Obituary: Tribute to Nessie, colleague and friend

For several generations of Shetland schoolchildren passing through the Anderson High School and the old Anderson Educational Institute there was one teacher feared by all and revered by many. Agnes Mary Robertson, known as Nessie, stalked the corridors for 37 years as teacher and deputy headteacher, dispensing wisdom and discipline. She died peacefully in hospital on Thursday 28th July, aged 85. At her funeral service a tribute was given by former high school head teacher George Jamieson. This is an edited version.

I don’t recall the exact year but it was probably the late 1970s, in mid December, immediately after a third year Anderson High Christmas party. Some staff, Nessie being one of them, were invited to our house in King Harald Street for a coffee, a dram and to relax. Approaching midnight we were visited by certain revellers of the night meandering homewards from the Galley Shed, and like moths in summer, were attracted to our lights and “drappit in alang”. Later, much later, Nessie decided it was time to go home, strongly advising others to do likewise, and offered a lift in her car to an ex-Jarl who resided near the school. Some brave soul tentatively suggested to Nessie – should she drive after having partaken of a dram or two. “Drive, of course I’m driving, why not?” But Nessie the police might stop you. “The police stop me: they wouldn’t dare!”

Helen Adams Keller, the remark­able deaf-blind American authoress, once quoted: “Never bend your head – hold it high, look the world straight in the eye.” That was Nessie. When she had something to say to you she always looked you straight in the eye. She was, as The Shetland Times stated on the front page, feared but highly respected. A legendary teacher whose repu­tation was always ahead of her.

In the Anderson Educational Institute admission register for 1935-1951 under No 136 – 29th August 1938 appears the name of Agnes Mary Robertson. On that day, Nessie, as she was always known, along with 40 other pupils enrolled into the school of 136 pupils and a staff of 13. She made her mark from an early date. In the school log for 1939 she is mentioned for gaining an award in the Orkney and Zetland Examination junior section. After completing five years in school she entered St Andrews University where she gained her MA degree, followed up by a year in teacher training. At a later date she took her honours degree in history by external corres­pon­dence.

Her first appointment in 1947 was to Aith Primary School and then on 29th August 1949, exactly 11 years after enrolling as a pupil, she returned to the Institute to teach English, geography and history. Coincidentally I enrolled as a pupil on that same day and who taught me English, history and geography in Class 1? Yes, Nessie.

The Anderson was for 37 years, until she retired in 1986, the major part of her life. She loved the school. She served with four head teachers – Mr Andrew T Cluness, Mr William Rhind, Mr John Graham and latterly myself. She gave to the school as a teacher, principal teacher of history, lady adviser and latterly depute head a quality of service of the very highest calibre. Thousands of pupils have either been taught by Nessie or came into contact with her. A person of great integrity, a true professional, but above all a person who through her natural enthusiasm for her subject developed teaching to a fine art. I am very proud to say that I was one of the privileged persons taught by Nessie. For her your best was possibly just good enough. She set and demanded high standards and expected likewise from her pupils and staff. Nessie had many excellent per­sonal qualities. She displayed great warmth, was a caring person, a very kind person, very hospitable, a person who loved company, fun and banter – I see her yet in the school office laughing, the red Nescafe mug clutched in both hands.

She possessed that rare gift of handling a multitude of details methodically. The “queen” of endless handwritten lists in the days before computer technology had impacted on schools. Many a principal teacher when called to her office to discuss the complexities of the timetable left bemused, and if pupil timetables were not returned to her office by staff in alphabetical order it was not good news for that poor unfortunate person. Nessie was a leading member of the newly formed guidance team in the early 70s and was always available to help and advise her colleagues. Many pupils benefited from her counselling, wisdom and great depth of experience.

Occasionally, like everyone else, Nessie being human, and yes she was human, got it wrong. A very respected member of the Anderson staff recalled the day when as a pupil, Nessie caught her relaxing in the history department with her feet on top of a desk. Nessie retorted: “Girl, no-one will ever employ the likes of you!” Very occasionally this seemingly irresistible force that was Nessie met up with the immovable object. One afternoon she searched in vain for a certain silver haired member of the business studies department. He could not be found in the building and she urgently needed to see him. It transpired that he had been to the barber, Feejar Tait, for a haircut – what bravado! On his return he was immediately summoned by Nessie to explain his absence. When it was established that he had been for a haircut she was neither sympathetic nor amused, having nursed her wrath to near boiling point. And less so when our gentleman announced to her that “My hair grows in school time so you see I hae it cut it in school time.”

Over the period from 1949-1986 there were vast changes in education. In the 1940s the school was a small, selective, intimate community of staff and pupils. By 1986 when Nessie retired the roll of the comprehensive AHS had exceeded 1,000 at the peak of the oil industry. She witnessed not only changes in education but great social changes which affected one’s thinking and approach to teaching. Times were not always smooth. Dated accommodation at the Anderson prior to extensions being built, and a school, which after amalgamation with the Central Public School, for a number of years operated on two sites in the 70s which caused difficulties. But true professionals cope. Mr John Graham was head teacher and with Nessie as his depute they formed a remarkable partnership and with the support of the management team and staff established compre­hensive education to a very high standard in the newly formed Anderson High School.

The sixth year Beanfeast was a school event which for many years was always linked with the name of Nessie Robertson. She controlled and helped sixth year to organise this superb annual event. She censored their concert, just in case. Yet how often did Nessie’s famous green costume appear on the stage worn by a senior pupil impersonating her. Ironically in the year she retired industrial action prevented the school from holding its annual Beanfeast and I recall Nessie saying to me that the teaching unions had achieved what Hitler had failed to do during World War II – cancel a Beanfeast.

Outwith the school Nessie was hugely involved in a wide range of voluntary work. As early as 1950 she was leader in charge of Lerwick B Lifeboys. She was a Sunday school teacher and superintendent for many years.

She was secretary and a member of the arts and crafts committee. For many years she was a hostess at the Masonic Hall and latterly at Anderson High School in connection with the annual Up-Helly-A’ festival.

Her father Bertie had been the first Guizer Jarl after World War I in 1920. In all of her wide range of activities she was best known for her close involvement over many years with Lerwick Lifeboat. For her long devoted service as secretary of Lerwick Ladies Lifeboat Guild, Nessie was awarded the Gold Badge. She was also honoured with an OBE in 1987 for services to education.

Those of us who volunteered, if that be the correct term, to be waiters at the annual lifeboat ball in October well recall Nessie’s clear cut handwritten instructions which we all received on what to do and not to do when serving tables, and heaven help anyone who digressed. In fact it came to such a pitch that we formed a union, the UWKC – or Union of Waiters, Kitchen Maids and Caterers – and chose as our chief shop steward a man of great height and stature, a certain Lang Willie Smith, to negotiate with Nessie on our behalf. All good fun – and just what Nessie really thrived on.

While Nessie’s name will always be associated with the Anderson High and the lifeboat the other great love of her life was her immediate family. She was Shetland born and bred with grandfathers from Skerries and Dury Voe and grandmothers from Collafirth and Waas. Brother Duncan, his wife Jean, nephews Stuart and Michael and latterly Stuart’s wife Shirley and their four sons were very dear to her. Her family connections with Skerries and elsewhere were extremely important to her and she often told me of Stuart’s researches into the family history.

In her younger days Nessie played golf – I suppose if you are a graduate of St Andrews that would be logical. Bressay was where golf was played in the 1950s – crossing by the Brenda to the Maryfield pier. She was a keen gardener – she loved flowers. Duncan her brother recalls having to water over 70 plants when she was away from home. She enjoyed country dancing and loved walking – I recall walking the west coast of Unst with her and how intensely interested she was in the long deserted hamlets north of the Westing and the old “faely daeks” that enclosed the crofts. In her advancing years Nessie, sadly, did not enjoy good health. Her dedicated family, friends and carers enabled her to remain for as long as possible in her beloved home at St Olaf Street where she had lived nearly all of her life.

On a personal note I am privileged to say that I count myself fortunate in having Nessie as a teacher, a wonderful and very professional colleague and a very close friend. Her support at all times was immense. Her devotion to duty and commitment total. On the last occasion that I visited her in Hoolsgarth she was sitting in her favourite room upstairs over looking Breiwick. Scotsman and dictionaries were at her side for the crossword. We reminisced as usual and her final parting words to me as I left were: “You know George we had a lot of fun.” Nessie really understood and lived by the motto of the Anderson High School – Doe Weel and Persevere.


Get Latest News in Your Inbox

Join the The Shetland Times mailing list to get one daily email update at midday on what's happening in Shetland.