John Bellany

25th November 2011 at 00:00
A beautiful teacher had a `mindblowing' effect on the artist, as did a man whose insight inspires him to this day

At the start of the new autumn term of 1959 I was 17 and entering my final year at Preston Lodge, a secondary school in Prestonpans on the shores of the Firth of Forth near Port Seton, where I grew up.

I was quite preoccupied with my first girlfriend, Fay, at the time but when the new teacher, Miss Mackay, arrived at school to take up her first teaching post the effect was mind-blowing.

When she walked into the classroom she was embraced by a band of adolescents whose hormones were on the boil. She was a stunner with filmstar looks and a gentle, motherly touch - an irresistible combination for teenage boys.

She seemed blissfully unperturbed by the ardent behaviour of the boys and, unaware of the commotion she was causing; she took it all in her stride. She made the daily journey down to "the Pans" from Edinburgh to teach English and history and also helped with other classes after hours.

Preston Lodge was made up of the children of fishermen, miners and a few farmers. This was the end of the Fifties and so it was a fairly disciplined and happy school, very much part of the community but nevertheless we were a motley crew if ever there was one.

Likewise the teachers were very strong in their views and had no qualms in getting the "Lochgelly" leather belt out to teach any dissenters a thing or two.

Because of the age difference between us and because the gorgeous Miss Mackay was relatively slim, she was easily accommodated in our rampant fantasy lives, until the Christmas dance.

The fierce competition over our plans for the evening, and our ideas of getting our arms entangled in hers on the dance floor, knew no bounds and everyone was at fever pitch.

But lo and behold, there she was arriving accompanied by the son of the headmaster of the primary school, Hugh Fleming. Everyone's hopes were dashed at a stroke.

Probably my best teacher, however, was Mr Robertson, or Pom Robertson as we called him. Although he was small in stature you got the impression that he wouldn't suffer fools gladly. But he was a thoroughly good-hearted individual and we all respected him.

Like Miss Mackay, he taught us history and English. He made it clear that he would not stand for any trouble in the classroom. We were there to learn and learn we did. He also held us spellbound as he regaled us with anecdotes from his travels and his work in missionaries all over the world.

Pom Robertson has earned an affectionate place in the memories of all those of my contemporaries who, with me, joined the rambling club which he set up in the last years of our school life. The club was set up to test our initiative and observational powers and, in its way, it shared many of the ideals of the Outward Bound schemes which flourished years later.

The format was fairly simple: we would meet on a Saturday morning, be transported by bus to somewhere like Pencaitland in the middle of East Lothian where hardly any of us had ever ventured and then told to find our way to a village like Garvald on the edge of the Lammermuir hills, several miles away.

On the way we would take notes of what we saw - wild birds, plants, grains, trees and historic buildings. We were encouraged to talk to anyone who could give us any information about what we were seeing.

As secretary of the rambling club I had to prepare a report, which would be lavishly illustrated by my drawings. I wish that I could see those reports again now. The historical information given to us by this innovative experience and the pleasure of it all has remained in my mind and the enthusiasm and insight of Pom Robertson has inspired me all my life.

John Bellany was talking to Julia Horton


Born: Port Seton, East Lothian, 1942

Education: Cockenzie Primary and Preston Lodge Secondary, Prestonpans; Edinburgh College of Art, then Royal College of Art, London

Career: Lecturer and world-famous artist, whose art is inspired by his coastal home.

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