Saturday, 2 October 2010

Fochabers' School, near Drumfeld

In 1833, brothers John and William Fochaber, the latter of whom is remembered for his association with African explorer Mungo Park, opened their eponymously named school near Drumfeld. Surviving correspondence from the pair indicates an almost evangelical faith in the Fochabers' ethos: their vision of a student governed community in which masters acted in an advisery capacity preceded similar fat-headed experiments by over a century. At the time of the school's closure, in 1985, the extent to which their design had floundered became fully apparent. The school's records, some dating back to the mid-nineteenth century, contained evidence of institutionalised bullying and abuse. One ledger, ominously titled 'The Black Book', contained sub-sections listing 'beatings', 'confinements' and 'ostracisms' while medical records contained twenty seven separate references to attempted suicides.

Dr Alexander Wishart, the last rector of Fochabers', confronted with allegations of negligence, struggled to explain the system of committees by which the school was governed. In 1985, a school council (membership of which was restricted to the prefects, or 'Gods') and seventeen sub-committees existed, all chaired by the school captain, Fraser Henderson, whose total mastery of his peers was explained by the revelation that he was twenty-four years old. "It's easy to lose track of these things," said Dr Wishart though later, as it became apparent that seven of the fourteen prefects were in their twenties, he acknowledged that, "strictly speaking we don't have a set leaving age at Fochabers'. They go when they're ready."

Fochabers' enjoyed its peak years early in the twentieth century when it became a popular depository for sons who might otherwise have been discreetly smothered or confined to attics. Startling physical anomalies are common in school photographs from the period, partially explaining Drumfeld doctor, Robert McPherson's alleged assertion that "a fire in the Fochabers' dormitory would be a kindness to the majority of its residents." In 1923, the board, alarmed by the school's renown as "an asylum for inbreds" revised its entrance policy, excluding those cruelly dismissed as "freaks and cretins." At the same time, an idealistic new rector, George Fisher, arrived, boldly (but injudiciously) announcing the necessity of curbing the power of the Gods. Within six months, he'd returned to Edinburgh, a broken man. Fochabers' reputation as a last resort for those unwanted elsewhere persisted and by 1930, the dwindling school roll indicated an irreversible decline.

Fisher's thwarted revolution might have been successful had his brief tenure not co-incided with that of Edward Dalrymple, the most powerful and vicious of Fochabers' notoriously depraved school captains. Dalrymple, reputed to have maintained the captainship into his late-twenties, is still recalled in Drumfeld for the occasions on which he appeared in the village square, resplendent in top hat and waistcoat and brandishing a Derringer. His florid delinquencies contrasted with his enthusiasm for the student hearings by which discipline within Fochabers' was traditionally maintained. 'The Forum', introduced by the brothers Fochaber in order that students might resolve differences without resorting to name-calling and violence, had evolved over generations, assuming powers of chastisement and embellishing its procedures with quasi-masonic ritual. Sentences most commonly dispensed by the forum were a 'Dance with Alice McPhail' (a thrashing) 'The Black Spot' (or 'Order of Ostracism', recipients of which were shunned) and 'The Bonnet' (a grotesque leather hat, strapped to the head of those found guilty of excessive 'beastliness', Fochabers' terminology for self abuse.)

In August, 1923, fifteen year old Arthur Simcox was enrolled at Fochabers'. Simcox, whose family lived near Woking in Surrey, had failed to settle at three previous schools, establishing a pattern of delinquency that caused one headmaster to allude ominously (if non-specifically) to "moral turpitude". While traits considered reprehensible elsewhere were often encouraged at Fochabers', there was a direct correlation between the indulgence of transgressions and the culprit's popularity. That Simcox failed to endear himself to his new school-mates is evident from the recurrence of his name in the Forum records throughout the latter part of 1923. Between September and December, he was summoned on seven separate occasions on charges ranging from 'impudence' to 'gross beastliness' for which he was sentenced, on December the tenth, to wear the dreaded bonnet. Three days later, boys with whom Simcox shared a dormitory reported him missing to their house-master, Stewart Crawford.

It hardly seems credible that Fochabers' exhaustive records, crammed as they are with the minutiae of the school's day to day business, fail to expand on Simcox's disappearance*. The participation of Fochabers' boys in a police search of the countryside is recorded, though any reader stumbling over the excerpt without reference to preceding entries, would assume that the missing person was a stranger for whom the school had no real responsibility. "The Fochabers' party," it reports with barely subdued self-congratulation, "acquitted itself well despite torrid conditions." Attention is then focussed on preparation for the Christmas holidays. Local girls are bussed in for a dance. Treats are organised. Nobody seems remotely perturbed by Simcox's continued absence. The historian searches in vain for further allusions to his predicament: he disappears from the record as completely as he seems to have done from life. It is nearly thirty years, in fact, before the next reference to Arthur Simcox is to be found in the Fochabers' record.


The first recorded accounts of a haunting at Fochabers' appear in 1952. "Mieklejohn noticed a strange boy entering the locker room," reads an entry dated February the fifth. "On following him, he found the area empty." A week later a boy called Carruthers was alarmed by an "urgent commotion" emanating from behind one of the lockers. Carruthers' house-master, Alistair Stanley, called to investigate, reported that he struggled to open the locker's door and, on finally doing so, was simultaneously assailed by a hissed (but incoherent) rebuke and an overpowering stench. He also noticed an "unnatural chill". By March, phenomena within the locker room had become so frequent and pronounced that the area was declared out of bounds. By this time, unfortunately, Agnes Carr, a house-keeper reputed to be a witch, had attributed responsibility for the disturbances to the troubled spirit of Arthur Simcox, a claim given credence by the spontaneous appearance of the initials A.S. scratched into surfaces around the school. The 'ghost', now identified, was given license to roam.

Panic briefly escalated into hysteria when the residents of Simcox's former dormitory, already troubled by nocturnal rumbles, found a vole nailed to the exterior of the bedroom door. In an effort to appease Simcox's vengeful ghost, the Gods dragged Thomas Ellington, the school's most prominent scapegoat, into the locker room and confined him within the locker identified as the source of disruption by Stanley and Carruthers. Other boys, accused of being possessed by Simcox's spirit, were flogged or 'beasted', a punishment which involved being bound and submerged under the chill water of Drumfeld Burn. A fatality might have occurred were it not for the decision of rector, Gilbert Thompson, exhibiting unprecedented (and unrepeated) initiative, to improvise a Founders' Day holiday. As the boys were bussed around a succession of bothies and hostels, Thompson had the locker room exorcised and, with the assistance of Drumfeld police, conducted an investigation into recent events. By the time of the reprobates' return, three members of the school's auxilliary staff, including Agnes Carr were no longer in employment. Also absent was poor Arthur Simcox, who didn't reappear until 1976 when his presence co-incided with a glue-sniffing craze: his second incarnation was apparently forgotten as quickly as his first.** .

*Nearly eight years on, I can only guess that Simcox, goaded beyond endurance, simply made his way home. At that time, trains passed through Drumfeld to both Glasgow and Edinburgh from where escape to England would have been straightforward.

**On this occasion, the centre of supernatural activity had shifted from the locker room to one of the dormitories.

***A rumour, popular in Drumfeld, that the Glamis heir attended Fochabers' is almost certainly unfounded.

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