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 was founded in 1934 by German educationalist Dr Kurt Hahn. Soon afterwards he decided that young people across the local area should have the opportunity to experience his uniquely broad educational model and he created the Moray Badge (which HRH The Duke of Edinburgh himself gained as a pupil at the school). Such was the success of this programme that Hahn had ambitions for it to be awarded nationally. He consulted with Prince Philip and persuaded him to give his name to what became the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in 1956. Since then this award has spread across the world to over 140 countries and millions of young people have grown and developed through their participation.

Hahn’s ideals also led to the founding of Round Square by Jocelin Winthrop-Young, a world-wide association of 190 schools that all share our ethos of teaching social responsibility as well as academic excellence. Round Square provides pupils and staff with the opportunity to take part in global and regional conferences, go on international exchanges and volunteer for life-changing projects around the world.

We were one of the first public schools to go completely co-educational and we started one of the first, and most successful, summer school programmes. We are also the first to educate an heir to the British throne.

We take pride in commemorating the dead from both sides in our War Memorial and are the first - and only British school - to run our very own Fire Service.

None of this would have been possible without the pioneering spirit of Dr Kurt Hahn, and a fascinating set of events that led Gordonstoun to become the unique school it is today.

Hahn was born in 1886 in Berlin to Jewish parents. As a young man inthe early 1900s, he attended the universities of Heidelberg, Gottingen and Oxford. His educational ethos developed at this time, influenced in part by his reading of Plato’s Republic and his admiration of aspects of the British public school system. After the First World War, Hahn 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 in Britain and Germany and his plight prompted a correspondence between Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald and the German Foreign Minister. Hahn was persuaded it was no longer safe for him to remain in Germany and he escaped to the peace and tranquility of Moray, a part of Scotland he was familiar with and loved.

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). Driven by his ambition to share his love of learning, Hahn sought the support of generous, established local families in the area. Thanks to their help he was able to lease and then buy the Gordonstoun estate, which has a history going back to the 13th century, for use as his iconic boarding school.

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 and his mystical reputation amongst the local population. 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 when the time came, as there were ‘no corners for the Devil to hide behind’. Unfortunately, Gordon lost his nerve and decided to seek sanctuary in Birnie Kirk. He never reached the Kirk as 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 the School renovated Round Square for use as a boarding house and classrooms. Round Square also houses Gordonstoun’s staff room, the school library and the Gordonstoun Kurt Hahn Archive. The Michael Kirk remains a popular place to visit for quiet contemplation or worship and continues to play a significant role in Gordonstoun’s spiritual life. All new students attend a memorable service for their year group here in its ancient stone walls.

The beautiful Moray countryside did not escape the turmoil of the Second World War and the school’s early history was challenging. War brought the internment of German teachers and the school was temporarily exiled to Wales. When everyone returned the buildings were found to be in a terrible state of repair and then the school was ravaged by fire. But challenges build character, and Hahn had many generous supporters and indeed pupils whose ‘practical work’ helped rebuild the school and it has thrived in its current position for over 80 years.

If you’d like to know more, please visit our archive site: http://www.gordonstoun-kurt-hahn-archive.org.uk/

Or contact Louise Avery, the Gordonstoun Archivist: email averyl@gordonstoun.org.uk or phone 01343 837988