“We would rather go to prison” – Denominational problems and Clyne School Board

Alison McCall continues her investigation of the school board records of east Sutherland.

In 1877 the Clyne School Board minutes recorded that “some parents have expressed their willingness to go to prison rather than place their children under Mr Myron’s instructions.”

Morris Myron was headmaster of the recently opened Brora Public School. Within his profession he was highly respected, having chaired teachers’ committees and published a new style of school register. The average attendance during the first two years the school was opened was thirty four. The roll at the school (which could hold 250 pupils) had dropped to just twenty. Parents made their own educational arrangements with unqualified teachers and with Miss Sutherland’s girls’ school.

Why were the parents so strongly opposed to Mr Myron that they were willing to take their children out of school, risking fines and imprisonment?

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Banffshire Journal and General Advertiser, 25 June 1861

The first task of each School Board created after the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 was to carry out a census of all school aged children in the district. In Clyne there were 303 children between the ages of five and thirteen. 284 lived within the vicinity of Brora, which had three existing schools, two run by the Established Church and the Free Church plus a girls’ sewing school. There was also a school at Doll, two miles distant from Brora, founded by the Glasgow Auxiliary Gaelic School Society. The furthest pupils lived twelve miles away from Doll, and the School Board saw no option other than supplying an itinerant teacher for them.

The School Board proposed to amalgamate the Brora and Doll schools, making Mr Myron, the Established Church school teacher, headmaster on a salary of at least £100 p.a. Mr Baillie, the Free School teacher, would be deputy on a salary of at least £80 p.a.

The minutes do not explain what happened next, but clearly this plan was not acceptable. The parents at Doll claimed their children could not be expected to walk two miles to school in winter. The Board then proposed it should become an infant school, under a female teacher, with the older children walking into Brora. The Doll parents rejected this also.

More complicated were negotiations over the amalgamation of the two church schools. The difficulty appears to have been inter-denominational or political, though the minutes are silent on this. The School Board, which was chaired by Joseph Peacock, the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, favoured the Established Church. The majority of parents were members of the Free Church. By 1876 the parents of the children attending the Free Church school were refusing to send their children to be educated by Mr Myron. They made allegations of drunkenness, then of cursing, and latterly accusing him of carrying on an adulterous relationship with ‘the woman MacKay’. Alas, it has not been possible to identify ‘the woman MacKay’. The Board referred the matter to the Sheriff at Dornoch, who found the allegations wholly unfounded.

‘The ordeal through which the respondent has had to pass has been most trying, but he has come successfully through it, and the Sherriff-substitute now ventures to hope that the future relations between the School Board and the respondent, nothing will arise to show that the latter’s usefulness as a teacher has been in any way impaired by what has taken place under the present proceedings.’ (Aberdeen Weekly Journal, 22 Nov 1876)

Mr Baillie, the Free Church teacher, was officially ill during this time. He apparently suffered ‘severe attacks of bronchitis, aggravated by constitutional weakness and undeserved annoyance.’ In 1896 a newspaper article on his shell collection mentioned his love of cricket and golf, which casts doubt on his ‘constitutional weakness.’

 

Despite their assertion that they were prepared to go to prison, no parents did. Both Mr Myron and Mr Baillie suffered as a result of the dispute, but the main losers were the school children of Brora, whose education was seriously disrupted at a time when educational provision for children throughout Scotland was steadily improving.

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“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.

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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.