “Qually”, we had Mrs Hodson and hand-work with Mrs Christine MacLean.
This inadvertently provided a link with the Secondary school as both were married to teachers we would have when we moved to the “big school”.
While in P7 I can clearly remember the day we expected the World to blow up during the Cuban Missile Crisis and breaking John MacLeod’s glasses at football; both of equal importance!

The move to Secondary school was as exciting as it is for pupils nowadays, but not as traumatic, because we were used to being on the same campus as the older ones and knew many of the foibles of those who were to teach us.
English, History, Latin and French were in rooms around the hall, but Maths and Science were in the separate “Science Block” which also housed the Headmaster’s and Secretary’s rooms.
Art, PE and Woodwork were in the fairly new “Tech Block”. John Steele was Acting Head for a time, following the death of Iain Murray who had done so much to interest my brother in Golden Eagles and other wildlife.

I remember the buzz about the place when it was announced that the new Headmaster was to be a native Skyeman, Farquhar MacIntosh. Like his predecessors he lived with his wife and family in the school-house, attached to the “Old School” and shared the tower with the old bell which I cannot remember ever hearing. (My memory is of the hand bell rung by senior pupils like Kenny MacPherson, Norman Gillies, and finally, myself, before electronics took over.) The tower was later immortalised by my friend Robert MacDonald’s superb 1970 drawing, days before it was so cruelly demolished.

Up through the school I had a series of unforgettable teachers: Latin with saintly Calum MacLeod and flirtatious Moira MacKay, Science with George Hodson, Robin Murray and Stanley Robertson, as well as a short spell with Douglas MacKenzie (the baker) who worked for a short time as an uncertificated teacher. His mum, Ailean, was our “Singing” teacher until Mr Fisher and Mr Welford came.
Miss Smart and Richard Townsend took us for French and Ian Willoughby for Woodwork.
Do you remember Mr Willoughby telling us to put our blazers over our heads, as if in a submarine, hold one sleeve like a periscope? - “Close the hatches”, “dive, dive, dive”, as he poured water down the sleeve.
“I told you to close the hatches!!”

For Art we had the gruff John (Knocky) Macdonald; for Arithmetic the fierce Mrs MacInnes (Sadie, “take a hundred lines”) who later, out of school, proved to be the nicest, gentlest and kindest lady; and little did I realise that several of these would later be my colleagues when I returned in 1980 to teach at Portree.
For different reasons I particularly remember the arrival of certain female staff members. The flamboyant and inspiring Margaret Penrose (later Methven), my good friend and mentor the lovely Janet MacLeod and a young man’s fancy Janice Dickie.
George Moody, Robin Murray and later Alistair Turner and Forrest Moffat were a great influence on the outdoor side of my schooling and Field Trips, excursions to Torrin and Athletics at Inverness, Dingwall, Gordonstoun and Glasgow are remembered as wonderful experiences.
We had a succession of History teachers; the actor Robert Cameron enthralled us at end of term by reading “The Para Handy Tales”. If Dougie was here he would tell you!
Mr Laing introduced us to Rugby and D. J. Macdonald (Hero) got us through Higher.
My chief regret was that I did not study Gaelic in Secondary.
In all this time we lived and learned in the “Old School”, the Tech. Block and one or two huts, but during my S5 we moved into the “New School” with our new Head, Mr MacAskill (Eef).

This “New” building was eagerly awaited.
We had been subjected to constant noise and distractions for more than a year, as the steel frame was erected and hundreds of windows appeared. Jimmy Peacock was the time-keeper and tea-maker and Mr Nelson from Sleat seemed to have an important role.
Higher English in Room 4 saw Shakespeare’s “MacBeth” and Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” accompanied by drilling and the revving of dumper trucks. How did our teachers ever manage to keep our attention?
Exams were taken in the Elgin Hostel, accompanied by the loud ticking of an annoying clock.
And then it was ready!
Happy days! Senior pupils, feeling so important as we helped the staff to move in!
But, was the roof not upside down? The pitch in to the centre! Surely someone had made a serious mistake! Who were we to judge our elders and betters?!
Everyone else seemed pleased with this new building, later to be described, very aptly, by my pal Donnie Munro as “like a Soviet fish-canning factory”.
Did anyone complain or mourn the passing of the majestic “Old building”?
Were we blinded by progress?

We seniors only had a few months in the “New building” before moving away to be very little fish in a very big pond.
In retrospect, my schooldays seem to have been relatively free, fun but fleeting although a very positive experience; and most of the bad times, which there must have been, have long since been forgotten.

11 years later, in 1980 I returned as Assistant Principal Teacher of Guidance “in charge” of the unsuspecting First Years. The “Tech. Block” and gym were unchanged but the “Games Hall” with its climbing wall had been added and the Primary school had long-since been installed on the ground floor.
No sign of the Assembly Hall with stage and changing facilities which had been promised as phase 3. The outer perimeter wall of the “playground” seemed solid enough, although John Scally and I had been involved in its building in my University holidays!

There were other changes too. The Headteacher was now the respected ex-footballer, Jim Rodger who remained for 22 productive years.
More huts had been added instead of phase 3 of the “New Building”, to take the extra pupils displaced from the Staffin, Dunvegan, Broadford and Portnalong Secondary Schools which had been downgraded to Primary-only status for the sake of ROSLA (raising of the school leaving age to 16 on a shoe-string).
Pupil behaviour and parental support were a joy after my years teaching in Inverness and the South! My approach to discipline must have seemed OTT as I struggled to adjust!
“EARBAM” - Let me trust. The motto on the badge was still the same but pride in the uniform was on the wane through the 80s and 90s in line with a deterioration in national standards. Did we as teachers and parents do enough to arrest the decline?

Teaching at Portree High School was generally for me a very happy time but punctuated by two particularly sad experiences, the deaths of my highly respected friends and colleagues Stanley Robertson and Robert MacDonald.
Feeling very inadequate I took over from Stanley as Principal Teacher of Chemistry, very conscious that this was a link with the past as he had been my teacher and a former pupil of PHS.
What excellent colleagues we had through the years and what a sense of purpose in spite of the inadequacies of the huts and the need to cannibalise the Elgin Hostel to provide extra classrooms for the growing needs of an under-funded modern education system.
Were we too stoical? Did we as staff and parents let down the pupils of Skye by ‘make and mend’ and doing ‘our best’ with the facilities we had?
Acting Heads, Alister Ross and Donald Wallace and Head Teachers David Meek and John Howieson certainly played their part in keeping the pressing needs of Portree High School high on Highland Council’s agenda.
Now, at last! A facility for the 21st Century!

Will the “New, New School” be the Tir nan Og?

I.G. Macdonald

Published by Stephen Clarke, on behalf of Portree Local History Society - © I G MacDonald October 2011.

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