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School Days Index

Caithness School Days Tales

This new section kicks off and is inspired by John Dallas who appeared a few days ago in the Miller Academy series.  In his nineties Mr Dallas obviously made his mark as these memories from Richard Sutherland show.

John Dallas - Middle of Front Row


I was surprised and delighted to hear that John Dallas is alive and well.

Surprised, because I thought the  antics of his various classes would have driven him to an early grave years ago.

Clearly he has the genes for longevity.

More years ago than I care to bring to anyone’s attention I was one of his pupils at the old West Public School.

In those days our Mr. Dallas commuted (was it from Forss?) by motorcycle and I remember occasionally beholding, in the side car , an ancient gentleman swathed in layers of wool  up to his neck and with a leather helmet with earflaps which  was clearly a relic of the Royal Flying Corps.

This cocooned Methusula was his father.

The source of the longevity gene I presume.

Dallas senior looked to my 11 year old eyes to be at least 100..

He probably was.

The atmosphere in John Dallas’s classroom was remarkable. The principle constituent of it was chalk dust.  There was a permanent haze of calcification in the room. Dallas of course wore a kind of chalk-protective, khaki, lab-jacket and when exasperated by        his   pupils he would flap out his arms and then beat his sides in a penguin like fashion. This would release yet more clouds of             chalk into the air.

Today’s puny children would probably succumb to asthma.

We were hardier stock.

I can remember beating chalk cleaners outside in the boys’ playing ground. That must have been some sort of reward.

Like being chosen to distribute crates of milk around the classrooms. In winters we put them by the fire to thaw the ice. (Does any school nowadays have an open fireplace, let alone a coal fire? Or in the post-Thatcher era – MILK?)

Which immediately brings back memories of  Miss Grant’s schoolroom where, a few years earlier  I first encountered gas lighting. Igniting a long wax taper from the fire she would stand on  the desks directly under the gas mantles, turn a knob and with a pop,  the room would be flooded with this lovely, gentle slightly greenish light. Then as now it began getting dark at three in the afternoon in November and December.  Street lighting was gas too. Better by far than  the baleful orange glare from today’s cement monstrosities.

I believe you can always tell a great schoolteacher by the mimicability factor. We had several notable Dallas mimics in our class.( Are you there, Dennis Manson?) The particular Dallas verbal quirk that we seized on and practiced on our way to and from the boys’ lavatory – a damp, dank and dismal hovel behind the equally atrocious “shelter shed”, was his pronunciation of the word “DRIP.”

In moments of extreme exasperation, our normally mild-mannered teacher would give vent to his feelings by calling his recalcitrant and dim-witted charges: DRIPS. The pronunciation was remarkable. It would begin with a sort of splutter “dddddd..d” which gave word to a rolling “rrrrrrr…..r” a to be completed by an explosive rripIIIPPPPs”


Drips indeed……on occasion we richly deserved the term;  there was no other  phrase to sum up our snotty-nosed, dirty-kneed, recalcitrant dimness.

Sharpening pencils was another major activity in the Dallas classroom. There was a pencil sharpener in the form of a  duck – a yellow duck if I recall. Not a Disney Duck – a Dallas Duck. I wonder if he still has it?

Next time I am in Thurso I shall look him up and proffer a pencil. I’m sure he still has the magic duck. It’s probably in the pocket of the brown jacket along with some chalk.

I think at the time, when you are a  kid, you don’t always realize when you had a great teacher. Great teachers of  course are few and far between and John Dallas was – excuse the pun – in a class of his own. But even then we dimly knew we were in for a brush with greatness when we talked to older kids.


And so he was. He was never condescending to his classes. He could accommodate the slowest and the quickest to the frustration of neither. He was no martinet for silence, a hum of conversation was more or less constant. He had a genius for knowing when we were missing the point or  misunderstanding something and at those times one would get  his total concentration one-on-one.

And all would become clear , logical and as fresh as one of  those  rain-cleansed glistening   April afternoons at 4:00 pm exactly when we charged out of school  free at last of the day’s educational burden and never dreaming that some day  we would look back with rare fondness to our days as Dallas’s class.

Richard Sutherland