The son of Peter Alison, Headmaster of Gallatown Public School, Kirkcaldy, he was born and bred to the teaching profession. Educated first at his father's school, he became a pupil-teacher at the age of twelve, studying thereafter at Moray House and Edinburgh University, where he graduated M.A. He was Mathematical Master at Edinburgh Academy from 1884 to 1886, when he went to George Watson's College, where the rest of his teaching life, apart from a brief interlude as Principal of the Glasgow United Free Church Training College from 1902 to 1904, was spent, first as mathematics master and from 1904 to 1926 as Headmaster. This double strand of long and distinguished service to the School gave him a unique position in its history. It was his good fortune to be associated with it during its creative and pioneer period. There was first-rate material to hand in abundance, pupils drawn from a marvellous variety of classes, places and abilities, and its first Headmaster, Dr George Ogilvie, had set its ambitions high. One of its most distinguished pupils, Principal Martin, once summed it up thus: "The opening of Watson's as a day school in 1870 was the opening of doors to boys right through Scotland." The opportunity was there, and the responsible teachers under Dr Ogilvie took it with both hands. Two of John Alison's pupils became Chancellors of the Exchequer, Sir Robert Horne and Sir John Anderson; a third, Sir Auckland Geddes, was offered but declined that office. All three became peers.
As a teacher he was lucid and logical, stressing the principles and philosophy of mathematics rather than its ingenious tricks and the low cunning often attributed to that study; and he won the complete goodwill and co-operation of his pupils.
As Headmaster, it fell to him to make the change from the old undue concentration on essential class studies with very modest mitigation in the way of games and a literary society to the modern multiplication of activities, now perhaps in their turn cultivated to excess. He introduced prefects, class-masters, a school magazine, the O.T.C., Scouts and dramatics. At the same time the whole curriculum had to be recast to find room for Science and Art and a larger place for Modern Languages. All this he did with a restraint and shrewdness natural to him, and always he carried his helpers with him. The mechanics of school organisation enabling him to keep in touch with all that went on in the school were ingeniously and soundly contrived.
Outside the school he did yeoman service to education mainly by his long membership of the Edinburgh Provincial Committee for the Training of Teachers, of whose Studies Committee he was Convener from 1918 to 1944, and of the Business Committee of the General Council of Edinburgh University, of whose Bursaries and Syllabus Committee he was until recently Convener. He was an active member of the Edinburgh Mathematical Society, and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1889. In 1921 the University conferred on him the Honorary Degree of LL.D. at the same time as on his pupils, Sir Robert Horne and the Lord Advocate, Mr J B Morison.
Such, outwardly, was his career, successful, effective always and curiously homogeneous. But most of those who knew him will remember rather his personal qualities, his charm and dignity of manner, his fundamental fairness, his sympathy with youth, his interest in the individual.
The following story, told by himself at a Farewell Dinner on his retirement, is a typical example of his quality.
Once, when he was a member of the staff of the School, he passed a class-room from which came sounds of disturbance not to be ignored. He entered, calmed the noise, pounced on a major culprit and told him to bring him a hundred lines. A day or so later he found on his desk the lines - "Interference is a vice, not a virtue " - one hundred times written out. He regarded the effort, tore it up and put it in the waste-paper basket. A few days later he met the boy in the corridor. "0h," he said, "what about those lines you were to bring me?" "But I put them on your table, sir," replied the astonished boy. "Are you sure?" "Yes," was the reply. And then, after a moment's hesitation - "All right - I'll take your word for it."