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Beyond crofts and the cane

PHILOSOPHICALLY, I have always thought it plausible that children educated in pleasant surroundings should be advantaged over those who face the factory wall or the city street.

Perhaps this is townee romanticism, for the pull of the city is a potent reason why the University of the Highlands and Islands may prove more difficult to establish than previously thought. Young people want to visit the city and mix with others for higher education, rather than be stuck on the croft with the Internet.

My all-time favourite school location was Unapool, near Kylesku in Sutherland, but it now seems to be a holiday home, so my runner-up spot is Lochinver primary, where Loch Culag laps the playground and the playtime noise of chases and football games echoes over the waterlilies towards Quinag or Suilven.

Over the holiday period we had a 91-year-old house guest who also started her education in a beautiful location. Her primary school beside the Sound of Sleat looked across to the Knoydart hills. Fiercely proud of her early education - "everyone could write and read and spell before they left" - she talked with less relish about the ubiquitous use of the cane. For passing a rubber to a friend during an art lesson she was caned. She was so terrified of the teacher that se kept her pencil hidden behind her thumb and was caned as she held it.

Her five-year-old sister made a blot on her handwriting copybook and was caned, whereupon she put her head on the desk and the subsequent tears caused even more blots. Pupils were caned for speaking Gaelic in the playground, irrespective of the fact that this was their first language.

The reminiscences continued. The year of the General Strike her father had rowed across to Mallaig in an open boat to fetch the two sisters returning from school in Fort William. The return journey terrified the girls as a drunken seaman persuaded their father to take him home to Skye as well, and the weight of his trunk and his determination to stand up in the boat nearly brought a watery end.

Afterwards, university in Glasgow, Jordanhill, and (this being the Depression) a teaching job furth of Scotland. Some years back, in the Lincolnshire village where she lives, she attended a church quiz night. For weeks after she recounted how the vicar, surprised at the scope of her Biblical knowledge, had complimented her. "All part of a good Presbyterian education," she replied.

Looking forward into another century, it gives pause to reflect on one woman's experience of education in an earlier era.

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