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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter VII. More Academy Memories


When I entered the Glasgow Academy the headmasters were as follow :— Classics, Joseph Currie and Isaiah M'Burney; English, James Bell; French and German, A. L. Finlay; Arithmetic and Mathematics, William Reid ; Writing, John Gow. Drawing was also taught by Charles Woolnoth, an artist of some repute, and Gymnastics by the Messrs. Foucart. The earlier assistants in my time were Bonnar and Riddell in Classics, Alexander and Ballantyne in English, "Wee Reid" (Nos legimus), Ness and "Pony Brown" in Arithmetic, and Fraser in Writing. The bare recital of these names calls up memories of numerous idiosyncrasies in voice, manner and dress, a few of which only can be touched
upon :—

Hey diddle diddle, M'Bumey and Riddell,
John Gow jumped over the moon,
Pony Brown laughed to see such sport,
And Fraser ran off with the spoon

Currie was a painstaking and plodding teacher of good parts; conscientious, moody, and withal too modest. He had issued from the University Press editions of "Extracts" from Horace and Ceaesar, with original notes, for which he might well have got a degree from his Alma Mater, but somehow his claims were overlooked. He was rather an austere disciplinarian, but kindly toward such as he believed were doing their best. His opening prayers were always impressive and one could never forget his oft-repeated petition " that we might so live as we should like to have done when we came to die. Twenty-five years later it fell to his former pupil to write an obituary notice for the columns of the "Glasgow Herald." His eldest son became head of  one of the largest concerns connected with the building trade in Scotland.

M'Bumey at his best was clever and inspiring as a teacher, more showy than Currie and with "a guid conceit o' himsel'," especially of the fact that he could write LL. D. after his name. Like his worthy colleague he, too, had edited a Latin text-book, "Extracts from Ovid," for the University Press, and was understood to preach on Sundays to a small congregation of Cameronians. Of rotund figure and with clean-shaven, rosy cheeks, he usually appeared in swallow-tails. He wore "glasses," took snuff copiously, and altogether resembled the traditional portraits of Pickwick. His recognised specialty lay in putting what he called "general questions," for which he was believed to wind himself up daily. Favourite conundrums were to repeat the names of the Latin deities in two hexameter lines, to enumerate the alleged birthplaces of Homer in one, or to decline Dens, giving all its plural possibilities. Now and then he would propound a sentence to be rendered into Latin, which, as likely as not, would run, "I say that Isaiah M'Burney is a better master than Joseph Currie," a proposition which would later in the day give rise to wordy fights in the playground. He was an extraordinarily neat penman, and I have now before me a letter addressed to myself from the Isle of Man, where he afterwards established a boarding school. It is dated October1i, 1862, and contains no fewer than 55 lines to a small page of notepaper. The letter is a medley of characteristic personal allusions and flowery descriptions of Mona. The following delineation of ' the old Doctor's' life is rich :—"If you have yet reached the age when you can appreciate what labour it was to teach from nine in the morning till five p.m. without a break, except the quarter for dinner—which with  no one is a time of leisure—and if you can estimate what is implied by the study requisite, the correction of exercises, and the numberless etceteras that fall to the lot of a teacher in his extra-academical hours, you will perhaps feel inclined to pity me for having still heavier duties imposed upon me in the Isle of Man." And again "You know I was ever a pretty strict disciplinarian: that discipline is now brought, I may say, to perfection and yet without the infliction of corporal punishment. Parents, guardians and visitors all pronounce the system unparalleled. There must be some truth in their eulogy seeing that the establishment is succeeding so marvellously." M'Burney's son, Sam, was the moving spirit in a secret language society, by means of whose dictionary members were able to communicate with each other privately. He had a gift also for music which he afterwards adopted as a profession.

Bell had the deserved reputation of being a first-rate English master, and was held in special regard by the privileged few who from time to time lived as boarders under his roof. In class he was brisk and occasionally brusque, but with the juniors especially he was a great favourite, and on examination days he would toss them sweeties from a back pocket in exchange for correct answers. In after years he became one of the originators of the Glasgow Foundry Boys' Society, in which he remained an enthusiastic worker as long as he lived. When he left the Academy in 1859 for a similar appointment in the High School we boys were snobbish enough to believe that he took a step downward though he carried not a few of our companions with him to the rival establishment in John Street. His place was filled by two colleagues, W. B. Moyes and David Pryde, both, if I mistake not, M.A.'s. The former was famous for his stentorian voice and quick temper, though he had the undoubted knack of calling forth the wondering admiration of his more capable pupils. The latter was noted for the glossiness of his silk hat and for a certain delicacy of complexion, but especially for the contagious interest which he inspired for English literature, a study not hitherto much in evidence within those halls of learning. His influence was perhaps the most formative that I encountered during the whole of my Academy course. He afterwards became Principal of a large Ladies' College in Edinburgh, and had the honorary degree of LL.D. conferred upon him.

"Mooshie" Finlay was the only master who wore a moustache, which was indicative to us of the barbarous countries whose languages he professed. He was, moreover, so extremely short-sighted that a ball could be rolled across the floor under his spectacles without detection. All the same he was a real good soul, and an efficient teacher of modern tongues, whose private class for advanced German literature and conversation I was long after- wards glad to avail myself of. His hand- some son Reggie was a general favourite.

Reid, the mathematical master, was dying when I entered the Academy, so that I never really saw him. He had been known as "Big Reid" to distinguish him from his junior, "Nos legiinus," and left pleasing memories behind him. In succession to him came Billy Marr, a born mathematician, but helpless among boys. He was of the kindliest disposition, and easily imposed upon. His face had a peculiar faculty of flushing upon the slightest provocation, and no one who was present could forget how it broke out into purple beads of perspiration when on prize-giving day he had to read out the name of his own son as medallist. The honour, however, was well deserved, and ingenuous youth cheered father and son to the echo. Thomas was indeed a born actuary and took a leading position in the Insurance world. One or two amusing incidents connected with Marr's class come back over the years. The stock of slates having somehow been allowed to fall into a frightful state of disrepair it occurred to a certain wag to fill the rack from top to bottom with the worst specimens, hiding the better ones in out-of-the-way corners. As the class rushed in and, in rapid succession, drew out little more than skeleton rims the uproar became terrific and poor Billy was fairly flustered. Another incident occurred on examination day.

Our class was supposed to have worked inter alia at trigonometry, but Marr had somehow overlooked the subject till the session was just closing, so that even prizemen hardly knew anything of it Still the examination had to be proceeded with, and we dreaded the advent of visitors. Fortunately few seemed to interest themselves in such abstruse studies, and Billy pulled us bravely through by the simplicity of his questions, the occasional suggestion of the answer, or even a timely nod—let alone a wink.

Gow was thin, sallow, and excitable to a high degree, but was kindly enough when not out of humour. He wore his hat on the crown of his head, and had an uncanny way of showing the white of his eyes. He was himself an expert penman, and was thoroughly in his element when seated at his desk at the top of the long room examining copy-books. Should, however the buzz of conversation wax too loud, he would suddenly spring from his seat, dart down the centre passage with coat tails flying behind him, and whack right and left with his tawse the end of every desk from which he thought it proceeded. No wonder if our "half text" was occasionally shaky, or if a word was inadvertently omitted from a poem by
M'Bumey, which we might be in the act of engrossing, or if the ornamental line of red ink got suddenly deflected. We had to submit each completed page to himself or his assistant for notification of merit. Five was the highest mark given, and we very soon discovered whether Gow himself or Fraser could be depended on to give the most appreciative recognition to our individual caligraphy. At Gow's death he was succeeded by John Maclaren, an enthusiastic musician and general favourite with the boys, who held the post for the next 40 years.

In these patriarchal days the masters constituted a sort of republic of letters, each one taking precedence for a year in turn in the matter of interviewing parents, receiving fees, &c. When, however, M'Bumey left in 1861 opportunity was taken to appoint a rector in the person of Donald Morrison, an educationist of distinction, hailing from Elgin. His bushy head of hair, black as a raven's, instantly secured for him the appellation of "The Beetle," a name which stuck to him after the reason for it had ceased to be evident. He was emphatically a parents' man, and his teaching hours were sadly interrupted by their constant visits. This necessitated his having various assistants, who were not always of equal calibre or popularity. The first was "Beaky," who was short in stature, with a very aquiline nose; well versed in classic lore, but out of his element in handling boys. He ultimately found congenial life-work as a theological professor in Glasgow University. "Rosebud" and others followed :—

Pretty little Rosebud
What does he do all day?
He sitteth in the Rector's room
And nothing do but play,
Foolish little Rosebud
To waste his time away!

One small grievance I had against the Rector. A prize was being competed for in Ancient History when I and another came out equal firsts. His method of settling who should be the recipient was by setting some questions in Ancient Geography! These hovered chiefly round Asia Minor, and my rival happily scored by a timely recollection of the Seven Churches mentioned in Revelation. As, however, the competitor happened to be my own brother, I certainly did not grudge him the honour.

All these masters, save one, have now passed over to the majority, and too many' alas! also of those who were their pupils. Nevertheless, a goodly band of old Academy boys still cherish their memory with the kindliest regard. Strange, indeed, that John Riddell, who then seemed the least robust, should have lived to accomplish the longest and most arduous spell of work, for he is still, if I mistake not, senior minister of Wynd United Free Church in Glasgow. May the good man's bow long abide in strength! Before leaving the subject of Teachers, I should like to add a postscript of interest to myself, in connection with Glasgow University, where 1 passed the session of 1863-64 before entering on a business career. "The College" then stood in the High Street, and was entered through an imposing gateway surmounted by boldly carved Royal Arms with initials of Charles II. Inside that portal, the freshman's attention was arrested by a bust of the munificent benefactor, Zachary Boyd, and he was forthwith confronted by two quadrangles from the first of which sprang a handsome stone staircase. Beyond these stretched considerable parks, ill-kept and grimy, with the Hunterian Museum in the centre. Behind the left side of these courts stood the dingy row of professors' houses where, after matriculation, one called to make a bowing aquaintance and to pay fees.

My two professors were Lushington, brother-in-law of Tennyson, and George Ramsay who then entered upon his long tenure of the Humanity Chair in succession to his uncle. The former I found a most stimulating teacher, and I marvel now at the understanding way in which he carried his class through formidable tomes of Greek classics. In Murdoch, the most modest of men, he had a remarkably capable assistant, with whom I was glad to renew aquaintance fifty years' later on the College Committee of my own Church. Ramsay's assistant was A. W. Ward, now Master of Peterhouse. The first class began at 8 a.m. and the moment the College bell ceased ringing the door was slammed in the face of late comers.

A single amusing aside in Ramsay's class may be given in closing. The Professor, having stated that Julius Ceasar would sometimes swim three times across the Tiber before breakfast, detected sniggering and called upon Mr. M'Tavish to give the whole class the benefit of his conversation. M'Tavish, however, was equal to the occasion and gravely replied: "I was just remarking, sir, that I thocht Julius Caesar would find his claes on the wrang side o' the watter."

Among fellow students of those days were Gilmour, of Mongolia, Meiklejohn, the Australian Church leader, and James MacKenzie, still a distinguished ornament of the legal profession in Glasgow.


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