How did teachers not spot the gawky pupil who was a 30-year-old man?

How did teachers fail to notice the gawky pupil in form 5C was a 30-year-old man… who’d been at the same school 15 years earlier?

  • Canadian Brandon Lee joined class 5C at Glashow’s Bearsden Academy 1993
  • He had a sad backstory, gawky looks and shared a name with Bruce Lee’s son
  • But people were mainly endeared to him for being kind, funny and a bit different
  • However, there was a catch. ‘Brandon’ was not, in fact, the bright 17-year-old
  • He was actually Scotland’s most notorious imposter: Brian MacKinnon, 30

Pretty much everyone from form 5C at Bearsden Academy can remember the day a nerdy Canadian boy called Brandon Lee joined their class back in 1993.

Not just because of his desperately sad back story — his mother, an opera singer, had been killed in a car crash and his father, who sent him to Glasgow’s leafy suburb of Bearsden to live with his grandmother, died soon afterwards.

Or for his gawky looks — he was tall and thin and rather frail-looking with permed hair, oddly fine eyebrows, and sported a briefcase and a deeply unfashionable anorak with a draw-string waist.

Or even that he shared a name with the recently deceased son of the late, great, martial arts guru Bruce Lee — though it did cause a bit of a giggle when the register was first taken.

But mainly because Brandon — now the subject of a major new film starring Alan Cummings — was kind, good, funny and a bit different.

He took bullies under his wing and helped them reform, listened without judgment and dished out helpful advice.

He was clever (reportedly with a genius-level IQ of 161), but also an all-rounder, joining the football team, the debating club, starring in the end-of-year school musical and introducing his classmates to all sorts of cool retro bands.

On top of all that, he got five top grades, a glowing reference and a place at university to study medicine.

The catch?

‘Brandon’ was not, in fact, the preternaturally bright 17-year-old that many thought he was, but Scotland’s most notorious imposter: a 30-year-old failed medical student called Brian MacKinnon who had already attended Bearsden Academy, back in the 1970s when he actually was a teenager.

Pictured left: Brian MacKinnon as a teenager… and right: aged 30, as ‘Brandon Lee’. ‘Brandon’ was not, in fact, the preternaturally bright 17-year-old that many thought he was, but Scotland’s most notorious imposter: a 30-year-old failed medical student called Brian MacKinnon who had already attended Bearsden Academy, back in the 1970s

Now, nearly 30 years on, his extraordinary deception has been made into a documentary directed by old 5C classmate Jono Mcleod and featuring his old school pals and teachers.

Premiering later this month in the U.S., it will include a rare interview with Brian that will give a riveting insight into his extraordinary tale. His story began in the 1970s with his first stint at Bearsden, which saw him go on to gain a place at Glasgow University.

But Brian’s dreams of pursuing a career in medicine unravelled when an unexplained illness caused him to drop out. 

He was determined to still become a doctor — but after six or seven years of false starts, failed exams and second attempts, and missing the window to return to university, it became clear that ‘Brian MacKinnon’ wasn’t going to be admitted into any university for medicine.

But that’s when, after the death of his father in 1993, he set a master plan into motion.

As he says in the film: ‘The thing you have to do if you really want to prevail is do the unimaginable’.

He’s not joking.

Who in their right mind would return to their old school in their 30s, pretend to be a spotty teenager again — and think nothing would go awry?

To be fair, Bearsden was not Brian’s first choice. The home he still shared with his mother was outside the catchment area of any other schools.

‘Time was running out between the inception of my plan and the beginning of the school academic year, I had been unable to find another school,’ he later said.

So he pressed on, hoping that his fake Canadian accent, 3 st weight loss, freshly permed hair and carefully plucked eyebrows would do the job.

And amazingly, they did.

Despite having been to the school in the not too distant past, and him looking more like a member of staff than a pupil, the school didn’t bother to ask for his birth certificate or check his references — one of which was from a ‘Marsha Hunt’, the name of one of Mick Jagger’s former girlfriends.

Somehow, no one put two and two together.

Not Mr Blair, the maths teacher who’d taught him 13 years earlier, or headmaster Mr Norman MacLeod, who said Brandon ‘fitted in so well, it was as if the school had been made for him’, or even his new form teacher Mrs Gwynneth Lightbody, who thought he perhaps suffered from ‘some illness that made him age rapidly’.

‘We were a right crowd of dopes!’ she later admitted.

Instead, ‘Brandon’ was welcomed with open arms.

Imposter: Brian MacKinnon out for dinner at TGI Fridays with his friends in Glasgow, Scotland

After all, he was the perfect student — eager, polite, super bright and forever with his hand up, answer ready — he was a teacher’s dream. But, of course, there were plenty of hairy moments — and on one occasion he claimed to remember the day Elvis died, in 1977 — the year Brandon had supposedly been born.

In retrospect, there were countless clues that things weren’t right.

‘We used to see him driving about and that was quite strange aged 16,’ said one Bearsden contemporary at the time. ‘He always seemed to know more about physics than we did, his contributions to the school newspaper were always very impressive!’

Former classmate Gordon Barron even told a local newspaper: ‘I thought he was a teacher but when someone looks older you just get used to it. He was popular and outgoing and told jokes like anyone of our age.’

Nicola Walker, a friend he went on holiday with, added: ‘He was really into older music. Totally weird stuff, like Joy Division.’

And he was also said to be extremely reluctant to kiss his co-star Val Douglas — an actual child — in one school musical. ‘It wasn’t what you’d call a great snog,’ Val recalled. ‘It was the kind of kiss you’d give your dad.’

But overall, form 5C liked him, accepting him into the fold with the retrospectively rather unfortunate nickname of ‘Thirtysomething’ (because he seemed that bit more grown up than the rest)

Soon he was being invited to bars, birthday parties, climbing trips and pub quizzes, where he wowed everyone with his spectacular general knowledge.

He had a great time. Perhaps even better than his first whirl at Bearsden.

His friendships seemed to be genuine, and he continued to catch up with school pals in the holidays, even when they went off to university.

Brian MacKinnon went back to school as a pupil when he was 32 years-old and pretended to be a 17 year-old. Picture shows him in a school production of South Pacific at the age of 32

It must have been exhausting keeping up the pretence, and the accent, and the plucked eyebrows, and the perm and the tragic back story — but he did it well.

He was kind and funny and thoughtful and, however tempting, tried not to shine too brightly, he insisted.

‘I had to take my foot off the pedal a bit, I didn’t want to be winning any exams and end up in the papers,’ he said.

After four exhausting terms, though, it all seemed to be worth it — the master plan worked, and in 1994 he progressed to Dundee University to study medicine.

After a 15-year hiatus, Brian’s sought-after career was back on track — albeit under another name.

That was until 1995, when it all blew up in his face in the second term of his degree. It still isn’t quite clear how the truth came out but there are several theories.

One involves a medical textbook for ‘Brandon’ being delivered to a neighbour who knew him only as Brian and joined the dots.

Another, less credible, is the story of him being arrested during a drunken brawl while on holiday in Tenerife and being found to have two passports — yet he barely drank, was forever lecturing friends about the perils of alcohol and always fervently denied he had more than one passport.

But whatever the truth, Brian’s hoax had come crashing down. He was called back into school and asked to prove that he was Brandon. And within hours Bearsden was swarming with reporters from all over the world.

The school’s admissions team became the subject of intense ridicule — and questions swirled about the potential severity of the scandal.

Had the real children been put at risk? But when it all became clear — ‘Brandon’ had simply, if desperately, wanted to further his education — his friends refused to give up on him.

A bunch of them wrote a letter of support to a local newspaper, thanking him for his friendship, saying they would always be there for him, and wishing him luck.

Headmaster Norman MacLeod was remarkably forgiving, saying: ‘He will be remembered here as an unselfish, considerate, bright, friendly former pupil. Many of the staff, I think, understand his motives and do not feel hostility to his deception.’

Even the parents were pretty sanguine. Yes, there was frustration, but no real resentment lingered because there was nothing remotely threatening about Brian, and he wasn’t harming anyone.

As one of them said at the time, ‘He wasn’t beating up wee old grannies.’

There wasn’t even any proper outrage at the fact that he’d been on holiday with two teenage female friends.

Perhaps because, as form teacher Mrs Lightbody put it, ‘you would have worried about Brandon’s safety in their hands, rather than the other way round’.

If anything, he was considered a good influence.

Someone who possessed a strange sort of magic that made everyone — students and teachers alike — behave better.

But nonetheless, for Brian, the unmasking was catastrophic.

Reporters followed him everywhere calling him Walter Mitty and Peter Pan and offering him great riches to tell his story until he barely dared leave the house.

His mother — who had been under the impression he’d returned to Bearsden as a mature student — was devastated.

But worst of all, he was thrown off his medicine degree at Dundee University for ‘lack of integrity’.

So, in the end, it was all for nothing. He didn’t get the medical degree he’d so desired.

And he has lived in terrible limbo ever since.

His life has been on hold, plans shattered, ambition thwarted and enormous brain power wasted.

Certainly, when the Daily Mail tracked him down to his very modest flat in Glasgow this week, where for years he has lived on benefits, eaten poorly and spent much of his time in the library nursing conspiracy theories and bizarre beliefs that he was the victim of assassination attempts, he looked thin and grey and was not keen to talk.

Hopefully Brandon’s old pal Jono from 5C will have had more luck — and, finally, we’ll hear in his own words how and why he did it, when the film is finally released.

Perhaps then, Brian/Brandon will finally be able to get his once so promising life back on track.

Additional reporting by Gavin Madeley.

My Old School will premiere at Sundance Film Festival later this week. 

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