Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Laing, Hugh Boyd (1889–1974)

by M. Medcalf

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Hugh Boyd Laing (1889-1974), headmaster and Gaelic scholar, was born on 11 October 1889 at Stoneybridge on the island of South Uist, Inverness-shire, Scotland, son of Donald John Laing, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Boyd. Educated at Kingussie Higher Grade School, and the University of Glasgow (M.A., 1911) where he studied arts and then divinity, Hugh taught for one year at Skerry's College, Edinburgh. In 1913 he emigrated to Western Australia and continued his career at Scotch College, Perth. During World War I he was four times rejected for service in the Australian Imperial Force because of his flat feet.

Joining the Western Australian Education Department on 6 April 1915, Laing was posted to the Goldfields High School, Kalgoorlie, Perth Modern School (1918) and Bunbury High School (1925). He was first assistant and head of the English department (from 1929) at Albany High School. At St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Perth, on 4 January 1929 he married Marion Stibbs, a 21-year-old stenographer. While at Albany he gained a diploma of education (1937) from the University of Western Australia. Laing held the headmastership at Albany High School (1942-43), Northam High School (1944-49) and again at Albany (1950-54). During his time at Albany he set a high academic standard for the school, re-stocked the library, and promoted co-operation between school and town. A lover of hockey, he encouraged sport and promoted the building of an oval and its use by outside groups. In 1954, the year of his retirement, he was also acting-superintendent of English in secondary schools; for a further ten years he was a member of the examining panel for Leaving certificate English.

Laing was an outstanding, talented teacher, with a logical approach and a quizzical sense of humour; he took a keen interest in his students and had a strong influence on many of them. The nicknames he was given, 'Whizz-Bang' and 'Whizzy', stemmed from his Gaelic Christian name, Uisdean. His rather craggy appearance and unusual accent made him a butt of student humour, which he took in good part. Laing's greatest strengths were his knowledge of language and the pleasure he took in it, particularly the teaching and appreciation of English literature.

In 1964 Laing published a book of poetry and prose, written predominantly in Gaelic: it was entitled Gu Tir Mo Luaidh ('To the land of my praise'). For 'The Fever That Will Never Die' he won the poetry section of the Gaelic Mod and was appointed national bard of Scotland for 1965-66. The most significant and unusual request for his knowledge of Gaelic had occurred at Bunbury in 1927 when three 'coloured' seamen from South Africa jumped ship. The Immigration Act (1901) prescribed a dictation test for 'undesirable aliens'. A local customs official asked Laing to administer the test in Gaelic. All three seamen failed. The case foreshadowed that of Egon Kisch in 1934. Laing contributed prolifically to newspapers in Australia and abroad on historical, literary and educational topics. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he died on 22 September 1974 in Perth and was cremated with Anglican rites. D. McGregor Whyte's portrait (1919) of Laing is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • Scottish Educational Journal, Sept 1968
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 7 Jan 1970
  • Western Teacher, 9 Feb 1972
  • South Western Times, 3 May 1927
  • Albany Advertiser, 18 Dec 1953, 2 Feb 1954
  • West Australian, 5 June 1959, 30 Jan, 19 Mar, 14 May 1960, 7 Oct 1965, 25 Sept 1974
  • Glasgow Herald, 4 Aug 1959
  • Living Today (Perth), 23 Mar 1972
  • Education Department (Western Australia), files 7064/13 and 1975/35, and Laing's record of service (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

M. Medcalf, 'Laing, Hugh Boyd (1889–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/laing-hugh-boyd-10772/text19101, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 12 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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