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Reminiscences of a Highland Parish
The Schoolmaster


THE parish schoolmaster of the past belonged to a class of men and to an institution peculiar to Scotland. Between him and the parish clergyman there was a close alliance formed by many links. The homes and incomes of both, though of very unequal value, were secured by Act of Parliament, and provided by the heritors of the parish. Both held their appointments for life, and could be deprived of them only for heresy or immorality, and that by the same kind of formal "libel," and trial before the same ecclesiastical court. Both were members of the same church, and had to subscribe the same confession of faith ; both might have attended the same university, nay, passed through the same curriculum of eight years of preparatory study for the ministry.

The schoolmaster was thus a sort of prebendary or minor canon in the parish cathedral—a teaching presbyter and coadjutor to his preaching brother. In many cases "the master" was possessed of very considerable scholarship and culture, and was invariably required to be able to prepare young men for the Scotch universities, by instructing them in the elements of Greek, Latin, and Mathematics. He was by education more fitted than any of his own rank in the parish to associate with the minister. Besides, he was generally an elder of the church, and the clerk of the kirk session; and, in addition to all these ties, the school was usually in close proximity to the church and manse. The master thus became the minister's right hand and confidential adviser, and the worthies often met. If the minister was a bachelor—a melancholy spectacle too often seen! —the schoolmaster more than any other neighbour cheered him in his loneliness. He knew all the peculiarities of his diocesan, and especially when he might "step up to the manse for a chat" without being thought intrusive. If, for example, it was Monday—the minister's Sunday of rest—and if the day was wet, the roads muddy, the trees dripping, the hens miserable, and seeking shelter under carts in the farmyard, he knew well that ere evening came, the minister would be glad to hear his rap breaking the stilhless of the manse. Seated together in the small study before a cheerful fire, they would then discuss many delicate questions affecting the manners or morals of the flock, and talk about the ongoings of the parish, its births, marriages, and deaths; about its poor, sick, or dying sufferers; about the state of the crops, and the expectation of good or bad "Fiars prices," and the consequent prospects of good or bad stipends, which these regulated. The chances of repairs or additions being obtained for manse, church, or school, would also be considered; preachers and preachings criticised; Church and State politics discussed --both being out-and-out Tories; knotty theological points argued connected with Calvinism or Arminianism; with all the minor and more evanescent controversies of the hour. Or, if the evening was fine, they would perhaps walk in the garden to examine the flowers and the vegetables, and dander over the glebe to inspect the latast improvements, when the master was sure to hear bitter complaints of the laziness of "the minister's man" John, who had been threatened to be turned off for years, but who took the threats with about as much ease of mind as he did his work. Before parting, they probably partook of a humble supper of eggs and toasted cheese, soft as thick cream, washed down by one glass of Edinburgh ale, or, to be perfectly honest, one tumbler of whisky toddy, when old Jenny was told to be sure that the water was boiling.

A schoolmaster who had received . licence to preach, and who consequently might be presented to a parish, if he could get one, belonged to the aristocracy of his profession. Not that he lived in a better house than his unlicensed brother, or received higher emoluments, or wore garments less japanned from polished old age. But the man in the pulpit was greater than the man in the school, addressed larger pupils, and had larger prospects.

Among those schoolmasters who were also preachers. it would have been possible, I daresay, to have found a specimen occasionally of the Dominic Sampson type, with peculiarities and eccentricities which easily accounted for his failure as a preacher, and his equally remarkable want of success as a teacher. There were also a few, perhaps, who had soured tempers, and were often crabbed and cross within school and out of it. But let us not be too severe on the poor Dominic! He had missed a church from want of a patron, and, it must be acknowledged, from want of the gift of preaching, which he bitterly termed "the gift of the gab." In college he had taken the first rank in his classes: and no wonder, then, if he was a little mortified in seeing an old acquaintance who had been a notorious dunce obtain a good living through some of those subtle and influential local or political agencies, or the "pow'r o' speech i' the poopit," neither of which he could command, and who, when preferred, became oleaginous on the tiends, and slowly jogged along the smooth road of life on a punchy, sleek horse, troubled chiefly about the great number of his children and the small number of his "chalders." It is no wonder, I say, that the disappointed Dominic was mortified at this, compelled as he was, poor fellow, to whip his way, tawse in hand, through the mud of A B C, and syntax, Shorter Catechism, and long division, on a pittance of some sixty pounds a year. Nay, as it often happened, the master had a sore at his heart which few knew about. When he was a tutor long ago in the family of a small laird, lie had, we shall suppose, fallen in love with the laird's daughter Mary, whose mind he had first wakened into thought, and first led into the land of poetry. She was to have married him, but not until he should get a parish, for the laird would not permit his fair star to move in any orbit beneath that of the manse circle. And long and often had the parish been expected, and just when the presentation seemed to be within his nervous grasp, it had vanished through some unexpected mishap, and with its departure hope became more deferred, and the heart more sick, until at last Mary married, and so changed all things to her old lover. She had not the pluck to stand by the master when the Laird of Blackmoss was pressing for her hand. And then the black curly hairs of the master turned to gray as the dream of his life vanished, and he awoke to the reality of a heart that can never love another, and to a school with its A B C and syntax. But somehow the dream comes strangely back in all its tenderness as he strokes the hair of some fair girl in the class and looks into her eyes; or it comes darkly back in all its bitterness, and a fire begins to burn at his heart, which very possibly passes off like a shock of electricity along his right arm, and down the black tawsc, finally discharging itself with a flash and a roar into some lazy mass of agricultural flesh who happens to have a vulgar look like the Laird of Blackmoss, and an unprepared lesson.

It often happened that those who were uncommonly bad preachers, were, nevertheless, admirable teachers, especially if they had found suitable wives, and were softened by the amenities of domestic life; above all when they had boys of their own to "drill." The parish school then became one of no mean order. The glory of the old Scotch teacher of this stamp, was to ground his pupils thoroughly in "the elements." He hated all shams, and placed little value on what was acquired without labour. To master details, to stamp grammar rules and prosody rules, thoroughly understood, upon the minds of his pupils as with a pen of iron; to move slowly, but accurately through a classic, this was his delight; not his work only, but his recreation, the outlet of his tastes and energies. He had no long-spun theories about education, nor ever tried his hand at adjustina the fine mechanism of boys' motives. "Do your duty and learn thoroughly, or be well licked;" "Obedience, work, and no humbug," were the sort of Spartan axioms which expressed his views. When he found the boys honest at their work, he rejoiced in his own. But if he found one who seemed bitten with the love of Virgil or Homer; if he discovered in his voice or look, by question or answer, that he "promised to be a good classic," the dominie had a tendency to make that boy a pet. On the annual examination by the presbytery, with what a pleased smile did he contemplate his favourite in the hands of some competent and sympathising examiner! And once a year on such a day the dominic might so far forget his stern and iron rule as to chuck the boy under the chin, clap him fondly on the back, and give him sixpence.

I like to call those old teaching preachers to remembrance. Take them all in all they were a singular body of men; their humble homes, poor salaries, and hard work, presenting a remarkable contrast to their manners, abilities, and literary culture. Scotland owes to them a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid; and many a successful minister, lawyer, and physician, is able to recall some one of those old teachers as his earliest and best friend, who first kindled in him the love of learning, and helped him in the pursuit of knowledge.

In cities the schoolmaster may be nobody, lost in the great crowd of professional and commercial life, unless that august personage the Government Inspector appears in the school, and links its master and pupil teachers to the august and mysterious Privy Council located in the official limbo of Downing Street. But in a country parish, most of all in a Highland parish, to which we must now return, the schoolmaster or "master" occupied a most important position.

The schoolmaster of "the parish " half a century ago was a strong-built man, with such a face, crowned by such a head, that taking face and head together, one felt that he was an out-and-out man. A Celt he evidently was, full of emotion, that could be roused to vehemence, but mild, modest, subdued, and firm. He had been three years at Glasgow University, attending the Greek, Latin, and logic classes. How he, the son of a very small farmer, could support himself is partly explained by the account we have given of student life at that time in Glasgow college. He had brought, no doubt, a supply of potatoes, salt herrings, sausages, and dried cod or ling from Barra, with a mutton ham or two from home. And thus he managed, with a weekly sum which an unskilled labourer would consider wretched wages, to educate himself for three years at the University. He eventually became the schoolmaster, elder, session-clerk, precentor, post-master, and catechist of "the parish," —offices sufficient perhaps to stamp him as incompetent by the Privy Council Committee acting under a "minute," but nevertheless capable of being all duly discharged by "the master."

The school of course was his first duty, and there he diligently taught some fifty or sixty scholars in male and female petticoats for five days in the week, imparting knowledge of the usual branches," and also instructing two or three pupils, including his own sons, in Greek, Latin, and mathematics. I am obliged to confess that neither the teacher nor the children had the slightest knowledge of physiology, chemistry, or even household economy. It is difficult to know, in these days of light, how they got on without it: for the houses were all constructed on principles opposed in every respect to the laws of health as we at present understand them, and the cooking was confined chiefly to potatoes and porridge. But whether it was the Highland air which they breathed, or the rain which daily washed them, or the absence of doctors, the children who ought to have died by rule did not, but were singularly robust and remarkably happy. In spite of bare feet and uncovered heads they seldom had colds, or, if they had, as Charles Lamb says. "they took them kindly."

His most important work next to the school was catechising. By this is meant, teaching the Shorter Catechism" of the Church to the adult parishioners. The custom was, that at certain seasons of the year, when the people were not busy at farm-work, they were assembled in different hamlets throughout the parish: if the weather was wet, in a barn; if fine, on the green hill-side, and there, by question and answer, with explanatory remarks, to indoctrinate them into the great truths of religion. Many of the people in the more distant valleys, where even the small "side schools" could not penetrate, were unable to read, but they had ears to hear, and hearts to feel, and through these channels they were instructed. These meetings were generally on Saturdays when the school was closed. The sick also had the benefit of the catechist's teaching and prayers.

The schoolmaster, I have said, was also postmaster. But then the mail was but weekly, and by no means a heavy one. It contained only a few letters for the sheriff or the minister, and halfa-dozen to be delivered as opportunity offered to outlying districts in the parish, and these, with three or four newspapers a week old, did not occupy much of his time. The post, moreover, was never in a hurry. "Post haste" was unknown in those parts: the "poste restante" being much more common. The "runner" was a sedate walker, and never lost sight of his feelings as a man in his ambition as a post. Nor was the master's situation as "precentor" a position like that of organist in Westminster or St Paul's. His music was select, and confined to three or four tunes. These he modulated to suit his voice and taste, which were peculiar and difficult to describe. But the people understood both, and followed him on Sundays as far as their own peculiar voices and tastes would permit: and thus his musical calling did not at all interfere with his week-day profession.

It is impossible to describe the many wants which he supplied and the blessings which he conferred. There were few marriages of any parochial importance at which he was not an honoured guest. In times of sickness, sorrow, or death, he was sure to be present with his subdued manner, tender sympathy, and Christian counsel. If any one wanted advice on a matter which did not seem of sufficient gravity to consult about at the manse, "the master" was called in. If a dying man wanted a trustee, who would deal kindly and honestly with his widow and children, the master was sure to be nominated. He knew every one in the parish, and all their belongings, as minutely as a man on the turf knows the horses and their pedigree.

I need not add that he was a true friend of the inmates of the manse, and the minister trusted him as he did no -other man. And so it happened that when the "minister" was dying the schoolmaster watched him by night, and tended him as an old disciple would have done one of the prophets, and left him not until with prayer he closed his eyes.

His emoluments for all this labour were not extravagant. Let us calculate. He had 15 as schoolmaster; 5 in school fees; 7 as postmaster; 1 as session clerk; 1 as leader of church psalmody; 5 as catechist; 34 in all, with house and garden. He had indeed a bit of ground with two or three cows, a few sheep, and a few acres for potatoes, and oats or barley, but for all this he paid rent. So his emoluments were not large. The house was a thatched cottage with what the Scotch call a "but and ben;" the "but" being half kitchen, half bedroom, with a peat-fire on the floor, the "ben" having also a bed, but being dignified by a grate. Between them was a small bed-closet separated from the passage by a wicker partition. All the floors were clay. Above was a garret or loft reached by a ladder, and containing amidst a dim light a series of beds and shakes-down like a barrack. In this home father, mother, and a family of four sons and three daughters were accommodated. The girls learned at home,--in addition to "the three r's" learned at school,—to sew and spin, card wool, and sing songs; while the boys, after preparing their Virgil or arithmetic sums for next day, went in the evening to fish, to work in the garden, or on the farm, to drive the cattle- home, to cut peats for fuel or stack them, to reap ferns and house them for bedding the cattle in winter, or make "composts" for the fields, and procure for them moss and other unmentionable etceteras. When darkness came they gathered round the fire, while some wove baskets, repaired the horses' harness or their own shoes, made fishing lines and busked " hooks; others would discourse sweet music from the trump, and all in their turn tell stories to pass the time pleasantly. The grinding of meal for porridge or fuarm was a common occupation. This fiiarag was a mixture made up of meal freshly ground from corn that had been well toasted and dried before the fire, and then whipped up with thick cream,—a dainty dish to set before a king! The difficulty in making it good was the getting of corn freshly toasted and meal freshly ground. It was prepared by means of a quern, which at that time was in almost every house. The quern .consisted of two round flat stones, of about a foot in diameter, and an inch or so thick, corresponding to the grinding stones in a mill. The lower stone was fixed, and the upper being fitted into it by a circular groove, was made to revolve rapidly upon it, while the corn was poured through a hole in the upper stone to be ground between the two. It was worked thus. A clean white sheet was spread over the bed in the kitchen. The mill was placed in the centre. One end of a stick was then inserted into a hole in the upper stone to turn it round, while the other end of the stick, to give it a purchase and keep it steady, was fixed in the twist of a rope, stretched diagonally from one bedpost to another. The miller sat in, the bed, with a leg on each side of the quern, and seizing the stick, rapidly turned the stone, while the parched corn was poured in. When ground it was taken away and cleaned of all husks. The dry new meal being whipped up with rich cream the fuarag was ready, and then—lucky the boy who got it! I cannot forget the mill or its product, having had the privilege of often sharing in the labours of the one, and enjoying the luxury of the other.

Our schoolmaster could not indeed give entertainments worthy of a great educational institute, nor did he live in the indulgence of any delicacies greater than the one I have dwelt upon, if, indeed, there was any greater then in existence. There was for breakfast the never-failing porridge and milk—and 3uch milk !—with oat-cakes and bar-Icy scones for those who preferred them, or liked them as a top-dressing. On Sundays there were tea and eggs. The dinner never wanted noble potatoes, with their white powdery waistcoats, revealing themselves under the brown jackets. At that time they had not fallen into the "sere and yellow leaf," but retained all their pristine youth and loveliness as when they rejoiced the heart of some Peruvian Inca in the land of their nativity. With such dainties, whether served up "each like a star that dwelt apart," or mashed with milk or a little fresh butter into a homogeneous mass, what signified the accompaniments? Who will inquire anxiously about them? There may have been sometimes salt herring, sometimes other kinds of sea-fish—lythe, rock-cod, mackerel, or saithe, but oftener the unapproachable milk alone! At times a fat hen, and bit of pork, or blackfaced mutton, would mar the simplicity of the dinner. When these came, in Providence, they were appreciated. But whatever the food, all who partook of it ate it heartily, digested it with amazing rapidity, and never were the worse, but always the better for it No one had headaches, or ever heard of medicine except in sermons; and all this is more than can be said of most feasts, from those of the excellent Lord Mayor of London downwards, in all of which the potatoes and milk are shamefully ignored, while salt herring and potatoes—the most savoury of dishes—and even fuarag, are utterly forgotten.

Handless people, who buy everything they require, can, have no idea how the schoolmaster and his family managed to get clothes; yet they always were clothed, and comfortably too. There was wool afforded by their own few sheep, or cheaply obtained from their neighbours, and the mother and daughters employed themselves during the long winter nights in carding and spinning it. Then Callum the weaver took in hand to weave it into tartans, of any known Celtic pattern: and Peter the tailor undertook to shape it into comely garments for father or son; while the female tailors at home had no difficulty in arranging suitable garments out of their own portion of the wool. As for shoes, a hide or two of leather was purchased, and John the shoemaker, like Peter the tailor, would come to the house and live there, and tell his stories, and pour out the country news, and rejoice in the potatoes, and look balmy over the fuarag. Peter the tailor, when he went, left beautiful suits of clothes behind him ; John the shoemaker completed the adornment by most substantial shoes—wanting polish, probably, and graceful shapes, but nevertheless strong and victorious in every battle with mud and water, and possessing powerful thongs and shining tackets. And thus the family were clothed—if we except the kilts of the younger boys, which necessarily left Nature, with becoming confidence in her powers, to a large portion of the work about the limbs. The master's suit of black was also an exception. When that suit was purchased was a point not easily determined. It was generally understood to have been obtained when the schoolmaster went on his first and last journey to see George IV. in Edinburgh. The suit was folded in his large green chest behind the door, and was only visible once a year at the communion, or when some great occasion, such as a marriage or a funeral, called it forth into sunlight. The tartan coat and home-made woollen trousers were at such times exchanged for black broadcloth, and the black silk neckcloth for a white cravat; and then the schoolmaster, with his grave countenance and gray whiskers, and bald head, might pass for a professor of theology or the bishop of a diocese.

The worthy schoolmaster is long since dead. He died, as he had lived, in peace with God and man. The official residence has been changed to another part of the parish ; and when I last saw the once happy and contented home of the good man, with whom I had spent many happy days, the garden was obliterated, the footpaths covered with grass, and the desolation of many years was over -it. Verily, the place that once knew him knows him no more.


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