The 'holy terror' of Wyre

18th July 1997 at 01:00
David Limond recalls the tragic events that led an island teacher to suicide.

We expect schools in small, rural communities, especially those which are most isolated, to be peculiarly calm, peaceful, successful and - the word most often used in this context - "nurturing". We (that is, those of us who live in large towns and cities) associate the urban with the savage, the rural with the civilised. Of course, the truth is that all manner of social and personal problems are distributed between urban and rural communities and schools but the expectation remains that rural children will be happier in their learning and that rural teachers will be happier, and very possibly better, in their teaching. Yet Scotland's small insular schools have often had deep-rooted and hidden problems, tensions and conflicts.

When I began to contact women educated in Scotland before 1945 I brought forth a host of funny, sad, uplifting and depressing stories from the Borders to the Black Isle, West Lothian to the Western Isles, but perhaps none as chillingly tragic as the story of the Orcadian island of Wyre in the years from 1919 to 1943. Fascinated by the association with Edwin Muir who was educated on the island which he immortalised in his poem The Transmutation as the place where "Incorruptible the child plays still . . .in commemoration of a dayThat having been can never pass away". I followed the story as far as I could and, because I believe passionately that if history is not about remembering the forgotten then it is not of any value, I was pleased to be able to reconstruct a salutary tale which might otherwise have been forgotten forever. Wyre is a small place and those who lived through these events know who they are and I suppose that those who know them will also know who they are but as no one else needs to know I have changed some names.

If Edwin Muir was unhappy when he attended school on Wyre, as he says he was in his book An Autobiography, the fault was certainly not that of his teacher whom he recalls in affectionate terms. Tragically the teacher who ran the school from the end of the First World War to the middle of the Second is not affectionately remembered by anyone. From her home in Clackmannan, perhaps via a spell as a volunteer nurse in wartime Glasgow, though the Red Cross cannot confirm this from their records, Miss Janet Powell Longbotham arrived in Wyre in 1919. Straightaway she revealed a hostility to the community in which she was to live and work. Her early logbook entries denounce what she imagined to be a lack of Scripture knowledge among her new pupils and she was equally critical of their dialect and speech.

She may not have been untypical of teaching staff in her day but human life is lived at the point where sociology and psychology cross and in almost a quarter century from 1919, her dislike of the Wyre children and of their culture was to be an axe which she ground exceeding sharp. She railed insultingly against the pupils for their "poor" use of written and spoken language. She had frequent recourse to the tawse for any number of reasons and for no reason at all and she shared her religious mania with them at length.

One survivor, Elizabeth, remembers her "lecturing about the end of the world and the second coming of Christ" with a fervour which seems almost to suggest that Miss Longbotham had come to prepare the way. In the most extreme allegation, one woman has suggested that her sister, Susan, was driven to distraction and death. The suggestion, which can never be proven or fully discredited at such a remove of time, is that Miss Longbotham's extreme and extraordinary behaviour broke Susan's will to live and either caused or at least contributed to her tragically young death.

Be that as it may, we can be certain that Miss Longbotham, holy terror though she was herself, feared more than anything that she would receive a poor HMI report. "Payment by result" was a thing of the past by the time of her tenure on Wyre but she was no less obsessed with the prospect of an inspector calling. On one occasion, after an inspector had tentatively suggested that the children were well taught but a little solemn, she responded by, as one woman recalls, "(having pupils) write down funny stories (on pain of) a good hammering if (they) did not please her". In anticipation of a particular visit, she had "one of the kids set up outside on a pillar to see if the (HMI's) boat was coming". Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that the final act of the drama was played out on the eve of another visit.

The night before the inspector called, in circumstances of personal despair and mental confusion which can now only be guessed at, Miss Longbotham took her own life, poisoning herself with industrial strength cleaning fluid. Disciplined to the extreme, the Wyre children sat still at their desks waiting for her to arrive and when she didn't, they continued to wait. The HMI took the initiative on reaching the school and sent a boy to the teacher's house but she was long since dead. (Either officious to a fault or laconic in the extreme, he completed the inspection and filed a report, including a note to the effect that Miss Longbotham had been "found dead" on the day of the inspection. ) Elsewhere in Scotland's ragged fringe of western and northern islands, there were similar cases. Parents at Gott in Shetland in the 1920s were concerned that the teacher in their small school was "shewing so much spite towards the children (that) the health of the younger especially (might) be impaired", or so they said in their petition to the Scottish Office. On Fair Isle in 1932, in a scene which the late Compton MacKenzie might have written - if he had thought he could have got away with it - a husband and wife pair of minister and teacher were so unpopular that when they returned from a holiday no islander would crew the boat needed to ferry them from their steamer to the shore. They were forced to return to the mainland until a settlement could be negotiated.

For whatever it's worth, my guess is that Miss Longbotham came to Wyre already psychologically damaged (damage which may have been exacerbated by wartime experiences) and in the depths of her physical and cultural isolation there old scars reopened as haemorrhages of pain and distress. In the first half of this century teaching jobs in insular schools were notoriously difficult to fill and they did attract those who might not have found work elsewhere. No island posting could ever be as terrifyingly solitary now. If there is one lesson that emerges from the case of Miss Longbotham it seems to me to be that we certainly should not be surprised by the "failure" of rural communities and their schools to conform to urban expectations of perfect simplicity and idyllic happiness.

If there are to be further outbreaks of disorder and indiscipline in rural schools, these must be deplored and dealt with in their own terms but not mourned as exceptional losses and betrayals for us all. Be the problem that teachers or pupils are out of control, the moral is the same: the good school and the ideal community are made, not given. The first snake had its home in a garden and other spitefully venomed and viciously fanged serpents still live in rural fields - as in the urban jungle.

Dr David Limond is a freelance writer.

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