LOCAL VIEW –Empire’s Refuse–

If you are going to rule an empire you had better be prepared to orphan your children. You are simply going to be too busy at work, too busy traveling, too busy burning the midnight oil. For others is the quaint life of a villager, the wholesome connections of family and community, this thing called “roots”. You are different. You are “going places”, and that snips your roots.

This phenomenon is well known by those who have parents who had careers in the military. Friendships were brief, due to constant transfers.  Even if the parent “got out” of the military after “only” twenty years, there was a sort of scar that came along with the pension. However this is the status quo; one does not join the military without knowing sacrifice is involved. True, some only are aware of physical scars from the battlefield, and are naive about the scars of homelessness, at first, but soon they get the advice of those who have had to endure the homelessness longer, and accept the loss as a price they pay for the security of a pension.

In like manner those who sign up to work for a business corporation accept lives where “promotion” often means a new home in a new city. People accept the fact sacrifice is involved to “get ahead”. It goes with the territory. However sometimes a small voice asks them, “Are your own children worth sacrificing?” Sometimes the small voice is not their conscience, but the child itself.

I have noticed this often, reading the biographies of people who dared to be great. In the lives of famous leaders and Hollywood stars and billionaires is the sad refuse of disgruntled offspring. Churchill had a daughter who committed suicide. To be great and a hero is not without a price that can cut to the core of your heart.

Personally, if I have a shred of greatness, it is because I have chosen the opposite. Likely it is because my father was a great surgeon, and was busy at the hospital, and I missed him terribly. Therefore, when faced with a choice of making big money by ditching my family to work in Kuwait, or making peanuts by working in my quaint village, I chose to stay home.  I chose “the wholesome connections of family and community, this thing called ‘roots’ “.

I think it was the right choice, but it had a humorous outcome. I now run a Childcare that promotes the values of an old-fashioned farm, where both the mother and father worked at home. But my customers are young couples who have no “roots”. Believe it or not, some young mothers don’t even entertain the possibility of a mother staying at home with their children. When my wife asks a young mother, weeping about leaving her child with strangers (even though we are nice strangers), “Did you ever consider staying home?” the young mothers look astounded. They never even considered it.

The humor lies in the fact we sometimes try to talk our customers out of buying our services. We ask them to simply add up the costs of Childcare, a second car, insurance for that car, gasoline for that car, clothes for a job, and compare that cost to the money made. Is the working wife worth the sacrifice involved?

Often, even though financial loss is involved, it is “worth it” in terms of the mental health of the mother. To  stay at home would involve being ditched all day by her husband, who would have all the rewards of the workplace society, and then to have him come home wanting to sag in an armchair and stay home, when she has been in solitary confinement with a rugrat all day, and simply wants escape. Such living is not conducive to a happy marriage.

In any case, the result is that I get small children plunked in my arms, as the mother beats a hasty retreat. And one thing then becomes quite clear. The little child resents the change. I can coo and soothe all I want, the little one basically tells me to go get stuffed. Their eyes regard me with all the affection of a spitting cat.

In some ways it hurts my feelings. After all, I’m not a bad guy. I am adept at cheering up such miserable children. Eventually they are seduced by my sheer kindness into accepting me as a sort of foster parent. On somewhat embarrassing occasions they refer to me as “Dad”, or, on a few even more embarrassing occasions, “Mom.” Then the Mom or Dad show signs of jealousy, when they arrive to pick up their child after sacrificing more than eight hours away, and see the little one walking hand in hand with me, and giving me a big hug before departing. And this makes me feel guilty. What is worst is that many children save up some particular despair for their Dad, or especially their Mom, and after eight hours happy and healthy, dump a complete melt-down onto their parent, rather than acting glad to see them.

Obviously the situation is unnatural, and is due to people sacrificing their children for something they see as “greatness”. Oddly, it is not famous leaders and Hollywood stars involved, but ordinary folk. How far our world has fallen!

This brings me back to when Britain had a great empire. Believe it or not, it was in my own lifetime, and I got to see a hint of its glory. One aspect of its glory involved what they called a “Public School” (and the USA calls a “Private School”.) Busy parents, often far away in “the colonies” (India or Singapore, Africa or the Caribbean) had their children brought up by surrogates, just the same way I bring up other people’s children as a surrogate. The children tended to be older, but the teachers  faced the same wrath I face.

In my own case the situation arose when I was a senior in highschool, at the young age of sixteen,  and my stepfather, who taught at Harvard, was well aware of the influence Timothy Leary and LSD was having on local youth. He was worried about what a burned-out hippy I was heading towards becoming, and (I think) decided I might be better off away from college, than I’d be going to college. He suggested a “post-graduate” year might be helpful to me, as I was so young. He asked me, showing me this picture, “Would you like to spend a post-graduate year at this school in Scotland?”


I likely spoke some hip gibberish like, “Far out! Dynamite and out of sight! That place looks groovy, man.” I also likely breathed a big sigh of relief, because I found the entire business of “applying to college” was “a hassle, man. A real bummer.”

I had no idea what I was in for. The school had no interest in “spontaneous improvisation” or in “being mellow”.  They believed in this horrid thing called “discipline”.

The above photograph is from the summer, when the days were twenty hours long,  In December the days were around six hours long . I could not hitchhike home, because the Atlantic Ocean was in the way. There was no place to buy drugs, and I went through a withdrawal without even knowing why I was acting so weird.

The experience likely saved my life. I’d like to write about it, but one thing always stops me. It is this: In order to write about what I went through I’d have to describe a terrible ingratitude.  I, and many of the other boys, saw the teachers (who I hated to call “masters”, though they demanded it), as the “bad guys”. In actual fact they saved my life, but in order to accurately describe how they did so would involve portraying them in an unflattering manner. They were the “conservatives”, and we boys were the “counter-culture”.

I had a friend at that school who (oddly, it seemed to me), was far more appreciative of the clammy castle we found ourselves plunked into. He was from a military family, and was far more used to being transferred hither and yon, in a state of perpetual homelessness. The castle was just one more place, and he appreciated how unique it was, compared to other places.

I was quite different. I knew what “the wholesome connections of family and community, this thing called ‘roots’ ” was, and was angry at my parents for ruining it with divorce, and especially angry at my stepfather for uprooting me and plunking me in a remote castle in the far northeast of Scotland, tricking me by never explaining the discipline such a school involved. It was like I thought I was going on a picnic and discovered I’d joined the Marines.  A lot of the other boys at the school were equally indignant about being uprooted, and equally irreverent towards authority figures. Therefore I cannot tell the tale of Dunrobin School, in Thurso, Scotland, without sounding ungrateful towards the very men who saved my life.

The tale simply has to involve all the ways we boys found to break the rules, and the scorn we had towards the rules. Meanwhile these same rules turned me from a burned out speed-freak of seventeen, weighing 148 pounds, to a hale youth of eighteen weighing 182 pounds. I went from a know-it-all who knew little and thought “Shakespeare is for sissies and snobs” to a youth with a thirst for great writing who passed his English “A-level” in only two terms, and passed his Economics “A-level” as well. It is incredible how much they improved the raw youth they were given, but I didn’t have a clue they were doing what they were doing, and saw them as “oppressive”.

Now, as an old man looking back, I feel ashamed. Perhaps it is because I now know, through running my Childcare, how utterly exhausting it can be to be soundly cursed by youth for treating them well. Recently, when the fire department visited our Childcare to educate little ones about how to behave if ever faced with the reality of a fire, one little chap found the subject utterly horrifying, and wailed on and on, and utterly exhausted me. Someone took a picture that is a little embarrassing, for it shows me understanding that caring for the young isn’t all peaches and cream, and can exhaust you.

Dunrobin 2 FullSizeRender

Though the teachers at Dunrobin were younger than I now am, I think at times I must have exhausted them as much. It’s especially embarrassing because I was not two years old. I was seventeen, and should have known better. I didn’t. I treated them like crap, just as the two year old treated me like crap, without the respect I deserve. (Perhaps, as they say, “What goes around comes around.”) Also I could outrun my teachers. A two year old can’t outrun me. I could occasionally even out-think teachers. (So can a two year old.)

This is not to say the indignation of the two year old is not justified. Why is he being exposed to the brutal reality of burning homes, when he could be at home with his mother in a house where the fire stayed in its proper place, on the hearth?

In like manner, my indignation, as a seventeen year old, likely had its justifications. However grim reality steps in, and places parents into circumstances where the best they can do is hand their own flesh and blood off to complete strangers. My stepfather actually made a wise choice, handing me off to Dunrobin. It saved my life, (though I will confess I have never been so close to committing suicide).  (I’ll tell that tale in chapter ten.)

In any case, among the boys at Dunrobin, few appreciated how lucky they were. If I am to tell the tale truthfully I must be honest about the resentment. There is a very beautiful irreverence the boys had towards limitations placed upon their freedom, and the ways they found around discipline are hilarious and brimming with joy. In a sense they restore your faith in the ability of joy to overcome a Gestapo.

However to call the very teachers who saved my life a “Gestapo” is the height of ingratitude.

That is why it is so difficult to write the story of Dunrobin. It has been something I planned to do for years, but I keep putting it off.

I suppose, as a lover of freedom, it is hard to admit freedom isn’t free,  discipline is necessary, a river without banks goes nowhere and becomes a swamp. But perhaps I’ve thought long and hard enough about the subject to be able to describe both the joyous student’s disrespect for discipline, and the less joyous insistence upon discipline, on the part of the teachers.

I just want it clear how good discipline was for me, though I loathed it. I want the few remaining teachers left alive to know I still love freedom, but am grateful for their discipline.

Hopefully this post will be continued, with tales from my youth. I will end this “introduction” with the simple fact Dunrobin looked a lot different from the picture my stepfather had shown me, when I saw it first hand, as I walked down to the front door, from the train station, back in September, 1970.

Dunrobin 3 images



11 thoughts on “LOCAL VIEW –Empire’s Refuse–

  1. Looked up the place today and Wiki lists it as being a boys school from 1965 to 1972, so your residence took advantage of the very short time Dunrobin Castle was a school.

    • Yes, the school was a venture that never quite grew roots. I’m pretty lucky to have been among the few hundred youths involved. I think it needed a rich sponsor, but was offering discipline at a time when permissiveness was all the rage. The odd thing was it was actually “permissive”, compared to older schools.

      In some ways I think you have to be crazy to tackle the job of being-mentor-to over a hundred boys all passing through adolescence. They must have had amazing confidence that they knew what they were doing.

      • Re confidence – Or they didn’t give a rats ass how much they screwed up those that passed through the school 😉
        Hopefully obvious sarc

      • Actually I think they were very sincere. They had the belief that challenge could bring out the best in us. I was always wanting to “drop out” and “be free” and I recall one master in particular took the time to try to get into my head that the challenge of working within a system is in some ways like the challenge of sailing an open sea. Sacrifices might be involved, but they were not necessarily losses; they might develop a better part of yourself.

        One fellow who was involved in the school was John Ridgeway, who rowed across the Atlantic in an open boat with another man in 1966 in 92 days. He branched off and founded a “a school of adventure” in Ardmore that opened in 1969 and is still open I think. I never met the man but met some other boys who said camping with him was grueling; likely mothers would be horrified, and the kids felt it was a bit crazy, but something to brag about.

        A bit about him is here:


        Dunrobin focused on academics with a rigor that astounds me, looking back. It amazes me the amount I learned in only ten months.

        One thing I noticed at a reunion I managed to make it to years ago was that many of the boys had tried amazing things after they got out of school. Hitchhiking to India, and so forth. I think the school actually did make me understand I was capable of more than many doubters suggested. Also I think those times made people more daring, somehow.

  2. I had no idea it was a school!
    It’s a big tourist destination draw now. I was in it about 20 years ago.
    It’s nice that you can appreciate that period in your life, and pass on some of the wisdom that you learnt. Teaching has changed so much over the last 40 years, I don’t know if for better or worse, but the discipline is not what it was. We feared and respected our teachers, and they didn’t have to belt the living daylights out of us to get that either!
    You were in the highlands at a special time, before oil and the influx of workers that arrived, I hope it left you with some happy memories, out with the education side.

    • Yes, I have some great memories. I just wish I had appreciated it more and grouched less. However my good moods were downright manic, especially when the days got around 20 hours long.

      One thing I noticed there was that, even though they scheduled just about every hour of your day, seven days a week, I made amazing use of the tidbits of time I had free. Later on, when I managed (as a bachelor) to find weeks when I had no boss and no job and was “free”, I seemed to fritter away huge amounts of time accomplishing next to nothing.

  3. I met John Ridgeway at his adventure training school at Ardmore on the west coast of Sutherland. Very interesting man, adopted son of the owner of a large construction firm, rowed the Atlantic with Chay Blyth, both ex Royal Marines. Blyth sailed single handed non-stop the wrong way round the world and Ridgeway has circumnavigated the world twice once single hand in his yacht English Rose VI. He’s kayaked round Cape Horn.

    I was a late substitute for a week’s “team building” from work. The guy who dropped out obviously got wind of what was involved. With the passage of time it has become a better memory than it was experience. It split the group into three, the highly competitive fit, about 4 or 5, a similar number who didn’t want to be there and didn’t really contribute a great deal, and a group of about dozen of vary levels of fitness who tried to make the best fist of things as they could.

    His School of Adventure is now run by his daughter.


  4. Some of the best tales are in the rear view mirror; a flat tire is seldom funny until you are on the road again.

    I had a friend, who spoke English as a second language, who once told me, “Boot camp is a very good experience to have only once in your life.”

    But it seems to me John Ridgeway glimpses something in the experience of “adventure” that is better than being “safe at home.”

    I sure wish I had worked for a boss who would have paid to send me on such a “team building” junket! (Most of the bosses I worked for tended to see workers as “the opposing team”, it seemed to me, and with most of the workers the feeling was mutual. I was always deemed a naive idealist for thinking that, at least in theory, we should all be on the same side.)

    Around here the wildest thing I’ve heard about is employees being sent to a place where they can “play war” in the woods with those guns that shoot paint-balls. It seems an odd way of “bonding”, but apparently it works.

    You should write down what your experience with John Ridgeway was like, in greater detail. I’ll bet it would make a good tale. (I can’t help but smile, imagining the group that didn’t want to be there, and “didn’t contribute a great deal”.)

    • I’ve been off grid for a couple of days so only just seen your reply. Looking back I should have kept a note of what we did on what day. Now the sequence of activities is a bit hazy, although the weather does help as we went through a week of everything from beautiful warm sunshine to heavy rain with a gale finishing up with a couple of overcast days.

      In the new year I’ll take a couple of days to write down what I can remember, especially things about the good guys as well as those that didn’t want to be there. In these days of blogging I should perhaps start one of my own as I’m not the world’s greatest conversationalist and that’s one way of getting stuff saved permanently

  5. First of all, thanks for sharing your thoughts and adventures past and present.

    I have been a teacher in Scotland for 40 years teaching 11 to 17 year olds. Education has always been used as a political football here. After all, you don’t see the results of any initiative for so long you can always blame the other guy or take the credit if the going is good. No matter who the political masters are, no matter the changes imposed on the profession, all of the teachers I know do what is best for the kids. If you don’t have that attitude, you just couldn’t stay in the profession, you couldn’t keep your sanity. Yes, I know a lot of the youngsters in my care are ungrateful little sods, always looking for ways to “fight the system”. I have never resented that kind of behaviour, in fact, it is quite endearing. They think they have come up with original spoofs, pranks, excuses and reasons not realising they’ve all been seen before, done before, nothing new here, move on.

    I hope you and your family have a restful Christmas break and the batteries are recharged for the year ahead.

    • Thanks for your input. And I agree teachers mean well, in most cases. I beg to differ, to some degree, about how well they actually do. I knew some teachers who were in some ways ignorant, and did harm without meaning to. I remember one came to me quite upset at seventeen about how she treated me when I was twelve, and not feeling all that forgiving (though I now am.)

      Also some teachers merely parrot what textbooks tell them to teach. I recall a teacher’s surprise when I told her the textbook was wrong, and that continents “drifted”, which was a brand new idea, in the 1960’s.

      All in all I think parents need to step up more and be better parents, and teachers are asked to do far too much. Many are heroes in a thankless world.

      Merry Christmas!

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