Literary Tours in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland

The following is from Literary Tours in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland by D. T. Holmes, B.A.:

Chapter IV--Educational

Some Insular Dominies--Education Act of 1872--Education in the Highlands--Feeding the hungry--Parish Council boarders--Dwindling attendances--Arnisdale--Golspie Technical School--On the Sidlaws--Some surprises--Arran schools--Science and literature--Study of Scott--The old classical dominie--Vogue of Latin in former times--Teachers and examinations--Howlers--Competing subjects.

Some Insular Dominies

It is by no means an easy matter for a teacher to get south again once he is installed in a remote Highland school. He accepts a distant rural or insular post, marries the girl of his heart, gets settled in the schoolhouse of the glen or township, and rarely moves thence all the succeeding years of his life. He becomes identified with local affairs; plays whist maybe with the doctor, the factor, and the banker; and is apt to magnify the cackle of his bourg into the great Voice that echoes round the world. The monotony of his life is varied by such happenings as a birth or a death in his own household, a visit from the emissary of My Lords, an epidemic of measles, a general election, and the like. I don't say these men are unhappy, but unless they develop a hobby, torpidity is bound to settle like a mist upon their brains. Such studies as geology, botany, and gardening, are sovereign for driving off the vapours of ennui. Nor are golf, angling, and the composition of verse, specifics that the rural dominie can afford to despise.

I have in my mind at this moment the portraits of many notable gentlemen (for true gentlemen they are, though their purses are thin) who have given up their lives to educating the progeny of the inclement North. Lamont, for example, whom I remember as a first-class mathematician, is living in the marshy navel of an Outer Isle, amid wild-fowl and spirals of peat-reek. If you want to visit him you have (1) to cross the billowy western deep; (2) drive fifteen miles in a trap; (3) traverse a four-mile arm of the sea in a ferry that needs baling; (4) proceed seven miles to another ferry two miles in breadth; (5) hop, step, and jump three miles along a narrow and tortuous track, enough to give vertigo to a goat. Lamont is not unhappy: he keeps his mind active by solving stiff quadratic equations and fiddling with Cartesian co-ordinates. I hope he will get credit for all these studies, when the last trump sounds, for he gets little enough at present.

Ramsay, too, is a dweller among these treeless bogs, and is engaged, during his leisure, on a translation of Anacreon which will never be finished, or, if finished, will never be published. I called on him and immolated myself on the altar of his Anacreon in order to give him a little pleasure. He, later on, enlarged on his school, scholars, and daily life. The horizon of the boys and girls is extremely limited: most of them have never seen either a pig or a policeman. Cabbages have only been recently introduced into the district, but are already thriving wonderfully well considering the thin soil. There are of course no trees: for what trees could stand against the buffeting of the fierce wintry gales of the Atlantic? Ramsay's only chum is a missionary, who is of an antiquarian turn, and goes fumbling about for arrow-heads and prehistoric bracelets, especially after a storm, when the hill-sides are laid bare.

Neither Lamont nor Ramsay know a word of Gaelic, and there they are in districts where English is a foreign language. Needless to say, the lack of Gaelic is a terrible drawback to these two men. They should never have been where they are, for they are aliens. The scholars, unbreeched little rogues, have an advantage over their teacher, and in the playground talk the tongue of the Celt invariably, and may be maligning him for all he knows. I am afraid, too, that teacher and minister do not always consider themselves as auxiliaries in these outer isles. The younger generation of teachers have, as might be expected, a more extensive knowledge of books than the old school of Presbyterian ministers. The latter, feeling their literary inferiority, are inclined to regard the teacher as an intruder whose work in the school-room will cause the rising generation to look slightingly on the "essentials." I have in my possession numerous letters from Highland teachers dealing with this fear on the part of the clergy, that novels and secular literature generally will pervert the minds of the people. The addition of Mrs. Humphrey Ward's books to a library was recently likened to the arrival of the Serpent in Eden.

Education Act of 1872

In one of the best-known chapters of Rob Roy, Bailie Nicol Jarvie, the utilitarian Glasgow merchant, says to his cattle-reiving kinsman: "Your boys, Rob, dinna ken the very multiplication table, which is the root o' a useful knowledge, and it's my belief they can neither read, write, nor cipher, if sic a thing could be believed o' ane's ain connections in a Christian land." Rob replies in a sentence that is worthy of being put alongside the remark of old Earl Douglas in the poem of Marmion: "Hamish can bring down a blackcock on the wing with a single bullet, and Rob can drive a dirk through a twa-inch board." These quotations adequately explain the almost complete absence of prose remains in the literature of the Gael. Bards there were in plenty, but they could neither read nor write.

In the year 1872, education was made the concern of the nation. It was rightly considered to be a standing menace to the security of the realm that ignorance, which is the parent of disorder and lawlessness, should be the doom of a large proportion of the nation. Rather than hazard the dangers of an illiterate population, education was undertaken by the State, and paid for out of the national purse. The analogy between disease and ignorance is, in truth, sufficiently close to justify both sanitation and education coming into the wide domain of imperial duties.

Looking back on the changes that resulted in the Lowlands from the Education Act of 1872, we see grounds for criticism. The measure, like all earthly things, was imperfect. There was something hard and inelastic about the system fostered by the old Code. The psychology of Child Nature was almost totally ignored. A system of examination was established that assumed an equal and mechanical progress on the part of every child every year. Yet, in spite of grave defects, the Act of 1872 brought inestimable blessings with it. For one thing, the health conditions of education were vastly improved. Many of the old schools were absolute hovels. After 1872, large, airy, and spacious buildings, were erected in every district of the land. It was no longer a case of one old dominie facing singly a whole regiment of unruly youngsters: every school was organised and disciplined into regular and seemly order. We had the advantage in Scotland of a complete system of School Boards, and that awakened an intense and universal interest in educational affairs. The old parochial schools of Scotland had many admirable features, but in 1872 they were quite unfit to cope with the nation's needs. On the whole, the School Board system was a decided boon to the land.

Education in the Highlands

It is only since the Act of 1872 that any education of a serious or systematic kind has been attempted in the Celtic parts of Scotland. Nevertheless, a word of praise is due to the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and other civilising agencies of the Churches (Established and Free), for their work during the educational night that preceded the Act. These agencies were, of course, utterly inadequate to meet the needs of the Highlands, as may be easily seen from the fact that in 1862, over 47 per cent. of the men who married, could not sign their own names. But, indeed, what resources, save those of the Imperial Treasury, could ever be adequate to meet the expense of educating the children spread over such wide and sparsely-peopled tracts? Sheriff Nicolson, one of the most fervid Gaels that ever lived, made a report to Government in 1865, characterising the education given in the Highland schools as lamentably insufficient.

The effects of the Act of 1872 were slow but sure, and in the course of fifteen years a change, analogous to that effected by General Wade in the state of the roads, was brought about in the realm of education. Yet the expenses involved in the working of the measure were of an unduly burdensome kind, in spite of the generous bounty of the Education Department. In some of the large parishes of the Long Island, the heavy school rate was such a cause of complaint that My Lords were forced to take very drastic measures to relieve the financial strain. In summing up the results of the Education Act, Professor Magnus Maclean says: "Among the good things that education has brought the Highlanders, are a knowledge of English, wider social and political interests, a brighter intelligence and brighter outlook, freedom from mental vacuity and traditional superstitions."

Feeding the Hungry

Probably, as I have hinted, one of the chief benefits of the Education Act, was that teaching had to be carried on in conditions of space and air. Given such conditions and an enthusiastic master, some good progress will certainly be made.

Connected with the physical side of education we have had, of late, signs of a new departure. There is a talk of feeding the hungry.

Every parent worthy of the name is proud to provide food and clothing for his children. That's what he's there for. But it does not require much keenness of vision to see that there are many parents unworthy of the name, and that, by the dark and inscrutable degrees of Heaven, such worthless individuals are often allowed to be parents of a numerous progeny. We must (i) inject into these wastrels the feeling of responsibility and (ii) prevent the children from dying of starvation. The first problem requires lengthy treatment and is perhaps hopeless of accomplishment; the second can be done at once by philanthropy, either individual or national.

However much it may wound the pride of our gilded youth, it can hardly be asserted that birth and rank are matters that involve the slightest personal merit. It seems to be an affair of the purest accident into what class of society a child is born. We have overcome the difficulties and dangers of youth--most of us--but it might well have been otherwise. Soften your hearts, ye political economists, and cease to regard the poor, the weak, and the wretched as criminals. If there is no wealth but life, our country must soon be poor indeed should the rising generation be sickly and underfed. Bairns must not be allowed to study on an empty stomach.

Parish Council Boarders

Let me here mention a point alluded to by more than one friend of the Highlands. It has reference to one aspect of the new science called Eugenics, which deals with the means for producing the maximum of vigour in our nation. It is not well enough known that for years the authorities have been pouring into a few of the islands and straths of the North and West a great number of maimed, consumptive, and mentally defective children. Some houses in the Hebrides have three or four of these children, who, but for the action of the authorities, would be living under the most deplorable conditions of life in the towns. The results, as regarding improvement in health and physique, are of the most encouraging kind. [21]

After a certain age the official subsidy ceases, and the children as a rule go to work on the farms and crofts. It is evident that such extensive planting out of city boys and girls is bound by and by to work a great change in the composition of our rural districts. It is believed that some of the islands would soon be without children but for these incomers: it is a well-known fact that the indigenous youthful population of certain of them is very meagre indeed. We are thus in modern times witnessing some most instructive operations of Nature: for generations the country has been depleted to swell the bloated population of the towns; and now the wastage of the cities is being sent back to the country to get a renewal of vigour at the primeval fountain of health.

There is one further point of great moment. As a proportion, relatively large, of these children come of morally dubious parentage, it is of supreme interest to know their subsequent career and conduct. I have seen reports and statistics which seem to prove that questionable heredity can be overborne by healthy surroundings and good training; in other words, that the offspring of criminals may, if rescued early from a vicious environment, become respectable citizens. Such facts ought to rejoice the hearts of all moral reformers.

[21] In that part of South Arran which lies between Dippen and Shannochie, there is high up on the hillside, a row of cottages and crofts collectively nicknamed "Mount Misery." The reason for this sinister name is that in most of the houses there is some maimed, consumptive, or imbecile child boarded out by the Parish Council. The children are better there than selling matches at St. Enoch's Station: they are well looked after and almost invariably improve in health.

Dwindling Attendances

It is in the country school that the need for new blood is most apparent to the eye. In schools capable of holding 120 children, you will often find a shrunken roll of less than a dozen. A gentleman of mature years usually does all the teaching and keeps himself from getting insane by breeding hens and cultivating roses in his spare time. He has also, in all likelihood, the little pickings of officialdom in the district, and is registrar, session-clerk, and precentor. One facetious teacher, who dwelt on a wide moor, headed his letter to me Parish Council Chambers, thereby suggesting marble staircases and sumptuous furniture. It was this same teacher who, on being asked to bring forward Standard V. for inspection, had to admit that Standard V. was laid up with a broken leg. For such small schools there is an increasing difficulty in finding male teachers. [22] Widows, who in their ante-nuptial days, had been engaged in teaching are often preferred to men, for reasons of salary. The lot of such women, who have usually families to support out of their meagre earnings, is hard indeed: if they keep their health, they manage tolerably well, but when illness comes into the house, there must be a deal of suffering and distress. The young pupils who attend the remote schools of the uplands, also deserve much sympathy. During the heavy snows and extreme cold of winter, these children--often ill-shod and scantily fed--have to trudge along miles of country cross-roads or hill-paths to their little school. Our country is a glory to the eye when mid-summer and autumn are there, but think of the harsh winter months with their torrents of driving rain, their whirlwinds of hail and sleet and the icy nip of the blasts that blow down the snow-sheeted glens.

[22] A country teacher in Kintyre, with a roll of eight, said to me: "We have had only one marriage in the district during the last year, and the bridegroom was aged three score and fifteen. I wonder what education is coming to: there is little or no patriotism about Kintyre or my roll would be higher. I wish I could get the people to think more imperially than they do at present."

Arnisdale, Etc.

It will be perhaps interesting to the general reader if I strive, by drawing on my reminiscences, to give him an idea of how education is carried on in certain remote corners of Scotland at the present time. He will, perhaps, be led to admire as much as I do the noble work that is being done by teachers and inspectors for the rising generation of the country.

Arnisdale, on the mainland facing Skye, is a very destitute district, and has suffered much from the failure of the once-flourishing herring-fishery of Loch Hourn. One can see by the attire of the children that the poverty must be exceptional, even for the Highlands. The teacher says that in winter she has to think as much how to feed the children as to teach them. By the charity of some benevolent visitors, she was, last winter, able to give the pupils a mid-day meal of cocoa and biscuits. It is a sad contrast to the extraordinary beauty of this picturesque spot that such dire misery should overtake a proportion of the natives during the winter season.

Arnisdale is not very accessible, even in the height of the summer traffic, and when one gets there, it is a problem how to get away. I asked the captain of the Glencoe to set me down near what is called the dry island, in Loch Hourn, and thence I was rowed ashore by two very wild-looking, unkempt boatmen. The school-house, where I lodged, is right on the beach, and just at the base of the gigantic Ben Screel. Twelve miles along the coast, by a road of the most awe-inspiring kind, one comes to the interesting nook of Glenelg, with its Pictish towers and ruined barracks.

It was a mild and hazy morning when I traversed the road between Arnisdale and Glenelg. On coming to the summit, a great breeze arose and drove away the heavy white mists from the Sound of Sleat, and showed the white, sentinel-like lighthouse of Isle Ornsay and great fertile stretches of the near portion of Skye. Reluctantly the clouds finally curled and rolled away before the wind and the glitter of the sun, until the Cuchullins were visible beyond the water and the green peninsula of Sleat.

In a cosy recess near the highest part of the road, beside a bubbling spring, a gipsy family had pitched its tent. I admired the taste shown in the selection of a place commanding such a view. The family was still under canvas, but hanging on the branch of a tree was a worn and mud-stained skirt. Do not ladies in hotels, in similar fashion, hang out their dusty and travel-soiled attire at the doors of their chambers? And perhaps the dark-skinned owner had hung up her dank and dripping weeds in the hope that some silvan faun or Robin Goodfellow would, without a tip, perform the dusting process, in this case so palpably necessary. We do wrong in supposing that imagination is not the portion of these woodland rovers.

One of the most difficult problems of the Education Department is to see that gipsy children get a suitable amount of schooling. "Here awa', there awa', wandering Willie," is applicable to all their tribe. How can progressive instruction be carried on where there is no fixity of habitation? One day the camp is pitched on an eminence overlooking Loch Hourn; but before twelve hours have passed, the nomads may have crossed the ferry at Kyleakin and be warming their hands round a blaze of stolen peats in the wild moorland between Portree and Dunvegan. Only in winter, when frost and snow drive the gipsies into the city slums, do the children get some smattering of the three R's.

Golspie Technical School

There are now in the Highlands a number of excellent higher class public schools, in which the elements of secondary education are taught. The pupils in these schools are drawn from wide areas, and, by means of bursaries, can board away from their own homes. The Golspie Technical School is an altogether unique higher-grade institution. At a library lecture delivered in Golspie, the boys belonging to the school (forty-eight in number, divided into four clans, each with a chief) were present, accompanied by the Principal and his staff. My attention was at once drawn to them by their fine physique, their gentlemanly bearing, and their earnest attention. Next day, I had the pleasure of visiting the school and seeing the working of the scheme initiated by the Duchess of Sutherland.

The institution is really a boarding-school for poor lads of talent belonging to the northern counties. They are under the eye of some teacher at every hour of the day, and are kept incessantly busy, not at books alone. They are taught to do their own washing, dusting, scrubbing, cooking, and darning. The training is excellent: one is impressed by its practical character and educational thoroughness. Latin and Greek are not attempted at all, the literary instruction being entirely based on English and the modern tongues. The science part of the curriculum is remarkably complete, and art is by no means neglected.

Before a pupil has the good fortune to be admitted, the Principal visits the parents. It is almost incredible (so he told me) the squalor of some of the cots he had seen. Too often, in the Highlands, the one bedroom of the family (frequently identical with the kitchen) has free communication with a malodorous byre or stye. What a contrast with the dormitory of the Technical School, where there is no lullaby of lowing kine, but a tranquil, high-roofed hall that would do for the siesta of the Duke of Sutherland himself!

On The Sidlaws

High up on a spur of the Sidlaw Hills in the county of Forfar, there is a wee school that supplies education for a wide and sparsely-peopled countryside. The teacher is Mr. Brown, who was once a dominie in the island of Whalsay. He is a jovial and courteous man, and leads you on very astutely to ask him how long he taught there. Such a question gives him the opportunity of replying with a laugh: "I was there exactly the length of time Napoleon was in St. Helena, five years and seven months." When in Whalsay, Mr. Brown took the service on Sunday, if the minister happened to be ill. In this capacity he achieved great popularity by the meritorious device of shortening the sermon to fifteen minutes. He was so much in love with the first sermon he wrote, that he never wrote another, contenting himself with giving it again and again, and merely varying the text. If he could only hit upon a suitable title, and a suitable publisher for this sermon, Mr. Brown would get it printed, and scattered broadcast over the Shetland Islands. I believe it would furnish unique food for thought even to sinners on the mainland.

Mr. Brown received me with extreme kindness, and invited me inside to see his school. I heard his senior class read, and thought the pronunciation extremely good. About 12.55 the attention of the pupils became visibly impaired; glances were furtively cast towards the door; there was a feeling of expectancy all along the benches. Suddenly the door sprang open, as if by some violent external impact, and a middle-aged dame entered, carrying in each hand a large pail of steaming potato-soup. Accompanying her was a young woman with dozens of small pewter basins, and large spoons. I never saw such expeditious ladling, such quick distribution, such speed of consumption, and such manifest enjoyment all round. The steam of the soup obscured the wall-maps, and the parsing exercise on the blackboard. The children could get as many helpings as nature would permit, for one farthing. When the mist cleared away, teacher and taught once more proceeded to tackle simple proportion and analysis of sentences. I personally examined the soup, and found it to be "nae skinking ware that jaups in luggies."

Some Surprises

Some surprises are in store for one who calls in casually at some of the remoter schools. I have more than once found the teacher giving instruction in his shirt sleeves. In one school, I saw the master with a large melodeon (the Board being too stingy to supply a piano), giving an inharmonious accompaniment to the musical drill. I got a dreadful surprise on meeting the schoolmaster of a district in Jura: the unfortunate gentleman was stone-deaf, his auditory nerves being completely destroyed. Yet he managed, unaided, a school of forty-seven pupils, and got excellent reports. The case is unparalleled in my experience, and I should not have believed it possible had I not personally seen the man at his work. He heard with his eyes, and could most nimbly interpret what his pupils said by watching their lips. The scholars liked him, and did not attempt to take advantage of his defect. In another insular school, I was introduced to a lady-teacher who had lost both her arms in youth, and who, in consequence, has been forced to bring up her pupils entirely on the principles of moral suasion. By holding the pen with her teeth, she can write a fine running hand (if I may say so without violence to language). She is an extremely clever lady: it was a treat to see how well she could control the children with a word or a glance.

Some teachers in the Lowlands complain of children playing truant. That vice is not common in the Highlands, but it exists to a slight extent.

In my presence the teacher of a school in Skye made the absentees of the previous day, write out their reasons for non-attendance. I give some of the typical answers:

(i.) Dear Sir,--I had to work all day at the peats.
(ii.) I was kept at home for harrowing with the horses.
(iii.) I was herding the lambs and keeping them from the sheep.
(iv.) I was on the shore all day, but I will not do it again.

Arran Schools

The Arran schools that I had the pleasure of visiting struck me as being very well managed. It is wonderful how much excellent work some of these country children get through. The schools are almost all supplied with Paisley libraries, and thus the pupils, under the guidance of their masters, can overtake an extensive course of reading in British authors. At Loch Ranza the higher pupils study Shakespeare, Shelley, and Wordsworth. [23]

There is no desire whatever on the part of the young people to be taught the language of their forefathers. As a consequence, Gaelic is rapidly dying out in the island. Twenty years ago it was the language of the playground at Whiting Bay: now the pupils speak English only. At my request the teacher there addressed a few Gaelic phrases to the assembled children, but only two knew what he was saying. In the neighbourhood of Lagg, there is a more general knowledge of the venerable tongue.

In spite of the decay of Gaelic, Arran has produced some Celtic scholars of great brilliancy, the most eminent being the late Dr. Cameron of Brodick. Mr. Kennedy of Caticol has made a great reputation for himself in philology: he is in touch with Celtic scholarship on the Continent and is also an adept in Irish Gaelic. In his manse, I saw a famous Celtic manuscript, the Fernaig MS., a brown-leaved passbook, full of old poems written carefully in a very small neat hand. It is said to be worth £2,000, but not having that amount of loose cash about me, I could not gratify myself by offering to purchase it.

[23] A striking object-lesson on the instability of mortal life is permanently given to the Loch Ranza pupils by the proximity of the churchyard, which is just over the wall from the school. The thoughtful visitor should not fail to read the tombstones. If a lover of books, he will be interested in learning that the founder of the famous publishing firm of Messrs. Macmillan belonged to the North Cock farm near Loch Ranza. The pensive moralist will perhaps be most affected by an old stone, A.D. 1813, declaring that Elspa Macmillan left this inhospitable world, aged 86. That was no rash inference.

Science and Literature

Those rural teachers cannot be too strongly commended who combine literary studies with work in the open air. I know some masters who encourage their pupils to collect, say, all the flowers mentioned in Wordsworth and Burns. That is idealising the study of botany in a most delicious way. Wordsworth's descriptions of flowers are nothing less than divine: to take a single example out of hundreds, his lines on the daffodils beginning--

"I wandered lonely as a cloud."

Even the gayest of our lyrists, Herrick, has something to say about that flower that is as powerful as a sermon. Birds, trees, and flowers should, as far as possible, be known by all the young people, and some poetic word associated with each. It is astonishing how accurately our best poets describe the objects of nature, and how their imaginative touches show insight and give a pleasure above mere science. Spenser's catalogue of the trees is worth knowing by heart. All the vicissitudes of the changing months have their apt poetical descriptions if we only look for them. Cowper, Thomson, and Wordsworth might be especially recommended to pupils for their brilliant word-painting of landscape. I cannot think of a finer adjunct to the teaching of open-air science than the auxiliary descriptions of such great masters of verse.

As Mendelssohn composed songs without words, so may the schoolmaster give lessons of the most powerful import without a word being spoken. A beautiful interior in a schoolroom is a silent lesson in order and good taste. Beauty and order have a most valuable influence on the emotions and the character. It is a pleasure to see the attention that is now given to the cultivation of taste. Clean, bright class-rooms; pictures of artistic merit on the walls; busts; collections of fossils, sea-shells, and the like--these are to be found even in remote country schools. Such spontaneous education of the eye is something that cannot be overestimated for importance and fruitfulness.

Lord Avebury puts the case for artistic environment very well indeed. "Our great danger in education," he says, "is the worship of book-learning--the confusion of instruction and education. We strain the memory instead of cultivating the mind. The children are wearied by the mechanical act of writing and the interminable intricacies of spelling; they are oppressed by columns of dates, by lists of kings and places, which convey no definite idea to their minds, and have no near relation to their daily wants and occupations. We ought to follow exactly the opposite course, and endeavour to cultivate their taste rather than fill their minds with dry facts."

There is one precious faculty that runs the risk of being stifled by too much memory work. I mean the faculty of imagination. Youth is the time when fancy is busy; it is the period when the brain can furnish unlimited scaffolding for castles in the air. Wordsworth was so impressed, indeed, by the opulence of the youthful fancy, that he could only account for it by supposing recent contact with heaven.

Study of Scott

I sometimes think that in the training of the youthful intellect and imagination we have not made sufficient use of the novels and romances of Scott. Of late years a great improvement is noticeable in this respect, and Scott is coming to be regarded as (for school purposes) our greatest historian. In some schools, as Lord Avebury has hinted, it was formerly thought that pupils knew history adequately when they could rattle off a list of dates and tell something of the deeds and misdeeds of a set of unhappy persons who masqueraded as statesmen and courtiers. Such unedifying farce has nothing to do with history, which is a serious, instructive, and all-embracing study. The social life of the great mass of a nation is far more important and interesting than the eccentric deeds of a few high-placed rogues or saints. The old school-history was, unfortunately, too often a glum compendium of insignificant detail, told without breadth of view or fire of restorative imagination.

In the history of Scotland, most of what is worth knowing may be most enjoyably learned from the pages of Sir Walter. Hardly any epoch of Caledonian annals, hardly any county in the land has escaped the treatment of his masterly hand. From the Borders to the rain-lashed Shetlands (the Pirate deals with gusty Thule), from Perth to Morven, the great wizard has made his country known to all lands. In his stories the past faithfully reproduces itself, and we are impressed, instructed, and amused.

The Old Classical Dominie

It is a pleasure to think that a few of the old school of Scotch dominies, who date from before the 1872 Act, are still to the fore, and still engaged in teaching. They have all fixity of tenure, and so enjoy the privilege of criticising, as adversely as they like, the degeneracy of modern educational developments. These "old parochials," as they are called, are men of good scholarship, well versed in Horace and Virgil, and generally fond of snuff and Latin quotations.

The Act of 1872 did a great deal for elementary education, but very little indeed to encourage that type of higher instruction, which was the glory of the old parish school. Ian Maclaren and other writers have given pleasant sketches of country schoolmasters who were strong in the ancient tongues, and who sent their pupils straight to the benches of the University. I believe such men as "Domsey" were quite common in this country. Porteous, whom I knew, was one of these. Porteous was a philologist second to none in these realms, and was on intimate terms of acquaintanceship with the famous Veitch, who gave such a redding up to the Greek verbs. It was very amusing to hear the complete way in which Porteous could silence some imperial young examining professor on the weighty subject of classical derivation. The latter would appeal to some such authority as Curtius, whereupon Porteous would unlock the desk in which lay the tawse, and taking therefrom a copy of the invoked Curtius, open it at the root in question, and display the page all marked with pencil corrections and emendations. In support of his views, would come such a torrent of erudition from half a score of Classical, Sanscrit, Gothic, and Anglo-Saxon rills, that the young professor would feel "like one of sense forlorn," and be fain to put palm to forehead in dazed amazement. A pupil learning the rudiments under such a teacher, was dazzled rather than instructed by the ruthless surgery of words that constantly went on. No word was too small for Porteous to operate upon: he settled hoti's business, and could so inflate Greek vocables by supplying digammas and dropped consonants, that Plato would have disowned them. Give him chalk, a blackboard, and a class of six, and he would in ten minutes fill the board with hieroglyphics, curves, arrow-headed diagonals, etc., all meant to illustrate the relationships, divergencies, and contrarieties of the Aryan roots. His life was spent in the company of these radicals, and he could call them forth out of their trickiest hiding-places. In the midst of his chalky toil, he would turn round with radiant glee as if to say, "This is a merry and exciting trade: it is my fun and is as good as poaching or golf." But woe betide the youth who showed levity. Soon would there be weeping and wailing and tingling of palms. His reputation for strap-wielding made roots respected.

Another teacher of the school of Porteous was Thomas Taylor, whose death I saw announced a few weeks ago. Where has all his Greek lore gone to, so assiduously cultivated, so continuously added to? If Taylor's soul is ever re-incarnated in a mortal body, it is absurd to suppose that he must begin to learn the Greek alphabet just like a novice. His clay is indeed mixed with the clay of common men, but I love to think of him dwelling on the other side of the River in the meads of asphodel, discussing with kindred shades, the topics he delighted to handle when he was here. With tearful eye I pen these doleful decasyllabics to his memory:--

What chums Tom Taylor and Charles Lamb had been
O'er bottled porter and the Fairy Queen!
In youth, one day, seeking forbidden fruit
Tom tumbled from the branches with his loot,
And broken bones compelled the lad to go
On straddling crutches, warily and slow,
Counting the pebbles on his path below.
The noisy pleasures of the open air,
The football kicked exuberant here and there.
Cricket, beloved of sinewy juvenals,
And golf with all its hazards, clubs and balls,
Were not in Taylor's province: so he turned
To calmer pastimes where the ingle burned,
And when the whole world turned to goals and tees
He took to Iliads and to Odysseys.
He'd croon like one possessed the magic strain
Of heroes tossed along the unvintaged main,
And, crutch aloft in air, would fondly beat
Time to the rushing of the poet's feet.
Poetry was all his solace: those bright dames
That old Dan Chaucer in his rapture names,
And those in Villon's pages that appear
As dazzling-white as snows of yester-year,
Trooped past his eye in long procession fair.
O, Sovereign Virgin, what a crowd was there!
Helen, alas! with Paris by her side,
On the high deck crossing the sunny tide,
Circé, bright-moving in her godlike bloom
Before the throbbing music of the loom.
The love-lorn heroines of Shakespeare's plays,
The red-cheeked country girls of Burns's lays,
Would to his raptured eye the tear-drop bring,
And set his crazy quill a-sonnetting.

Vogue of Latin in Former Times

The old-world schoolmaster believed Latin was a universal specific. He loved the language and knew all the flock of frisky little exceptions of gender and conjugation, even as a shepherd knows his sheep. He gave his pupils gentle doses of the Delectus, and watched with eager, almost menacing, eye, for the working of the charm. It is quite possible that no pupil ever went over that Delectus, with its world-weary fragments of trite morality, without a feeling of pleasure at the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Yet it was educative, and moreover a boy was equipped for life with quotations suiting every juncture. Fate was powerless against one who had mastered the Delectus. The faculty of Latin quotation was to some extent also a badge of respectability. Fancy, too, the glory of being the exclusive possessor in a mixed company of the knowledge that Castor and Pollux came out of the one egg! It was a sore drawback to a boy once upon a time if he were shaky on the compounds of fero.

"The pest of the present day is the prevalence of examinations:" these, it is alleged, have destroyed the grand old freedom of learning which gave full scope for the individuality alike of teacher and pupil. Oh! those were days of the gods, when five hours were spent daily burrowing in Virgil and Horace! Arcadia was realised--a sunny clime of Nymphs, Fauns, and Graces. The supreme luxury of abundant time--the leisurely chewing of sweet-phrased morsels--is gone: it is gone, that chastity of phrase and perfection of idiom, which felt a bad quantity like a wound. The examination craze has destroyed the classical dominie, and the intrusion of science, falsely so-called, has well-nigh asphyxiated the Napææ of the dells. It was formerly possible for the teacher to develop to the full his literary taste and declaim the sonorous tit-bits of Virgil till the tears started from his eyes. Now the instructors of youth seem to regard the works of the tuneful Mantuan as composed for the purpose of illustrating the use of the Latin subjunctive. Youths cannot get at the Aeneid, the spirit and majesty of it, I mean, owing to the pestilential numbers of grammatical reminiscences recalled by almost every line. When once you begin to set examination papers on a subject, the romance seems to evaporate. There is something withering about test-questions. This modern disease of grammatical annotation, engendered largely by prosaic examiners, who have published grammars, is spreading to the English Classics, and we may soon expect Burns to furnish a text for exceptional scansion, bob-wheel metrics and general philological catechising. Items which glide effortless into the brain in desultory reading are not so easily remembered if the examination is in store. Certain gentlemen have recently been reading Milton with a pair of compasses in order to discover the exact point of the cæsural pause in every line: they give figures, strike percentages, and set questions which even the leading character in "Paradise Lost" couldn't answer. Literary microscopy is likely to ruin Shakespeare's reputation in school and would have done so long ago but for Lamb's Tales--a darling compilation and by far the best introduction to the poet. "Shakespeare is a horrid man" is the deliberate verdict of the schoolgirl who has been teased to death by the notes within the tawny covers of the Clarendon Press Edition. And fancy what Chaucer's Prologue must seem like, taught by a man bent only on philological hunts, variant readings, and a complete explanation of all the final e's.

Teachers and Examinations

It has always seemed to me a matter for surprise that those who had for years studied the elements of Latin and Greek at school (and that with no small difficulty), should entirely neglect these tongues afterwards and read nothing composed in them. Most elaborate preparations are made to reach the Promised Land, but the weary passenger never gets there. Can it be that the preparations are too elaborate? [24] They are certainly not very interesting, and are, indeed, well fitted to disgust pupils with the classical tongues. Sir William Ramsay of Aberdeen, in a letter to the Herald some time ago, spoke strongly on this subject.

Sir William says, with justice, that a teacher should teach his subject without any thought of examination. Every teacher would like to do that if he could. As a matter of fact, the secondary schoolmaster is forced to become a crammer. He codifies the catch questions of previous university preliminaries, excogitates similar weird lists of anomalies and exceptions, and doses the pupils on such stuff instead of really teaching the important parts of his subject. Experience seems to prove that the most effective way of rendering a subject dry, uneducational, and generally useless is to set examination papers on it. What can be more outrageous and grotesque than the practice of setting out-of-the-way questions because of the ease thus afforded to the examiners in correcting the answers of the helpless and puzzled candidates! Even though the questions set were plain and straightforward, it would be absurd to suppose that an hour or two in an examination hall could furnish sufficient data to pass or fail a candidate.

It used to be the glory of our universities that an average college class contained representatives of every grade of society in the land. Professor Ramsay says it is not so now: the professors have become pedagogic coaches, and the students grind rather than study. Sir William assures us that many who would make good students are frightened away by the preliminary examination. It would be interesting to know where these latter go when they leave school. Do they rush off to business at once, or do they proceed with their education in some extra-mural way? If they can afford the time, the university is certainly the place for them. Let the university gates be opened as wide as possible to all serious-minded youths, and let it be remembered that it is not necessarily those who sweat most over their books or take the highest honours that get most good from attendance at the lectures.

It does not appear that, at present, our universities are adequately in touch with the nation. The great commercial community of Glasgow does not benefit nearly enough from having a famous seat of learning in its midst. We might learn a lesson from the Sorbonne how best to nationalise our universities. In Paris, the lecture halls are open to all, and it is possible for either native or foreigner to listen for hours daily, if he be so minded, to some of the finest and most erudite orators and scholars of Europe. There are, it is true, special students' courses, from which the general public is excluded, but the most important lectures are open to all. Hence the Sorbonne is a national institution in every sense of the word. I do not say that Glasgow does not benefit a little from the corps of professors at Gilmorehill. But the benefit is spasmodic, discontinuous, and extremely limited. Some of the professors do at times come down into the open and speak words of wisdom. But more is wanted than that if the universities are to be saved from denationalisation. We hear of Dugald Stewart's class-room being, in the old days, crowded with the keenest intellects of the Capital. But a university was not then a kind of higher-grade secondary school.

[24] It is a notorious fact that very few graduates, when they leave college, are able to read Latin from an author they have not specially studied, with ease or pleasure. For this melancholy fact there are several reasons. The range of reading is miserably meagre. Only a few authors are read, and almost every sentence of these is cumbered with such an amount of annotation as to render progress and literary appreciation alike painful. Composition in Latin absorbs far too much time: the first duty of the teacher ought to be to turn out pupils who can read Latin with fluency. No amount of grammatical detail or laborious composition, as at present practised, will ever make up for the lack of wide reading. Professor Phillimore's recent suggestion that the less-known authors should be read more than they are, is wise and opportune. The authors he mentions would furnish a welcome relief from the unspeakable dreariness of over-annotated texts.

Howlers

Almost every schoolmaster I have met, either in the Highlands or Lowlands, has his budget of anecdotes, usually dealing with children's answers or the droll eccentricities of the local School Board. The answers of children are invariably entertaining; and I wish the Educational Institute of Scotland would appoint a committee to codify the howlers that come under the notice of its members. A collection of genuine howlers would be no unimportant service to the science of juvenile psychology. Let it be remembered that the eminent Professor Sully considered it in no way derogatory to his philosophical status to write on the subject of dolls. In bi-lingual districts children's answers would have a special value. Children are everywhere, of course, more or less bird-witted and inattentive. Here is a story which illustrates what Latin scholars call contaminatio. A teacher had given a lesson on the geography of Kent, laying special stress on Canterbury, as giving a title to the Anglican primate, and on Greenwich as the place through which, on the map, the first meridian is made to pass. At the close of the lesson, he wished to test the scholars, and asked one of them what Canterbury was famous for. At once came the glib reply: "Canterbury is the seat of an archbishop through whom the first meridian passes." The difficulty young pupils have in concentrating their ideas, is largely accountable for many of the diverting essays we have all heard and seen. On a recent visit to the romantic shores of Skye, I was shown the following essay on Water: "Water is a liquid, but in winter you can slide on it. In all kinds of water, little beasts occur to a greater or to a less extent. Even a great amount of heat cannot kill these curious little animals. Hence some people prefer spirits." From the same quarter I procured this nugget on patriotism. "Patriotism is love of country such as we see in Burns or Sir Walter Scott. Burns and Sir Walter wrote beautiful lines about their native land, and thousands of tourists came and circulated their money there. It would be telling us if writers would imitate these great patriots in our day." Many of the young scribes on the mainland can also indulge in a deal of brilliant irrelevancy. One of them being asked to write an essay on "Rivers," began thus: "In ancient times, the chief use of rivers was for the baptizing of converts." Another, in the course of a short life of King Alfred, made a strong point of that monarch's humility, adding, "In order to discover the plans of the Danes, he demeaned himself so far as to go to their camp disguised as a poet." The annual blue book of the Scotch Education Department used to include a recreative series of howlers that had been sent up in the various reports of the Government Inspectors. These tit-bits were well calculated to keep up the gaiety of nations. Of late years these howlers have been excised, but if Scotland had Home Rule they might re-appear.

The finer attenuations of speech are unknown to the soaring human boy. I was shown an essay on Ireland the other day in which the young writer compendiously remarked, "The Irish are a bloodthirsty, lazy, and resentful race." On Wordsworth, another juvenile critic thus expressed himself: "Wordsworth's compositions are utter bosh." The following extract is from an "Essay on the '15": "The Rising of '15 was a failure because the Old Pretender was an unmitigated ass. Fancy an ass trying to take charge of a Rebellion!"

A genial gentleman, Mr. Sneyd-Kynnersley, who retired from the Inspectorate some years ago, published in 1908 a book of choice reminiscences, containing some good specimens of schoolboy answers. Some of his howlers have long been known in the North: but a howler (like history) is wont to repeat itself. I saw in a Paisley boy's essay on Lambert Simnel the following sentence: "Lambert Simnel was a claimant for the English crown, and went about the country boasting that he was one of the princes who had been murdered in the Tower." Mr. Kynnersley's examinee wrote thus: "Prince Charles Edward claimed to be one of the little princes murdered in the Tower. He was found to be a deceiver, and was put into the king's kitchen to work."

A boy once told Mr. Kynnersley that a quorum is a question asked at a meeting which the chairman is unable to answer. I saw a definition of paradox, equally absurd: "A paradox is something which is apparently not what it seems to be."

It is a favourite geographical test to require a pupil to describe a coast journey between two seaports, and mention capes, rivers, and towns seen on the way. "Describe a trip from Greenock to the Isle of Man," said a teacher to his class; "I give you an hour to write it out." Very few were past Lochryan at the hour's end. One daring youth took his boat, which he christened "The Comet," right round the Mull of Kintyre, with intent to reach Douglas by way of Cape Wrath, the North Sea, Dover, Land's End, and St. George's Channel. When time was up, the Comet, all torn and tattered by the strumpet wind, was beating round the north end of Skye. That boy will, in all probability, turn out a deep-sea captain.

"How many days are there in a year?" asked an inspector of a class of Highland youngsters. No answer was given. "Tut, tut," said the inspector testily, "this is ridiculous. Is there no one who knows how many days there are in the year?" "Oh, yes, sir," said a boy reproachfully, "God knows."

"What kind of king was William III.?" inquired another examiner. "He had an aquiline nose, sir," said a boy. "What does that mean?" said the examiner. "It means," answered the boy, "that William III.'s nose was turned up at the point like the beak of an eagle!" "What right had William to the English throne?" continued the examiner, changing his ground. "No right under heaven," was the forceful Jacobite rejoinder.

Here is a tale, from the eastern seaboard of Scotland.

Inspector, M.A., Ph.D., LL.D., etc. (examining a class of ten-year olds): "Now, boys, what is the shape of the earth?"

Boy: "Roon, like an orange."

Inspector: "But how do I know, how can I be sure that the earth is round like an orange?"

Boy: "Because I tell't ye."

Pupils show great affection for the phrases of their text-books. Not long ago, at a written examination, a lad wrote in reply to a historical question which was puzzling him: "The answer to this question is known only to the Great Searcher of Hearts." What could the boy mean? Was it "cheek," ignorance, or piety? It was none of these. It was Collier! About thirty years ago, Dr. Collier, a modern Euphuist, composed a History of England, which deserves to be reckoned among the glories of the reign. Carlyle may be great, but Collier is greater: Collier is a theologian, philosopher, and a' that. The style of his history is a wondrous blend of Ossian and Hervey's Meditations among the Tombs; and its special peculiarity is that the words, owing to some feature, never really analysed, linger in the mind long after the sentences of the Shorter Catechism have become blurred. Collier is strong in tropes--a highly-dangerous feature. It is no doubt true, as he says, that William the Conqueror ruled with a rod of iron, but when a boy, after reading this metaphor, asserts that that sovereign ruled his subjects with a long iron pole, you begin to question the utility of historical study. "Joy-bells pealed and bonfires blazed," is a phrase of the Doctor's which sets all the caverns of the mind ringing, even though its historical setting is long forgotten. But unction is the chief feature of the history: there is a rotund finality about the author's spacious utterances, and a dodging of investigation by means of pious generalisations. The book has all the effect of a benediction. When it is really too tiresome to inquire into all the authorities on some affair of magnitude, it is so respectable to sum up in the phrase imitated by the youth alluded to above.

It is in the Secondary Schools of the country that the confusion of thought is apt to be most painfully seen. Far too much is attempted, and the pupils are overworked. A teacher in the neighbourhood of Glasgow, a laudator temporis acti, has a manuscript collection of howlers, drawn from elementary, secondary, and university sources, with the following fearful lines as a preface:--

"Ye statesmen all, of high or humble station,
Collective conscience of the British nation,
Whether the frothing vat has made your name
Or tropes in carpet-bags begot your fame,
Behold the product of the education
Wherewith is dosed the rising generation.
And see the modern devotee of cram
At midnight hour hard-grinding for the exam.,
A moistened towel garlanding his brow,
And coffee simmering on the hob below.
High on a three-legged stool uncushioned, he
Sits glowering through his goggles painfully,
Nagging his brain with all a grinder's might
Till one sounds on the drowsy ear of night.
Like Sibyl's leaves the papers strew his floor
Wrought-out examples, 'wrinkles' by the score,
Conundrums algebraic, 'tips' on Conics
And thorny 'props' remembered by mnemonics.
Betweenwhiles as the slow time lagging goes,
He takes the spectacles from off his nose,
Removes the damper from his aching head,
Pours out the coffee, cuts a slice of bread,
Sips wistfully the liquid from his cup:
The zeal to pass the exam. has eaten him up.
Thrice happy ye! born 'neath the ancient reign
When Tityre tu alone possessed the brain
(Ere Tyndall's tubes made sweating students numb)
And the whole aim of life was di, do, dum."

Competing Subjects

So numerous indeed are the subjects of the school curriculum in our day that howlers and confusion are bound to result. Formerly there was but one scheme (containing classics, mathematics, and a little English), and everybody took it. Now there is a kind of competition among the departments of a school as to which is the most culturing. When a fond mother asks the opinion of the masters as to what course of study her boy (whom she is entitled to think a genius of the first order) ought to pursue, she is often puzzled by the variety of answers. Mr. Test-tube, the Science Master, invariably prescribes an extensive course of chemistry. If a boy is to be a lawyer, he ought to know the principles of atomic combination and the doctrine of gases; if he thinks of the ministry, why then, having a thorough acquaintance with science, he will be competent to close the mouths of heretics, infidels, and such vermin. Dr. Aorist, on the other hand, believes that a sound knowledge of "qui with the subjunctive" is a splendid sheet-anchor for every squall in life's rude sea. "I wish my boy to be a civil engineer; what advice would you give me as to his studies?" "I have no hesitation in affirming," the Doctor replies, "that the boy will build bridges all the better if he has his mind expanded and (so to speak) broadened by the study of subjects outside his special trade, such, e.g., as the interesting fact that in ancient times 'All Gaul was divided into three parts.'"

The average boy has an impartial mind. As a rule, he has no prejudice in favour of either science or letters, his maxim being never to do to-day what he can put off till to-morrow.

          His favourite books for home
Are buccaneering combats on the foam,
Or grim detective tales of Scotland Yard,
Where gleams the bull's-eye lamp and drips the poniard.

Parents may be reminded that the wide spaces of the colonies remain to be peopled and that many a stickit minister might have made a first-class empire-builder.

Chapter V--A Trip to Shetland


Copyright © Scotland from the Roadside 2016