In 1857 the women of Inver, a fishing village in Easter Ross, tried to cram themselves into a school which was not even big enough to hold the pupils. The minister and the school inspector had already arrived. There was to be a public examination and everyone wanted to see the children perform. Many of the men were away, presumably working on the boats, however ‘all the inhabitants of the village who were at home, chiefly females’ got as close as they could, crowding ‘both ends of the house and the passage’ and jostling for position at the door and windows. Unlike school inspections today, this was a festive community event.
The Inver inhabitants were, quite literally, ‘bought into’ to the school. One of the great strengths of the Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools was that the community had to be committed. This resulted in high attendance and a fair degree of success. A locality interested in having a Gaelic school had to provide a school building and a house for the master while salary costs were borne by the Society, which was funded by charitable donations. In many places the men built a house, but in Inver they had purchased and fitted up two pre-existing buildings, costing them more than £15. Perhaps funds did not allow it or they had underestimated its popularity, but the school was too small for the pupils, let alone the crowds on examination day.
There were 66 pupils to get through so the event became a masterclass in organisation. The examiner and the local minister, Mr Urquhart, decided that each class would be examined separately and then dismissed to make space for the others. The examination concentrated on the children’s ability to read Gaelic and to understand the Bible. Because they were learning to read their own language and because teaching was emphasised basic literacy, progress could be remarkably quick. Indeed all the Inver students had developed well since the school was established. They all, of course, read ‘according to the provincial dialect of the place’: the Gaelic of Easter Ross. Some could even read ‘with taste and understanding’. The schools were primarily intended to promote Christianity. This, and the comparative dearth of non-religious Gaelic books meant the curriculum was focused on the Bible. The inspector was gratified at the level of scripture knowledge displayed by the young folk of Inver. As a good Evangelical, he hoped for an impact of the teaching on their lives as well as their minds. The gathering of mothers was probably most concerned to see their children’s progressing and hoping they would perform well in front of their neighbours and friends.
A natural desire to encourage their children was only one reason to attend the examination: local identity, sociability and spiritual and intellectual stimulation were also motivations. Working and fundraising for the buildings created local pride in the school. The examination was an opportunity for the community to celebrate their school, see the effect of the teacher, and support him and the children. The event was lent weight by the presence of the minister and the inspector from Edinburgh. It was also a social occasion. The women set aside the ordinary work of the day to enjoy the excitement with their neighbours. The examination was an opportunity to stretch the mind. Hector Allan, who became minister in the nearby parish of Kincardine, remarked that
the mental pleasures of the poor are few, and an examination of a School is to them, all that the meeting of a Bible or Missionary Society is to the middle and higher classes of life. They are interested because their children are benefited; they are elevated because they are themselves not merely spectators but the judges.
Highlanders had a strong oral culture of poetry, history and music. Evangelicalism had been popular in Ross-shire from the seventeenth century onwards, and the faith was very much ‘carried’ orally. Despite the efforts of educational organisations people, especially older generations, relied on the spoken culture of sermons, prayer meetings, sacramental occasions and family worship for their ‘spiritual food’. For devout but illiterate members of the community, the school examination supplemented this diet.
School examinations brought the community together. The event became a holiday, with all the excitement of performance, of high-status visitors, of using the school they had worked so hard for, and with the fun of bumping into friends. Evangelicalism has been castigated for suppressing older forms of sociability. However, nineteenth-century Highlanders, many of whom described themselves as Evangelical, developed new forms of sociability which somewhat replaced the ‘secular’ entertainments of music and drinking. With the respectable aims of educational improvement and religious edification, school examinations like at Inver were one of the new type of social events which combined fun, socialising, spirituality and intellectual stimulation.