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Victims Finally Have a Voice

published in The Times Scotland 03/02/23

It’s a cold winter’s afternoon in 1978. My mother draws up in her car to collect me from outside the school gates. I climb into the back seat and utter the usual daily response that school was fine. in fact it hasn’t been fine. It wasn’t that day or any other. But particularly not that day. After classes had finished, a teacher had lured me into a classroom and sexually assaulted me.

One of the basic principles you learn at private schools, like all secretive groups from the mafia to the freemasons, from street gangs to politics is that at all costs you keep quiet. something between the stiff upper lip and the old school tie, this rule has kept intruders at bay and maintained the status quo of Establishment institutions for centuries.

This wall of silence has started to crumble quite unexpectedly in Edinburgh over the last few weeks. Thanks to the tireless efforts of investigative journalist Alex Renton and BBC Presenter Nicky Campbell, both of whom have broadcast their own experiences, the dirty secrets of two private schools in particular are being aired. And now men like me, who have long hoarded memories of abuse are coming forward to tell their stories.

The dogged reporting from Times journalist Marc Horne, who has refused to let the story disappear, has meant that these accounts of abuse and violence against young boys in private education in Edinburgh are increasing and a matter of public record. They are no longer just rumours or unsubstantiated allegations hushed up over a wee dram in New Town drawing rooms, but facts which are here to stay.

Our abusers have names. They were men who were charged with our care and learning. For the first time in 45 years, the means have been offered to me and countless other men, now in our 50s and 60s, to come forward and speak up about what these teachers did to us during our schooling at Edinburgh Academy and Fettes College. I had the misfortune to be sent to both.

It started with the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry established in 2015. The initial terms of reference were to investigate the nature and extent of abuse of children whilst in care in and, perhaps surprisingly, included Scottish boarding schools. This led to Fettes College in Edinburgh coming under close scrutiny and the self-professed paedophile Iain Wares, known as ‘Edgar’ who taught there.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of these revelations is just how easy it was for a teacher to move between schools, despite the number of complaints of abuse being made against him at the time. Already with a history of predatory behaviour he arrived at Fettes armed with a reference from Edinburgh Academy and when the heat became too much there he returned to teach at a boys school in South Africa waving a valedictory reference from Fettes headmaster, Anthony Chenevix-Trench, who had himself been sacked by Eton because of allegations of sexual abuse. In the last week, Wares has now been arraigned on charges of sexual assault on a boy at Rondebosch Boys Preparatory School in Capetown. The first, you may well suspect, will not be the last.

My time at Edinburgh Academy began aged ten in 1976 and lasted two years. During that time, I can’t remember how many times my sexless pre-pubescent body was manhandled by a teacher or ogled in the showers. As we know memory is a precarious friend. This doesn’t include the gratuitous beatings, my head being thrown off a desk or the terrible dark afternoon when that one teacher, a fledgling serial abuser cornered me. After the event I said nothing. Terrified I would be blamed or worse not believed and had squandered my privilege. My parents were not rich. That was the culture these men relied on. The abused become totally isolated, they have no voice.

There was no safeguarding, no pastoral care, no requirement to take responsibility. My behaviour became dysfunctional and when my parents complained, rather than ask any questions, the headmaster told them I was a problem child and that they should remove me to another school.

Somehow they got me into Fettes in 1978. By now, three years in private schooling as a non-sporty, non-academic, physically undeveloped weakling had removed any sense of personal agency or autonomy over my body. So regular fondling from a Latin teacher and a visit to Chenevix-Trench’s office for a ‘soft’ beating didn’t seem so out of the ordinary. And by the time I became a lanky, spotty fourteen year-old I ceased to be easy prey so retreated into myself, navigating the anger of sadistic teachers and surviving the incessant bullying and roughhousing of field games the best I could. But you said nothing. Above all, you never clyped. And at home and in the holidays, my unworldly, religious parents kept up the academic pressure where school left off.

These dark secrets remained unspoken until 2016 when I was astonished to see the face of that first abuser in a newspaper. He had been convicted for what is legally termed “lewd, indecent and libidinous practices and behaviour” basically sexually assualting boys at one of the schools where he went on to teach after leaving Edinburgh Academy. Since my initial evidence, thanks to the publicity around the Inquiry many more men have come forward. Like Edgar, he went from school to school, facilitated by the silence and isolation of his victims.

As the Inquiry has progressed, allegations of unchallenged systemic sexual and physical abuse of boys in these two schools have flooded in. Lady Smith, already facing criticism for the delays in proceedings, has felt compelled to open up new submissions of evidence from men, who like me, have been emboldened by their peers to reveal long-supressed traumatic incidents of which they have never spoken before.

Finally the silence has been broken and we can support each other. For us the old school tie means lives marked by pain and trauma. We talk tentatively, unsure of the reaction we’ll get, nervous of meeting someone who bullied us, gradually unpeeling layers of locked up experience, careful to be unspecific to avoid any accusations of collusion. What is astonishing, is that right in front of our eyes, without us really knowing, the same was happening to other boys just like us. For the first time we have a voice, strength in numbers and collective purpose. We don’t “believe” we may have suffered from historic abuse as one of the schools has described our trauma. We know it. And as new friendships begin to shape, we have the courage to say it.

One of the observations noted by Lady Smith is the culture of first and second division pupils. If you were physically strong and good at sports or shone in the classroom, you were first division and could thrive in these schools. If you were obviously different, sensitive or less physically developed, the schools simply left you to survive. For those of us second division boys who did, we rebelled against authority in all the usual ways. But many didn't survive. In our group we have a strong sense of gallows humour. Every so often someone else is remembered. A suicide, an overdose, a car crash. Too young, too smart, too unexplained. Nothing we can prove. But we know.

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