Hidden among the green, rolling Moray countryside, Gordonstoun is famously the exclusive boarding school attended by Prince Philip and Prince Charles.
Within the school’s grand campus sits a community fire station, crewed entirely by trained staff and a multitude of international students.
Throughout this week, we will be exploring the past, present and future of the unique Gordonstoun fire unit, in the first of our new ‘SFRS Spotlight’ series…
BACK ON THE FRONTLINE
GORDONSTOUN’S volunteer fire unit is led by watch manager Tim Clarke – the school’s erudite geography teacher – who took up his frontline firefighting role in 2002.
Earlier this year, Clarke and his team were mobilised as part of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service response to a huge gorse fire at Hopeman beach in Moray – one of the most memorable calls of his 16-year tenure.
“Gordonstoun’s ethos is about fulfilling academic potential, but also about learning through experience and ultimately giving something back to the community,” Clarke, 52, explains.
The station, which is made up of three watches, returned to the frontline recently following the school’s summer break. Each watch is on call 24 hours a day for seven days, every three weeks.
The fire unit is one of nine school ‘services’, also including the coastguard – of which the Duke of Edinburgh and Prince of Wales were members – first aid and community service.
Clarke adds: “Leading this crew of young firefighters is hugely rewarding, and something I take great pride in. It’s one of the highlights of my job.
“To see how hard they work in training, and the time and effort they give to ensure we always have our appliance available, is very fulfilling.”
“This weekend is a rare weekend where everyone gets a break to go home,” says year-13 pupil Cameron, the fire unit’s newly elected captain.
The 17-year-old, however, won’t be returning home to see his family and friends back in Hampshire.
“I’m on call, so our watch will be some of the few students left on campus, to ensure our fire engine is ready and available if called,” Cameron explains.
“It’s a shame not to get the chance to go home, I suppose, but I really don’t mind – this is what we signed up for, and this is our responsibility.”
“I’VE NEVER SEEN ANYTHING LIKE IT.”
THIS has been an especially busy year for the young fire crew, following a spate of wildfires across Moray, Aberdeenshire and the Highlands.
The huge gorse fire at Hopeman beach in May, near to where Clarke lives, will remain a standout for the dad-of-one.
“I’ve been to quite a few large and challenging incidents in my time, but Hopeman was certainly up there,” Clarke says.
“I remember arriving at the station, and the students had already sprinted over, and were absolutely buzzing to go.”
Cameron adds: “With Mr Clarke driving the appliance, there’s only room for five more of us – and up to seven in each crew.
“As you can imagine, there’s quite a race to make sure you’re going on the call, and not the one left at the station.”
Recalling that evening on the north coast in May, Cameron says: “I’ve never seen anything like it.
“It was a nice summer night, clear blue skies, and then all of a sudden this thick plume of black smoke became very clearly visible in the distance.
“We were on call, and I’ll never forget the buzz and adrenaline that hit when the pager finally went.”
Clarke says: “We were there for pushing eight hours, and were called back again on in the days following.
“Every single time, I witnessed this young crew - from various countries and backgrounds - call upon their training, thriving on the responsibility.”
Of the fire unit’s 36 current members and trainees, there are 12 different nationalities within its ranks.
“This is a fantastic reflection of the school itself,” says Clarke, who spent two years teaching in the Falklands.
“I see students from Scotland and England training and working alongside others from Russia, Kenya, Spain, New Zealand.
“And some people might think it’s just the wealthy and privileged, but it’s absolutely not.
“Not only does the school welcome a large amount of students via bursaries, but we have also previously offered a scholarship to sons and daughters of firefighters in Scotland – and we’ll hopefully be opening this up again very soon.
“Personally, I think that’s a fantastic reflection of how highly the school holds its relationship with the fire service, and it’s something I am proud of.”
THE FORMATION – FROM WW2 TO ROYAL ALUMNI
GORDONSTOUN’S fire unit was formed in 1941 by student Stephen Philp – a former school peer and coastguard colleague of the Duke of Edinburgh.
It was started at the height of the Second World War, just seven years after the school was founded by Dr Kurt Hahn, a Jewish exile who fled Nazi Germany.
Philp, whose father served with the Auxiliary Fire Service in London, was evacuated from Gordonstoun after the British Army took over the school as a key Allied Forces base in 1940.
Shortly after his arrival in Montgomeryshire in Wales, Philp established the makeshift fire unit that would continue upon the students’ return to Moray the following year.
Today, Philps’ legacy at the school is striking. His former fire helmet sits pride of the place within Gordonstoun House’s grand North Room alongside portraits of the Queen, Prince Philip and the Princess Royal, among others.
Yorkshireman Clarke said: “We’re very proud of our connection with the Royal Family and all of our former students, of course.
“It’s a notable part of the school’s history, and indeed here within the fire unit, both Peter and Zara Phillips were members.
“That was before my time, but I’ve been proud to welcome Princess Anne, the school’s Warden and a great supporter of the fire service, to the fire station on a few occasions.
“The Princess Royal always takes a very keen interest in our fire unit, and always takes the opportunity to ask about the sort of calls we’ve been out on any time she visits.”
FIREFIGHTERS OF THE FUTURE
Former Gordonstoun pupil Flora Johnston attended the school on a scholarship from 2011 to 2016, and relished her time with the fire service.
In fact, the 20-year-old university student missed the frontline experience so much that she joined the service as a retained firefighter earlier this year in her new home town – at the opposite end of the country.
“At school, you were encouraged to be of service to other people. This ethos is intrinsically put into you,” explains Johnston, a textiles student at Heriot Watt University in Galashiels.
“I absolutely love my life at university, but I felt very self-indulgent and I wanted to give something back – so I looked at the option to become a retained firefighter.”
Johnston, nicknamed ‘Tiny’ at Galashiels Fire Station, adds: “I burst out crying when I found out I got in, and I’ve never looked back.
“Now I work on the most fantastic team, alongside a paramedic, chef and mechanic – among others – and we all look after one another.
“I might be small, I might be a girl, and people might wonder why a textiles student applied to be a firefighter – but I’m there, I’m doing it, and I couldn’t be happier.”
Titus Edge, the school’s headmaster, says: “We are enormously proud of our link with the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, which for nearly 80 years has enabled hundreds of students to play an important role in protecting the local area.
“In the process they have learned the importance of contributing to society, to put other people’s needs before their own and thereby gained compassion and empathy.
“I can’t think of a better way to learn such valuable life skills.”
Ian Findlay is the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service’s Local Senior Officer for Aberdeenshire and Moray.
He says: “It has undoubtedly been a busy year for our young firefighters at Gordonstoun – but they have stepped up to the challenge every time they were called upon, working alongside their wholetime and retained colleagues.
“And just like any other firefighter of today, their role has developed beyond that of frontline emergency response – with the crew having a fantastic reputation for their vital community engagement, acting as role models to children across the region.
“I have no doubt their experiences as part of our fire unit at Gordonstoun will prove to be a great asset for the students in equipping them with transferable skills to achieve their potential with whatever they go on to do next in life.”
Johnston adds: “Being a part of the school fire service was an amazing experience – but I didn’t realise just how much I enjoyed it, or how much I’d miss it, until after I left.
“It’s funny that when I left school in 2016, I thought that was the end of my fire career – but it turned out to be just the start.”