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Scottish Education - Schools and University
Chapter XIV - Third Period (1696 - 1872). General Assembly and Sessional Schools


THERE is great similarity between the aims of the Society for the propagation of Christian Knowledge and the General Assembly's committee for "increasing the means of education and religious instruction in Scotland." The former took up the work more than a hundred years before the latter, and had in view almost exclusively the Highlands and Islands, while the latter ultimately took in the whole of Scotland. The two societies were co-operators, not rivals. The enquiry made by the General Assembly as to the extent of necessary effort resulted in the discovery that of the 16 synods of the Church 10, mostly in the south and west, were well supplied with the means of education, and that scarcely any individual was unable to read, but that the other six, viz. Argyle, Glenelg, Ross, Sutherland, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland, containing I43 parishes, had most urgent need of not less than 250 schools [General Assembly's Education Reports, Vol. 1, p. 2.].

It is surprising to find Orkney and Shetland mentioned as one of these six synods. In a report on the Moral Statistics of the Highlands and Islands it is stated that in Orkney and Shetland "education is almost universal [Moral Statistics of the Highlands and Islands. Inverness, 1826, p. 27.]."

It is probable that these two groups of islands are wrongly classed as destitute of education. They have had for a long time trade and intercourse, somewhat irregular and infrequent, with the mainland as far south as Leith, and they were not handicapped by having Gaelic as their language, of which they know being Norsemen as little as they know of Chinese. A statement to the effect that the number of uneducated persons in these six synods was deplorably large, accompanied by a circular letter, was sent to every minister in the Church, and brought in most gratifying contributions. In the course of two years the fund amounted to upwards of 5000 from parish collections, donations, and annual subscriptions. Appeals were also made to heritors and others in the districts where schools were needed for the supply of school-house, dwelling-house, garden, fuel, and a cow's grass. The committee were in 1825 ready to make a start.

Teachers were chosen with great care as to qualifications and character. Salaries of 20 or 25 were to be paid, the larger sum to teachers who could give instruction in advanced branches. From this as also from their being permitted to charge the same fees as parish teachers, it is evident that the schools were intended to be of a higher type than those of the Society for the propagation of Christian Knowledge. In many of them mensuration, mathematics, navigation, and Latin were by and by taught. It was by no means unusual, where from any cause the parish schoolmaster was unsatisfactory, to find the General Assembly or Free Church Sessional School surpassing the parish school in both numbers and efficiency. In the course of the next three years the number of schools established was 35, 70, and 85 respectively. Their unsectarian character is shown by the fact that in South Uist there was a school in which out of 33 pupils all but five were Roman Catholics.

Another evidence of the fairly advanced education is that in 1854. there were 52 teachers who held government certificates, and that in 27 schools pupil teachers were employed. In 1843 the number of schools on the Assembly's list was 146 with 13,000 Pupils. In 1848 it was 189 and in 1873 it reached its maximum of 302 ordinary, and 130 sewing schools.

An early start was made in the establishment of school libraries supplied with books of a useful and interesting kind. The stimulation of intelligence resulting from this is referred to in the annual reports in terms of hearty appreciation. Notwithstanding all that had been done during the first ten years of the existence of the scheme we are informed that "in the Highlands and Islands there are more than 80,000 persons above six years of age unqualified to read, and that 384 schools are still required to complete the means of elementary education in the Highlands [Report for 1834, pp. 6 and 13]:" In the Highlands there was, and is, the special difficulty that in the smaller glens there are not children enough within walking distance of any school wherever situated. In the 18th century when the population was at its largest in those districts, the crofters were wretchedly poor, and the children were wanted, when still very young, to herd the sheep. The little girls were provided by thrifty mothers with a spindle, with which they span into rough worsted the tufts of wool that the sheep left on the bushes. Out of this they knitted stockings for themselves, which of course were needed only on Sundays.

Up to 1837 the General Assembly had confined their exertions to the Highlands and Islands, both because the need there was greater, and the means at their disposal forbade a wider range. The parliamentary grant of 10,000 to aid in the erection of school-houses in the poorer districts of large towns enabled them to establish schools in Glasgow, Greenock, and Nairn, by means of a second scheme for the Lowlands [Report for 1837, PP. 24 and 57.].

Shortly after the disruption of the Established and formation of the Free Church it was stated in the assembly of the latter that 36o teachers who had previously held office in parish, General Assembly or S.P.C.K. schools had joined the Free Church [Walker's Chapters from the history of the Free Church, 1895, pp. 114-124.]. It was necessary to make provision for them by the erection of schools, and an education committee was formed, which worked with such vigour and success that in 1847 it was announced that the income for the year was nearly 10,000, and that 513 schools were receiving direct support from it. In 1850 the number had risen to 657 with an attendance of 60,000 pupils. Meanwhile two Ladies' Associations for promoting education in the Highlands came to the aid of the organisation of the churches, one connected with the Church of Scotland, and the other with the Free Church. They did much useful work in having Gaelic reading taught, in adding to the number of schools in destitute districts, in supplying clothing to the children whose need was greatest, and by a salary of 20 enabling the teacher, who was often a student for the ministry, to proceed to the university. There were also subscription schools supported by proprietors or the inhabitants of the district, and a few private adventure schools some of which were needed and efficient.

Between 1852 and 1859 several Bills were introduced into the House of Commons, which had for their object the abolition of tests and the opening up of parish schools to teachers other than members of the Established Church, but they were lost in the House of Lords. At last the Act of 1861 was passed which slackened the connection between the parish school and the Church, and made any member of a Presbyterian church eligible as teacher of a parish school. The schools established by the committees of both churches at the promptings partly of educational zeal, and partly of sectarian jealousy, in many cases required, and in many redundant and overlapping, were of similar type and did useful work, but on the passing of the Act of 1872 they gradually disappeared, being either handed over to the school Boards or discontinued as unnecessary when the Boards erected new premises.

In 1879 all the teachers of both classes of schools had practically disappeared from the lists of the Assemblies of both churches. The number of old teachers was small, and the pensions due to them amounted to a comparatively small sum.

Up to this time inspection of religious instruction was offered to Board and Assembly schools alike, but grants for excellence under examination were for some time confined to the latter class. The response made by the Church to the appeal for funds to continue these grants was however so limited, that payments were discontinued to all but the schools supported by the Society for propagating Christian Knowledge in Scotland. Inspection however was still offered as hitherto to all, and by many taken advantage of.

The education committees were now free to confine their attention in financial matters to the training colleges, to which reference will be made in a subsequent chapter.


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