I found out the other day that Robin McSkimming had died on 2011-01-21, and felt the need to write a few words.
Big Mac — as he was universally, and affectionately, known – made a powerful impact on everyone who met him and was a legend among the staff and pupils at Allan Glens. Tall and thin, we would have described his appearance as Dickensian if our English teacher hadn’t pretty much guaranteed we knew nothing about Dickens. Another immediate thing about McSkimming was his energy: I’d never seen so much energy in a person, and he was rightly proud of how active he was.
Teaching at Allan Glens, by then an inner city comprehensive school, in the mid-Eighties must have been tough — it was hard enough being a pupil there — but McSkimming threw himself into it with such passion and commitment that even the hardest and “beyond hope” pupils connected with him and respected him. Indeed, they respected him because he treated pupils with his own irreverent type of respect. He didn’t take anyone, including himself, too seriously. I’m very sure that hundreds of people in their 40s and 50s remember his catchphrases and stories fondly even now.
Another of the reasons he made such a connection with his pupils was because he was genuinely interested in them; the details of their lives and their motivations fascinated him. McSkimming loved knowledge and was always hungry for information — leaflets brought back from trade fairs, old maps, letters: he described them all as “meat and drink.” The world was full of wonders for Big Mac and he generously instilled his enthusiasm into his classes and inspired them to look beyond Townhead.
He loved taking classes out in “his” minibus, and hundreds of stories must exist of those trips. One I remember vividly was a visit to the Gorbals. McSkimming drove us to a busy shopping centre, stood us in a semicircle and jumped up onto a low wall (he was always jumping on and off things, of course) — thus he began a hands-on lecture on Urban Geography.
“As you can see, this is an area of considerable social depravation,” he shouted through his cupped hands, “with a high incidence of wife-beating and alcohol abuse brought on by grinding poverty.”
We made it back to the minibus, somehow.
McSkimming also inspired devotion in his pupils in seemingly indirect ways: one afternoon, for no reason I can readily explain, I found myself dressed as a nun, going from class to class in a Protestant school, with a bunch of friends raising money for a new minbus. Big Mac hadn’t asked us to do this, and knew nothing about it, it just seemed like a good thing to do. No-one tried to kill me either. I think even he was surprised about that.
McSkimming had a mischievous disregard for authority, which I was only too happy to indulge when I was told to give a Head Boy speech at the end of my final year. I wrote the speech I was expected to deliver and submitted it to the Headmaster and Deputy. Once approved, I was in McSkimming’s office. ”Do you fancy a wee rewrite, laddy?” he suggested. We sat at his beloved Olivetti and crafted something a bit more interesting. The speech I went on to deliver at the end of the term was based on a comparison of our Headmaster Smith with another famous Smith, the captain of the Titanic, and I was more than happy to take the blame.
We stayed in touch over the years and exchanged letters on rare occasions; he even called me, out of the blue, last year, and we had a good chat about the world. His staggeringly sharp mind and curiosity about life showed no signs of diminishing. I now feel that one of the tragedies of being a teenager is that you have such a narrow range of experience that it is often difficult to understand or appreciate how special and influential the people in your life are at the time. It’s only until perhaps later when you think back with your adult view and see it. I was lucky enough to converse with Big Mac as an adult and acknowledge how truly unique and individual he was. He deserved much wider recognition.
However, it’s an understatement to say that no-one who knew Robin McSkimming will ever forget him — the positive impact he made on countless kids’ lives is immeasurable, and he will be sorely missed. I owe that man a lot, and it’s not because he taught be about glaciation — it’s because he showed me that the world, and the people in it, are endlessly fascinating things.