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Margo MacDonald

The MSP found heaven in the school gym - and sound advice from its made-up, besuited, chain-smoking ruler

The MSP found heaven in the school gym - and sound advice from its made-up, besuited, chain-smoking ruler

I had this absolutely wonderful teacher when I was at primary school. He was an unusual sort of person in those days in a Scottish primary. He was male for a start, and secondly he had a PhD, so he was a "Dr". His name was Hugh Aitken and I think he was a member of the Legion d'Honneur, the French Legion, for having done work in translation during the war.

He was just that wee bit different and exotic, which made him interesting. But much more importantly, he had a love of imparting knowledge. He wanted to share things with us and make us see the excitement, the relevance, the importance and just the sheer fun that could be had in being able to read and interpret the English language.

Dr Aitken was a tall man, going a bit grey and he had glasses. I think he must have been in his 50s - he always seemed quite old to me. He wore dark navy suits and the trousers always had a crease in them. I count myself very lucky to have encountered him at primary school. It gave me the proper opening to secondary.

Like every other teenager, I was slightly less cerebral in my approach to things at secondary school. I had always known I was quite sporty but I realised at secondary that I was really sporty. I had a terrific time down in the gym. That was heaven. And down in the gym Mrs Brown reigned supreme.

I thought she was wonderful too. Not because she was dressed perfectly in a tracksuit and white Slazengers - she wasn't that sort of PE teacher at all. She wore perfect well-cut suits, skirts and jackets, with perhaps a wee silk bow on her blouse at the neck. She did not run, she taught running. The only piece of apparel I ever saw her remove to show she was serious (about getting a point across in class) would be her shoes.

She was always made up in the style of the day, which was quite heavy make-up, and always with a cigarette between her fingers. She didn't smoke in the gym, but in a wee room beside it. She was definitely a lady of a certain age. She was interested in all the things which I was interested in, not just sports but also make-up and dancing.

In those days you had to have Lower Latin if you wanted to do PE at university, but no one had told me that. So when I was about to leave school, a decision had to be made on whether I would go back to do a measly Latin course or not. It was Mrs Brown who told me I would scoosh the exam and could go out dancing every night, so that was it.

She was a caring teacher, too, although if you couldn't do a decent handstand she was less caring.

Hamilton Academy was a very academically selective school. It was not fee- paying, but it was very elitist. Only the top 0.5 per cent of kids in Lanarkshire scored (enough to pass) the qualifying exam.

The rector inculcated in us all pride in ourselves and our achievements. We all thought he was a snob, but he wasn't a snob. He was coming from a socialist perspective and he was making sure that if we had the same ability we should have the same chances as those who had more buttresses.

We were the creme de la creme. When I became a journalist, I was always running into former Hamilton Academy pupils. The boss of IBM in Scotland had been in my class. Politically, going to Hamilton Academy must have done something to me, I think, too. At student elections I was usually the Communist Party election agent.

I never met either of my teachers again after leaving school. Both of them brought out the best and the worst in me.

Margo MacDonald was talking to Julia Horton


Born: Burnbank, near Hamilton, 1943

Education: Glenlee Primary and Hamilton Academy, Hamilton; Dunfermline College of Physical Education, Aberdeen

First job: Lanarkshire PE teacher, then a journalist. Elected SNP MSP in 1973. Currently Independent Lothians MSP.

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