Prince Philip and Kurt Hahn

By former student Andrew Hoellering (Gordonstoun 1951).

Kurt Hahn, who was my headmaster, played a crucial role in Prince Philip’s education. He helped form his values and provided the rootless boy with a sense of both security and continuity.

Philip first met Hahn at Salem in Germany, then later at Gordonstoun, the school he founded in Scotland. At Salem the 11-year old prince encountered “a large figure, head bowed and covered by a very wide-brimmed felt hat with a handkerchief clenched in his teeth.”

Philip wrote that there was something about the headmaster that “commanded instant wariness and respect“- a respect that was to become mutual and lasting.

For Hahn fitness really mattered, and Gordonstoun acquired a reputation for the challenging Spartan-like regime on which Philip thrived. We were aroused at 6.30 for a morning run stripped to the waist, and this was followed by a cold shower. From 10.30 to 11.15 we had a break from lessons for athletics. This included running, jumping, weight and javelin throwing and was followed by a further lesson and then a welcome lunch.

As at Salem a rest period followed, when we lay on our backs listening to classical music. Afternoons were devoted to games, seamanship or the services, including a choice of the fire service, the army cadets or the watchers, whose job it was to look out for ships in distress. This involved manning the coastguard hut on the Moray Firth day and night in stormy weather. A further afternoon went to a project of one’s choice, and then, having lived up to the school motto (‘Plus est en vous’), we were allowed to enjoy a welcome afternoon off to do what we liked (well, almost).

In his report on the Prince, Dr Hahn wrote that Philip “showed a lively intelligence, but also a determination not to exert himself more than was necessary.” However, Hahn wrote, “in the community he followed a different rule,” and a recognisable prince began to emerge. “Once he had made a task his own he showed meticulous attention to detail and a pride in workmanship which was never content with mediocre results.” Philip’s chief faults according to his headmaster were “intolerance and impatience” – in other words, his habit of speaking his mind linked to his unwillingness to suffer fools gladly.

The Prince was as discriminating about his headmaster while revealing a lot about himself. Of his own time at Salem and Gordonstoun he writes; “It may not have been an entirely conventional upbringing, but it was certainly an extremely interesting experience. No one who had any frequent contact with him (Kurt Hahn) failed to appreciate his quite remarkable qualities. His active fertile mind was always plotting, scheming, devising and developing new ideas which seemed to bubble up from his constantly evolving philosophy of education.

But, like so many original thinkers, he never seemed to have the time or inclination, nor indeed the talent (which Philip certainly developed), for the tedious details of administration.”

”History will judge him on his ideas,” the Prince continues, “but as a headmaster I believe it was his absolute certainty about right and wrong, his utter conviction on matters of morality and behaviour which made him such a stabilising influence in a developing community. When he had doubts he shared them and this, too, seemed to add to the sense of participation in the enterprise. He was never afraid to involve others in the experiment, and equally never afraid to admit when he had failed.”

Philip clearly also appreciated his headmaster’s human qualities. “Hahn undoubtedly made an immense contribution to education in its broadest sense, and, inevitably, this made him sound like some zealous and dedicated reformer with barely a shred of humanity and humour. In fact, of course, his heart was even bigger than his brain and a twinkle was never far from his eye. He had a fund of entertaining and illuminating stories with which he larded his speeches, and an impish sense of humour would transform a rather sombre countenance into a child-like chuckle and delighted expression.”

Prince Philip concluded: “Eccentric perhaps, innovator certainly, great beyond doubt.”