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)