Alison Laidlaw

22nd June 2007 at 01:00
Alison Laidlaw, who died recently aged 98, was the sort of teacher every parent wants for their child and in whose class every child wants to be.

Nicknamed Ladybird because she was always ladylike and polite, and because everyone likes ladybirds, she was a primary teacher at James Gillespie's School for Girls in Edinburgh for almost all her teaching career.

Gillespie's was the inspiration for Muriel Spark's novel The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. The author was a pupil there.

Miss Laidlaw's lifelong relationship with the school began early. At the age of five, in 1914, her mother walked her from the Marchmont apartment where Miss Laidlaw lived all her life, across the road to the large school.

Being English, her mother didn't understand the system in Scotland, so she took her daughter to the gate, gave her a push, and left her to trot across the playground. She was simply "expected to get on with it".

But Miss Laidlaw did much more. She won the class prizes in 1915 and 1916 and clearly became a special pupil. Her memories of those early days were of Zeppelins over Edinburgh, watched nervously from behind thick damask curtains. She was evacuated to Fife, where she stayed for most of the war until she was brought home because her father fell ill.

After completing her education back at Gillespie's, she went to Edinburgh University and then to Moray House to do her teacher training. For the next few years, she worked as a supply teacher, until being taken on permanently at Gillespie's. She was delighted to be back at her old school.

She lived through two wars, becoming a fire-fighter in the second, but all the time watched over Gillespie's as year after year of young ladies progressed through the school.

She always looked back with pride, satisfaction and not a little humour at her time as a teacher there. As well as her primary class, she taught country dancing and swimming, for which she was commended in the school magazine. Years later, she admitted she could barely keep herself afloat for 10 strokes.

A child of the suffragette era, she refused to be the submissive female and tried to instil the same determination in her pupils, once saying when asked what her subject was: "I taught survival."

Miss Laidlaw retired from Gillespie's shortly before it became a fully co-ed comprehensive in the early 1970s, but she never lost contact with her school, helping, for instance, with charity work to fund students' field trips.

Miss Laidlaw's passion for her school matched her passion for life. A keen golfer who enjoyed playing Bruntsfield Links, she was vibrant to the end, retaining a wide circle of friends who loved her for her sense of humour and lively conversation.

Her story takes pride of place among the growing number being collected by Gillespie's. The trustees are determined she will become one of the central stories in a national oral history museum they hope to build at the school - a development that would have delighted her.

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