The British Salem School of Gordonstoun was established in 1934 by Kurt Hahn after he was asked by friends to give a demonstration in the UK of his "Salem system". He was born in Berlin in 1886 and studied at the University of Oxford. After reading Plato's The Republic as a young man, Hahn conceived the idea of a modern school. With the help of Prince Max of Baden, he set up the Schule Schloss Salem in 1919. After the First World War, both men decided that education was key in influencing the future. They developed Salem in order to develop its students as community leaders. By the 1930s Salem had already become a renowned school throughout Europe. In 1932 Hahn spoke out against the Nazis and was arrested in March 1933.
He was released and exiled to Britain in the same year through the influence of the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, who was familiar with Hahn's work. At the urging of British friends, Hahn decided to start a new school in Morayshire.
Gordonstoun was started in a small way and had financial difficulties in its early years. After the death in 1930 of Sir William Gordon-Cumming, 4th Baronet, his house at Gordonstoun was obtained by Kurt Hahn, whose offer for the lease was accepted on 14 March 1934. The buildings needed repair and renovation, and at the start of the first academic year, the school had only two enrolled pupils. Hahn expected Gordonstoun to operate for only a few years, as an example of his vision. The number of pupils steadily increased, and some additional pupils transferred from Salem, including Prince Philip of Greece, now the Duke of Edinburgh. By the start of the Second World War, 135 boys were attending.
In June 1940 the school was evacuated and the Gordonstoun estate was taken over by the army for use as barracks. The school was relocated temporarily to quarters in Montgomeryshire in Mid Wales when Lord Davies, a parent of two pupils, allowed the school to use one of his houses. The buildings were insufficient, and finances and pupil numbers began to drop. The school survived the war, pupil numbers increased again, and the school became well known throughout Wales and the Midlands. Once the war had ended, the school returned to the Gordonstoun estate.
By the end of the 1940s, the school achieved its primary target of 250 pupils and continued growing in size. It built dormitories on the estate, removing the need of maintaining a house in Altyre, Forres, many miles away from the main campus. Gordonstoun also developed its academic offerings. It arranged to admit poorer children from the surrounding areas, and to deepen the "Outward Bound"-type activities that were central to Hahn's system. Skills in mountaineering and seamanship were always taught at the school. The introduction of the Moray Badge, from which the Duke of Edinburgh's Award was borrowed, expanded the types of physical challenges for students to conquer.
Gordonstoun House as seen from the South Lawn
From the 1950s onwards, the school administration concentrated on improving the facilities and expanding the curriculum. Major changes since then include: the founding of Round Square in 1966, an international community of schools sharing Hahn's educational ideals; the school becoming co-educational in 1972; and the moving of Aberlour House, Gordonstoun's preparatory school, from Speyside to a purpose-built Junior Schoola[›] on campus in 2004.