This obituary was written by Bob Cuddihy
and originally appeared in The Scotsman.
John Marchbanks Aitkenhead, founder and headmaster of Kilquhanity House School
Born: 21 May 1910, in Knightswood, Glasgow Died: 26 July, 1998, at Kilquhanity, aged 88
JOHN Aitkenhead was the last of a small group of educational pioneers – Lane at the Little Commonwealth; Curry at Dartington and Neill at Summerhill -whose contributions to education had been compared to Rousseau and Dewey. This group of headmasters of independent progressive schools shared a common belief of freedom in education and the happiness of children, allowing children to express their humanity in an atmosphere far removed from what was seen as the natural order of sexual and intellectual repression.
John Aitkenhead was also the last of an outstanding generation of Scots, who included his friends CM Grieve and Robert McLellan, who worked to give Scotland a new tomorrow. For John’s spirit of nationalism was fired by his internationalism.
His father, Angus, was a ship carpenter who helped build HMS Hood , the largest battle cruiser of its time. In 1920 the family moved to Ardrossan, where John won a bursary to Ardrossan Academy. He then studied at the University of Glasgow, where he gained two honours degrees, one in English and the other in the recently recognised subject of Education.
As a young teacher in Darvel, Ayrshire, he was troubled by what he saw in Scotland’s schools. He would later write by way of a corrective confessional that even he had used the tawse. His own deep misgivings apart, two events – meeting his fellow Scot, AS Neill, head of Summerhill, the freest school in the world, and the Second World War – made him determined to open his own school.
He was not just a radical in his outlook in education, he was also a committed pacifist and member of the Peace Pledge Union – although years later he would admit if Hitler had invaded he would have had to reconsider his position even if it had been too late.
With the war in its darkest days and a warning from Neill that a progressive boarding school in Scotland would not work, John and his wife, Morag, purchased Kilquhanity House, a modest estate and farm near Kirkpatrick, Durham in 1940. The school opened its doors in September of that year.
At first it was a partnership with an American who thought a go-as-you-please school was a dandy idea. John pointed out that the cows did not milk themselves – ending a short-lived partnership.
Of those founding days he wrote: “We swallowed Neill, hook, line and sinker; the children would have complete freedom to run the school.”
He began having second thoughts after the pupils voted to abolish bedtime. After two sleepless nights he found a pupil fast asleep in a laundry basket. He convinced all the sleepyheads that enough was enough and bedtimes were reinstated.
His founding motto for Kilquhanity was “Liberty, Equality and Inefficiency”. “Revolutions that are efficient,” he observed, “always end up killing people.” An early school badge featured the motto along with a cow which had a duck standing on its back facing to the rear.
The war gave the school an unexpected boost. Galloway was not on any bomber routes and worried parents who might otherwise have had second thoughts about sending their children to such a school, decided it was a safe haven. Some local people were less kind. On a number of occasions, staff and pupils were subjected to taunts of “lousy conchies”. On another occasion, staff, including John Aitkehead, were beaten up for their beliefs.
Nevertheless the Kilquhanity community prospered. For Aitkenhead, education was the generation of happiness. To achieve this, freedom for children to develop was essential. Freedom, though, was not do-as-you-please; it was never a licence. Freedom was doing what you liked as long as you did not hurt anybody else.
The focal point of the school was the weekly council meeting. For more than 50 years it was the custom for everyone from the cook to the farm hand, the teachers and their pupils to attend. The chair was taken by a pupil, who could be as young as ten. “John A”, as he was known to one and all, never took the chair and although he might try to impose his will with what he called “an overruling proposal” he only had one vote. Even his wife and his children would vote against him from time to time. It was at one such meeting that the school decided I should be made editor of the magazine – despite John’s vehement objections.
He was a wonderfully practical teacher. Once when he decided his class would make a new mast for the school’s sailing dinghy he turned the exercise into a geometry lesson. Chalk in hand, he used the classroom floor as a blackboard to illustrate how to turn a square pole of wood into a rounded mast. Having done that, he used his father’s specially designed bevelled plane to finish the job. By this time the school had a fleet that included a 25-foot long dug-out outrigger canoe hewed from a tree that had been recently felled. The pupils themselves hauled it on a bogey the long miles to Loch Ken for its launching.
Along with the American educator Paul Goodman John Aitkenhead understood that literacy was not as simple as ABC. Curiosity as to why one of his own children had serious difficulties in reading and writing made him take an interest in dyslexia many years before it became a fashionable and accepted concept. When asked how he had made a non-reader into a reader within a few short months, he replied: “I just took him on my knee and read with him.”
John came to terms with another pupil who had created his own alphabet. He learned this alphabet and would correct any mistakes the pupil used when he wrote in it. Through this, the child was gradually introduced to the conventional alphabet.
Visitors to the school, and those who had heard about it, often asked: “But do you learn anything?” The answer is that with John Aitkenhead as a headmaster you could not fail to learn something. When school inspectors asked to see plans for a spectacular 40-foot-high Davy Crockett-type fort, designed and built by the pupils, John had to confess there were no plans. They had just made it up as they went along. The fort stood for 20 years.
And there could be few pupils who could not replace a pane of glass. If you broke a window, you mended it. As you measured the size and after you had returned from the glazier’s in Kirkpatrick, Durham with a new pane of glass paid from pocket money, he supervised you replacing it.
Unlike his friend and one-time mentor, AS Neill, John did not believe Kilquhanity could operate out of the mainstream. At heart he was a dominie. He appreciated that Kilquhanity could not be replicated in the state system, but lessons could be learned by it. He was never a propagandist on the scale of Neill, and the lessons of Kilquhanity were disseminated by countless visitors – including a group of nuns who arrived to see how the system worked without God. “Fine,” they were told by a Catholic pupil – or by John Wilson at Lorningdale and RF McKenzie in Fife and Aberdeen.
With its low fees and John’s decisions to charge twins two for the price of one, or offer half price for girls when it looked as if the school was about to become a boy’s school by default, Kilquhanity hovered on the knife-edge of bankruptcy from time to time. Yet John and Morag, by some strange magic, managed to keep its head above water.
But the magic could not last forever, and the final years of the school were troubled. There were disagreements about how or whether Kilquhanity should continue. Sadly, John took the decision that it had reached its natural end and the school closed after more than 50 years of generating happiness for countless children.
Yesterday, more than 200 people, old friends, former pupils, babes in arms and family, attended John Aitkenhead’s funeral. With a piper at our head we walked from Auchencairn Primary School to the kirkyard. At the graveside, where there is a panoramic view of the Galloway Hills and Solway Firth, we found John Aitkenhead laying in an open-topped coffin. He had been lovingly dressed in a new kilt by Morag and other members of his family.
After a brief but intensely emotional service of songs and remembrance he was laid to rest – a remarkable man who has left his distinctive and challenging mark not only on modern educational history but on Scotland at large. He is survived by Morag, whom he married in 1938, and their two sons and two daughters.
This obituary was written by Bob Cuddihy and originally appeared in The Scotsman.