Doug Marr

Born: February 7, 1947;

Died: November 4, 2023

Doug Marr, who has died aged 76 after a short illness, was a much valued and long standing columnist for The Herald who also had a distinguished career in education. Indeed, his outstanding contribution to education was recognised with the award in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List in 2001 of a CBE for services to the secondary school sector in Scotland.

I first met Doug in the early 1990s when, as Herald education correspondent, I was asked to write a guide for parents whose children were going on to the first two years of secondary education under the new 5-14 curriculum guidelines. Doug, who was forging a justifiable reputation as a young, driven and innovative headteacher at the new St Machar Academy, was on the panel of experts advising me.

He wore his expertise lightly and was unfailingly generous in sharing his knowledge; kind and patient, too, in fielding this reporter’s back-to-basics questions. Doug and I formed a lasting friendship that extended to both of our families. He was a trusted contact (frequently off the record) whose sane and reasoned analyses importantly gave Herald readers an informed and balanced picture of the initiatives emerging with a flurry from the then Scottish Office.

Doug was born in Cotton Street, Aberdeen, the only child of Douglas and Evelyn Marr. He attended Smithfield primary then Aberdeen Grammar School, where he was introduced to rugby. He played more than 200 times for the school’s former pupils’ club but he also had a passion for football and, for many years, was a season ticket holder at Pittodrie, Aberdeen FC’s home ground.

He studied history at Aberdeen University, securing an honours degree and the Post Graduate Certificate of Education. His first teaching post was at Hilton Academy in Aberdeen before being appointed at Aberdeen Grammar. His first senior leadership role was as assistant headteacher at the new Kemnay Academy in Aberdeenshire. He found time to gain his Master of Education (first class) and, at the school, met Alison, then a young reprographics assistant in the office. Their romance blossomed into a marriage that was nurtured and cherished by both over the next 33 years.

Doug was then appointed deputy headteacher at the Gordon Schools in Huntly before securing the top job back at Hilton Academy. He oversaw the merger of the school with Powis Academy to form St Machar Academy. Its catchment had seven designated areas of deprivation in Aberdeen but, by the time he left to become headteacher of Banchory Academy, the school was so successful that it was unable to meet the demand for placing requests. Academic performance had improved, standards of achievement had risen and, vitally, pupils and the community had a sense of pride in their school.

Tim McKay, a close friend and former colleague and fellow headteacher, gave the eulogy at Doug’s funeral in Monymusk Parish Church. He recalled during their time together at St Machar the only occasion during which he witnessed Doug lost for words. Doug had a passionate belief in positive pupil behaviour. He established The Remove, a sparsely furnished room where pupils who had been excluded from class (because they were disrupting the education of the well-behaved majority) were sent to work, under the supervision of a teacher. The pupil remained there until a parent arrived at the school to be told by Doug why the sanction had been imposed. He was setting out the conditions for that pupil’s readmission to class when he was rudely interrupted by the irate parent, who told Doug she was a white witch and she had placed a voodoo curse on him for his wickedness; not a scenario to be found in the headteachers’ manual.

Banchory Academy on Royal Deeside was a totally different school but Doug was just as rigorous in setting standards and raising attainment. He introduced a school uniform policy and, on its first day in operation, the senior male students turned up in dinner suits. “Only in Banchory,” he recalled with a shake of the head. But leadership and rigour worked once again and the school was recognised as one of the top three in Scotland.

Doug and Tim were seconded to Fraserburgh Academy, a school in need of support and direction, both of which it was given. Tim said: “Doug was a critical thinker, passionate about leadership with the emotional intelligence to make a difference where it mattered most, to the pupils under his care.”

Doug retired as a headteacher in 2004 but took on roles as a Curriculum for Excellence advisor, a senior teaching fellow at Aberdeen University and a schools inspector with HMIE.

During this period of consultancy work he joined Cameron Harrison, former chief executive of the then Scottish Consultative Council on the Curriculum, on a visit to Albania, funded by the George Soros Foundation, to produce proposals for modernising the country’s education system after the death of the paranoid dictator Enver Hoxha.

On their way south from Tirana, their guide asked if they’d like to stop for lunch. They said they would and they were driven down a steep dirt track to a ramshackle hut on the beach. The guide spoke to the owner, who threw a net in his boat and put to sea. Doug and Cameron watched as he cut the engine, readied his net, pulled hand grenades from a bag, released the pins and threw the weapons into the sea. After an almighty bang several stunned fish could be seen floating on the surface, ready for the barbecue. “At least it was fresh,” Doug said.

He began his long association with The Herald by writing commissioned analyses about education but he also started submitting columns speculatively on a wide range of subjects. Such was the quality that we knew we had to find him a regular slot and, happily, we did. He had a devoted readership but he also enjoyed provoking readers, measuring success by the number of enraged responses to a column.

His columns ranged across many subjects, including education (of course), politics, class, inequality, sport, social affairs and, with wry humour, the vicissitudes that accompany the passing years.

He was also an ardent music fan, particularly of the work of Bob Dylan. “Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it,” Dylan wrote; words that could easily have been penned for Doug, who left inspiration for us to find in the many places and lives he touched.

As Tim McKay noted, Doug’s was a successful life well lived, by a man who was loved by all who knew him.

Doug Marr is survived by his wife Alison, daughter Pamela, son-in-law Gary and granddaughter Lucy.

Barclay McBain