Dumfries Academy was a bit of a fossil in many ways – teachers wore gowns, it was that sort of a place. There was a qualifying exam if you wanted to get in, so it was effectively a grammar school in everything but name and it prided itself on its academic rigour. We were left in no doubt even after attending our very first assembly that this was a school that expected us to strive for academic excellence. It was incredibly old fashioned.
But my history teacher, Ivor Waddell, wasn’t old fashioned. He was very young, but you know how when you’re a kid, teachers seem older than they really are? That certainly rang true of him.
He had this raw love of his subject and he conveyed that spirit of curiosity and total fascination to every single pupil. He enthused to us the idea that history was exciting and relevant and good fun, and that’s what set me on a path toward archeology.
I didn’t go on to study history, but it feels to me that archeology is an extension of history and I wouldn’t have followed that path if it hadn’t been for him.
I wonder if perhaps the fact that he was young worked in his favour. Perhaps his love of his subject was still fresh and he hadn’t become jaded. In truth though, I suspect he has loved his subject to this day and has been inspirational throughout his career. He had that way about him, you know? I’m sure he’s still teaching – I’d be very surprised if he wasn’t.
I always loved the romance and adventure of history and its stories and Ivor Waddell could spin a cracking yarn. He could tell a great and captivating tale. That ability to communicate is something special. It felt like what he was telling us was something that he had only just thought at that exact moment. He made history sound fresh, like it was breaking news. And that level of communication meant he rarely needed to raise his voice. He had the room when he spoke and, as such, discipline wasn’t really an issue.
Obviously I do TV presenting, and that’s not a million miles away from teaching. I would be more than pleased if I taught in a similar way to the way that he did. If consciously or unconsciously I have borrowed from his ways when I present, I would be utterly delighted.
I like to think I know the value of a good teacher. I’m a dad and our kids have lovely teachers and it fills my heart with gladness that my kids have them in their lives. After their parents, teachers are the most important adults in a child’s life. If children come into contact with an inspirational, dedicated teacher it can be transformative for them. I can see it happening in my children. I can tell these teachers are making a difference and I want them to know that as a parent it’s wonderful to see them help shape who my children are and who they will become.
Ivor Waddell helped shape me. I owe a debt of gratitude to him. He was a smashing teacher.
Neil Oliver was speaking to Tom Cullen. Master of Shadows, by Neil Oliver, is published by Orion
Born 21 February 1967, Renfrewshire, Scotland
Education Dumfries Academy
Career Archaeologist, historian, broadcaster and writer who has become widely known as the presenter of the BBC’s flagship series A History of Scotland and the award-winning multi-part documentary series Coast