Dip into the old school records

20th April 2001 at 01:00
Education has long been highly prized in Scotland, so it is disappointing to find in old Statistical Accounts - those detailed pictures of parish activity painted by Kirk ministers 200 years ago - that school life was not rosy, writes Maisie Steven.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the old Statistical Account of Scotland 1791-1799 is the sheer diversity of the reports: what one minister of the Kirk writes is seldom echoed by the incumbent from a neighbouring parish. Interestingly, though, education is a clear exception.

Almost with one accord the writers pour out their indignation about the appalling exploitation suffered by Scotland's schoolmasters. That the ministers - the other educated men of the parishes - should have taken up their pens so boldly in defence of the "dominies" is in itself noteworthy; in defending them, they were directly attacking the landowners with whom the fault lay. Let their courage not be underestimated: these were their own patrons as well!

Consider this excerpt from the account for Duffus in Morayshire (Vol XVI, p108): "The school here, like those in many other parishes, is neglected; the salary is only seven bolls of barley; and the school fees so small, that nobody thinks it worth their while to accept of it, unless some young lad for a year or two.

"It seems the present generation of landlords wish to extirpate learning altogether, in order to introduce ignorance and slavery among the lower class of people, else they would give some encouragement to schoolmasters; and the opposition given to a recent application to Parliament for augmenting the schoolmasters' salaries by the landed gentry clearly marks their intentions."

About a century earlier, in the reign of William and Mary, an Act had been passed to ensure that each parish should have a school and schoolmaster, the minimum salary to be 100 merks (pound;5 11s 1d) and the maximum 200 merks. After a period of considerable inflation, however, what had once been a reasonable provision had become an abysmally poor remuneration for any teacher. True, what was termed a dwelling-house was generally provided; the ministers frequently refer scornfully to such as "mere hovels".

The ministers fared much better, their stipends generally amounting to between pound;75 and pound;150 per annum.

Even labourers were paid more than many dominies. Most men could expect to earn between pound;5 and pound;8 a year and women pound;3 to pound;5. The account from Aberlemno, Angus (Vol XIII, p3), states that "a good labouring married servant receives as wages about pound;6 sterling in money, a house and a yard, the value of which is between 20s and 30s. He gets a cow maintained through the year, and his fuel brought home; all which generally enables him to bring up a family."

Some dominies had perforce to augment their meagre income in ways other than teaching. In Heriot, in the Lothians (Vol II, p272), "the schoolmaster is also precentor, gravedigger, beadle, session-clerk, and yet his whole income does not exceed pound;8 sterling. This, with the paltry accommodation, holds out little encouragement to a teacher of any merit. Indeed, no man who possesses the strength to lift a mattock or to wield a flail would accept of such a disgraceful pittance."

One minister refers to this kind of lifestyle as "a kind of genteel starving".

Fortunately, all was not entirely doom and gloom. Some ministers were at pains to emphasise both the dedication and the contentment of local dominies. From Banchory-Davinick, in Aberdeenshire (Vol XIV p20), comes this testimonial to an exceptional teacher.

"The parochial schoolmaster here is Mr Robert Cormack. He had his education at Marischal College, but never raised his views higher than his present situation. He is a most industrious and successful teacher, labouring in his vocation from Sunday to Sunday, and from morning to night. Not fewer than 70, on an average, attend regularly in the course of a day, young men before public worship and young women after it; and this indefatigable teacher attends them gratis from six o'clock in the morning till late in the evening.

"How inadequate is this man's salary, although among the highest enjoyed by country schoolmasters! It is pound;11 3s 10d sterling."

From around 1750, most Lowland parishes had at least some kind of school. In certain areas, though, especially in the more remote Highlands, the parishes were far too large and the population too scattered for more than a small percentage of children to be able to attend school. Much-needed help was provided in some places by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge.

Some people in remote districts found their own solution: a young man who had recently completed his education might be engaged by several households, to live in turn in each and instruct the children.

In Campsie, Stirlingshire (Vol IX, p261), there was a night-school, "where grown persons attend for the purposes of writing, arithmetic, etc".

In Eckford, Borders (Vol III, p432), the minister reported that "as the school is not centrical, some infirm persons are employed to teach young children the English language, and the elementary principles of religion from the catechism. They are furnished with a house gratis by the farmers, and are satisfied from the parents with what they can afford."

In Dunoon, Argyll (Vol VIII, p92), there were "at least eight schools in the district, for teaching to read and write; some of them are held only in the winter (many children being needed for herding cattle in summer). The winter schools are taught by children from 12 to 15 years old, who go from house to house, for about 20 shillings and their maintenance, to teach younger children than themselves, and it surprising with what success they go through that business."

As well as elementary schools, there were grammar schools and academies, mainly in the larger towns but sometimes - principally through the bequests of local benefactors - in some of the smaller ones too. To name some of the more outstanding schools, Abroath, Ayr, Banff, Brechin, Forres, Fortrose, Inverness, Irvine, Kelso, Kirkwall, Nairn, Perth and Peterhead all receive honourable mention.

In Inverness (Vol XVII, p98), the magistrates and gentlemen of the town set about the establishment of a "seminary of learning" by appealing for subscriptions from Scotland, England, America, France and the East and West Indies. An enclosure of three acres was bought and a spacious and elegant schoolhouse built. A formidable array of subjects was taught: "English, Latin, arithmetic, writing, Euclid's elements, book-keeping, geography, mensuration, trigonometry, architecture (naval, civil and military), practical gunnery, fortifications, perspective and drawing, civil and natural history, chymistry and astronomy". The writer later mentions "a class for the Gaelic tongue, a dancing school and a music school".

Many interesting highlights can also be culled from the rural areas. The report from Dunkeld, in Perthshire (Vol XII, p 330), singles out the Sunday school, instituted under the patronage of the Duchess of Atholl in 1789, for special mention. In the regular three-monthly examinations there were "almost incredible proofs given of application and memory. Several of the scholars could repeat the entire book of Psalms, besides many chapters from the Old and New Testaments."

Also in Dunkeld there was a "female school" where "sewing, tambouring (embroidery using a circular frame) and other branches of female education" were taught.

Numerous other such schools for girls - some catering for boarders - are mentioned in the Statistical Account. The report for Forres, in Morayshire (Vol XVI, p614), includes the genteel note: "There is a boarding school for young ladies, where the various branches of needlework, music, and other parts of female education, are taught with great success."

The report for Aberdour, in Aberdeenshire (Vol XV, p6), mentions: "There is a woman who lives within a quarter of a mile of this church, who has taught young children to read English and knit stockings, upwards of 40 years with great success, and what is very extraordinary, has still a few scholars, who make good progress under her instruction, although she is upwards of 90 years of age."

A summing-up comes from the Peebles account (Vol III, p875): "The institution of parochial schools is to the honour, as well as the utility of Scotland. It shows the wisdom and patriotism of our ancestors in a high degree. At these necessary and useful little seminaries of literary knowledge, established by law in every parish, many have received the first principles of literature and religious knowledge, who have become ornaments to their country, and blessings to mankind."

Maisie Steven is author of Parish Life (Scottish Cultural Press, 1996), being reprinted this summer

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