In the past few weeks there has been much speculation and, at times, heated debate about the origins and most appropriate translation of the current school motto - Fidelis et Fortis. I am grateful to John MacLeod (Writer, Journalist and former pupil of JGHS) for researching this matter and offering this detailed description of how our motto has evolved over the past century. (John is currently researching the archives of the school as preparation towards writing a book on the school's history. This book will be published to mark the opening of our new school in the summer of 2016 and will, I'm sure, be available 'in all good bookshops'.
Contrary to surprisingly widespread belief – in a
2003 Radio Scotland documentary about the school, one senior teacher even
claimed it had been replaced* – the motto of James Gillespie’s High School
remains ‘Fidelis et Fortis.’ Which means… but we will cross that dicey
bridge in a minute.
Oddly, it isn’t – by historic standards –
particularly old; it was not even the school’s first motto; and, like many
other venerable school tropes, it dates only from the reign of Thomas J Burnett,
headmaster of Gillespie’s from 1915 to 1936.
In what has long been a most British hobby, Mr
Burnett excelled in inventing ancient traditions. In 1926 he introduced a
Founder’s Day ceremony in honour of James Gillespie and his beneficence – this
endured until the retiral of Burnett’s successor-but-four, Dr Patricia Thomas,
in 1991 – and, besides, a ‘House’ system, to encourage healthy competition
between pupils. The four houses were Gilmore, Roslin, Warrender and Spylaw
– all redolent of the locality or linked to Gillespie himself – and survived
until ‘school community’ rebranding in the current century.
The 1927 Founder’s Day ceremony was particularly
grand because the school was able to unveil its own marble bust of the merchant
of Spylaw (sculpted by a distinguished former pupil) and, before year’s end,
the school had adopted not just its abiding maroon-and-gold colours but the
unicorn-badge and ‘Fidelis et Fortis.’When, precisely, Mr Burnett so decreed is
impossible now to ascertain; no dates are given in the school magazine nor in
the handwritten log kept by the successive head teachers from 1908 to
And no doubt many former pupils felt keenly
the demise of the original motto, ‘Forward,’ established by the issue of the
first school magazine in 1911. But the meaning of the new motto is still keenly
disputed – especially between alumni of the girls-only Corporation Grammar
Gillespie’s, from 1930 to 1973; and veterans of the subsequent and enduring
co-ed area comprehensive. Mr Burnett, in his notes of introduction to the
1930 school magazine, declared that ‘Fidelis et fortis’ means ‘faithful and
strong.’ The 1977 school magazine, however, would state no less
ambiguously that it means ‘faithful and brave’; and that is certainly what we
were told as pupils in the 1980s.
And the word ‘fortis’ does indeed bear both
constructions.So what was going on?
Mr Gillespie himself, of humble birth, never
boasted either coat of arms or proud ‘legend’ below; and it seems that Thomas J
Burnett simply opened up some gazetteer of Scots surnames and found both that
Gillespie was associated with the crest of a unicorn’s head and the motto,
‘Fidelis et in bello fortis’ – which means, ‘Faithful and in war brave.’
Here we teeter into a debate both about Latin and
the social attitudes of Mr Burnett’s day – and our own.In the context of war,
‘brave’ is the obvious translation of ‘fortis’ in the fuller Gillespie motto.But
Mr Burnett deliberately deleted the words ‘in bello,’ as an early historian of
Gillespie’s primly observes, ‘as they were not suitable for a school motto.’
In the same spirit, he was almost certainly
averse to the translation ‘brave’ – as for physical courage on the field of
battle – in the context of an all-female academy. (To complicate things still
further, the word chiefly used by the ancient Romans for bravery is ‘virtutis’
– which also means ‘manly,’ so defining was thought the quality of courage for
the dudes of the day.) So it was ‘faithful and strong’ – with connotations less
of Joan of Arc and battling Amazons than the lip-wobbling, throttled-vowel,
leaning-on-the-tweedy-manly-shoulder feminine coping of Mrs Miniver and Brief
It would be 1945, though, – to lyrics by Annie S.
King Gillies and the stirring sub-Elgar strains of John D Macrae – before
‘Fidelis et Fortis’ became not just the maxim but the majestic school song. And
then, when the staff and school community of the new comprehensive order
adapted to wave upon wave of boys from 1973, it was tacitly – and perhaps
unconsciously – decided that, in translation, ‘faithful and brave’ was of more
appeal to the laddies than the previous pasteurised version.
Now that women and men serve in the Forces on
equal terms, in the seventh decade of a Queen’s reign and having experienced a
formidable woman Prime Minister, might we settle on Fidelis et Fortis –
‘faithful and brave’? Even at the risk of being pelted with scones?
*deposed, he claimed, by the pieties of ‘We
respect and care for each other and value the diversity which exists among
people.’ But you’d barely have space to stitch that on the side of a bus.