May Nicol

4th January 2013 at 00:00
A leading history teacher and former deputy head of George Watson's College has died at the age of 83

May Nicol, who has died at the age of 83, was one of the leading teachers of history in Scotland and former deputy head of George Watson's College in Edinburgh. She was once described by a former pupil as the finest teacher she had met, a description shared by almost everyone who knew her - pupils, parents and colleagues alike.

Born in Dollar, she was dux of Dollar Academy in 1945, and the academic excellence she displayed at school was soon matched at the University of St Andrews, from where she graduated with a first-class honours in modern and medieval history. She was offered a Carnegie scholarship but turned this down straight away since she had already made up her mind that she wanted to teach.

After completing her teacher training in Dundee, her first post was in the history department at Sutton Coldfield High School in 1951, from where she went to Roundhay High School for Girls in Leeds as assistant head of department in 1954.

In 1956, Ms Nicol returned to Scotland because of her mother's failing health and was appointed head of history at Craigholme School in Glasgow. She established herself as one of the leading teachers of history in Scotland and it was little surprise that she was encouraged to apply for the head of history post at George Watson's Ladies' College in 1960.

Her teaching of history, her expectations of high standards and her interest in learning in all its dimensions won her respect everywhere. She was a firm disciplinarian and she could be candid in her views, yet she also had a strong sense of fairness and of the need to balance school rules and tradition with common sense - something which provided her with a very healthy disregard for bureaucracy and political correctness.

The amalgamation of George Watson's Ladies' College and George Watson's College took place in 1974 and Roger Young, principal of the combined school, appointed Ms Nicol as one of his two deputies. Both he and his successor, Frank Gerstenberg, knew instinctively that, in Ms Nicol, they had someone who would provide unfailing loyalty and the calm authority to cope with whatever crisis might unfold.

A keen concert-goer and birdwatcher, in retirement, she gave selflessly of her time to the National Museum of Scotland, both as a tour guide and assisting with the membership administration for the "friends" of the museum.

She was also committed to charity work, principally working in the Cancer Research UK shop as a member of the Edinburgh fundraising committee and at the annual art exhibition in Adam House. She was also a governor at Lomond School and at George Watson's College.

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