Gordonstoun | Our history

Our history

Gordonstoun was founded in 1934 by the German Educationalist Dr Kurt Hahn.

Our forward-thinking School has a fascinating past and much of what has been pioneered here has become part of mainstream education. Gordonstoun educated three generations of the British Royal Family.

Gordonstoun is also the birthplace of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Awards, the Outward Bound movement, and was one of the first boarding schools to admit girls alongside boys. The school then had some of the first female firefighters in the UK.

Gordonstoun was founded in 1934 by German educationalist Dr Kurt Hahn. Hahn was born in 1886 in Berlin to Jewish parents. As a young man he attended the universities of Heidelberg, Gottingen and Oxford and, after the First World War, he founded Salem School in Southern Germany with the former German Chancellor, Prince Max of Baden.

Hahn spoke out against the rise of the Nazi party and was arrested soon after Hitler came to power. He was released following the intervention of a number of influential friends, however it was no longer safe for him to remain in Germany so he escaped to the peace and tranquility of Moray, a part of Scotland he loved. He leased and then bought the Gordonstoun estate, which has a history going back to the 13th century.

In the 1600s Gordonstoun was owned by the eccentric Third Baronet, Sir Robert Gordon, who was also known as The Wizard because of his fascination with alchemy. It was his idea to build Round Square, a distinctive building constructed in a perfect circle. Legend has it that Sir Robert, while a student in Italy, sold his soul to the Devil in return for knowledge. The Devil’s price was Sir Robert’s soul at some time in the future. The legend states that he built Round Square to protect himself as there were ‘no corners for the Devil to hide behind’ but Gordon lost his nerve and fled to Birnie Kirk. Hounds accompanying the Devil are said to have killed him before he arrived. In reality he died in his bed in the year 1704 and his widow erected the Michael Kirk, a small church on the school grounds, in his memory. In the 1950s Round Square became a boarding house and it is still in use today.

Kurt Hahn arrived at Gordonstoun with two of his students from Salem, Mark Arnold-Foster and Jocelin Winthrop Young (the latter eventually playing a key role in founding the Round Square Conference). They were soon joined by Prince Philip of Greece, who would go on to marry HM Queen Elizabeth II. Prince Philip joined Gordonstoun in September 1934 at the age of 13 and attended the school for five years.

His Royal Highness was very happy at Gordonstoun and was deeply influenced by his time at the school. He was a member of the ‘Watchers’, one of the school’s community services (and a precursor to the Coastguard service) and also developed his life-long love of the sea. He was an excellent all-round athlete, becoming Captain of Cricket and Hockey. In his final year he became ‘Guardian’ (Head Boy) and took part in the ‘Moray Badge’: the inspiration for The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award.

The ‘Moray Badge’ was a way for young people across the local area to experience Kurt Hahn’s uniquely broad educational model by taking part in challenging activities. Such was the success of this programme that, in 1956, Prince Philip agreed to give his name to what became the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award. Since then this award has spread across the world to over 140 countries and millions of young people have benefitted from their participation. Throughout his life, Prince Philip took great pleasure in presenting gold awards to its proud recipients.

Hahn’s ideals also led to the founding of Round Square, a world-wide association of 190 schools that all share our ethos of teaching social responsibility as well as academic excellence.

Such was the impact of Gordonstoun on HRH Prince Philip that he wanted his three sons to attend. The decision to send the heir to the British throne to school was a significant departure from the Royal norm – Prince Charles was the first Prince of Wales to be educated at a school, as opposed to private tutors. One newspaper even described it as “spectacular”, saying for the first time an heir to the throne was being brought up in a “pretty classless society”. The young prince would live and learn alongside boys from families from a wide variety of backgrounds.

HRH Prince Charles arrived in May 1962 and was accommodated in a boarding house called Windmill Lodge which was fitted with the latest mod cons, such as central heating. The Prince of Wales’ life of service, love of the outdoors, enjoyment of the arts and intellectual curiosity were all nurtured during his five years at school.

His Royal Highness left Gordonstoun in 1967 with five O-levels in English Language, English Literature, History, Latin and French and two A-levels in History and French; he achieved above average results which secured him a place to study archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge University

The future King’s brothers Prince Andrew and Prince Edward also attended Gordonstoun. Princess Anne was not eligible as it was at that time an all-boys school, but she sent her children Peter Philips and Zara Tindall to the school. Other famous alumni include Olympian Heather Stanning, musician Roy Williamson, member of The Corries and composer of Flower of Scotland, author William Boyd, Duncan Jones, son of rock musician David Bowie, Jason Connery, son of Sir Sean Connery and Lord Rothermere, the owner of the Daily Mail. The school also has a curious association with a computer game character - the fictional biography of Lara Croft states she is a former sixth-form pupil of the school, billed as where she ‘discovered’ her love of adventure!

In 1972 Gordonstoun became one of the first public schools to go completely co-educational. As a result, a handful of the first girls to be admitted became some of the first female firefighters in the UK since Gordonstoun had its own fire engine which attended emergencies as part of the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service.

Gordonstoun also established one of the first, and most successful, summer school programmes.

Today Gordonstoun is a thriving school for boys and girls with more than 550 students in its junior and senior schools. It is still known for its focus on character education, with research by Edinburgh University proving the long-term benefits of this uniquely broad curriculum. Gordonstoun was described as ‘outstanding’ and ‘sector-leading’ by inspectors in 2019.