Although her sister made it to Dumfries Academy with little trouble, Shelia hit a snag. One year before she could apply, the rules changed, sorting students according to their districts, meaning Sheila would instead be sent to Morton Academy in Thornhill to continue her studies. She was not pleased. “I kicked up a big fuss. ‘I don’t want to go there! I’m staying in Dumfries!” (Interview). Jessie and Charlie agreed that it did not make much sense for their daughter to spend three years at Morton only to move back to Dumfries, make new friends, and become familiar with the lay of the land when she could just go there directly. Jessie took her case directly to the chairman of the school board and the exchange that followed has become a McCrae family legend. The chairman pulled up Sheila’s control exam results to see if she was worth the trouble and was shocked to discover he was holding in his hands one of the highest scores in the county. “His family knew some of my father’s family but not my mother because she wasn’t local, so when he looked at the results, he said. ‘Oh, goodness me, Mrs. McCrae! Where does the child get her brains!?’ And she said, ‘Well, you know, she has a mother too!” (Interview).
Sheila had her wish granted and finished at Dumfries Academy in 1957.
From there, she set her sights on the University of Edinburgh, where she would pursue a degree in science. From a young age, she had been ambitious about her career prospects, caring little how traditionally masculine or feminine any given occupation was. “Whenever people asked, ‘What do you want to do when you grow up?’ I said I was going to be a doctor” (Interview). However, the university contained some sobering truths. After being talked out of medical science by her mother and family doctor, Sheila decided to major in chemistry instead. She found the field boring and tried her hand at botany, zoology, and finally physics before quitting Edinburgh. It was clear she was spinning her wheels. “I didn’t really know what I wanted to do” (Interview)
After Edinburgh, Sheila found work as a lab assistant at Ferranti Engineers. The company gave her the opportunity to return to college to study electrical engineering, but Sheila was not interested. The following year she applied for employment at the Chapelcross Nuclear Power Station in Annan–Scotland’s very first nuclear power plant and one of the oldest in the United Kingdom. By now, it was the beginning of the 1960s and the Nuclear Arms Race was in full swing. The entire western world was still on edge from the Russian-made H-bomb in 1953, the launching of Sputnik in 1957, and the continued production and refinement of nuclear weapons on both sides. As one might expect, the application process for Chapelcross was more than a little intrusive. “They told me I needed to take a physical in order to get hired and