“Want of shoes and clothing” – Truancy in East Sutherland

Alison McCall has delved further into the late nineteenth-century history of the region, drawing on archival sources and family knowledge.

Six times between 1885 and 1890 William MacLeod, a cooper and crofter who lived at Marrel, Helmsdale, was summonsed to appear before the School Board in regard to the truancy of some of his children. In 1888 he explained to the Board that his children could not attend school as he was unable to provide them with shoes and clothing.

William and his wife, Mary Bruce, had ten children born between 1872 and 1889. One, Johan, died in infancy and one, Hector, was handicapped from birth and remained incontinent into adulthood. The eldest, Williamina, had left school to work as a domestic servant before the summons started, but the next three, James, Betsy and Jane were frequently absent. In addition to the difficulty in clothing his children, William kept Jane off school to assist her mother. Elsewhere in Scotland, School Boards made vigorous efforts to address to problem of lack of clothing and footwear. Aberdeen organised collections of second hand children’s clothes, which could be made available to poor families. This was less feasible in rural East Sutherland, which had a smaller pool of middle class donors. Dundee provided clothing grants. “Parish boots” (children’s boots, marked at the heel to identify them as such, and which pawnbrokers were forbidden to accept) were widely available in other parts of Scotland. But in East Sutherland William MacLeod was not alone in struggling to clothe his children for school.

marrel

Marrel, where the MacLeods lived. Photo belongs to Alison McCall.

The Education (Scotland) Act 1872 made it compulsory for all children between the ages of five and twelve to attend school. However, education can only truly be compulsory if the authorities have the means to enforce it. Each School Board was obliged to appoint a Default Officer to report on truant children, and both Clyne and Kildonan School Boards did so. However, endemic poverty hampered the ability to enforce attendance. Of the first eight parents summonsed to appear before Clyne School Board, in 1874, three cited lack of clothing. The next year various parents were unable to clothe their children sufficiently for school in winter. In June 1886, such was the level of absences, that the Kildonan School Board decided to summon only those parents whose children had been absent over twenty times (i.e 10 days, as mornings and afternoons were marked as one attendance each) in the month of May. In 1888 children’s attendance was still frequently irregular, but there were no really serious cases. Children were absent due to sickness, stormy weather and want of shoes. It is telling that absence due to lack of shoes was not seen as serious. In 1891 James Sutherland’s daughter had to gather wilks (whelks) to feed the family instead of going to school. As late as 1899, labourer’s son Donald Matheson, had no shoes.

The ambivalence about summonsing the parents of non-attending children meant other means of persuasion were tried. In 1885 in an attempt to “save the Board the disagreeable necessity of summoning them” two ministers, the Rev Mr MacRae and the Rev Mr Fraser stated that they would urge upon the parents from the pulpit to send their children to school.

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James MacLeod. As a child he was unable to attend school because of lack of shoes and clothing. Here he is with his wife, Catherine MacDonald, in Helmsdale probably in the 1940s. Photo belongs to Alison McCall.

In East Sutherland, School Boards were sympathetic but unable to effectively counter the problems. Many members had experienced poverty themselves and understood the problems faced by struggling parents. Indeed William MacLeod, whose children lacked clothes in the 1880s, was cited to appear before a School Board of which his brother-in-law was a member. Unfortunately for the school children of East Sutherland, it would appear that the Act which was supposed to guarantee compulsory education did not effectively extend to the poorest families.

Post script: James MacLeod, who missed school through want of clothing became a railway engine driver. He made every effort to ensure his own children were educated, making sacrifices to enable his daughter Mary Bruce MacLeod to train as a teacher at Moray House. She in turn encouraged her granddaughter, the present writer.

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