A will, but is there a way?

A huge bequest to Prince Charles's old school will offer the chance of a lifetime to impoverished students - if any can be found who meet its exacting specifications. Tim Luckhurst reports
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Last December, William Wood, a retired harbourmaster of the fishing port of Buckie in Banffshire, died of cancer at the age of 72. In his will he left £1.8m to his old school. To his neighbours in the tiny village of Portknockie, three miles north-east of Buckie, it came as a surprise that Wood had that much money. Equally surprising was that the recipient of this bequest was Gordonstoun, the independent school that is alma mater to the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and Prince Edward.

Last December, William Wood, a retired harbourmaster of the fishing port of Buckie in Banffshire, died of cancer at the age of 72. In his will he left £1.8m to his old school. To his neighbours in the tiny village of Portknockie, three miles north-east of Buckie, it came as a surprise that Wood had that much money. Equally surprising was that the recipient of this bequest was Gordonstoun, the independent school that is alma mater to the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and Prince Edward.

Gordonstoun was surprised, too. Wood had made no contact with the institution before deciding to leave it a sum that will produce enough interest to fund 10 scholarships per year, one of the biggest bequests ever made to the school. Instead, he spent the six years of his retirement patiently tending his garden. But it was the nature of his bequest that aroused such interest. Wood specified that his estate should be used to help "children of families with a fishing background from county Banff".

A trawl of the school archives produced the explanation. Wood was the son of a fisherman from Buckie. He had attended the school in 1948 and 1949. His fees were subsidised by a scholarship from the Honourable Company of Master Mariners and his father had only been required to pay £30 of the annual boarding cost of £90 per pupil.

Gordonstoun was regarded with considerable suspicion at the time. Standing in 150 acres of woodland on the Moray Firth, east of Inverness, it was founded in 1934 by the German educationalist, Dr Kurt Hahn. Scotland's fishing communities had contributed more than their fair share of the 29,180 British merchant seamen killed in the Second World War. German ideas were unwelcome.

But Wood's parents saw beyond popular prejudice. In 1948, Gordonstoun was home to the Moray Sea School, a sailing academy that offered its graduates accelerated access to the merchant navy. They were determined that William and his younger brother George, now 67, should both attend. Mr and Mrs Wood's aspirations did not extend beyond seafaring, but they recognised that there was potentially more to a life at sea than fishing off the north-east coast of Scotland.

George Wood says that he and his brother enjoyed the Gordonstoun experience so much that, although they were permitted to return home at weekends, they both chose to remain at the school. Mark Pyper, the modern-day principal of Gordonstoun, offers a less romantic explanation for William Wood's generosity. "It was not enjoyment of his time at Gordonstoun. He made that quite clear in his talks with his solicitor. It was the preparation for life both in practical terms and in terms of his appreciation of the world and other people."

Wood was married only very briefly and had no children of his own. He was buried on Hogmanay 2003 following a small service at his home. Only then did it emerge that he had left Gordonstoun a huge bequest.

The school will do everything it can to honour Wood's wishes. Pyper plans to advertise in Banffshire, and to contact all the local state schools to make it known that scholarship funding is available. It's not the first time Gordonstoun has experienced such a specific donation. "We had one about 10 years ago," explains Pyper. "A bequest, far smaller than this, which was to be awarded to an orphan boy born in the West Riding of Yorkshire. We advertised on local radio and we got two or three candidates. [The sum] was just enough to see one pupil through, and a young man from Leeds came and did quite well. He was 14 and had been in trouble with the police, which wasn't surprising because he was living alone with his mother while she died of cancer. So, we have a little experience of how to handle these things."

Which makes the task of finding recipients for the William Wood Scholarships sound relatively straightforward. Professor David Raffe, of Moray House School of Education at the University of Edinburgh, suspects it won't be. "You find examples of similarly specific bequests at schools and universities throughout the country. Often the criteria are broadened over time because it is so hard to recruit." Donald Christie, vice-dean of the School of Education at the University of Strathclyde, agrees: "There are examples of what appear to be very generous bequests turning out to be millstones around an institution's neck because of the rigid criteria that are sometimes set."

There is an additional hurdle. Wood's parents regarded Gordonstoun as a wonderful institution to which any ambitious child should aspire. That view is not as common in proudly egalitarian modern Scotland. Pyper acknowledges the prejudice. "Social antipathy to independent schools is much more clearly and vehemently articulated now than it was, and that antipathy is stronger in Scotland than in England. We run several days here for pupils from local primary schools, not really for promoting Gordonstoun from a recruitment point of view, but just so that they know what goes on here. We have had, over the years, one or two schools that will have nothing to do with us because their head teacher considers independent schools to be immoral."

Professor John Fitz of Cardiff University has studied the transfer of pupils from state to private schools. "Under the assisted places scheme, some local education authorities introduced rules whereby state schools were not allowed to share information about pupils with private schools," he says. "Some head teachers ignored them and provided references for pupils, but only when they were asked. Logic suggests that teachers will not put children forward for these scholarships. Teachers are not enthusiastic about schemes like these. They simply won't draw parents' attention to the fact that they exist."

Pyper says that Gordonstoun has excellent relations with many state schools that make use of its facilities. "I think that sort of antipathy might be less in rural areas than in urban Scotland." But he is prepared to contemplate the possibility that Wood's wishes may have to be interpreted liberally. "The key word in the will is 'prefer'. We are not bound. We will advertise first of all for fishing families and then from Banffshire itself. Only if we have no success at attracting suitable candidates would we cast it wider. But I think even then that we would always keep it to the north of Scotland."

It is not inconceivable that children from fishing families may be attracted to Gordonstoun. Despite the calamitous decline in Scotland's fishing industry and the toll taken by overfishing and strict EU quotas, there were 30 fishing boats operating out of Buckie last week. It is a far cry from the days when Buckie was Scotland's premier herring fishing port, but the industry is far from being pronounced dead.

Pyper fears that money, not prejudice or the specificity of Wood's dying wishes, will be the biggest problem. "He specifies in the will that parents have got to pay 30 per cent. He says: 'Take into account whole financial, personal and other circumstances', but he says: 'It is my wish that the proportion does not exceed 70 per cent.' That would mean parents paying in the region of £6,000 a year."

Pyper believes this condition is clearly linked to the investment that Wood's own parents made to send their sons to Gordonstoun. "His parents couldn't afford it so they got the grant from the Honourable Company of Master Mariners but they still had to pay the other £30. This is him saying to people like himself: 'You've got to want it enough to make sacrifices.' The difference is that the fees have risen exponentially much higher than the cost of living. Whereas £30 might have been all right for a fisherman then, and a figure of perhaps £1,000 might be all right now, a figure of £6,000 is going to be quite difficult. That to me is a much greater challenge [to meet] than the recruitment one."

Wood believed that Gordonstoun was the foundation of his success. He has made it possible for generations of Banffshire children to follow the same path, if that is what they and their parents want. The school has just one regret. Pyper says: "It might have been helpful to him in drawing up this very generous deed if he had known, in the modern world, the way in which scholarships work." A few in Buckie suspect he did know and was determined that recipients of William Wood Scholarships should feel indebted to their parents as well as to the school.

Comments