Old school, old town, old scores

Feelings ran high when pupils from Gordonstoun, the public school beloved of the Royal Family, were found brawling with local youths. Was it a case of age-old resentments coming to the surface? Emma Daly reports
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Class war has come as something of a surprise to the people of Lossiemouth and Elgin, pretty stone towns on the north coast of Scotland where the streets are clean and quiet and the only menace is the thunder of RAF jets roaring low overhead. But the calm was shattered by battle joined, in stereotypical British tradition, between the yobs (local) and the toffs (Gordonstoun School). Or so locals learnt from the newspapers, almost two weeks after the event.

"Police quiz Royal in gang brawl", the tabloids screamed, detailing a post-pub street fight between young men from Gordonstoun and Lossiemouth, complete with upper-crust cries of "Fight, you peasants!" and judicious use of a beer-bottle. The facts of the dispute are now sub-judice; the local police have charged three men - one from Gordonstoun, two from Lossiemouth - and the Procurator-Fiscal of Moray (equivalent to the Crown Prosecution Service in England) is considering, in view of the police report, whether to proceed to court.

As Gordonstoun was eager to emphasise (while resolutely refusing to discuss its investigation into the fight), Peter Phillips, pupil, rugby star and grandson of the Queen, has been "eliminated from police inquiries". But of course the story remained irresistible, a tale of players living up (or down) to popular expectation, obnoxious hoorays and envious oiks, town versus gown. There is nothing like a good public school scandal, be it a fight between the haves and have-nots, a drugs bust in which pupils are expelled or the occasional St Trinian's pastiche, such as the one performed most recently by fifth formers at St Mary's Wantage, who xxxxx xxxxxx xxxxx..

But although the tribes sharing the green, rolling countryside of Morayshire, east of Inverness, seem to co-exist in relative harmony, there are darker currents of resentment. Gordonstoun pupils claim, defensively, that they are not the stuck-up kids of popular lore; for their part, the locals' seeming indifference cloaks an air of mild reproof at the injustice of the system. Both sides share the same view of the Lossiemouth fight - which was kept out of the papers for almost two weeks, until someone tipped off the local Press and Journal.

"It's just because it involves us lot that it's been blown up," said Andrew Blandy, an 18-year-old at Gordonstoun who was not on the scene. "It wasn't a one-off but it wasn't a big deal," said a 15-year-old girl from the local school, Elgin Academy. "It happens everywhere, I don't see why just because they're Gordonstoun boys it should be different."

Gordonstoun School, rather warily, allowed me to visit the grounds and talk to a selected group of pupils. "This is very much a one-off, as far as we can tell," said James Thomas, the school's director of external affairs, who is charged with selling Gordonstoun to a shrinking market. "The [local] people are extremely friendly - this was an isolated incident.''

Pupils, he added, "blend into the scenery and they're not any different'' from local children. The latter may be true, the former is not. "You can spot them a mile off, the way they just saunter in,'' said Laura McKerron, 20, an aspiring singer in Elgin. The Gordonstoun girls (who make up almost half the roll) are "lovely'', says Andrew, who goes to Elgin Academy, and "a bit bitchy'', according to his friend, a 15-year-old girl. "There's two boys over there,'' she said, pointing across a fountain in the local shopping mall. "You can tell by the hair-cuts.'' The two in question favour the foppish flop associated with public school boys.

The Gordonstoun children tacitly admit they do stand out, even out of uniform, though they want to gloss over the differences. "If you took away the speech, perhaps you wouldn't know,'' Nick Howden, 17, said hopefully. And that, of course, is the give-away. "It's the voice,'' said Sandy Baxter, owner of the Laverock Bank Hotel, where the local men were drinking on fateful fight night. "They stand out that way. As soon as they speak you know they're from Gordonstoun."

Andrew Blandy defends his class-mates. "We don't go in with the attitude of `we're superior, we're not going to talk to you', that's not our attitude.'' And Nick Howden adds: "It's the other way round. They think we are offensive.'' Or, as Laura Wilson, a 16-year-old Scottish pupil, said: "They just think we're snobby.''

She's right. "They're very snooty,'' Ms McKerron said. And Andrew, from Elgin Academy, believes "they cause the trouble themselves, flashing their money''. "You see them in pubs, they come out with pounds 20 notes, waving them in your face,'' said Mike, another 16-year-old from Elgin Academy. Locals in Lossiemouth describe the Gordonstoun groups as large and loud, but do not, nonetheless, seem bothered by their wealthy neighbours. "No one's ever had a go at them because of who they are or what school they go to,'' said Mark Thomson, a young garage attendant in Lossie who is a friend of George More, the 20-year-old from Lossiemouth whose jaw was broken during the fight. And there was no rivalry between the groups, he said. "There's never been any trouble before, because we didn't mix with them.''

Indeed, town and gown lead quite separate lives, for all that Gordonstoun pushes the ethos of community service. Pupils, whose every waking moment is taken up with classes or activities - sailing, mountaineering, drama, music, hospital visits and, unique for a school, the Fire Brigade - have very little contact with the locals. "They're always active, and that's why there's no trouble from Gordonstoun boys,'' Ms McKerron pointed out.

The school has moved far beyond the grim days recalled by the Prince of Wales as miserable; for a start, there are 190 girls among the 420 pupils, and boys no longer wear shorts in cold weather. "We don't have cold showers in the morning,'' Emma Rowson, 17, said crossly. "And the morning run is voluntary,'' added Nick Howden. Gordonstoun's reputation as a permanent Outward Bound course with a few classes thrown in might lead one to picture the school perched on a hostile, barren moor; in fact the scenery is green and gentle, the climate temperate, the coast warmed by the Gulf Stream.

Although James Thomas chats easily of scholarships and bursaries and assisted places, all of which are available at Gordonstoun, the overwhelming majority of pupils come from wealthy homes. The Headmaster, Mark Pyper, in an address to parents last year, referring to fears of new taxes on schools in the event of a Labour victory, commented that: "Assisted places may sadly go ... Gordonstoun is perhaps fortunate in having only 6 per cent of our pupils benefiting from the scheme.''

Despite their comfortable backgrounds, pupils have a heavy workload, and all must participate in the arts and hearty sports - a course in seamanship, for example, is compulsory, even for determined land-lubbers. There is fierce competition to join the fire service (Peter Phillips is one who made the grade). Thirty-six pupils who have passed the Firefighters' Exam are split into three watches, armed with pagers for any emergency and equipped with two tenders. They act as a sub-station in support of the local Fire Brigade, and are called out fairly regularly.

As their parents might hope, having paid for such an education, the pupils are assured and articulate. But then so are the children from Elgin Academy. Ironically, the differences between the two social groups are probably less marked during term-time than they would be the rest of the year. "The Gordonstoun facilities are not that good - it's no better than we've got and I don't think the teaching's any different. It's basically a convenience for the parents to send their kids away,'' said the 15-year-old girl from Elgin Academy.

But as everyone knows, the real advantage of a Gordonstoun education will come into play once the pupils leave. Nick Howden once debated with a boy from Elgin Academy who concluded that "we don't believe you should get on in life because of the school you went to''. Nick believes that is "a misconception''; the Baxters at the Laverockbank Hotel in Lossiemouth, who are fans of Gordonstoun School, disagree. There are few job opportunities in the district nowadays, and "the talent that's wasted in this area is criminal'', Mr Baxter said sadly. Local schools are good, said his wife, Ann, but "it's afterwards, isn't it? If you've been to Gordonstoun it's got a lot of prestige in getting a job ... but it's the same for everyone: it's who you know.''

For all John Major's claim of a classless Britain, the children of Gordonstoun, cushioned by wealth and education, have an obvious head-start. But none of the locals seem to want to trade places - those like Ms McKerron, who had the chance to attend Gordonstoun, say they are glad not to have gone there. "I think I've got a better life than them,'' said the 15-year-old girl from Elgin Academy, pondering the rigours and restrictions of life at Gordonstoun. "I've got pressures, too, but I think I probably enjoy my life more.''

Plus est en vous


Gordonstoun School, set in 150 acres of land in Morayshire, was founded in 1934 by Dr Kurt Hahn to counteract a perceived decline in physical fitness, initiative, care and compassion through rigorous regimes of morning runs and cold showers (which made Prince Charles "miserable"). The regime has eased considerably, but there is still great emphasis on sporting activities and community service, combined in the school's involvement in the coastguard service, mountain rescue and in-shore rescue.

The school went co-educational in 1972 and girls now make up almost 50 per cent of intake.

Annual fees: day pupils from pounds 5,640 to pounds 7,809; boarders pounds 8,235 to pounds 12,105.

Number of pupils: 420, 190 of them girls; ages 13-18

Motto: "Plus est en vous" ("There is more within you").

Famous former pupils: the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, Prince Edward. Princess Anne went to Benenden, as Gordonstoun was single-sex at the time, but she sent both her children, Peter and Zara Phillips, to the school. So did Sean Connery and David Bowie.