A PORTRAIT of a former head teacher has been swiftly removed from the walls of a top Edinburgh private school, Erskine Stewart's Melville Schools, after it was revealed that its subject, Norman K Barber, had been convicted, in 1945, of indecent acts against young boys and sent to prison for two years. Meanwhile, a plaque and portrait dedicated to another headmaster, who, whose reputation has been plagued by stories of abuse, remains hanging at the famed Edinburgh public school, Fettes College, despite angered complaints.

One school’s behaviour shows enlightenment over how to handle historic abuse stories, the other, arrogant resistance.

The recently-removed portrait of Norman Barber had been hanging among a gallery of former heads at Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS) for the last five years. Though a huge scandal in Edinburgh at the time, Barber's conviction appeared to have been buried and forgotten till recently. The school reportedly had no awareness of Barber’s crimes. It took a Canadian business man, John Bruce, investigating his own father’s troubled past, to uncover the shocking story.

Bruce, a 49 year-old father of three from Vancouver, came across it when he was trying to work out aspects of his father’s personality which had impacted on his own life, and perhaps his own tendency to “self-sabotage”. He was aware that his late father, Robert Bruce, had left Scotland in some bid to leave behind some experiences, and that he had complained about corporal punishment at the school he attended from 1937 to 1945, Melville College.

What he found was a chilling series of newspaper reports about Barber, and his trial and guilty plea to three counts of “lewd, indecent and libidinous behaviour towards young boys”, of acts involving seven boys. Though the reports included no further details of Barber’s crimes, it was noted, in one article that a doctor described Barber as “a sick man psychologically”.

It was only later that Bruce discovered that Barber’s portrait hung on the school wall. When he saw the image for the first time, he said, what he saw in it was “a troubled man” – a man who had lost his own father at a young age, and had devastating experiences during the First World War.

“My goal,” said Bruce, “is to let people know about this story and to invite anyone who has some memories to somehow express them.” Bruce believes that abuse inquiries like the current Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, can be important positive processes. “I think they are good, so long as you put it in the context of helping you understand what is affecting people – rather than blame…. We can try to erase this kind of history and remove it, but it’s still in the system. These things come out like ghosts. It’s important that we understand them”

The principal of Erskine Stewart’s Melville Schools (ESMS), David Gray, said that when he learned of Barber’s story he was “appalled” and quickly had the portrait taken down. “That a former head of a school, which no longer exists in its original form [in 1972 it merged with Daniel Stewart’s College to form Stewart’s Melville College], should have behaved in this way is shocking. It’s terrible behaviour.”

The ESMS of today is in fact a fusion of several independent schools. “It is,” he emphasised, “an entirely different institution from Melville College, though that itself was a good school – it’s just this particular head teacher behaved appallingly. But Melville is in our name and therefore we have to bear some responsibility for this, and speak out, because it’s important.”

Not all schools, however, are so obliging when it comes to the removal of portraits and plaques honouring people with a shameful past. Several times in the past few decades requests have been made for the removal of a plaque which hangs in the chapel of the Edinburgh public school Fettes College, and which is dedicated to the former headmaster Anthony Chevenix-Trench. Though no abuse stories have yet emerged regarding Chevenix-Trench at Fettes, there are many from his previous positions, at Bradfield and Shrewsbury, and it’s now widely believed his approach to flogging was behind him being forced to leave Eton, where he was headmaster prior to coming to Fettes.

Among those who have spoken out about him is David Blackie, who requested, in 2012, the removal of the plaque dedicated to Chevenix-Trench which is housed in the school’s chapel and carries the words "His door was always open, for he loved his fellow man". He continues to ask for it now. Blackie has recalled many occasions when he was summoned to Chevenix-Trench’s room, for a beating, a request that would be made via just the word “bring” written on his Latin prep.

“He would talk about my Latin, and sort of snuggle up to me a bit,” Blackie said, “and then he would tell me I was to be beaten. I had to take down my pants and underpants and lie on this sofa, and he would go to the door and lock it. There was no question, his door was invariably locked, he did not want to be disturbed, neither did he want me to look round. He was very clear that what he was up to was his business"

Blackie argues that the plaque should be taken down “on the basis that Fettes are disgraced by giving credibility and even glory to a man who was really quite such a nasty little creep.”

“And it wasn’t just me that had to endure what I did,” he said. “There were others. Because he was so witty and clever, very well connected, very good at public speeches, he could do anything. He got away with it all for these reasons. I just think time to stop it. I don't regret what I said when I previously likened him to Jimmy Savile in that he abused his power to get away with it. What is wrong with it all is that, while that plaque is there, he’s still getting away with it.”

The eminent journalist Paul Foot, who received similar attention while a pupil at Shrewsbury, wrote, in 1996, of Chevenix-Trench’s “sensuous fingering of his pupils’ buttocks before and during the interminable beatings”.

Fettes still declines to remove the plaque. When asked why, The Governors Of The Fettes Trust issued a statement saying, “Fettes College is unaware of any allegations of criminal behaviour by Anthony Chenevix-Trench having been made to the police. Any such allegation should be referred to Police Scotland and Fettes College will cooperate fully if an investigation is launched.”

But, said Alex Renton, author of Stiff Upper Lip: Secrets, Crimes And The Schooling Of A Ruling Class, “at Fettes many people, staff, parents and children, know the reputation of the man whose portrait hangs in pride of place in their front hall. Chenevix-Trench was a vicious sadist and sexual abuser who would be locked up if he was alive today - he might well have been then.”

“The establishment knew all about him: he had abused children and his position as headmaster at four of the country's most famous schools. My research shows that in 1970 the Fettes governors were warned by their equivalents at Eton - who had effectively sacked him - not to give him the headmastership. But Fettes ignored that advice, just as the governors today have ignored the pleas of Chenevix-Trench's victims to stop celebrating him.”

“The school is a charity,” said Renton. “Its job is the care of children. It is under investigation over historic child abuse by both Scottish police and the independent inquiry: yet it persists in celebrating this vicious child abuser on its walls. What does that say to the children there now?”