Born: January 1, 1946;
Died: January 31, 2022.
STUART MITCHELL – classicist, musician, book-lover, Christian apologist and one-time principal of Hamilton College in Lanarkshire – has died, aged 76, of cancer. His passing deprives Scotland of an ordinary, yet extraordinary, citizen.
A frequent contributor to the Letters pages of The Herald, a survey of what he put there in the public domain is testimony to the range of learning that he valued from his early years; Greek particles, standards in education, the value of reading the classics in their original languages and, perhaps the most frequent focus of all, his conviction about the truth of Christianity, demonstrated by his eagerness to defend it from what he perceived as misunderstanding and unjust interpretation.
In one letter, in November 2016, he rounded on the “scientism” of a fellow letter writer, part of the “intolerant, “abolish all religion” brigade”. Christian fundamentalism, Mitchell asserted, “may indeed be rife in the American Bible Belt, but [the writer’s] hoary Mark Twain quip (‘believing what you know ain’t so’) simply encapsulates the shallow impatience of the militant sceptic, not the passion of a sincere seeker”.
A Classics scholar – and, in professional life, a Classics teacher – his early and precocious love of learning, and ancient languages in particular, was spectacularly demonstrated in the most unlikely of settings: Kirkintilloch Swimming Pool.
While his early teenage peers perfected their breast strokes in the pool, he opted to remain in the spectators’ gallery, immersed in a Greek grammar book. Were this a 21st century image, it would potentially go viral. Far from being an isolated incident, much later in life, during a time when he provided music at Paisley Crematorium, he brushed up on his Hebrew grammar between services.
Stuart J Mitchell was born on January 1, 1946. Though he retained a lifelong affection for Hereford, the place of his birth, as a youngster he moved with his family to Scotland.
He attended the High School of Glasgow, where his most cherished subjects were Latin, Greek and Music. Subsequently, he progressed to Glasgow University to study Classics with subsidiary Music and Hebrew.
Returning to the school to begin his teaching career as a probationer, he proved that, with his encouragement and demand for high standards, pupils from lower sets could outperform their more academic peers. Extra classes at lunchtime and after school were his way of enabling his pupils to take crash Higher Greek – no mean achievement.
In 1973, he became principal teacher of Classics at Airdrie Academy, where he was regarded as a gifted and inspiring teacher, attracting considerable numbers of pupils to study Latin and Greek and in whom he instilled a keen interest in the language, literature and wisdom of ancient cultures. Memorable trips to Athens and Rome are fondly remembered by his former pupils and colleagues.
In 1983, he was invited to take the position of Assistant Principal to the Founder of Hamilton College and, in 1987, became the Principal. The school’s own website records that “Mr Mitchell can justly be described as a man of formidable intellect, a most able administrator and an extraordinary pianist.”
To describe him as an extraordinary pianist might be deemed an understatement. His pianistic skills were nothing short of spectacular and he was a rare form of musician who was both an expert improviser and a meticulous exponent of classical music in its last detail.
He was an avid collector of both popular and rare performances of symphonies and concertos. In anticipation of his funeral,he selected two movements from Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 2 to be shared with the mourners. Among his other composer favourites was Dmitri Shostakovich, whose works he had encountered in his teenage years.
During lockdown, he passed the time reading Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid in the original languages. He also read Horace. He loved the Odes of that ancient Roman poet and was very like him – never one to show off or seek the fashionable crowd. His broad, intellectual tastes included the poetry of A E Housman, contemporary works of fiction, and books about the cosmos.
He was passionately interested in theological works but also in the dilemmas that theology presents, such as the problem of suffering.
He summed up many such dilemmas in a reassuring article titled Beyond The Final Curtain.
Stuart’s life was underpinned in all things by his Christian faith. He regularly preached at his home church, West Glasgow New Church, and served on the Council of Advisers for the organisation, Grasping The Nettle, which takes seriously the need to look carefully and methodically at the evidence for the truth of Christianity.
Stuart’s beloved wife Elaine predeceased him in 2005 and he is survived by two daughters, Karen and Pauline, and by five grandchildren, in whose progress he took great delight.
He also leaves behind his close friend, Eleanor, who has been his joy, soulmate and helper for many years.
MIMA CAMPBELL and IAIN MORRIS