‘There was a culture of fear’ Abuse inquiry’s shadow reaches Nova Scotia
CHRIS LAMBIE SALTWIRE NETWORK email@example.com @tophlambie
Details in this story may disturb some readers. Plans to build a satellite of Scotland’s Gordonstoun private school in the Annapolis Valley were likely delayed when a Nova Scotia court overturned a deal to lease the old Upper Clements theme park lands for 99 years. But that setback may pale in comparison to the effects of a huge abuse scandal blowing up in Scotland involving Gordonstoun and other posh private schools. The Municipality of the County of Annapolis has sunk about $2 million of borrowed money into the effort to bring a Gordonstoun franchise to Nova Scotia, and is now embroiled in a lawsuit just launched by E.A. Farren Ltd., the developer who wants to set up a satellite of the exlusive private school here. The following accounts come from transcripts of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, which recently heard from several former Gordonstoun students and staffers. Sarah started at Gordonstoun in the mid-1980s. She was bullied “a fair bit” at the school over her Scottish accent. Her father was in the air force and children with parents in the military were also much less wealthy than the general student population at Gordonstoun. Sarah testified that the year before she started at Gordonstoun, she was studying at Aberlour, a prep school that fed into the prestigious boarding school where she had enrolled at the age of nine. On a mountaineering expedition in the Scottish Highlands, Sarah said a 19-year-old – who was not a qualified teacher but was hired by the school anyway — raped her. She was 13. Other girls learned of the sexual assault and bullied her about it. That continued at Gordonstoun, Sarah said, until her father died. “They left me alone after that.” Now a teacher, Sarah said she disappeared from the school for 48 hours after her dad’s death and nobody seemed concerned about her absence. Things were tougher for boys at the school, she said. “Junior boys had to basically be slaves for the older boys and there was much more of a hierarchical system in the boys’ houses, and more physical abuse between pupils.” Sarah described a teacher in his 30s who tried to put his tongue in her mouth at a ball marking her cohort’s departure from the school. She didn’t even think about telling authorities at Gordonstoun about the incident. “From my previous experience, I’d always thought no one would believe me.” She studied at Gordonstoun from 1987 until 1992. Drinking and smoking were prevalent among the student body at the time, Sarah said. COVERED UP One girl was hoisted up the mast of Gordonstoun’s expeditionary sailing vessel in a bosun’s chair and left dangling 7.5 metres above the deck for hours because she was caught smoking. That happened in September of 1997, said a sailing instructor named Robert who ran the school’s sea expeditions from 1984 until 1998. “It felt like the punishment was justified,” he said. “This was not only to punish the pupil for the smoking but as a warning to others about the danger. The female pupil remained safely tethered in the chair for about two-anda-half hours and was released when I believed she was suitably contrite.” The incident was covered up to spare the school and the royals embarrassment, he said. “Prince Andrew and Princess Anne were members of the board of governors and ... Princess Anne’s children were pupils at Gordonstoun. Should anything have come to light this may have caused them some embarrassment.” Annie spent two academic years at Gordonstoun, starting in 1986. Now a social worker who works in child protection, Annie said there was a set of rules at Gordonstoun. But the reality was quite different. SENIOR STUDENTS RAN THE PLACE A set of large, strong boys, who were later expelled, appeared to run Gordonstoun, she said. “You felt like they were in charge of the school, in charge of the students and what was happening as a counter-narrative to the staff, who probably should have been in charge of the school.” Annie said they treated her horribly. She described a Gordonstoun staffer who was too touchy-feely, kissing her on the forehead or on the cheek about half a dozen times. “If I had complained it would have been difficult to say it was of a sexual nature because I did not really understand what was happening as the messages were so mixed,” Annie said. “It was definitely wrong and definitely inappropriate.” Annie reported him to a female teacher. “She told me everyone knew he was tricky or difficult and I needed just to try to avoid him.” DRUGGED BY A TEACHER John Findlay, who waived his right to anonymity, told the inquiry he was drugged and assaulted by a teacher in a dormitory at Aberlour in the 1980s when he was 12. Findlay, now 43, said the teacher got under his duvet with a camera and started taking pictures and touching his private parts. He couldn’t move or speak, but was “horribly conscious” of what was happening at the time. After he went home and told his parents about the abuse, the teacher left the school. But nobody at Aberlour counselled him about the incident; it was as if the incident never happened, Findlay said. “It was just another day, crack on as usual.” Another teacher did call him out about reporting the abuse. “She called me a liar in front of everyone . ... She said that I had got a perfectly innocent lovely man kicked out of his job.” Findlay said he now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. “I wouldn’t wish how I feel at times upon my own abuser.” STILL IN DENIAL A former Gordonstoun teacher, Andrew Keir, was convicted in 2018 of lewd acts involving three boys at the elite school between 1988 and 1991. While he got 12 months in jail, Keir, now 71, denied the crimes when testifying at the inquiry. “It’s a fact that I was found guilty,” Keir said. “It’s also a fact I still believe I was not guilty.” One former student named Paul told the inquiry Keir would invite him to the swimming pool in 1990. “He asked me to take my swimming trunks off after he took his off and it was at that point that I said, ‘I’d like to go, please.’” Keir would also make inappropriate contact when they practised judo, and fondled him while they played video games, Paul said. Bob went to Gordonstoun for 18 months starting in 1990. He had just turned 13 when he arrived at the boarding school. Bob was shy, awkward, and sensitive, not the sporting type in any way. “I was bullied almost every single day I was there. The fifth formers punched me, gave me a dead arm and they kneed me in the thigh. I had bruises on my body for almost a year and a half. Part of the reason I showered by myself and tried to avoid changing with others was so that my bruises would not be seen. It was awful. I think they knew I wouldn’t do anything and I didn’t. This was horrible stuff and no one cared.” Students knew not to snitch at Gordonstoun. “There was a culture of fear,” Bob said. “At least from my perspective. But, again my perspective is that of a very shy, awkward kid.” TEACHER RUBBED OIL ON TEEN He described himself as a loner. A physics teacher picked up on that. “He was just really nice to me. Like he was just kind, soft-spoken. He just seemed interested, which was at the time very unusual.” They talked about a shared interest in model airplanes and the teacher started inviting Bob to his house on the other side of campus on Saturday afternoons. Bob visited several times before the teacher got him to undress and rubbed oil on the boy as he lay on a bed. Bob said he felt “frozen” at first, but eventually got out of there “before something worse could have happened.” Bob eventually left the school when his parents moved to the U.S. But trauma from Gordonstoun followed him across the Atlantic. “I ended up developing a nearfatal eating disorder, all borne out of carrying and not knowing what to do with everything that happened during my time at Gordonstoun.” Angelo, a pseudonym, told the inquiry about a teacher at Aberlour who gave him sherry to drink before he turned 12. “He makes me feel special in glowing school reports,” said Angelo, now 53. “I like him very much, but years later there are parts of our relationship that concern me that might be described as grooming.” The same teacher would watch boys in the shower often, Angelo said. At Gordonstoun, he said older boys would attack younger ones after they went to bed. “The door would be kicked open and four or five seniors would come in and bully us. For years we had our nipples twisted and it would have been a very unusual day if you didn’t see black and blue nipples of at least one kid in the showers. It was a perennial thing for us. Beds would be tipped over with us under the sheets, dead arms and legs given, and just outright beatings. Finally, the door would close and you would hear the sobbing of other boys in the darkness. It was as if we were part of a sport. It was well known and accepted bullying was taking place among the pupils.” Children were beaten to the point of nervous breakdown, Angelo said. “My good friend had a temper that would suddenly crack. He was baited constantly as a game to see when he would explode, a kind of mental torture.” Over a decade, Angelo said he became habituated to this unsafe world and accepted it as normal. “My brother was tied to a chair and thrown out of a window, maybe an eightfoot drop,” he said. “Seniors fired a crossbow through the study walls (plasterboard) while kids were in the room during study times. These things are typical and went on for years.” A nasty treatment dubbed Mr. Whippies were given out, he said. “A Mr. Whippy is when you force a kid’s head down the toilet and flush so his wet hair then resembles a Mr. Whippy Ice Cream. Just a normal day.” Angelo described “a shared delight in creative bullying” at Gordonstoun. “Kids would have a noughts-and-crosses board drawn on their back and be sent to find a specific senior at the other end of the school to add a cross and then have to return for the original senior to add a cross, and so the game would continue with the hapless ‘board’ running to and fro. These were not official punishments, just whims of older kids.” Angelo told the inquiry that he was aware of one or two boys who were being raped by older boys. “I know how a kid who has been raped walks. I am ashamed that I didn’t speak up or understand this. The culture of not telling and silence was so strong amongst pupils.” None of his four closest friends from Gordonstoun have been able to sustain a marriage or have a boss, Angelo said. “I suspect our trust in authority was devastated.” Mark Pyper, a former headmaster at Gordonstoun, said when he started working at the school of just under 500 students in 1990, the institution seemed like it was still in Victorian times compared to the other places he’d worked and attended school. “I sensed almost immediately a student community run along hierarchical lines,” said Pyper, now 74. “This was not restricted to boys’ houses but was strong in girls’ houses too where my investigations when I joined the school showed that physical bullying was rare, but not unheard of. The boys’ houses had endemic, ritualistic initiation ceremonies and other physical bullying including punching, nipple tweaking and even branding. These were not new.” He compared Gordonstoun to an island, but not the “island of healing” founder Kurt Hahn had imagined. “It was an island where it had some very good things but some not so good things happening as well, but with a staff who were blinkered.” Pyper talked about “horrendous abuse” at Gordonstoun in the context of punishments meted out by staff and senior pupils. “An example was, ‘Run to the sea, get a mouthful of saltwater and come back and kneel at my feet and spit it out.’” In the 21 years he spent at Gordonstoun, Pyper said he tried to change all that. “I hope the Gordonstoun of 2011 in this context was fairly unrecognizable from the one in 1990 and great change had been made.” Lisa Kerr, the current principal of Gordonstoun, apologized “unreservedly” to students who suffered abuse at the prestigious boarding school. “It has been difficult but crucial to face up to that history,” Kerr testified.