One of the aims of the Reformation was that people should read the Bible for themselves. In Scotland the Reformers intended that every parish should have a school. This plan failed because of insufficient money, too few teachers, and because Highland parishes could be enormous so most children could not walk to school each day. Various charity schools tried to fill the gaps, but there were not enough of them and many taught only in English even though the children spoke Gaelic. In 1811 a group of Edinburgh philanthropists decided to create the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools.
The main aim of the SSGS was to spread Evangelical Christianity through teaching Gaelic speakers, especially children, to read the Bible in their native language. The Society provided education in townships which were far away from schools or churches. If a community was interested, they had to build a schoolhouse before the Society would send a teacher. The teachers were funded by donations and stayed for two or three years. The school taught reading alone. There was no writing, arithmetic or other subjects. This was because the ESSGS was primarily a missionary society. They wanted people to be able to read the Bible.
Seventeen years after the SGSS began, it established a school in Rogart parish, in the little township of Knockarthur. The first we know of it is when the ministers of Rogart and Golspie, John MacKenzie and Mr. McPherson, inspected the school on 15th March, 1828. There were 139 pupils on the roll! 94 of these were present for the inspection, 37 of whom were adults. The SSGS was happy to teach anyone who came along: adult or child. At the inspection, the students showed the ministers what they could do. Some read the New Testament, like the man who was “seventy five years of age, has been twice married, and had in school with him two of his family by his first wife, and four of his family by his second.” Other pupils could recite parts of the Bible. The schools were also very keen on teaching students to memorise. This is a teaching method which is out of fashion nowadays because often people can memorise material without understanding it. However, two centuries ago the culture of ordinary people was an oral culture, very much based on memory. One of the main forms of entertainment was gathering in each other’s houses in the evenings and spending the time making ropes, knitting, spinning or doing other odd jobs while telling long narrative stories and singing. John Mackenzie wrote “A great number repeated portions of Scripture committed to memory, with accuracy that was pleasing.” So by encouraging pupils to memorise Scripture, teachers like George Gordon in Rogart were evangelizing in a way which was meaningful to the people.
The Rogart folk were hardly unaware of Christianity. Their minister explained that “the people in this part of the country have long been familiar with the Scriptures, as translated to them, from the English version, by persons who could read. This, I need not observe, could not always have been very correctly done.” He went on to explain why, unlike some ministers who saw the schools as a threat to their authority, he was such a keen supporter. “By Gaelic Schools the Gaelic version will be brought into general use; and thus a more accurate knowledge of the Scriptures will be attained.”
By 1828 the school was popular, but at first it wasn’t. Initially there
was a prejudice against Gaelic schools which has now disappeared. The old begin to see that they may still be able to do what they but lately never expected – to read the word of God … I am glad to find that the School is regarded as an important benefit by the people of the district; I trust it may, by the blessing of God, prove such to them.
Indeed enthusiasm was spreading. John Mackenzie wrote to the Society explaining that just down the hill, in the neighbouring district of “Morness, there are several heads of families who cannot read, and who entreat me to express their desire to your benevolent and useful Society, to send them a Teacher.” He explained that most of the “scholars at Knockarthur are young children; and the greater part of them will be kept out of school, during Summer and Harvest, herding cattle.” While the Knockarthur children were working, in Morness “a number of grown-up persons, and some far advanced in life, would make an effort to attend, at least for some hours in the day, during those seasons.” By December 1828 there were 73 on the school roll at Morness. Attendance at the school declined in the autumn as the harvest was brought in. By winter, a good number of adults came along, but fewer than expected. However, the school was successful enough to still be in operation in 1830. Indeed Mackenzie reported that year that “there are several persons who come from the neighbouring parishes, and board themselves, in order to enjoy the privilege of attending the School.”
I have cycled around Knockarthur. There is no obvious location for the school, however there is a collection of ruins at the crossroads which I like to imagine might be its remains, although, of course, it could be anywhere! In St Callan’s churchyard, however, there is a grave of a family who lived in Knockarthur at the time the school was present. In all likelihood they attended the classes. The ESGSS is not a well-known organisation but it had a significant impact on the educational and spiritual lives of ordinary Highlanders in the midst of the social and economic upheavals of the clearances. Other nineteenth century missionary organisations might have done well to learn from the cultural sensitivity of the Gaelic Schools, and their efforts at providing socially appropriate methods to promote Christianity. Rogart was not the only place to have ESSGS schools in east Sutherland, but more of that at another time!