Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Whole Contents of the Paper. Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days.

Article XVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 17 Nov 1881 – Part D
A Badbea lintel and fireside. This may have been the house of David Sutherland

“News travelled very slowly in those days, and was but very imperfect often when it did come to hand. There was not much startling news came our length, and I must say that a newspaper was not the most welcome visitor to us. If my father got hold of a paper, our good neighbour, David Sutherland, got word of it, and whatever business might be on hand, and however important or pressing, it got leave to stand, and David came to our fireside, when the whole contents of the paper were gone into, and every word read, and read aloud, with the greatest interest. If David got a paper he acted in like manner. We could not imagine how the old folks felt such an interest in reading the papers. As for us, it was the greatest punishment that could be inflicted upon us, as we dare not move from our seats, or speak a word louder than a whisper. Should we forget ourselves, and speak a loud word, we did not miss our punishment. We could sit a live long winter night and listen to stories about fairies and ghosts till our hair would stand on end like a porcupine’s quills with fair fright, and not a single word out of our head, but we had no taste for politics, or general news, and we could not conceive how anybody else could have cravings that way.”
John O Groat Journal 1845

“A brutal murder was committed at Wick about this time. How the intelligence reached our length I cannot say. Such horrible affairs were not so common in those days as, alas, they are now. Years might pass without a single case occurring in Scotland, or England. There were, however, a few cases of murder in dear Ould Ireland even in those quiet time, even before the shooting of landlords had found a place among the sports in the Irish calendar, and a man in our neighbourhood declared his partiality for Irish newspapers, because, he said, there were murders and outrages reported in them pretty often.”

(To be continued.)

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Newspapers and Postage. Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days

Article XVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 17 Nov 1881 – Part C


"I referred to the library in connection with the school, as the only literature we had within our reach. Newspapers in those days were a rarity in the far north. The John O’Groat Journal and the Northern Star, if I remember right came into existence about the time I allude to, the one published in Wick where it still flourishes, the other, I think, in Thurso. They were both diminutive sheets, perhaps about 12 inches by 10, so far as I can recollect. Then the Northern Ensign came into life, and I need not say still flourishes prosperously. The price of these papers at the time was 3d, I think, and I believe the postage for one of them would cost as much as the price of the paper."


"There was no penny post at that time, and the rate of the postage was very high. A letter from Helmsdale to Berriedale, or Badbea, which was only one stage, cost 4 1/2d. A letter from Edinburgh was 1s 1d, and letters to Canada cost 2s 6d. There was this advantage, if advantage it could be called, there was no rule as to prepayment, and no difference in the rate whether prepaid or not."

My Comments:

As Alexander Gunn tells us, in the1830s postal rates in Great Britain were very high. At the time it was usual for the recipient to pay postage on delivery, charged by the sheet and distance travelled. In 1837 Sir Rowland Hill proposed an overhaul of the postage system using a glued stamp to show pre-payment of postage. It was first issued on 1 May 1840 and featured a picture of Queen Victoria. The ‘Penny Black’ allowed letters of up to ½ ounce to be delivered at the rate of one penny regardless of distance.

The Grey Hen’s Well was the place Badbea letters were collected and posted from. I doubt most of the Badbea residents could afford to post letters but John Badbea Sutherland received some financial gifts from Christians he corresponded with and over several decades he both wrote and received many letters. The earliest I have a transcription of is 12 July 1838.

See my blogs on August 18 2014 and July 15 2015 for more on the postal services and John’s letters.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Boy’s Quarrels - Rambling Recollections of My School and School Days

Article XVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 17 November 1881 – Part B

The route along the coast from Badbea to Berriedale. The school was just below the Berriedale cemetery

Frequent Rows

"There were frequent little “rows” between us boys on our way to school. The long road we had to travel (four miles), tended a little in that direction, and these squabbles sometimes ended up in a stand-up fight. One of our Badbea boys was constantly on my top, and many a sound thrashing he gave me; but while I well knew that it would end in my defeat, I never shrank from facing him, nor showed the white feather." 

A white feather on stinging nettle. A white feather was a traditional symbol of cowardice. 


"This state of matters went on for years, but one day as we were returning from school, he again picked a quarrel with me. We were just at the top of the Berriedale brae, and we turned down off the road to a bit of short smooth heather, and went at it full tilt, when, to my great delight and his evident surprise, I came off victor. This settled matters for some time, but, as of determined not to be beat, he picked a quarrel with me once more. This time I came off victor with greater ease than the first time. After this we were the best of friends, and quarrelled and fought no more."

Boys Quarrels

"While we fought amongst ourselves pretty frequently, as boys will do, we always made up matters among ourselves, and neither parents nor master knew anything about our differences. So much was this the case, that we were referred to by the master as the best behaved boys under his charge, and less complained of by the public on our way to and from school than the others. We took a pride in this and sought in every way we could to keep up our good name. Our quarrels were but boys’ quarrels, and when they were ended, we were as if they had never occurred."

Gunn tells us elsewhere that the boys wore kilts to school in Auchencraig but they may have worn homespun clothes to Berriedale school like these boys from St Kilda.

My Comments:

According to Wikipedia a white feather has been a traditional symbol of cowardice, used and recognised especially in the British Army since the 18th century. It was used by some patriotic groups in order to shame men who were not soldiers. The white feather supposedly comes from cockfighting and the belief that a cockerel sporting a white feather in its tail is likely to be a poor fighter. 

I am not going to try to figure out what was going on in these fights. Looks like a case of bullying which would be hard to condone. But Alexander Gunn was charitable enough many years later to almost shrug off the beatings he received at the hand of a bigger boy especially as Gunn was the victor in the end. Gunn suggests it was boys being boys. 

It certainly doesn’t seem as though the classroom and home teachings of the Bible and the Shorter Catechism with their emphasis on “whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God” did much to curtail the fights the boys had. Anyway the very real business of being soldiers and fighting for the crown was part of the fabric of their lives. Alexander’s grandfather was press-ganged and forced to enlist and his father was in the Aberdeenshire Militia at the time of his marriage to Marion. Alexander Gunn went on to become a policeman enforcing law and order. 

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Maggie Dow - Part A - Rambling Recollections of My School and School Days

Article XVII written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 17 November 1881 – Part A

Berriedale School

The school at Berriedale was a mixed school. Gentle and simple meet on a common footing. It was the only school between the Ord and Latheron. The young ladies from Achastle, the daughters of Mr Grieve, the overseer and factor for the estate, stood side by side with the daughters of Peter MacGungle, an Irishman who lived down at the shore, and the only Irishman, I suppose, in the county at the time. There was no respect of persons. All shared the same treatment at the hands of the teacher, and at the hands of our fellow-scholars. We all engaged in the same games, where each strove to outdo his neighbour.

The teachers and pupils of Scoraig School, 1897 Am Baile Facebook

We had a yearly Presbyterial examination of the school, when all did their best so as to carry away a prize, which consisted principally of Bibles or Testaments, and I believe the prizes were given more to please the parents than according to merit. There were not prizes enough for one to be given to each scholar, but they were equally divided, and those omitted one year go them the next, and that seemed to please everybody. There was one exception to this rule, in the case of a girl named Maggie Dow, daughter of John Dow of the Inn. She generally carried away a prize every year. She was possessed of a wonderfully retentive memory, and could repeat the Psalms from beginning to end without a single slip or mistake, and also could repeat any verse of any particular Psalm you wished. As might be expected she excelled in mental arithmetic.

Source: Land of Heather

My Comments:

While the three Rs were the core part of the curriculum, one of the main goals of Scottish schools at the time was on pupils being able to read the Bible and the Shorter Catechism. Prior to the Disruption in 1843 most schools were paid for by the Church of Scotland and were open to boys and girls regardless of social status. As we have seen in previous blogs, children educated in a Scottish school could get to University although I think the higher education opportunities applied more to young men than young women.

I can’t find a birth record for Maggie Dow but there are records for seven children of Mr John Dow the Innkeeper at Berriedale and his wife Margaret Munro, including one Maryanne born in 1822 (so a contemporary of Alexander Gunn). This may be the clever girl he refers to as Maggie. 

Roydhouse makes the following comments from his research of other letters of Alexander Gunn.

Of the school at Berriedale, surviving letters of early contemporary scholars describe both the building and the dominies of the period 1830 and forward to about 1850.

The building which was designated the 'School' (at Berriedale), must, I am inclined to think, have been intended for a crofter's dwelling. The school room was a small room with a couple of small windows facing to the south, and the one doorway at the eastern end. Adjoining the schoolroom were two rooms and a 'closet', the abode of the dominie. 

Small window at the Laidhay croft museum

The school furniture was of the most primitive description. There were three, or perhaps four, homemade, clumsy desks, each about eight feet long and three feet high, the desk top being steeply sloped. There were no fixings to the earth floor and be-times desks would fall over or get moved just as you were attempting to make a beautiful hair stroke (as we called them) in our copybook.'

'There was a single fireplace in the extreme end of the room, and in cold weather two or three pupils were permitted to warm themselves at the peat fire.

There was an old door key hanging on a nail at the window nearest the doorway. Where it came from I cannot tell. Anyone who asked to leave the room had to take the key with them and place it back on the nail when they returned. The idea of the 'key' business was instituted by one of the teachers who discovered that it was becoming a practice among pupils to ask out one after the other and thus enjoy themselves for a little time together and thereby slip uncongenial tasks. When the key was not on the nail by the window anyone asking liberty to leave the school had to wait until it was replaced.'

The schoolroom was perhaps a matter of twenty by twelve feet and was crowded by fifty or so scholars, and about 1845 the schoolroom was extended which gave more comfort - additional windows were provided and another fireplace added in the extension. The management of the school was lately in the hands of the parents of the scholars and the teacher.

The little school on the barren hillside at Berriedale saw the roll of fifty or so scholars augmented in the winter by some of the older lads - they attended school to be 'finished off' as it were; during the summer they were engaged in all kinds of work to augment the 'smaller livings' at home. Although advanced in years compared with the regular pupils, they were in no sense advanced in education and had to take their places in the classes often with mere bairns.'

This extract from the 1861 census shows Alexander McLeod (my great-grandfather) still a scholar at age 18

Nearly all our writing at school was done on slates and the scratch and scrape of the slate 'pencils' is a lasting memory of those days. 

Old slate

Our teachers as a whole gave us of their best and the marvel to me now is that considering all the disadvantages from which was suffered we made so great progress in our studies. After all there is something to be said for the old parochial system of education - which was a kind of hybrid between both the 'Education Board' and the parochial style it was devoid of the 'cram' of today; what one was taught was learned and remembered. I hardly think it probable that there was another school in the whole of the North that did not come under School Board management, but ours continued to be governed and worked on the primitive lines I have indicated for fifteen or more years after the passing of the Education Act of 1872. Yet, after all, some of the lads of those days are now occupying responsible positions in various spheres throughout the world.'

Source: Alan Roydhouse 1975 (unpublished) 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

School Library – Part B - Rambling Recollection of my Schools and School Days

Article XVI written by Alexander Gunn was published in the Northern Ensign on 29 September 1881 – Part B

“The little library also contained the voyage of Captain Cook round the world, his discovery of New Zealand, and his death by the treacherous and cruel natives."

Captain Cook by John Webber, 1776, Museum of New Zealand, Wellington.

"The story of “Robinson Crusoe” was a great favourite with us, as was also “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” "The Wandering Jew,” and the interesting narrative of Mungo Park’s travels on the Niger."

Aladdin in the Magic Garden – Project Gutenberg

Sue, Wandering Jew
"One of the incidents of Park’s travels is so touching, that I …

way I turned nothing appeared but danger and difficulty. I saw myself in the midst of a vast wilderness in the depth of the rainy season, naked and alone, surrounded by savage animals and men still more savage. I was five hundred miles from the nearest European settlement. At this moment, painful as my reflections were, the extraordinary beauty of a small moss in fructification irresistibly caught my eye. I mention this to show what trifling circumstances the mind will sometimes derive consolation from, for though the plant was not larger than the tip of one of my fingers, I could not contemplate the delicate conformation of its roots, leaves and capsule without admiration. Can the Being, thought I, who planted, watered, and brought to perfection in this obscure part of the world a thing which appears of so small importance, look with unconcern upon the situation and suffering of creatures formed after his own image? Surely not. I started up, and disregarding both hunger and fatigue, travelled forward, assured that relief was at hand, and I was not disappointed.” He reached a hut where he got shelter, and where the woman of the house composed a song to the weary traveller, in which she said that the poor white man had not a mother to grind his corn. Park died a martyr for the good of his country, as other brave and self-denying men have done, including the brave and the good David Livingston. These bore the burden and the heat of the day, and others reap the benefits of their labours. The following lines express the substance of the foregoing:-
Sad, faint, and weary on the sand,
Our traveller sat him down; his hand
Covering his burning head.
Alone – beneath, behind, around,
No resting fir the eye he found –
All nature seemed as dead.
One tiny tuft of moss alone,
Mounting with freshest green a stone,
Fixed his delighted gaze;
Through trusting tears of joy he smiled,
And while he raised the tendril wild
His lips o’erflowed with praise.

(To be continued.)

A Native of Badbea

My Comments:

Between 1768 and 1799 Captain James Cook did three main voyages of exploration in the Pacific and died in Hawaii in 1779.

Robinson Crusoe is a novel by Daniel Defoe first published in 1719. Crusoe is a castaway who spends 27 years on a remote tropical desert island near Trinidad encountering cannibals, captives, and mutineers before being rescued.

Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp is a Middle Eastern folk tale. It was first published in Les Mille et Une Nuit, Contes Arabes (12 Volumes),1704-1717 by Frenchman Antoine Galland who heard it from a Syrian storyteller from Aleppo. The first edition of ‘Arabian Nights Entertainments’ in English, based on Galland, was published by Andrew Bell, London in 1706 – 17 in 12 volumes. The Story of Aladdin: Or,The Wonderful Lamp was published in Vol 9.
Aladin illustration pg 1 Robida version

The Wandering Jew. The Wandering Jew (French: le Juif Errant) is an 1844 novel by the French writer Eugene Sue. Gunn must have had access to the circulating library after he had left school as this book was published in 1844 when Gunn was in his 20s.

Mungo Park
Mungo Park (1771 – 1806) was a Scottish explorer of West Africa. He was the first Westerner known to have travelled to the central part of the Niger River. His account of his travels is still in print.

View of Kamalia in Mandingo country, Africa, from Mungo Park, Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa
According to Wikipedia: 

Park’s book Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa was a success because it detailed what he observed, what he survived, and the people he encountered. His honest descriptions set a standard for future travel writers to follow. This gave Europeans a glimpse of what Africa was really like. Park introduced them to a vast, unexplored continent. After his death public and political interest in Africa began to increase. He had proved that Africa could be explored.

The poem above was written about Mungo Park’s experience by a fellow Scotsman named Robert Murray M’Cheyne. It is titled “On Mungo Park Finding a Tuft of Green Moss in the African Desert”