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Isabel Oakeshott, Windmill 1992, Political Journalist and Commentator

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THEY say that of all the senses, smell has the greatest power to transport you to the past.

Stepping into the chapel at Gordonstoun one damp Friday morning in September, I was overwhelmed by an extraordinary sense that I had never left.

It was more than 20 years since I had set foot in the place. Last time I was there was as a Windmill girl in 1992. It would have been summer, the end of term, my last ever day at school. No doubt we sang the school song with even more gusto than usual before trooping out into the July sun, arm in arm with friends, thick with emotion as we prepared to step into an uncertain new world.

Now I was back, and you know what? Chapel smelt exactly the same. Perhaps it’s the fabric of the building, or perhaps the cleaners are particularly wedded to a certain brand of disinfectant, but the moment I walked through those heavy swing doors, the familiar smell hit me and in an instant, I was a 17-year-old with long blonde hair, hanging up my Puffa, then sauntering over to the Windmill seats, hoping to catch a glimpse of my boyfriend in the Altyre seats.

They don’t wear Puffas any more, which is a shame. The new duffel coat looks nice enough, but it has none of the comfort of those pillowy navy jackets. It used to feel like putting on a duvet, a soft shield against the elements. Other details of the uniform have changed, but the smart ‘going out’ wear is reassuringly the same.

I was returning to Gordonstoun at the strangest of times, just a few days before the referendum on Scottish independence. The atmosphere was febrile: it was all anyone was talking about, not just at the school, but everywhere.  On the road to Elgin from Aberdeen airport, you couldn’t miss the big ‘Yes’ signs, posted in windows, on lamp posts, on billboards in fields. ‘No’ signs were few and far between.

My job was to chair a referendum debate for the Sixth Form and pupils from a handful of local schools, between the Tory MSP Mary Scanlon - putting the case for the union - and the SNP’s Richard Lochhead. It was a professional operation, organised and conducted with all the seriousness of an adult debate.

To add to the drama, it was being filmed by a TV crew, who have been based at Gordonstoun for many months, putting together a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the school.

It was the culmination of months of meticulous preparation by the then Principal Simon Reid and former Guardian Marina Edge, who now works at the school, and everyone seemed pleased by how it went.

Isabel Oakeshott with senior Gordonstoun students

But while I was honoured to be involved, for me the debate was just work. The real pleasure was being back, seeing the school again: a bit glossier, with its fancy new theatre and climbing wall; a bit bigger, with the amalgamation of what was once Aberlour House into a Gordonstoun prep school; but as gutsy, quirky, cool, and achingly beautiful in the early autumn mist as ever. If only there had been time, I would have loved to have walked, alone, up to the cliffs, remembering the heady coconut smell of the gorse in summer; or sat quietly at the back of G House, breathing in the dank air, looking down at the lake; or picked my way along the Silent Walk, reflecting on the girl I was then, and who I have become.

That Altyre boy broke my heart. He was in the year above me, and very wisely, dumped me as soon as he got to university. I quite liked the melodrama, and cried every day for three weeks. My broken heart cast a shadow over my final year at school, but the big things Gordonstoun gave me no boy or man could ever take away:  confidence, self belief, a sense of adventure, a love of mountains and fresh air – and many other things besides.

Oddly, at 17, I never thought I would have much of a career. I had no idea what I was going to do when I left university, and it didn’t worry me. That was one of the great gifts of being at Gordonstoun: cut off from the world, by geography not least, we took each day as it came.

We didn’t know who or what we would become, and for the most part, we didn’t care. I think that’s how it should be at 17.


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