The captivating case of Brian MacKinnon

My Old School poster
On a whim, I decided to look up the case of Brian Lachlan MacKinnon, who went back to his high school 15 years after he graduated and posed as a 16-year-old pupil. I saw it on BBC Scotland’s Public Eye at the time (around 1995), though I think I had also heard of the case separately. Jackie Bird’s story on MacKinnon was a decent piece of journalism, and for some reason it stayed with me.

I imagine I was fascinated at the deception, not because I am deceptive, but because I always enjoyed Walter Mitty tales. And growing up in New Zealand at a time where there was more racism, you had the sense society pressured you to stay under the radar. It wanted you to do the roles that wouldn’t upset certain members of that society who couldn’t tolerate their finely constructed world being ever so slightly wobbled. It was never going to sit well with me, someone who had strong-minded parents and teachers who all told me I could be anything I wanted.

I actively fought being boxed or becoming a stereotype, not just for myself but for anyone like me who felt similarly limited. I wasn’t going to be an accountant or actuary: I was going to do something in the public eye that ran against expectations. Thank God I did, and that I followed my passions at the same time.

I enjoyed the TV movie Money for Nothing, with Christien Anholt, because his character was a teenager who could not be boxed in to what was expected, and he found himself in the adult world doing property deals. Along the same lines was Mike Nichols’ Working Girl. MacKinnon’s real-life case shared aspects of these fictional tales: here was a 30-something man who felt his calling was med school, but due to a mysterious illness when he was first enrolled at Dundee University, found himself out of the running. Desperate to get back, he felt there was only one option: to head back to high school under an assumed name and re-enter university.

Originally nicknamed China by his 1970s classmates (I doubt you’d find this online any more), MacKinnon returned to the same school, Bearsden Academy—according to Bird it was the one that would accept the minimal of documentation—that he had graduated from, but under the assumed name of Brandon Lee, the same as the late actor.

He wasn’t about to be told by society what he could or couldn’t do.

I did dare a friend once after we talked about what MacKinnon had done, and he did indeed show up to our high school in full uniform for a day! But we were in our 20s then, not 32!

What my web search (on Mojeek, natch) revealed was that last year, it seems one of his 1990s classmates, Jono McLeod, made a film about the story, called My Old School. MacKinnon agreed to be interviewed but declined to appear on camera, so Alan Cumming—who I had heard back in the late 1990s had been attached to a dramatization of the affair—lip syncs the recording.

One hour 44 minutes does seem a stretch considering Bird told her story in half an hour for BBC Scotland, but McLeod adds to his with interviews with fellow classmates and surviving teachers.

It’s unfortunate to note that MacKinnon has more recently made statements to the press and written a memoir that claim that there is a wider conspiracy preventing him from going to med school.

It does look like nearly 30 years later, the story still has interest. We’d all love to travel back in time because rose-coloured glasses add to our sense of nostalgia. This might be why I fared less well as a politician because I was trying to sell a future and not the past, and it seems under a fifth of all people appreciated it.

But I also see it as a story about a young man who felt backed into a corner by a system, and tried desperately to find a way around it. Unfortunately he needed to deceive, and (spoiler alert for the next couple of lines), as in Money for Nothing and Working Girl, he was unmasked. Unlike the movies, there wasn’t a happy ending: MacKinnon still isn’t a doctor, and he feels society is out to break him. There’s certainly inertia in society and institutions that wind up doing nasty things. However, I don’t accept MacKinnon is being targeted; his notoriety has followed him and he might need to look further afield. And pushing 60 it’s not easy to start a career. If only life were closer to the stories.

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