BY coincidence, this week sees the anniversaries of the deaths of two of the most influential figures in the history of Scottish education, two Georges whose names were commemorated in the famous institutions they brought about.

Tomorrow is the tercentenary of the death of George Watson, the first accountant of the Bank of Scotland who left the funds that established what is now George Watson’s College, while Marischal College in Aberdeen, now part of the city’s university, was founded by George Keith, the Fifth Earl Marischal of Scotland, who died 400 years ago on April 5, 1623.

Let’s take them in chronological order. Keith was born around 1553 into a renowned and very wealthy noble family who had held the hereditary title of Marischal (Marshal) of Scotland since at least the reign of William the Lion. The Keiths further distinguished themselves during the Wars of Independence and Robert the Bruce made them the Great Marischals of Scotland.

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The Keiths were raised to the highest ranks of the peerage as Earl Marischals of Scotland by King James II around 1458, making their home at Dunnottar Castle near Stonehaven.

After being educated at Aberdeen’s first university, King’s College, and on the Continent – he was a pupil in Geneva of the leading Calvinist theologian Theodore Beza – George Keith made his way home after his brother William was killed near Geneva. He travelled in Germany, Italy and, France and learned the languages that were to stand him in good stead after he succeeded to the title of Earl Marischal on the death of his grandfather the Fourth Earl Marischal in 1581.

His strong adherence to the reformed Protestant faith saw him become prominent at the court of King James VI and he was the chief ambassador sent to the Danish king to arrange the marriage of his daughter Princess Anne to James. The Earl Marischal even stood in for King James at the proxy wedding that secured the marriage.

After some adventures mainly at the hand of the weather – witchcraft, asserted King James – the newly-wed King and Queen returned to Scotland, where the Earl Marischal began the work that made his name.

He had decided to build a second university in Aberdeen which meant that the city had as many universities as the whole of England.

Writing in The Great Historic Families of Scotland, published in the 1880s, the historian James Taylor was in no doubt about the Earl Marischal’s greatest achievement: “The memory of this great nobleman has been perpetuated mainly by his enlightened generosity displayed in the establishment of the college which bears his family title.

“The foundation charter, which is dated April 2, 1593, provided for the maintenance of a principal, three professors or regents, and six bursars; and appointed Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, geometry, geography, chronology, natural history, and astronomy to be taught in the college. At subsequent periods several additional chairs and a great number of bursaries were instituted in connection with this seminary, and the professorships were ultimately increased to 13.”

So as you can see, Marischal College was a proper university from the outset, and remained so until it merged with King’s College to form Aberdeen University in 1860.

The Fifth Earl Marischal did not follow James VI to England in 1603 and retired from public life in 1620, living quietly until his death 400 years ago on Wednesday. The Marischal College buildings remain an important location in Aberdeen to this day.

George Watson was an absurdly wealthy man in late 17th and early 18th-century Edinburgh who left a colossal sum for the foundation and maintenance of what was then known as a “hospital” school.

I suspect any commemoration of the 300th anniversary of his death will be muted because in recent years there has been a focus on the fact that Watson made some of his money through the slave trade.

To its credit, George Watson’s College is not shying away from its founding father’s past. Instead, they are finding out more about Watson’s involvement in some slaving ventures and will publicise what they find. Earlier this year, the traditional Founder’s Day was renamed Foundation Day, in a positive move by the College authorities.

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Watson was born on November 23, 1654, the son of Edinburgh merchant John Watson who died when his son was still a boy. At 17, George was sent to Rotterdam to train in accounting and book-keeping and he excelled in his studies – so much so that when he returned in 1676 he was snapped up to be private secretary by Sir James Dick of Prestonfield (1644–1728), later Lord Provost of Edinburgh and MP for the city.

Dick was a rich merchant and Watson learned much from him, but it was as an accountant and moneylender that Watson accumulated his own wealth, becoming chief accountant of the Bank of Scotland when it was formed in 1695.

Watson was described as “debonair” and a man about town, but in truth, he lived quite frugally, preferring to save his money for charitable purposes.

He never married and had no dependants, so when he died in 1723, the bulk of his money was willed to a bequest for “the maintenance and education of the offspring of decayed merchants”. It took a while to get things organised before Watson’s Hospital opened in 1741 with 11 boys.

The hospital became a day school in 1870 and was followed by a girls’ school which became George Watson’s Ladies College until the merger of the two colleges to make Scotland’s largest co-educational school in 1974.

Well-known former pupils, known as Watsonians, include rugby players Gavin, Scott, and Adam Hastings, Olympic medal-winning athlete Josh Kerr, broadcaster Sheena McDonald, politicians Malcolm Rifkind and Iain Gray MSP, history writer David Daiches and Scotland’s greatest Olympian Sir Chris Hoy.