Sheila Runyon was born on a dairy farm thirteen miles outside of Dumfries, a small town in Southwest Scotland. Her mother, Jessie Montgomery Turner, was a schoolteacher from Edinburgh who came to the country hunting for a job. She found that and more in Kirkcudbrightshire, where she met a farmer named Charles McCrae, whose family had been settling in the area for generations. “You couldn’t throw a stone in three counties without hitting someone who was connected to my family by marriage or some other way” (Interview). Charles and Jessie were married and moved to a farm called Straith in Dumfriesshire. They had four children together: Jean, Sheila, James, and David.
Like her sister before her, Sheila was something of an academic wunderkind. She began her education at four-years-old in a one-room elementary school called Crossford, where just under twenty students age five to eleven attended under a single teacher’s instruction. There was no question in Jessie’s mind that her daughters would be attending secondary school at Dumfries Academy, where only the best and brightest in the county had any hope of attendance. For this reason, academic achievement was a high priority in the McCrae household, even taking precedence over the general labor one typically associates with farm life.
The education system in Scotland during Sheila’s childhood was quite different from that with which we are currently familiar in the States. School for children began at age five as opposed to six and continued until age twelve, known as primary school. Before graduating, each student would take the Qualifying Exam, which would determine where they would pursue their secondary education and for how long. An individual’s success in the exam was “based on a number of factors, namely, the results of Intelligence tests, teachers’ estimates, an examination in English and Arithmetic, and the pupil’s previous record” (Mackintosh 153).
Those who scored highest were placed in senior secondary school, where they could continue their studies until age eighteen. The rest were placed in junior secondary school, concluding their education as early as age fifteen. On paper, this amounted to another four years of learning but in practice more often amounted to just over three, many students all too eager to leave school on or near their fifteenth birthday instead of completing their final academic year. “We didn’t have the term ‘dropout’ because nobody ‘dropped out.’ You went as long as you had to and if you didn’t want to go any further, you left. There was no stigma attached to it” (Interview). Still, there was immense pressure on students near the end of their primary education to score as high on the Qualifying Exam as possible. After all, reaching