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Fife author thanks inspirational Perth teacher as debut book recalls school bullying

Ross MacKay has thanked former teacher Peter Ferguson after releasing his debut book Will and the Whisp.
Ross MacKay has thanked former teacher Peter Ferguson after releasing his debut book Will and the Whisp. Image: Ross MacKay.

A Fife man has paid tribute to his inspirational former teacher at a Perth school as he begins a career in writing.

Ross MacKay, 35, who now lives in Aberdour, has released his debut book Will and the Whisp.

The semi-autobiographical fantasy draws on his experiences growing up in Perth as a youngster who was bullied at school.

Ross says this later led to mental health problems such as anxiety, depression and ultimately attempts on his own life.

He also had stints on psychiatric wards at the Victoria Hospital in Kirkcaldy.

But Ross says he is now in a better place mentally and has chosen the release of his first book to thank those who have inspired him most.

This includes his family and Peter Ferguson, who was his P7 teacher at Oakbank Primary School.

The pair met up for the first time in years to mark the release of the book.

Ross said: “He is really supportive and I wouldn’t have been a writer if it wasn’t for him.”

In this feature we talk to Ross about his upbringing, mental health and new book, and Peter about his teaching career and post-school friendship with his former student.

Confidence and faith at Oakbank

Ross MacKay is the middle child of Colin and Elizabeth. His siblings are Craig, 37, and Lynsey, 32.

His school recollections are split into two halves.

The happy memories of Oakbank are in distinct contrast to a more trying atmosphere at Perth High School.

Oakbank Primary School, Perth.
Oakbank Primary School, Perth. Image: Stephen Eighteen/DC Thomson.

In the final year at Oakbank he was taught by Peter Ferguson, 60, who has an acknowledgement in Ross’s book.

“He recognised I was creative and really encouraged me to pursue my creativity,” Ross said.

“I still now think back to some of the stuff he encouraged me to do.

“In primary 7 there was a big competition between different schools and he let me write the script about what we were going to perform.

“He boosted my confidence by having so much faith in me.”

‘Persistent bullying’ at high school

At secondary school, Ross says he was targeted for being “different”.

“I was an awkward kid, I was a geeky kid so was a bit bullied,” he said.

“I was into drama so would do small performances and I just stood out.

Ross MacKay
Ross MacKay says he was “awkward” as a youngster. Image: Ross MacKay.

“I wasn’t good at football or sports – I was quite awkward and quite clumsy as well.

“In the classroom I was one of the targets for quite a while.

“It was also the small things, where if you stick up a hand and give an answer there is a comment from someone at the back of class laughing at you.

“It was the constant persistent bullying that’s subtle but there.”

Anxiety growing up

Will and The Whisp is set at a school identical to Perth High School, with the descriptions of the building and area matching Ross’s recollections.

In the book it is called Worldmouth Academy, which becomes a portal to another world.

Ross's book is set at a school identical to Perth High.
Ross’s book is set at a school identical to Perth High. Image: Stephen Eighteen/DC Thomson.

“The Whisp in the title is a spirit from another world who gets stuck in a boy in this school,” Ross said.

“The boy, called Will, is an anxious boy who worries a lot, which is a lot like me when I was in secondary school and growing up.

“There’s bullies in the book and they’re based on my experiences.

“Will tries to figure out how to get apart from this Whisp and the only way they can do that is through working and living together.”

Teacher ‘can hold class in palm of hand’

Peter doesn’t directly feature in the book, but there are some elements of him in Mr Anthony, who is written in as a teacher.

“He can hold a class in the palm of his hand,” Ross said of Mr Anthony.

“He tells a story in front of the class and they just listen to him.

“And that was a bit like Mr Ferguson – the ability to hold the class’s attention, as well as a jokey demeanour.

“However, the teacher ends up dying in my book so he is not completely based on Mr Ferguson!”

Full circle at Balhousie

Indeed, Peter is very much alive and kicking.

Born in Dundee, he moved to Perth aged 10 and studied at Northern District Primary School – now called Balhousie – and then Perth Grammar School.

Peter was a pupil, probationary teacher and eventually head teacher at the Balhousie Primary School building. Image: DC Thomson.

In 1984 he completed his teacher training at Dundee University.

He was first a probationary teacher at Northern and then a primary teacher at Abernethy before moving to Oakbank, where he stayed for 10 years.

Peter next took a secondment in computing at Perth and Kinross Council and then enjoyed a 10-year stint as head teacher of Auchterhouse Primary School.

Soon afterwards he returned to where it all began and became head teacher at Balhousie.

After a few years he took a role at Dundee university where he currently works part-time as a tutor in teaching.

Ross ‘never crossed the line’

He fondly recalls teaching the Oakbank primary 7 group, containing Ross, in the late 1990s.

“Ross had a lovely cohort of fellow pupils and sometimes you have a good relationship with pupils,” Peter said.

“That was a class where we had good relationships. It was a very happy time.”

Teacher Peter, who was in the same school class as Ross MacKay's mother Elizabeth
Peter was in the same school class as Ross’s mother Elizabeth. Image: Ross MacKay.

Peter then discovered at a parents’ evening that he had actually studied with Ross’s mother Elizabeth as a pupil at Perth Grammar School.

“That was a link but that didn’t impact on Ross being a nice lad from the beginning,” Peter said.

“He was one of these boys who had a warm personality.

“He had great ideas, was hard working and he never crossed the line. He was never cheeky.

“He always knew you were the teacher and was an able pupil.

“At the age of 11 they are top of the primary school and have earned a lot of respect from the previous years.”

Friendship ‘can be picked up anytime’

After leaving Oakbank, Ross and his family stayed in touch with Peter.

Peter and his wife used to run a minibus to a Christian event in Arbroath and Ross was one of those on board.

“I hadn’t seen Ross too many times over the years,” Peter said

“But it is a friendship that can be picked up anytime.

“I hope his book is a real encouragement and inspiration for young people.”

Global director, puppeteer and magician

Ross left Perth High School with four As and one B in his Highers.

He says that his teachers urged him to stay on for sixth-year but he opted for a one-year drama course at Dundee and Angus College.

Ross forged a successful career in theatre. Image: Ross MacKay.

He then studied theatre directing at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh before co-founding his own theatre company, Tortoise in a Nutshell, in 2010.

Over the next decade he worked as a director, puppeteer and magician, performing across the world.

He directed award-wining productions that included Feral, the New York Times Critic’s Pick.

Depression and anxiety ‘constant’

Ross was a resounding success in his career but has had to battle two bouts of severe depression and anxiety – first in his early 20s and then a decade later.

“Living with depression and anxiety is a constant part of my life,” he said.

“If I say I want to go to the shop I get a thousand thoughts in my head, such as is the shop going to be busy, I don’t like crowds, what if I can’t find a parking space, what if I crash someone’s car?

“And all these thoughts go into one block for me for simple tasks.”

The Whisp in Ross’s book represents a means of converting these negative thoughts to positive ones.

Attempts on life

He says his mental health challenges are rooted in his experiences at secondary school.

“I didn’t talk about or acknowledge how I was bullied until I was a lot older,” Ross said.

“So I bottled up a lot of the emotions I felt at the time and that wasn’t the best way to deal with them.

Ross has bravely spoken about his mental health challenges. Image: Ross MacKay.

“That is one of the big reasons I have targeted the story at a young age because it is really important.

“I struggled with mental health quite seriously. I have spent time at psychiatric wards so it has been difficult.

“I have had attempts on my life but I try to do something positive.

“I am doing a lot better now and am very lucky to have a really supportive family and supportive network.”

Landmarks in writing career

When the first Covid lockdown was enacted in March 2020, Ross decided to fulfil an ambition and become a writer.

That year his poem, And We Called Him Noah, won the William Soutar Award.

Will and The Whisp was released on October 25 by Creative James Media. It is available via Amazon and Waterstones.

A day earlier, Ross took workshops at two Fife primary schools: Aberhill in Leven and St Joseph’s RC in Kelty.

The visits were part of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour, which is organised by Scottish Book Trust.

He will additionally visit Leslie Primary School on November 17, and Oakbank, Craigie and Kinnoull primary schools on November 18.

On December 7 he will talk to youngsters at St Joseph’s Primary School in Edinburgh.

Difficult story told in ‘hopeful way’

Ross hopes young people will benefit from reading his book.

He said: “What I have always had is an ability to tell stories so being able to communicate how difficult life can be is something I am able to do.

“I have a chance to tell that story in a way that opens up those conversations, especially with young people.

Ross MacKay has been visiting schools as part of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour
Ross visited Aberhill Primary School in Leven as part of the Scottish Friendly Children’s Book Tour. Image: Scottish Book Trust.

“P7 is quite an anxious time for a lot of people, though maybe not as serous as it got for me.

“My book was a chance to communicate that and from the other side of that.

“It has been very difficult for me but here I am after having a book published and I am at a really good point in my life.

“I am hoping that I am able to tell that story in a hopeful way.”

Debut picture book

This year has also seen the release of Ross’s debut picture book, Daddy’s Bad Day, by Curly Tale Books.

And more books could be on the way.

“I am working on a murder mystery set in the 1920s in Edinburgh, featuring Hoodini,” he said.

“This one will be very different to an autobiography.”