Fifty golden years at Symbister House

Head teacher Robin Calder helps Lisa Anderson cut the ribbon. Photo: Michael Simpson
Head teacher Robin Calder helps Lisa Anderson cut the ribbon. Photo: Michael Simpson

Whalsay’s Symbister House Junior High School proudly celebrated its 50th anniversary on Wednesday, in an open afternoon joined by most of the 900-strong community.

Head teacher Robin Calder helped P7 pupil Lisa Anderson cut the golden ribbon across the school door – her young nursery-pupil sister who had been due to do it being too shy.

Mr Calder thanked everyone, from three-year-old nursery pupils to the 16-year-olds in S4, for their input into the day, together with the local history group, the fishing community and wider community for their support. And any talk of impending changes was firmly banned for the day.

Festive drumming from tutor Joy Duncan and P4 and P5 pupils added to the atmosphere as pupils, former pupils, parents, staff and visitors entered the former laird’s house, which has operated as a school since 1964.

It was refurbished in 1998, said Mr Calder, and now has specialist rooms for science, music, art and IT and one for a kiln, plus a pond in the grounds, for the 53 secondary pupils it serves. The new primary school with about 100 pupils is beside the nearby leisure centre.

Secondary pupils had been encouraged to research the school’s history – it had belonged to the Bruce family but had lain empty for 20 years before becoming a school. Pupils had interviewed their grandparents about their school experiences. The grandparents were mostly former pupils themselves, adding to the strong community and inter-generational feel of the occasion.

Joy Duncan, Michael Williamson and Larry Polson browse through some of the memorabilia. Photo: Michael Simpson
Joy Duncan, Michael Williamson and Larry Polson browse through some of the memorabilia. Photo: Michael Simpson

The written interview sheets formed part of the 1960s and 1970s display – there were other displays for more recent decades. Most grandparents had fond memories, but one recalled: “Didna like none of it.”

Mr Calder was amused: “We’ve improved since then,” he said.

Science is always fun, however. In the science room S2 pupils helped give a science lesson – with exploding custard powder. Teacher Iain MacInnes and pupil Ian Polson showed that by placing the powder in a funnel in a tin, passing it over a candle flame and blowing air in through a tube a flash and a very satisfying explosion are created. Ian said custard has “thixiotropic” properties, it is runny when mixed with water but goes solid when pressure is applied – it can be rolled by hand into a ball.

His teacher said the opposite happens to peat and clay – when pressure is applied they become liquid and landslides can result.

Unchanging principles were being demonstrated in one room while artefacts depicting the passage of time were in others. The 60s area featured the strap, used for punishment, with the warning “do not touch”. There were also notebooks printed with the name Zetland Education Authority, old desks with lift-up lids and leather satchels.

ASN auxiliary Linda Shearer started school the first year it was in Symbister House, and remembers the mosaic tiles on display – still used by classes now.

The original janitor from 1964, Davie Arthur, who also drove the school bus, was amazed at the changes at the school, which include installation of a lift. He remembered stone internal steps and heating cabinets in the rooms, and said: “It’s all modernised. We didn’t even have electricity. There were three generators at the back and I had to start them every morning to get the boiler going.”

His wife Netta was a teacher at the school for 28 years, and hardly recognised the new layout. She said: “It’s very impressive.” And, she added, the layout was not the only change: “I’m meeting [former] primary pupils with three or four children.”

Former pupil in the 1970s, Wilma Hutchison, is also impressed with the modernisation. She said: “The biggest difference is not segregating boys and girls. They would line up boys and girls [at break] and when the bell went you had to go through the boys’ corridor. We felt everyone was looking at you. people yelled stuff at you and you ran as fast as you could. It’s a lot better now.” The old days were recalled in a video, showing in the maths room.

For more recollections of Symbister House over the years see Friday’s Shetland Times.


Add Your Comment
  • Netta Simpson

    • June 18th, 2014 23:10

    Excellent afternoon, well done everyone who worked hard to make it all possible. So much to see and reminisce over, would have needed 2 days to really see it all instead of 2 hours.Very much changed inside since I started there as a Primary 1 pupil 50 years ago. So much more facilties available. Hopefully it will remain open as it is, with pupils able to finish Secondary 4 education.


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