History of Childhood Exhibition I – Schooling in Dornoch

My name is Lynne Mahoney and I am the Curator at Historylinks Museum in Dornoch. The museum’s vision is ‘Keeping the Dornoch Story Alive’ and part of my job is to research and curate new exhibitions. Exhibitions at Historylinks are always a collaborative affair with input from the museum committee, volunteers and the local community. The ‘Childhood in Dornoch Parish’ exhibition was a real pleasure to work on, it fed into my love for the eighteenth century and for toys! Reading the memoirs of young people from Dornoch as far back as the 1700s was a privilege and I wondered if, when they were writing all those years ago, they ever imagined how their words might be used in the future.

Last year we made the difficult decision to close the children’s room at Historylinks due to Covid restrictions. The room was a space in which our younger visitors had previously been able to draw, dress up and play with toys and puzzles. A room that had once been a busy, fun filled place was now empty and an empty space in a museum is never a good thing! So, over the winter months we thought about how to us the room to give people visiting in 2021 a good experience.

If we couldn’t use the space for children in the present we decided to use it for children in the past and set about researching memoirs and diaries ranging from the eighteenth century to the Second World War. We already a small collection of objects such as school slates and books, a tricycle, marbles, dominoes and it wasn’t long before the local community got involved, bringing precious toys and games into the museum for our display. The Highland Museum of Childhood in Strathpeffer lent us various toys from the early 1800s to the 1970s, including a dolls pram bought in Gammages, a famous London department store which had been gifted by a Dornoch lady.

Photo: Lynne Mahoney

Looking at daily life in the eighteenth century we discovered that for most, childhood was a time of gathering responsibility according to ability. Play, work and practical education merged into one experience. The idea of childhood as a separate life stage only became a concept towards the end of that century and then only among the middle class and wealthy.

It was difficult for many children to attend school consistently, even if their parents wanted that. Children could not walk for miles across hills or cross rivers and parents often did not have the cash for fees. Formal education was therefore sporadic. Instead they learned skills taught by their parents: how to look after animals, how to build houses, how to look after children, how to prepare medicines from herbs, how to grow crops and how to preserve and prepare food.

Boys of higher status were much more likely to be formally educated. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries three schools flourished in Dornoch: a grammar, an elementary and an English school, most likely set up by The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK). This organisation was established by Royal Charter in 1707 to encourage Protestantism and English speaking in the Highlands. In a political sense the Society was about gaining a greater control of the Highlands. The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools was set up in 1811. As a missionary society they taught reading in Gaelic so people could read the Bible for themselves. These temporary schools -some of which appeared locally in places like Embo and Knockarthur – opened in the quiet time of the farming year, teaching adults as well as children.

John Matheson and Donald Sage were born in the late eighteenth century and their memoirs give a glimpse of childhood for boys who attended school in Dornoch.

John Matheson was born in 1772 and his family were tenant farmers. His father was in a position to be able to pay to give his sons an education. When John was strong enough, he walked to the Parochial School in Dornoch, a round trip of twelve miles!

As John grew older, the need for his help with livestock and farm work increased. His schooling was seasonally interrupted at times of planting and harvest, when all hands were needed. Sometimes bad weather made walking into Dornoch impossible. These factors made John feel that his education was lacking yet he became a tutor himself and later migrated to Glasgow where he became a cotton mill manager.

Donald Sage was born in Kildonan but he and his brother attended school in Dornoch. They came under strict discipline that was meted out by way of humiliation or physical violence. On one occasion Sage received thirty lashes and a schoolmate was beaten until he fainted.

Despite this, Donald recollects with joy the pastimes that he shared with his friends. On Saturdays and holidays the schoolboys had freedom to roam. One game was throwing stones at the crow’s nests built in the walls of Dornoch’s derelict castle and they often ended up at woods near Cyderhall or Skibo. During the holidays shinty was a must and Donald recounts ‘every male, from a stripling to a white-haired grandfather’ taking part. Market days were a favourite. Full of spectacle and excitement, they lasted two days and meant a holiday from school. Another sport that was widely acceptable was cock fighting. The annual event took place at Candlemas, 2nd February, one of the Scottish Quarter days. Sage tells how the boys prepared for weeks in advance and the Sheriff Court room above the school was cleared to make a cock fighting ring.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2002_274_001

The Education (Scotland) Act was passed in 1872 making schooling compulsory. No longer did children have to walk to Dornoch or go without an education entirely. Schools were built in the rural areas of the parish ensuring all children had access.

The Parish School building remained in use until 1913. It is now the Social Club. Pupils transferred to a site at the west end of the burgh, overlooking the Dornoch Firth. This new Academy was opened by Lord Kennedy on 7th January 1913.

Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2019_093_10.

Fifty years later, on 25th September 1963 a new secondary department was opened by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. The old building which now houses the primary department stands side by side with the new and, along with the nursery, they constitute the modern 3-18 years Dornoch School Campus.

The Childhood in Dornoch Parish exhibition tells of the experiences of children over the last two centuries, from home life to school life, from organised clubs to serious playtime such as the annual football tournament played for the Ice Cream Cup!

Playing for the Ice Cream Cup!
Photo: Historylinks Museum DNHHL 2001_343_001

Their voices, happy and sad, come to us through memoirs, diaries, audio recordings, photographs and the physical objects in the display like a tricycle, teddy bears, dolls, a Hornby engine, tin plate toys and board games.

From the frustration of having to close part of the museum and wondering what to do with an empty space, it feels like the children’s room is alive with the voices of children once more.

2 thoughts on “History of Childhood Exhibition I – Schooling in Dornoch

  1. Reblogged this on A Drawerful of Porridge and commented:
    We’ve just come back from a family history searching weekend in Dornoch, where my mother’s father’s family lived and worked throughout the 19th century. The Dornoch Castle Hotel was very accommodating, and arranged for us to visit the History Links Museum, usually closed at this time of year. It’s great to see such a comprehensive and insightful approach to the preservation of local history; and having just read this article I am more intrigued than ever. Well done to Lynne Mahoney and her colleagues; we will definitely be back to further our researches.
    I am fascinated to see that my grandfather, an apprentice gardener, would probably have received very part-time schooling until the age of 10, when the 1872 Education Act made school more accessible. This will help to explain how his older sister became an outdoor servant/herd at the age of 11!

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