In the early 1820s Embo was re-developed as a commerical fishing village. As the Sutherland Estate commercialised their vast tracts of land, they moved people around, sometimes forcibly, and introduced new industries. The Estate re-organised the village of Embo to promote commercial fishing, building it on a modern grid pattern of streets imitating Edinburgh’s New Town and the redevelopment of Paris. In about 1819 a young fisherman sat in a house in the new village, ignoring his boisterous children, to puzzle over the letters in a Gaelic psalm book. He was a devout Christian but, living several miles from the parish church in Dornoch and with a young family, he wasn’t always able to get to Sunday services or the Sabbath school. He wanted to be able to read so that he could read the Scriptures himself during the week and so he could include Bible reading in the daily worship time which was the custom of many families at the time.
A few years before the young man decided to teach himself to read, a group of philanthropists in Edinburgh saw a need for a missionary society in the Highlands. The felt the best way to reach people was by teaching them to read the Bible for themselves. Despite the aims of the Reformers, very few ordinary rural people had access to a school at this time. Most schools which did exist were taught in English which was useless for Gaelic speakers. The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools provided temporary schools which taught pupils to read the Gaelic Bible. When we think of a school today we think of a classroom, of book learning, a room full of children, and a teacher who stays in the classroom. When Mr Sutherland was sent to teach in Embo the young fisherman must have been delighted to meet him as not only did he do all of these things, but he did much more.
Children in a nineteenth-century Scottish fishing village.
Image from: www.tayroots.com
In 1821 Mr Sutherland reported that he had twenty boys and twenty one girls on his school roll. He added that the keenest student was not a child but a certain thirty year old fisherman who had taught himself to read using his psalm book and now attended the school with his three children. The psalms were a good place to start learning to read as most people knew many by heart, having sung them all their lives. Once the young man had figured out the letters and sounds, he would have quickly found sentences that he recognised. When the school came, he enrolled to improve his skills. It was possibly also his enthusiasm which caused the number of pupils “to increase, till the fishing and the harvest called the efficient hands away.” The teacher anticipated “a very crowded School for the Winter-Session”. Going to school was not obligatory, so people attended when they could. If people were busy with work, or needed the children to work, then they stayed away. But in the winter, when it was too stormy to take to the sea, when it was the wrong season for working on the land, and when the evenings were dark and long, the school was popular.
It was not only during school hours that Mr Sutherland was busy. To avoid treading on the toes of local ministers the SSGS, despite being a missionary school, ordered its teachers not to preach. However in many parishes, especially where the minister was an evangelical, the rule was ignored. In Dornoch parish Angus Kennedy was the minister and he was grateful for any assistance. Kennedy was unable to meet all the needs of the villagers and happily passed on some responsibilities to Mr Sutherland. Sundays may have been busier than weekdays for the teacher! He “tests children [on their catechism], teaches a Sabbath School for adults and preaches every 3rd Sunday in a nearby fishing village”. If anyone has any idea where this other fishing village near to Embo was, then do let me know! Kennedy was delighted with the effect as the children were attending Sunday services more frequently and more parents wanted their children baptised. Embo residents may be relieved to hear that the school also apparently inspired “a general attention to cleanliness and decency in their clothing.”
The school had already fulfilled the dreams of the nameless young fisherman, but Angus Kennedy was still looking to the future when he wrote to the SSGS full of optimism about what might yet happen. “Upon the whole I have every reason to hope that these Schools, situated as they are in populous Districts, and disposed, as the people appear to be, to attend them, shall prove, by the Divine Blessing, a means of training the rising generation in the knowledge and fear of the true God”.