Famous Former Pupils

  Sir Alexander Fleming

  Lord Boyd Orr

William McIlvanney (b.1936)


William McIlvanney, prefect

William McIlvanney is one of the leading contemporary novelists in Scotland . He was a pupil at Kilmarnock Academy from 1949 until 1955. Born in Kilmarnock of working-class parents, he is representative of many others during this period who found increased opportunities through education. When McIlvanney entered the school the teacher enrolling him noted that his surname was spelt with one ‘n' on his birth certificate. Pedantically, the mistake on the official document was followed, even though below it on the register his brother Hugh 's surname was entered with two ‘n's. William, however, was stuck with only one during the rest of his schooldays.

His school records, still held at Kilmarnock Academy , show him to have been a brilliant pupil, following an academic course with conspicuous success. In S5 he took English, History, Mathematics, Latin, Greek and French. His ability in English was always strong. He was a frequent speaker at the Literary and Debating Society and the Goldberry , the school magazine, contains some of his juvenilia, the first of his work to appear in print. In session 1953-4 he was appointed a prefect, becoming the Deputy Senior Prefect in 1954-5 and the editor of the Goldberry that same session.

He took an MA at the University of Glasgow before teaching English from 1960 until 1975 in Irvine Royal Academy and then Greenwood Academy , Dreghorn, where he was also Assistant Head Teacher. In 1975 he left teaching to devote himself to writing full-time. From his first novel, Remedy is None (1966), his writing has strongly reflected his Kilmarnock roots. Docherty (1975), which won the Whitbread Prize, is set in the early twentieth century in the High Street area of the town (called Graithnock in it), and many locations near to the Academy feature in the novel. His most recent novel, The Kiln (1996) is the story of a boy, grandson of the eponymous hero of Docherty , at secondary school in the post-war period, and it draws upon his own experience while at Kilmarnock Academy . There are portraits in it which are recognisably of the Old Academy and several of its teachers, including the rector and his office.

With Laidlaw (1977) and The Papers of Tony Veitch (1983) detective novels about the policeman Jack Laidlaw, McIlvanney changed the setting to Glasgow , where he now lives. However, with the third novel in the trilogy, Strange Loyalties (1991), McIlvanney returned to Ayrshire In addition he has produced volumes of poetry, short stories, and essays and journalism.


McIlvanney has always been concerned to reflect vibrant working-class life in literature. This can be seen, not only in his excellent ear for west of Scotland speech, but also in his use of popular forms such as the detective story. Kilmarnock has provided him with both vital experience and enabling education. His work has established him as one of the major contemporary Scottish writers.

Two significant pieces of literary criticism have been written on McIlvanney by another former pupil of Kilmarnock Academy , Dr Beth Dickson (b.1960). These are: ‘Class and being in the novels of William McIlvanney', in Gavin Wallace and Randall Stevenson (eds), The Scottish Novel Since the Seventies: New Visions, Old Dreams (1993), pp.54-70; and William McIlvanney's Laidlaw (1998).

William McIlvanney has kindly given permission for us to include two pieces of his writing - The Prisoner and Dreaming Las Vegas -on our school website.

In addition we have included the following piece that appeared in Scotland on Sunday.

Sunday, 23rd February 2003
Scotland on Sunday Review
Literature's labours lost

William McIlvanney

ONE of the problems with education is that nearly everybody seems to have an opinion about how it should be done. Well, we’ve all been to school, haven’t we? I’ve always found this assumption of expert knowledge a strange one. After all, how many people come out of hospital after an operation and feel qualified to give lectures on surgery to anyone unfortunate enough to be sitting beside them in a bar? "See, once you’ve made your initial incision, what you should do then is..."

To my 13 years as a pupil I’ve added 17 years as a teacher, but this still leaves me wondering about what a successful education system might be and how close we are to having one. It’s never a bad idea to give old concerns a new edge by holding them against the present like a whetstone. So I took my worries about education back to school.

I went to Kilmarnock Academy with the permission of the present head teacher, Carol Ford, to talk with some sixth year students. The visit had been arranged by Frank Donnelly, the previous headmaster and my friend when we were attending school, and ever since. The prelims were in progress and a few seniors had given up their time to meet me. It was nice of them. I think we were a group of 12. I was too busy talking to them to take an exact head count.

We were together for over an hour and the conversation never faltered. This was an interesting phenomenon in itself. I can remember an English teacher who, having asked a question, would stand and scratch his balding head with the white plastic tab of his key-ring for so long that it began to feel like a way of life. The rest of us sat staring into space, apparently waiting for an answer to arrive like a visitor from the spirit world. It could get to be like transcendental meditation in there. Yet I enjoyed the class. I did a lot of fruitful thinking in it, perhaps because the longer the silence lasted the more determinedly you searched every corner of your mind for a possible response in case you were pounced upon. Those long pauses made you work out what you thought about things. I don’t suppose the technique would rate highly in any contemporary educational league table. That teacher’s eccentric skills were beyond any known method of measurement but they were real.

The group I was with led me to suspect that pupils these days are significantly less inhibited than we were. Our session left me with two main impressions. One was respect for the confident self-assertion of the pupils and, by extension, respect for the teachers who had helped to give them it. The other was a cloud of misgivings about the confused direction contemporary education seems to be taking. I could well believe that the school is effectively fulfilling the educational remit it is being given (a belief which would seem to be supported by a recent very positive report on the school from the Inspectorate) but I found myself questioning the fullness of that remit. In other words, perhaps what really needs to be inspected is not schools but the Inspectorate itself.

The instant and admittedly fragmentary reprise my discussion with the students gave me on the trends in education today strengthened in me a suspicion I have had since before I left the profession: modern educational theorists are busking it. Since at least the 1970s they have been systematically dismantling traditional values without having any visible and coherent philosophy to put in their place.

At that time one of the areas of the curriculum undergoing renovation was what used to be called the Classics. Latin and Greek were removed as languages in the early years of secondary schooling. They survived there only as general interest subjects, involving drawings of Roman villas and projects about lifestyles. Now they seem to have been renovated virtually out of existence. The students told me they are no longer available to them.

The room we were sitting in wasn’t exactly awash with keening, and certainly not ululation, about that, and I don’t blame them. But I felt a twinge of lonely regret. This was not just because these were, for a while, two of my own favourite subjects at school. It was not just because they can lead us back to the sources of our own world for those who are interested, although that seems not a bad reason. The regret might be partly made up of these but its main components were dismay at the limitation of educational choice and the recognition in embryo of an impulse which has since grown in some quarters to be alarmingly dominant in our approach to education.

This is the idea that only subject matter in which pupils are already interested or which is relevant to their immediate environment can effectively be taught to them in an area like English, say. Such an approach is not a fulfilment of the responsibilities of education but an abdication from them. Where else will the young develop an intellectual horizon that extends beyond the next street if not in an English classroom? Yet it is possible now in some Scottish schools for sixth year students to complete the course successfully without opening a play by Shakespeare. This is like studying physics and bypassing Einstein. In England proposals have been put forward to make a junior Shakespearean examination passable without having to read any of his lines - Shakespeare literally reduced to a password. Those lines can be a bit difficult, right enough. But then isn’t that a good reason for introducing people to him in the classroom, where help is at hand? Otherwise, the First Folio, arguably the most celebrated secular book in the world, is likely always to remain a closed one for a lot of people who might have discovered some understanding of their own lives in it. The least they deserve is assistance in finding out for themselves.

Of course, the Collected Works of Shakespeare is not alone in becoming somewhat more marginal to the culture than it used to be. I suspect most books are part of the same accelerating process now. Where the students and I were chatting, we could see around us several reasons for this. Computers have arrived in the library, like an electronic fifth column in the citadel of Gutenberg. At the moment they inhabit the same space in uneasy truce. But progress can’t remain in stasis and, since computers are in the ascendant and books are in decline, I think there’s only one result the implicit conflict between them can yield.

Not everybody agrees. Before the students arrived, the head teacher and the librarian assured me that the reading of books was flourishing in the school. My inability to share their optimism about the present status of the book wasn’t helped by the reaction of the students themselves. When I asked about their personal reading, only one of them acknowledged it as a habitual activity. The rest admitted it was something they hardly had any time for. The exception was Chloe - nice literary name. It glows still like a little beacon in the gloom.

There are obvious reasons why the book is less central to our leisure than it formerly has been. One is that the virtual monopoly it used to enjoy as a passive pastime to engage the mind has broken up into several alternatives. The 19th century appetite for novels the size of a small outhouse was there because they were all the imagination had to eat. Our culture is a smorgasbord of passive options. The novel has to take its chances.

Another reason is that, leisure being leisure, most of us tend to spend it on the softer options. Television, for example, is something we can often watch without having to engage the brain. We can sit in its glow as if it were a sauna. Sometimes we wish it would engage the brain but we continue to go on watching in spite of ourselves, muttering things like, "How did this tripe get on the box in the first place?" And "I don’t believe this," as if the remote control weren’t resting on the arm of the chair. This tendency can be compounded by the fact that ease itself is habit-forming, so that we may not only settle for the easier medium but even for the less taxing expressions of that medium, as if suffering from a mild degenerative condition.

The book makes much heavier demands on us. A scene in its pages doesn’t appear ready-made before our eyes, so that all we have to do is lazily record it. We have to construct it in our imaginations. It is a much more participatory medium. It is much more our own creation. It is a DIY experience, the practice of which empowers us with a sense of ourselves by demanding our own individual interpretation be brought to every aspect of its content. That’s why it has been the paradigm of our educational system until now.

The core value of that system which the book represents - making the understanding of experience our own through our active participation in its creation - is inevitably being diluted by the nature of the electronic media. Whereas the book makes it possible for us to ingest information at our own pace and store it into wisdom, the emergence of the computer makes possible the dissemination of vast quantities of information at a speed effectively unassimilable by us. It remains external to us, mere decontextualised information. We can access it without making it experientially a part of us.

Luddism is pointless. The computer is a hugely valuable technological advance. It is a watershed in the development of our society. It is precisely because of its capacity to change the way we live that I think the recent tendency to marginalise the humanities is such an educational disaster. Computers offer the means not only to connect people across thousands of miles but the means to disconnect them within their immediate society. It will become increasingly possible for people to live largely impersonal lives, isolated within a network of electronic communication.

At such a time of transition I would have thought the retention of the importance of the humanities, with their emphasis on the individual as a part of communal experience, could be a stabilising force within a society which is becoming significantly less cohesive than it used to be. Besides educating pupils in the use of computers, it might be a good idea at the same time to educate them against the desocialising tendencies of the electronic culture.

Instead of being allowed to define its own crucial role within the nature of contemporary society, the profession has too often found its expertise harnessed to the latest maverick theory or subjected to quick-fix government whims to appease the voters.

This loss of sustained control of the use of their own skills has extended to teaching in universities, where the demands of the marketplace have been responsible for the creation of degrees so ludicrous they could make a second-hand car dealer blush. The two most important professions in our society have fallen into the hands of the management men but at least the doctors still get to perform the operations on their own terms. They don’t have people looking over their shoulders telling them how to do it.

Education has been the victim of enough hasty paramedic treatment. It might benefit from some carefully planned corrective surgery. But there’s no blue-print in sight for that. In the meantime, teachers will no doubt still manage to turn out their pupils of the quality I was lucky enough to encounter but some of them must feel pretty embattled as they do it - like Spartans at Thermopylae wondering exactly what it is they are defending.