“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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The Highland Land League and the School Boards in Clyne and Kildonan

Alison McCall’s love of history was fuelled by tales of family history told by her grandparents. Her PhD thesis The Lass o’ Pairts: Social mobility for women through education in Scotland, 1850-1901, includes a section on east Sutherland.

Two acres of croft land in West Helmsdale barely sustained the Bruce family: the ‘Widow Bruce’, young George and Mary, and her widowed mother. Jane Bruce’s husband had died in 1848, aged 32, when their children were aged four and one. The family were poor, but they were not alone in this. Poverty was endemic among families whose forebears had been cleared down the Strath of Kildonan to the area around Helmsdale.

George became a baker in Helmsdale. He joined the Highland Land League, which campaigned to have politicians sympathetic to the crofters’ cause elected to Parliament. In 1888 George was elected onto the Kildonan School Board. Elections had been held throughout Scotland every three years since the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 transferred control of schools from churches, charities and private individuals to locally elected School Boards under government control. Clergymen, businessmen, landowners, academics and other pillars of society were returned as School Board members. Women were eligible to stand, but were elected only onto the larger city Boards. In East Sutherland voters recognised the School Boards gave them the opportunity to vote politically. And they voted for men such as George Bruce.

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George Bruce outside his shop on Lilleshall Street, Helmsdale. Photo: Courtesy of Timespan Heritage Centre

Unfortunately the first minute book of Kildonan School Board is missing, but the rise of Land League influence can be traced in neighbouring Clyne. As the Land Leaguers gained strength and confidence the composition of the School Board changed. The first was chaired by the Duke of Sutherland’s factor, Joseph Peacock. The second included the Hon. Walter Stuart, the Duke’s grandson. In 1877, one matter was referred to “the Duke of Sutherland, being the principal ratepayer, and being also deeply interested in the educational welfare of the people.” Regardless of the voters’ wishes, the Duke was the ultimate authority. The crofters’ breakthrough came with the third Board. In 1879 were elected George Grant and George Murray, both tailors, George MacKay, Joseph Peacock and George Lawson, a farmer. The three crofters’ candidates elected Grant as chair. Grant was out of his depth. Apparently unused to using a pen, he proposed to take minutes in pencil, to be written up later. Peacock and Lawson objected. Grant said that “he could not even dictate a minute” but hoped to learn in the next month. Lawson asked Grant to withdraw as chair in favour of Peacock, but Grant refused. School Boards members throughout Scotland were usually well educated and highly literate. Clyne may have been unique in having a Chair uncomfortable using pen and ink. However, the community regarded him highly. He was re-elected in 1882, 1885, but were always in a minority. Voters had subverted the educational purposes of School Board elections for political opposition to the Duke, and the furtherance of land politics.

Back up in Kildonan, by 1888 when George Bruce was elected, the rest of the Board was largely composed of those sympathetic to the crofters cause. James Fraser, fishcurer, was chair and the other members were Robert Hill, farmer, William Cuthbert, fishcurer, and Joseph MacKay, crofter. Hill farmed 102 acres at Navidale, and was one of those who had benefitted from the cleared land. By contrast Joseph MacKay was one of eight crofters threatened in 1882 with eviction for grazing sheep. The eight employed a solicitor and the summons was withdrawn. Cuthbert and Bruce were prominent local Land Leaguers. Cuthbert was re-elected in 1891, 1894 and 1900. Bruce was re-elected in 1897 and 1900, indicating ongoing political support.

Gaining control of the School Boards and using them for political control was a unique tactic of the Land League in East Sutherland.

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This gravestone was erected by ‘our’ George Bruce. Photo: Alison McCall

Post script. George Bruce died in 1922, but the family bakery firm continued. In 1932 they baked a wedding cake for George’s great niece, Mary Bruce MacLeod. It was decorated with silver horseshoes. In 1989, Mary’s granddaughter, the present writer, had one of horseshoes sewn onto the sleeve of her wedding dress.

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The sleeve of Alison’s wedding dress. Photo: Alison McCall.

Sources
MacLeod, Joseph, Highland Heroes of the Land Reform Movement (Highland News Publishing Company, 1917)
obituary of William Cuthbert in John O’Groats Journal, 9 January 1931