Best Days of Your Life? Memories of Schooldays in East Lothian

15/06/201611:09 am15/06/2016 11:10 amLeave a Comment

You may remember Best Days of Your Life?, an exhibition we held at the John Gray Centre about schooldays last year.  As part of the research we did a number of interviews and I thought it would be nice to share some of the memories here.  A big thank you to the members of Haddington Remembered and Haddington Active Memories who were interviewed for the project.

Many of our interviewees grew up during wartime. Cathie went to School in Cockenzie and remembers playing outside in the girls’ playground as a spitfire and Messerschmitt battled overhead. Eventually the German plane was shot down and a local fishing boat helped to pull it to shore.  The girls were excited rather than frightened, they had never seen an aeroplane before.

Mr McKenzie's Class, Cockenzie School, 1940s

Mr McKenzie’s Class, Cockenzie School, 1940s

John was brought up in the South Side of Edinburgh and went to Sciennes Primary. He was evacuated to Fife at the start of the war along with his brother and two sisters.  He remembers his Mother bundling their clothes into parcels because they didn’t have suitcases.  They went on the train to Cupar and were taken to a reception hall to await billeting.  Each child was given a brown bag with sugar and biscuits but they never saw these again!  They only stayed in Fife for about three weeks and then Mother came and took them home again.  To the delight of John and his brothers and sisters they didn’t go straight back to school because the schools were closed.

Many schools had air raid shelters built in the playground. The shelters at Knox Academy were built from brick with no doors and windows, just a trap door.   Even now  Rena recalls the feeling of claustrophobia as overwhelming – the children had to crawl in on their hands and knees and sit in complete darkness.

Evacuees leaving Edinburgh, 1939

Evacuees leaving Edinburgh, 1939

Tommy remembers the first time the air raid siren went off at Macmerry.  The arrangement was that if you were on your way home and you were nearer school than home you went back to school.  School was out and the boys were playing football on Macmerry Green.  So intense was the game they took no notice of the siren or the teacher who came out to get them back to school: “Just the winning goal, Miss, just the winning goal”.  When they did eventually go back to school 10 or 12 of them were taken out and belted for this misdemeanour.

Discipline was always strict. Gordon was brought up in Leith and remembers ‘the wee science teacher’ who used to call us out and give us the belt for ‘what was about to happen’.  “Ach You just took it as it came.  Sometimes you opened your hands and got it on the knee”.  Aside from the belt other favourite punishments were the chalkboard duster and lines.  In the 1960s the  boys at Dunbar put up a petition to get a changing hut built at the rugby pitches.  They didn’t get the hut but they did get 100 lines for impertinence.

If you were caught playing truant you were in trouble at school but often worse at home. Jake was born in Dundee:  “I never plunked we called it – a whole day.  It was the last two periods if we didn’t like it.  I’d go down to the snooker hall and play snooker”.  Jake never ‘plunked’ again after the truant officer paid a visit to his father.

Athelstaneford School, about 1900

Athelstaneford School, about 1900

Not every teacher believed in the belt and many are remembered with affection, such as the elderly cooking teacher at Dunbar who used to leave shortbread to cool on the windowsill that looked on to the girls’ playground. It tasted awfully good.   Pat, who went to school in Athelstaneford and North Berwick, was inspired to train as a teacher herself.  After training at Moray House her first job was at Macmerry school.  Teaching her own class was completely different to college.  The other teachers were very helpful but so was a teacher’s guide written by Enid Blyton with all kinds of lesson plans.  Pat remembers the curriculum being more flexible then. The pupils didn’t enjoy visits from the school doctor, Dr Anderson, because this usually meant getting a jag.  The doctor used to say ‘izzy wizzy let’s get busy’ and stick the needle in, and on one occasion she injected Pat first as an example to the pupils!

Sometimes the school buildings left a lot to be desired, especially the toilets. Nessie went to Whittingehame  school  at Luggate Burn and would avoid using the toilet at school if she could: “The girls’ toilet was a long plank of wood. There were three holes in it, three little holes. Underneath there was a stone with constant water running and that was it.  And it only flushed when the headmaster flushed his toilet in his adjoining house.  So you can imagine ….. it was absolutely horrific”.

This is just a taster from the oral histories we collected. Next year we are staging an exhibition to celebrate the centenary of the SWRI. If you are a member of the rural, or have been a member and would like to share your memories with us we would love to hear from you.  Pop in to the Archive and Local History Centre at the John Gray Centre,  or telephone us 01620 820695, email [email protected].

Written by RuthF



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