School Days: Alastair Bruce Remembers Milton Abbey
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School Days: Alastair Bruce Remembers Milton Abbey

The Sky News commentator and historical advisor on Downton Abbey pays homage to his Dorset school

Alastair Bruce of Crionaich recalls how Milton Abbey gave a 13-year-old dyslexic boy the confidence to reach for the stars.

Alastair Bruce

As a child, I was a bit of a worry. What parents would not be marginally concerned to have a son who occupied his leisure time dressed up – either as a bishop or an admiral – preaching to trees or inspecting hedgerows at the age of 12? Luckily for me, while my father had carved my name into Eton on his way to visit me newly born, my mother was pretty persuasive.

This is because the same unconfined skill that imagined cathedrals and battleships in the garden was the dyslexia that prevented any grasp of written work, languages and maths. Together, my parents discovered Milton Abbey and, through it, I found myself.

Milton Abbey

The school is profoundly beautiful. Shaped into the landscape of Thomas Hardy and embroidered by the heavenly gifts of Capability Brown, the tower of its Benedictine abbey and the 18th-century house built by the Earl of Dorchester gave me inspiration. I doubt many boys noticed its architecture and the power of its monastic past but I did.

Yes, I hated games and they had to be avoided, but this school somehow helped you avoid what was not your forte and find out what was. But more than this, a boy’s strength was made into an advantage for the whole school, worthy of community praise.

Quite how I developed a love for heraldry and an obsession for making a complete set of replicas of the crown jewels out of clay, might require God himself to answer. But encouraged by staff and boys alike, develop it I did, and on parents’ day, my sparkling regal replicas were set on a stage and lit, as all parents came to view. I say ‘all’ because this was the nature of how even the bizarrely strange got universal plaudits here.

As for the abbey, it nursed my episcopal leanings by providing a forgiving pantheon for me to learn the organ and act as sacristan. This was on the other end of the spectrum from bishop, but it was a start.

What I did next

Today, my close friends include more than half from this self-forming academy. These friends still rejoice at a Downton Abbey episode completed, a Sky News event covered or a military promotion achieved. I hope I repay in equal measure. If nothing else, we learnt courtesy for each other and to respect an achievement, no matter what it was.

And I have utterly loved the challenge of life. Milton Abbey let me thrive, taught me to speak confidently, shaped a humour that found the funny side in failure, yet provided the steel to succeed in the things that counted – for each of us.

I became a governor for two decades and I still like to potter back. Milton Abbey is fully co-educational now and very successful with it.

Two years ago, I was invited back to speak to pupils and parents on speech day. Observing the leavers – the sportsmen and women, the musicians, academics, artists and budding young entrepreneurs – I had a strong feeling that the very same Milton Abbey ethos, which takes the time to nurture, celebrate and encourage, both endures and thrives. I remember it enfolding my hopes and aspirations.

In addition, I saw that the same deep friendships had been formed, which will outmarch endless new acquaintances and stand strong to stabilise a lifetime of challenges with unconfined affirmation. All these assets will help these young people when it counts.

Dyslexic support

On that same visit, I was enchanted to watch how the management of horses can help dyslexic bad spellers earn A-level qualifications that thrill them and help prove aptitude, commitment and capability in their life plans. Again, I think back to the small admiral that faced a bleak, rain-soaked building aged 13, thinking it was the end of all hope.

What that episcopal admiral found when the sun came out, as so many still do, was that Milton Abbey doesn’t need to give hope. Its ethos and effect is much more useful and profound. In my case, it shaped the tools I needed to follow my dreams and successfully achieve what I was uniquely made to do. And while it was all happening, I made lifelong friends, had the time of my life and I must have decided to make that schoolboy experience live on, because I still feel the fire that Milton Abbey ignited in the work I do and the fun I have now.


Royal and religious commentator for Sky News, Alastair Bruce of Crionaich, is an author, documentary maker and historical advisor on the ITV series Downton Abbey. He was appointed Officer of Arms by the Queen in 1988 with title of Fitzalan Pursuivant of Arms Extraordinary and in 2004, was chosen to be Extra Equerry to Their Royal Highnesses the Earl and Countess of Wessex.

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