The men that bred Homo Scotus

26th December 1997 at 00:00
THE DOMINIE. By William F HendrieJohn Donald Pounds 9.95

Get wisdom, get understanding; forget it not" . . . or else. Beneath this injunction, inscribed on the proscenium arch in the hall, the Boss laid out his dispensations to an attentive flock. Meanwhile, Ian of class 6, was - as an alternative to French - exploring the possibilities of the underground passageways beneath the school. Only we in class 6 new of the loose floorboards in the boys' changing room. Well, only us - and the jannie and the Boss. After assembly, complaints about attendance from the French department were followed by the Boss nailing the boards down. Ian remained in his cell for some time.

Even as late as 1950, the dominie assumed - and was allowed to assume - considerable authority. And Ian probably thought it unwise to tell his parents of the mischance that had befallen him.

Bill Hendrie, in his monograph, has applied himself thoroughly and entertainingly, as a former heidie would, to presenting us with a profile of the Boss's forebears. He has painted an absorbing historical and anecdotal account of the life of the Scottish dominie, in its professional and social context, as it has developed over the past 400 years.

The dominie's school life was not always a happy one, nor was that of his weans. In the early years, the school day ran from dawn to dusk. The building was often cold and miserable and, as well being as less than weatherproof, lacked basic resources. It not infrequently served as the dominie's home unless, as an alternative, the parents had agreed to take turns of having him as a lodger.

Situations, of course, varied greatly from town to town. In some cases, rich benefactors made life easier. But even then the dominie could find himself "delegated" to performing other tasks: teaching church music, acting as precentor, calling marriage banns, acting as clerk to the kirk session, administering the poor fund, and so on. But, as one of the author's sources says, "The poor schoolmaster was sure to be a candidate for any office which became vacant in the burgh . . . any gentile employment which contributed a little to his maintenance; indeed, but for the emoluments derived from some of these offices . . . his income was so mean . . . it was hardly adequate to supply the necessaries of life." Today's conditions of service ("65oF or we're out") do not bear comparison. But there has always been a suspicion that the dominie needs watching, although things have changed since 1830 when, in the new academy in Bathgate, the heidie felt he should take on the responsibility for a comparatively small class of seniors, leaving the youngest assistant master to rise to the challenge of 140 first-formers.

And then there was the strap, tawse, cane, ferula or clachan, depending upon which school . . . but stay. Let me not spoil it for you by giving away the gory bits.

As a superannuated heidie, I found it easy to relate to the life and times of my professional forebears. The pedigree (I think that's the word) was easy to follow. Throughout the good times - and there were good times as well as bad - the dominie cared about his charges. Albeit he had some funny ways of showing it. Perhaps the one element that most struck me in the tale the author has to tell was that the archetypal dominie was a man apart. In many ways, he was required, indeed expected, to respond to varying circumstances in an independent and forthright fashion, defining the school, its curriculum and its ethos in a way which reflected his own beliefs and perceptions.

Usually sensible enough to respond positively to criticism, he was less than happy automatically to defer to the wishes of kirk sessions or magistrates if these wishes did not coincide with his own views. He was not easily bested. How does this compare with the role of the present heidie? Can he claim still to be "a man apart"; or is he now a hauden-doon apparatchik?

Bill Hendrie is to be commended for doing his homework and giving us a clear and informative account of a figure who has played a prominent part in the development of Homo Scotus. He has even, in his last chapter, left his readers with some "Homework" of their own. He hasn't said when it's to be handed in. But I can tell you from past experience that was never a good excuse . . .

Charles Smith recently retired from the headship of Airdrie Academy.

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