Forty years at Blair House by George Harris


Eleanor’s father George Harris, who taught history at the Edinburgh Academy 1973-2010, remembers forty years of expeditions to the glen.
There’s at least one of my paintings of Blair House hanging in the Staff Room at the Edinburgh Academy. I left it behind when I retired, as a reminder of a great place that was soon to be sold. How wonderful that it is going to be a field centre still, always bustling with folk. I don’t see why not.
The painting shows the building in snow, from the Acharn end with the Doll woods behind, disappearing into wintry mist. It was done in about thirty-five minutes, with big brushes, for it was done from life, and no weather to be standing around outside.
George with daughter Sarah, son-in-law Andrew, and a friendly local in the woods near Moulzie.
Winter is always a great time to be at Blair House. I wonder if anyone who reads this remembers the time we set off on a walk with Maurice Garret before dawn and that evening, in darkness and falling snow, argued about the route. The argument was settled by the fortuitous passing of a car, about twenty yards away, so close were we to the road below the Clova Hotel. Later on there was a great family holiday one Easter when we were able to build the children a working igloo up at the Viewpoint. As for Hogmanay, that was often booked up years in advance. Those feasts can’t have been better than the glorious Christmases we spent there with the Marshes, with a ceilidh in the washroom. The first time I used my crampons in anger was coming from Mayer and then down the Kilbo. Before I was even appointed my interview (Feb 1973) was supposed to include a day in Glen Doll with Rector Mills. Thank goodness we got a phone message that the road was blocked with snow; I doubt if my lack of winter mountaineering skills would have impressed him.
Spring for a long time meant the great Higher Revision Week that Henry Marsh and I used to set up. Other families – Roberts, Trotters, Cowies – often came too, and the most we sat down for dinner was 24. The pupils were guaranteed five hours supervised work as day, interspersed with fresh air and exercise. Only once, I’m afraid, was a wood-gathering party led up the track by a piper. It ought to have been a tradition. Spring comes late to those high glens, and the main flower as I remember was primroses. There always seemed to be frogs in abundance, and great herds of deer on Craig Mellon.
With Henry Marsh at Blair House. “This man, with lime and rough-cast, doth present Wall…”
I rarely managed a visit in the summer term, though that was when so many lucky pupils – the Primary 7 that we called Geits – experienced the place. However, there was a time when my A-levels finished well before term ended and there was a chance to take senior pupils for some serious walking. I don’t know if anyone else went up and down and up again to Glas Maol, but that was a great day in remote country. Three times I took parties to Lochnagar, once in mist so thick that the top of the summit cairn was out of sight from its base. The line back to the top of Jock’s Road was the longest compass bearing I have ever managed. Though I do remember someone saying on Tolmount in mist: “Well. I’ve been lost with Mr Boyce, I’ve been lost with Mr Williams, I’ve been lost with the Rector. Now it’s your turn.” For trophy hunters our best such day was the complete horseshoe, starting with Dreish and finishing (still a long way from home) with Broad Cairn. Six Munros in a day.
Climbing the Kilbo Path to Driesh with a much smaller Sarah, one Easter revision week c.1990.
Summer holidays were families and children. What a great experience for everyone. Craig Mellon and Corrie Fee had limitless possibilities for exploration and wonderful flowers. There was the occasional foray down the Glen to castles and gardens and hill-forts and Pictish stones. There was Jeremy Fenton’s wonderful wayfaring course, which took youngsters to strange glades and rocky outcrops deep in the forest. In recent years improved paths and extra bridge-building have made all sorts of easy circuits, and easier access to the rivers for swimming or boating.
Photographing a lizard on the Capel Mounth Path, with Andy Heald, 2011.
In the autumn term (or “Winter Term I” as cynics called it) one was usually glad of the open fire. Autumn spates and autumn colours gave the glen and the corries a different sort of beauty. One never knew what to expect. Blair House is certainly the only house where I have seen a cuckoo and a stoat out of the front window and a red squirrel out of the back. I only once went completely on my own – a heavy pile of marking and an exam paper to set – but while I was sitting on the patio I was able with binoculars to watch deer feeding and two eagles circling. It is not easy to do that from town.
“Eagle!” Veronica Harris, George Harris and Henry Marsh on Jock’s Road, c.1990.
For my last few years of teaching I was officially in charge of the bookings and did my utmost to maximise the field centre’s use. I hope the small bus-load of Geits we took up to explore the history down the Glen still remember the splendid few days. We rehearsed “The Mikado” there, too, I recall. Geographers and Biologists found it ideal for fieldwork. But it could not be denied that there were all sort of problems. So my daughter Eleanor’s decision not merely to buy the place, but to refurbish it and revive it as a place where young and old alike can live more close to nature than most places I know has been really lovely news. My reminiscences need not be “good old days” but exciting ideas for what to plan next.
Looking over Glen Doll Forest from Craig Mellon, 2009.
Stay in touch with the refurbishment by following Blair House on facebook. Until 24 March you can also provide much-needed financial support through a crowdfund. You can also contact Eleanor Harris,, if you are interested in being involved (painting party anyone?).
You can also follow George on Twitter @historylecturer.