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Colin Macdonald Gilray (1885–1974)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published:

Colin Macdonald Gilray (1885-1974), headmaster, was born on 17 March 1885 at Broughty Ferry, Forfarshire, Scotland, fourth of five children of Thomas Gilray (1851-1920) and his wife Annie, née Macdonald. Thomas was a brilliant graduate of Edinburgh High School and University. After teaching English at Glasgow High School and University College, Dundee, in 1889 he was appointed professor of English language and literature at the University of Otago, New Zealand; his family followed him to Dunedin in 1890.

Dunedin made Colin Gilray. He was educated at Otago Boys' High School and attended Moray Place Congregational Church. At the University of Otago (B.A., N.Z., 1906) he gained first-class honours in English and German and a second in classics, his main study under Professor G. S. Sale. Gilray was president of the student union, an actor and debater, and uncommonly popular. About 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall and weighing 12 stone (76 kg), by the age of 19 he was established as a great Rugby Union footballer who became a legendary representative of Otago Province; he refused an invitation to join the All Blacks on their first tour of the British Isles, but played against Australia. He was also an outstanding athlete, winning the intervarsity long-jump three times.

Elected New Zealand Rhodes scholar for 1907, Gilray took a second class in 'Greats' at University College, Oxford (M.A., 1910); Professor J. Cook Wilson and E. F. Carritt, philosophers both, were his most respected teachers. As a Liberal, always an Asquithian who regarded Lloyd George as a cad, he campaigned against the House of Lords with his lifelong friend (Sir) Andrew McFadyean. Gilray played Rugby for Oxford and Scotland, and captained London Scottish; a historian of Rugby placed him 'very close to inclusion in my super-class of centres'. In 1910-13, while reading for the Bar (admitted 1913) at the Middle Temple, Gilray taught at Mill Hill School, London, whose headmaster was Rev. (Sir) John McClure, the famous Congregationalist. Mill Hill and McClure stamped him for life.

Gilray returned to Dunedin in 1913 and practised law at Milton. Early in 1916 he enlisted in the British Army; in July he was commissioned in the Rifle Brigade and took part in the disastrous Somme offensive; he was wounded on 13 November. Promoted captain, he was awarded the Military Cross and invalided to England in September 1917. He had favoured a compromise peace. He then trained officer-cadets at Aldershot. On 24 November he had married Ethel Muriel Standish at the parish church, Haslemere, Surrey.

In 1919 Gilray resumed practice at Milton, savouring the peace of rural life. He hankered for England, but in 1922 accepted the headmastership of John McGlashan College, Dunedin. He energetically built up the new Presbyterian school to high academic standards, was innovative in developing science and music, and was himself a gifted teacher, especially of Shakespeare. He was a leading member of the university council. A serious accident in 1931 left him with one leg shorter than the other.

At 49 Gilray accepted the post of principal of Scotch College, Melbourne, in succession to W. S. Littlejohn. When welcomed in July 1934 he assured the boys assembled in the quadrangle that he too had cold feet. Moving from a school of about 200 pupils to one of about 1500 meant that he could do little more than rule and administer, and could not hope to attach a name to most boys; but he revelled in taking occasional classes in religious education or English. Under the chairmanship of Sir Arthur Robinson the school council had a strong finance-committee which, with Gilray, made important building extensions before World War II: the Littlejohn Chapel, a boarding house, the Mackie hall and library. To his dissatisfaction, the school continued to grow in size. He very deliberately developed art, music and theatre; the appointment of the dynamic musician John Bishop had lasting effects. With his fellow headmasters Father Hackett, (Sir) Francis Rolland and (Sir) James Darling, with whom he had much in common, Gilray stressed to the boys that privilege implied responsibility and public service, and endeavoured to clamp down on exaggerated press publicity of sporting fixtures. Darling found him the only headmaster with whom he could cheerfully watch an inter-school match—he was such a good winner and loser. The virtual offer of the Mill Hill headmastership came too late.

Gilray imposed military command on his staff: on principle, he kept aloof, issued orders and held few staff meetings. He rejected proposals to increase his salary and was reluctant to increase those of his staff, for it would mean higher fees. To many boys he seemed frightening, like the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lion; fundamentally a shy man, he was sometimes irascible. Senior boys who got to know him considered him to be the very model of a gentleman and of good manners.

The war was a testing time. Senior boys leaving found Gilray and other old-soldier staff to be unusually tender. When the military authorities ordered Wesley College to vacate its premises, Gilray promptly invited Wesley's headmaster N. H. MacNeil to join them at Scotch. They did for two harmonious years—a remarkable feat of organization.

A devout man who often preached in chapel, Gilray observed: 'We want teachers who are students, always becoming better fitted for their tasks . . . The teacher at his best knows that it is God's work that he is trying to do'. He often referred to the Book of Amos and the Acts of the Apostles for their guidance on social justice. In chapel the un-Presbyterian Book of Responsive Prayer was used, as at Mill Hill. He waxed hot at any hint of anti-Semitism. He supported the school chaplain Rev. Stephen Yarnold against those who wanted him dismissed for his left-wing views, and nurtured the rare students who sensed a call to the ministry.

Gilray was a liberal humanist, kind despite the gruffness, modest and self-effacing. Privately he mimicked staff and boys, and dreamed of some day playing Othello. Literature remained his passion—Jane Austen, and the works of the great poets, including Robert Bridges' 'Testament of Beauty'.

In 1939-52 Gilray had been a member (chairman, 1949-52) of the standing committee of the Headmasters' Conference of the Independent Schools of Australia; on his retirement in 1953, he became executive-officer for ten years, encouraged to 'do any work within his power'. In 1951 he had been appointed O.B.E. As deputy-chancellor (1954-58, 1959-61) of the University of Melbourne (LL.D., 1956) he presided over its centenary celebrations. As a committee-man he did not intrude his views, but they usually prevailed. He was a member (1961-65) of (Sir) Leslie Martin's committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia. Gilray remained convinced that the best foundation for 'leaders-to-be' was classics, mathematics, and some science.

Predeceased by his wife (d.1968) and survived by their daughter, he died on 15 July 1974 in East Melbourne and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. H. Nicholson (ed), First Hundred Years (Melb, 1952)
  • J. W. Hogg, Our Proper Concerns (Syd, 1986)
  • G. Serle, Colin Gilray (forthcoming)
  • McFadyean papers (London School of Economics Library).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Gilray, Colin Macdonald (1885–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 March, 1885
Dundee, Forfarshire, Scotland


15 July, 1974 (aged 89)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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