Monday, October 01, 2018


Part Five | 1966-1967

'Fettes College to be investigated for evidence that it created the fanaticism that drove Tony Blair to send people to fight in Iraq'

Michael Rosen

'..The boys led a life that was cut off. They saw little of the city which surrounded the school. Richard Lambert, later editor of the Financial Times, who preceded Blair at Fettes, says: "It's extraordinary to think we lived in one of Europe's great cities for six or seven years and hardly saw it. We didn't know Edinburgh at all." Blair seldom talks of Fettes, but Oxford friends recall unflattering descriptions of his life there...'

James Naughtie

'When the architect David Bryce was commissioned to build Fettes College.. he was given a large budget, a bequest from Sir William Fettes, former Lord Provost of Edinburgh. Having recently visited France, and with an appreciation of Scottish architectural styles, Bryce's design for the school was Scottish baronial, mixed with French chateau, known locally as "Edinburgh Loire Gothic".

The result is one of Scotland's greatest buildings. It features soaring spires and turrets, with a tall central tower and smaller flanking towers and it's teeming with gargoyles.. their jeering faces do add an element of humour to the rather imposing building, which is rumoured to be the inspiration for J.K.Rowling's Hogwarts.'

Country Life Quirkiest School Buildings

When I first saw a photograph of Fettes College, the creepy appearance it presented called to my mind the Gingerbread House, where the Witch lives in the fairy-tale Hansel and Gretel. It turns out that also thinking in terms of fairy-tales when considering the building's appearance, was Tony Blair's biographer, John Rentoul:

'Founded in 1870 by Sir William Fettes, its elaborate fairy-tale Gothic tower is a landmark on the outskirts of Edinburgh.'

In 'The Rivals', James Naughtie evaluated the school, as it was in 1966:

'Tony Blair was settling into an institution which would frustrate him and turn him into something of an early rebel.. When he became a boarder in the summer of 1966.. the regime controlled by the headmaster, Dr Ian McIntosh, was one that would have been familiar to generations long gone. Junior boys could be caned by prefects, apparently with relish. The remnants of a 'fagging' system were still in place, with the young boys acting as valets for their elders, some prefects still enjoying the consequences of an inadequately polished shoe or a burnt piece of toast. Blair was beaten more than once...'

Further information on the warped set-up at the school is provided by John Rentoul, in Tony Blair: Prime Minister:

'..Blair was fag to a prefect called Michael Gascoigne, now an Edinburgh solicitor.. Although Gascoigne detected no "truculence or unwillingness", Blair said: "The house they put me in was very old-fashioned - we new boys had to fag for prefects and I always resented that." The boys at Fettes were called "men", especially the "new men", and they were required to call prefects "Sir". Prefects were allowed to cane junior boys, and Blair was beaten for a number of petty infractions. This was still a cruel practice, with the tradition of being allowed a day in the sanatorium in order to recover from a thrashing only recently lapsed. Depending on the gravity of the offence, prefects would line up to take their turn with the cane and the more sadistic would take a run-up...'

During Tony Blair's first year at the school, a man called Eric Anderson returned to Fettes as an English teacher ('master'), having spent some time teaching at Gordonstoun - another infamous Scottish boarding school where Prince Charles was an inmate. According to biographer, John Rentoul (..but, not biographer, Anthony Seldon), Eric Anderson '..shaped Blair's Fettes career..' more than anyone else. 

Meanwhile, Ronald Selby Wright's remarkably prolific involvement in Scottish boys' schools continued to be facilitated:

'Though still continuing my evening classes at Loretto, I was invited in 1966 to be Honorary Chaplain of The Edinburgh Academy. I gladly accepted...' ['Another Home']   

During the following year, the Oxford University Press published a book containing 33 of RSW's school sermons (Take Up God's Armour), and, predictably, his association with Royal Family members was maintained -

Prince Charles invited him to '..a small dinner-party consisting of a schoolboy friend and his detective - the first time he had been the host at Holyrood...' After '..a garbled and inaccurate account..' appeared in the press, Charles sent him '..a typical charming letter from school...':

'...It was a great pleasure to see you again on Sunday... I hope the press didn't bother you afterwards.

The short stay in Edinburgh went all too quickly and the brief change to Civilisation in Holyrood was short-lived by a rapid return to Gordonstoun. Thank you once again for two such splendid books and for the useful advice as to whom one might speak to here. I do hope I shall see you again before too long.

Yours very sincerely,

Public schools, like Fettes had 'houses' as well as classes or forms, and in September 1967, a new house - Arniston - was set up by the English master, Eric Anderson. This meant that Tony Blair was no longer required to fulfil the traditional fag role:

'When Blair joined the new house, his schooldays became easier. Instead of fagging, junior boys were required to do some cleaning and menial tasks for the house collectively...'

John Rentoul

'One friend said, "Fettes was incredibly tough, fagging and cold showers, but Arniston was comfortable and easy-going. It had duvets, unheard of at the time."..'

Anthony Seldon

A boy who was educated at Fettes College during the 1920s happened to become an adult friend of Eric Anderson, and John Rentoul has disclosed significant details of the return visits made by this 'old boy' to the school:

'Anderson further encouraged Blair's independence of mind by inviting his friend Sir Knox Cunningham, the Unionist MP for South Antrim and President of the Old Fettesian Association, to stay at Arniston. "He had no children of his own, to his sadness, and made a point of coming four or five times a year," said Anderson (one of Blair's contemporaries commented wryly on Anderson's innocence: Cunningham was "the sort of man who liked boys - he never did anything about it as far as I know, but that was what he was about")...'