I WAS in Preston Lodge High School last week delivering a storytelling session when I was told that Roberta Thomson had died.

She used to teach at the school and I remember her so vividly, even though it’s 49 years since I was last taught by her.

The news was given to me by an old friend who was also her student at Preston Lodge, and we shared our memories of her. My recollection was she taught classical studies, my friend thought English, perhaps it was both. She was known by everyone in the school as Madame Butterfly, an affectionate nickname which I hope she liked.

It was 1974 when she was my teacher, a time, I recall, when schools had a harsher culture than they do these days, with the tawse kept close and ready to use, and the wooden duster could end up bouncing off your forehead if you were caught daydreaming or not paying attention.

But in my experience, at least, this wasn’t the way of Madame Butterfly. She had a nurturing manner and I remember how she would glide elegantly into the classroom and greet us with a smile. She had a softness in her speech which matched her character. I’m sure she had to keep order at times, but the truth is all my memories of her are positive, which I can’t say for all the teachers of that time.

So the news of this wonderful woman’s death shook me, even though I didn’t know her, or anything about her, outside those classroom lessons.

I did meet her again years after I’d left school. It was the mid-1990s and I saw her in a garden in Edinburgh. I bought a bouquet of flowers in the nearby corner shop and gave them to her, explaining that although she wouldn’t remember me, I certainly remembered her. I was so glad to be able to let her know just how much her lessons meant and how her style of teaching had left such a deep impression on me.

Hannibal's crossing

Perhaps you’ll not be surprised that it was not just her personal manner but also her storytelling which left such valued memories.

I don’t know if she ever saw herself as a storyteller, but she definitely was. And although it is now nearly five decades since I last heard her tell a story, I still have the images of her words painted in my imagination.

Her telling of Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps has never left me. I sat transfixed as she told how Hannibal aimed to surprise the Romans in 218BC by taking his army of 30,000 men, which included cavalry and elephants, across the Alps. The Romans did not think this possible, and so did not expect an attack from the north through the mountains.

I sadly have never had the chance to visit the Alps, but my imagination has, courtesy of Madame Butterfly. Her description of the peaks, the glaciers and the treacherous narrow passes, the snow and blizzards, and the sheer drops that await an unsuspecting traveller, set the scene for her story of one of the most incredible military feats in history.

She described how Hannibal’s soldiers had to negotiate narrow paths, where they could not be sure if the snow beneath their feet was secure. Screams echoed as men slipped and then fell hundreds of feet into oblivion. Panicked horses were led across narrow ledges, mere inches separating them from certain death.

And then there were the 37 elephants! How to take elephants across the Alps? Their terror and bewilderment at being taken across such a dangerous landscape added to by lack of food and freezing temperatures.

At one point it seemed hopeless, the paths were just too narrow for such large, heavy creatures, and new routes were searched for. Then the soldiers desperately hacked away at the rockface to make new paths, as the traumatised elephants waited, freezing and hungry.

“Why on earth did Hannibal take elephants?” I asked.

“Imagine the terror,” she replied, “of such huge creatures, charging towards the enemy, trumpeting a spine-chilling roar, trampling everything before them? They were the ancient version of the tank. Even one could strike terror into the enemy ranks, imagine what nearly 40 could do.”

Then the bell rang, the rest of the story would have to wait until the following week.

But I had a question.

“Did the elephants survive?”

“Only one was left at the end of the campaign,” she replied, shaking her head sadly, “only one.”

There were other stories she told: the tale of Cleopatra, the legend of Romulus and Remus. And I learnt from her what “crossing the Rubicon” meant as she told stories of Julius Caesar.

If I were to wrap up the time at school that meant the most to me, her lessons would be the main gift.

So thank you Roberta Thomson, or Madame Butterfly, as I knew you. You inspired me. You fired my soul with your stories and your kind ways. You were the highlight of my week in that first year at Preston Lodge High School.

I’m glad I once got to tell you this in person. I know there are many other incredible teachers who make a difference every day.

But you were the one who made the difference to me.