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Ashes to classes: How Strathburn School in Inverurie rose again after being destroyed by fire in February 2001

The Strathburn School fire was described as Inverurie's blackest day, but the school rose from the ashes.
The Strathburn School fire was described as Inverurie's blackest day, but the school rose from the ashes.

2022 is a special year for Strathburn School – it marks a milestone two decades since the primary emerged from the ashes of a catastrophic fire.

There were scenes of jubilation when Princess Anne officially opened the state-of-the-art new building just 18 months after the school was deliberately destroyed in a blaze.

Headmaster Harry Burnett with Princess Anne at the new Strathburn School in August 2002.

If February 2001 was the darkest day in Strathburn’s history, then the start of term in August 2002 was one of its most joyous.

It was an achievement that seemed unthinkable when ferocious flames raged through the night, and a pall of smoke lingered ominously over Inverurie in the cold light of day.

‘A total disaster’

Strathburn pupils packed their bags as normal when the bell rang at the end of the school day on Thursday February 1 2001.

But they could never have imagined it would be for the last time.

Just before midnight, pagers belonging to Inverurie’s retained firefighters started beeping.

Strathburn School engulfed in flames on February 1 2001.

The first 999 call was made at 11.39pm by a member of the public who spotted flames flickering up the outside of Strathburn School at an alarming rate.

The incident report from the night shows that Grampian Fire Brigade crews were mobilised at 11.40pm and the first were on the scene within six minutes.

A total of 40 firefighters and fire appliances from Inverurie, Oldmeldrum, Kintore and Insch were joined by a specialist unit from Aberdeen.

A solo firefighter silhouetted against the leaping flames at Strathburn.

Head janitor Ernie Moir arrived on the scene just before the fire brigade, describing the sight that met him as “a total disaster”.

What might have sounded like a fairly minor fire on the exterior of the school was anything but.

Head teacher Harry Burnett also arrived at the school and could only watch in horror in the playground alongside Mr Moir as flames engulfed Strathburn.

It quickly became obvious that little, if any, of Strathburn could be saved.

Six fire engines and their crews battled in vain through the night, but the fire had taken hold.

It was 3.34am the next morning before the blaze was brought under control, and despite four hours of intense firefighting, the inferno had swept through the largely open plan, single-storey building.

The cause was immediately obvious, and leading firefighter Nicholas Craig recorded it in his report: “Wilful. Fire from motor scooter spread to school building – school 100% damaged by fire.”

A fireman observes the damage in the aftermath of the Strathburn Primary School fire in Inverurie.

As dawn broke, what emerged from the darkness was a charred ruin where a thriving primary community once stood.

Blackened skeleton

A criminal investigation was immediately launched while fire crews remained on the scene until 4.19pm on February 2 dampening down remaining heat pockets.

But for Aberdeenshire Council education bosses, the headache was just beginning.

Firefighters dampening down Strathburn School.

Built in 1978, Strathburn was one of the biggest primary schools in the north-east and suddenly 450 children were left without a single classroom.

Many of those youngsters and former pupils stood at the school gates and wept.

After surveying the blackened skeleton of the building, Inverurie councillors and officials held crisis talks in Woodhill House.

The original Strathburn School building under construction in 1977.

Inverurie’s three other primaries were at capacity themselves and could not accommodate hundreds more scholars.

The solution would not be straightforward.

Then ward councillor Raymond Bissett said: “We feel deeply for the pupils because no matter what we do to ensure we make the best possible contingency plans, this is inevitably going to disrupt their education.

Teacher Nancy Farquharson and her primary 1 class show off their models made from junk in March 1988.

“It’s tragic also for the staff with the loss of all their work and the children’s work, and it’s dreadful for the parents who must be worried what’s going to happen now.”

Work began on clearing the burned-out shell that weekend, but come Monday, Strathburn’s pupils were still at home.

A parents’ information meeting was held on Tuesday at Inverurie as the school community and educations chiefs tried to thrash out a solution.

Teacher Margaret Wood and her primary 5 class in 1988 displaying their weather-measuring equipment.

One thing parents made clear was they did not want to further increase disruption to their children’s education by having pupils bussed out of Inverurie and distributed among the district’s rural schools.

Within 10 days a plan was in place – the community rallied around and all pupils were relocated at four sites in Inverurie.

Some were accommodated at the town’s other primaries, some in temporary classrooms at Inverurie Academy, and the Wyness Hall on Jackson Street was transformed into a makeshift school.

Youngsters of Strathburn Primary School line up on the platform at Inverurie Station in 1989 as they re-enact the evacuation of children to the countryside for their World War Two project.

‘Reckless fire-raising’

Uniformed police officers from as far afield as Banchory and Portlethen joined door-to-door enquiries to help get to the bottom of the blaze.

Calls made to police on the night reported seeing a motorcycle being set alight.

Inverurie-based Grampian Police Inspector Chris Morrice said: “It was discovered that a motor scooter was alight.

In 1989, Gordon Young, 4, was helping his mum Liz, left, a member of the school and Linda McLeod model items for a fundraising auction.

“It had been against the building and obviously that took affect in the main building itself.

“Unfortunately the fire brigade were unable to stop it spreading. This will be treated as reckless fire-raising.”

But officers still had to establish whether it was a prank that went very badly wrong, or an appalling act of malice.

Mrs Dunderdale’s P5/6 Strathburn class in their temporary accommodation at the Wyness Hall in Inverurie in 2001.

It would be several months before the culprit was identified, and the following January before justice was served.

Aberdeen teenager William MacLeod was found guilty of culpable and reckless fire-raising at the High Court in Aberdeen.

A year on from his crime, MacLeod, then 18, was sentenced at the High Court in Glasgow to three years and nine months at a young offenders’ institution.

From ashes to classes

In the meantime, work was well under way on a £4 million rebuild.

Although the charred building was insured, the cost of constructing a whole new facility from scratch could not be met by insurance payouts alone.

The new Strathburn School was described as Inverurie’s flagship primary and the first in the area to be designed with an emphasis on energy conservation.

Harry Burnett, head of Strathburn Primary School at Inverurie, on the first day of the new term at the new school on August 22 2002.

Large storage tanks in the grounds collected rainwater for flushing toilets and motion-sensor lighting was installed to save on energy costs.

As well as new bright, airy classrooms, there was also a gymnasium, nursery and educational support needs unit.

Then head of education Hamish Vernal said: “The school is a tremendous community facility.”

From ashes to classes in just 18 months, the Princess Royal praised the incredible speed with which the school was rebuilt when she officially opened it on August 27.

Former Gordon MP Malcolm Bruce visiting the new Strathburn School in 2002.

The Princess was introduced to headmaster Mr Burnett and other dignitaries before setting out on a 50-minute tour of the school.

Mr Burnett escorted the Princess on her tour and said it had gone very smoothly.

He added: “She was most impressed with the rapport between the children and the staff and showed a great deal of interest in all the activities going on.

“I thought she was a very charming lady and interacted well with the children.

Smiles from youngsters on the first day back at the new Strathburn Primary School in 2002.

“When the original building burned down, we were devastated and now we are just looking forward to operating in this wonderful new school.”

Strathburn School has continued to go from strength to strength in the past 20 years and remains an integral part of the community, which rallied round on its blackest day.

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