Saturday, February 20, 2016

Dominies at Auchincraig

Article II Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 16 September 1880 – Part B

Dominies at Auchincraig

Although the stone dyke was not there when the Auchincraig school was in use, the dyke line up to the far hill, and over, was where the school was and where the Badbea boys had to walk to get to get to school.

John Sutherland

“The teacher from whom I got my first lesson, was a Badbea lad of the name of John Sutherland, better known as “Baalam.” What qualifications he possessed to entitle him to be chosen as a teacher I know not; but I know that his fitness for that office was very questionable indeed."

"He was as devoid of any feelings as he was of other qualifications. In place of the time-honoured “tawse” he used a knotted piece of rope about three quarters of an inch thick. He would cause an offender to be taken up on the back of a fellow-scholar, when the kilt would be turned up, and the lower part of the body laid bare, and then the knotted rope was applied without mercy. Should the person ordered to take the delinquent on his back refuse the degrading and degraded work, he was taken and punished in the same fashion himself.”

George Cruikshank,1839

Cash, Board & Lodgings

“The teacher was paid so much in hard cash, with board and lodgings. He was boarded and lodged in each house alternately, so many nights or weeks as the case might be according to the number of children at school from each family – a week for each child. There would be about seventy or eighty children of school age in the district.”

John Grant

“Sutherland was not very long in office, and after him came John Grant from Rinsary, Berriedale, who possessed some measure of qualification for his office.  He was but young and inexperienced, and was considered to have a “sclate loose” on the upper story, and was known by the sobriquet of “Trollie” meaning silly; but he had a fair smattering of education, and was not so cruel and unmerciful as his predecessor. He also had some ambition, and prosecuted his education, and came out for the ministry.”

Sutherland from Dunbeath

"He was succeeded by a lad from Balnabruich, Dunbeath, of the name of Sutherland, also possessed of a moderate amount of education, at any rate quite sufficient for the district under his charge. He also prosecuted his studies and is now in the ministry.”

Donald Bain or Mackenzie

“The last of the list of dominies in Auchincraig was Donald Bain or Mackenzie, from Hanstary, who was more respected, both by children and parents, than any of his predecessors. He was of a gentle, mild and kindly disposition.”

My Comments:


Dominie – is a term for a Scottish school master. The appointment of the local school master or dominie was usually the responsibility of the parish. He had to subscribe to the Confession of Faith. As a rule, the dominie had tenure for life; dismissals were uncommon, but could be on grounds of religion, politics or morals or an over enthusiastic punishment of pupils with his tawse. As the Auchincraig school was established by the local community rather than the Latheron parish the appointment of the teacher may have been different – and thankfully it seems like the first teacher John Sutherland was moved on.

As at Auchincraig the role of teacher was often a stepping stone to higher things. The minister’s status and salary were a particular attraction and dominies often undertook further theological studies.


A tawse was a whip used for corporal punishment in schools in Scotland. It was a strip of leather with one end split into a number of tails. Apparently it was supposed to be used on the palm of the hand (as illustrated) but clearly in the case of John Sutherland a cruel and inhumane method of whipping was applied with a knotted rope. The kilts worn by the boys made it very easy for Sutherland to give them a bare bottom beating.

A word about the rope Tawse – Rope was made from heather – and as the picture below of the man making rope shows, it was strong, course and rough.

This is Iain Campbell of South Uist making a rope from plaited heather stems. Rope made from heather was much stronger than straw rope. It was commonly used to tie down thatch on a roof, make ladders and, as it remained strong in water, to tie up boats.
Source: Am Baile Facebook

There is masses of heather at Badbea and even where the sheep have trampled, the stems are still tough.

The Prophet Balaam and the Angel - John Linnell 1859 


Balaam was an old testament prophet who at one point in his story starts punishing his donkey who is trying to avoid an invisible angel. After Balaam punishes the donkey for refusing to move, it is miraculously given the power to speak and it complains about Balaam's treatment. At this point, Balaam is allowed to see the angel, who informs him that the donkey is the only reason the angel did not kill Balaam. Balaam eventually dies by the sword.

The name Baalam given to John Sutherland, shows a delightful resistance to oppression from the dominie by the boys, and perhaps the hope that God will eventually intervene – which it seems like happened! 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Extraneous - Rambling Recollections of my Schools and School Days – Part A

Article II written by Alexander Gunn was printed in the Northern Ensign on 16 September 1880 – Part A

Boys from the Poolewe area early 20th Century
Source: Facebook Am Baile

Intelligent Urchins

"I don’t know that I could give your readers a better description of the school where I was taught my first lesson than by quoting a part of a speech delivered by the Duke of Argyll in the House of Lords during a discussion of the Education Act. He said “I shall never forget about twenty years ago, going to a school in one of the Western Islands of Scotland. It would not have suited any of the rules laid down by my Lord the President of the Council. It was what was called a dry stone bigging, with a thatched roof and mud floor."

Dry stone wall 
"On going into the school, I found in it a number of children poorly clad, reading lessons with extraordinary intelligence of expression. One of the first subjects given to the children to read before me was a description of how metallic ores were treated before the smelting process. The noble Lord opposite will say, how extremely absurd to teach metallurgy to poor children in a school of that kind. Well my Lord there was a little boy, not more than ten years old, who read an extract how lead ore was treated. The description said it was pounded and subjected to a current of running water, in order to free it from extraneous matter. My Lord, I thought it was impossible a poor child, who was poorly clothed, could have understood the meaning of such a word as extraneous."

Mere cram?

"I thought it was mere “cram,” and that he would be unable to answer any other questions about this elaborate metallurgical process. 
‘Now boy, what is the meaning of extraneous? He looked at me with great surprise, and at once answered the question by saying, ‘Not belonging to itself.”
Now, my Lord, I put that question – What is the meaning of the word extraneous?  - to many highly cultivated persons, and nine out of ten, however highly cultivated they may be, will fail to give me as clear and complete and answer as this little child.”

Primitive Buildings

"It is quite true that in no other part of the kingdom has education attained such a high standard, in proportion to the circumstances in which they are placed, as in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland; for as I have shown, the buildings were of a most primitive kind. The school house at Auchencraig was no exception to the general rule in country districts." 

Bee Boy. A swarm of bees is reflected
in a glass, not up his clothing fortunately

"Bees Bike"

"The snow, as I have said had free access to the interior in winter, and in summer, the bees found the moss packed walls a very inviting place to rear their young, and many a “bees’ bike” was in these walls. When the young brood began to move about, the interior of the school was like one monster bee-hive, and many a sore sting was inflicted upon the legs and thighs, by the young bees creeping in below the kilts of the boys when seated on the forms or standing at their lessons. The forms were plain, with no backs to them, and the writing desks were also of the simplest make."

Bees in a field

My Comments:

  • I really like the photo of the boys at the top of this article. I think their home-made hand spun woollen clothing, the kilts, and their bare feet is likely to be typical of the boys in Alexander Gunn's school. It is not hard to see how bees would settle up those kilts. 

  • I think Alexander Gunn was really proud of the achievements of the pupils of Auchencraig school - including his own fine memory of details - which is what he is trying to tell us in his discussion of the Duke of Argyll.

  • There is so much heather and other wild flowering plant life near Badbea it is no wonder the bees were everywhere.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

School House - Rambling Recollections of My Schools and School Days – Article I – Part B

Article I written by Alexander Gunn aka A Native of Badbea was printed in the Northern Ensign on 9 Sep 1880 - Part B

Education - no easy matter

Education in my young days was a very different thing from what it is now. Those living in thinly populated districts found it no easy matter to provide the means of education for their children, and Badbea was no exception to this rule. There were only twelve families in Badbea and they could scarcely be expected to have all the machinery within themselves to educate their children. There were thirteen families in Auchincraig, closely adjoining Badbea; and what neither could do, if left to their own resources, the two combined were able to accomplish. 

The School-house

The school-house was situated to the east, or Badbea side of Auchencraig. It was a dry stone-built house and thatched roof, with an earthen or mud floor, and light was supplied by means of two skylights of ordinary dimensions placed in the roof, a short distance above the eaves, while air was admitted by the door. There were no windows in the side walls of any kind, either for light or air. The dimensions of this bigging, so far as my memory can serve me, would be probably twenty feet by twelve. The fire was in the centre, and the smoke made its exit through a large round hole in the roof, right above the hearth. 

Peat fire

Fuel was supplied by each scholar carrying a peat to school every day under his "oxter." There was a sentry placed on the "peat-neuk" to see that each scholar laid or flung - was was oftenest the case - a peat, a full-sized peat, into the "neuk" and should anyone be found guilty of an attempt to defraud the "neuk" by trying to slip in without his peat, or slipping a half in, instead of a whole, he was forthwith marched up to head-quarters, where his delinquency was rewarded by several "pandies." 

One delinquent of this kind felt the indignity done to him so keenly, and showed such a rebellious disposition, that he declared that he would never bring a peat to school again, and, when reading his first lesson, he gave expression to his feelings in this style: 
 "m-y, my, tha thor me luem fadh; "d-o, do, tha thor me lueme fadh: "m-e, me, tha thor me lueme fadh," and so on.
It required a good big fire to keep the school in proper heat during the winter season, for, as I have already stated, the walls were dry built - not a trowelful of mortar of any kind entered into their composition. The force of the wind was broken by the crevices and joints in the walls being stuffed with dried moss or fog gathered from the roots of the heather on the hillsides. It was forced into the crevices by a bit of wood shaped something like a marling-spike; but in winter the snow-drift found its way into the interior of the house, where it formed into miniature wreaths, and it was no uncommon spectacle to see an urchin standing in this wreath, with his bare feet, during the lesson. 

Bare footed in the snow

Of course he came to school through the snow barefooted, but that did not put him in the least about. Children were very hardy in those days.

A Native of Badbea
(To be continued.) 

My Comments:

  • Highland familes placed great emphasis on their children getting educated and worked hard to see that happen.

  • The peat-fire picture shows how red-hot the peat could get and yet these fires were still commonly sited on the floor in the middle of a room.

  • Alexander Gunn tells in a later blog that this school was for boys only. Girls attended the next school after this one was dismantled.

  • I do not think the picture of the boys going to school, by McIan, is likely to accurately depict the boys in the Achnacraig school. Alexander Gunn uses the word 'urchin' which is better, but at least McIan shows the boys carrying their peats, and the leader barefooted in the snow. The next blog confirms the boys wore kilts to school but they were more likely to be plain handwoven garments than tartan. 

  • As with many place names in the Highlands, Auchincraig and Achnacraig are two spellings of the same place. 

  • Some of this content I have used in a previous blog but to keep this series complete I have repeated it here.