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Reminiscences and Reflections of an Octogenarian Highlander Chapter XXXVI. - An Unexpected Event


DUNCAN MACKERCHAR and I were so much engrossed in our own affairs that we seldom wrote letters to our friends in the Highlands, and they too seldom sent us any news down the Pass of Dunkeld. So it was quite a surprise when I got a letter from Mr Drummond, saying that he and my father thought I ought to apply for the Fortingall Parish School, which had fallen vacant, because my namesake Duncan Campbell, who had taught it for twenty years, had gone to Lesmahagow, where he vigorously exercised his vocation for the next twenty-five years. I thought that Mr Drummond and my father were expecting too much for me, and I at first declined to become a candidate, both because I wished to continue my own education and because I thought myself too young and inexperienced for the management of such a large school. But while my reply was in the course of transmission by the winter weekly post, Mr Drummond had actually sent in my name, and, on knowing this, I felt bound to attend on the day appointed at Fortingall for examination before the heritors. Through delay I was the last. Five or six had been examined, and some way or another, none of them seemed to have given satisfaction. An Edinburgh professor and Dr Duff of Kenmore had prepared test questions which ranged over a fair amount of history, literature, Latin, Greek, and practical mathematics.

Duncan Mackerchar and I walked together from Cargill to Port-na-craig, opposite Pitlochry. It is a long way from Cargill to Port-na-craig round by Dunkeld, and we stopped there for the night. Next morning before daylight I left my companion and crossed the hill to Strathtay, and walked on to Fortingall, another pretty long walk, so as to be there at twelve o'clock.

I had not the least expectation of being appointed, so I was not in the least flustered when Doctor Duff took me in hand and put the questions of his examination catechism to me. Finding that I had read a great deal more Latin than the former candidates, he passed beyond his catechism, and I really got interested in the proceedings, and was not a whit concerned as to what the issue would be. To my astonishment I was appointed, subject, of course, to another examination by the Presbytery of Weem.

The old hotelkeeper and his wife took care to give me a good dinner before I set off on my return journey. Night closed round me soon after I left Weem rather stormy, and with heavy showers of snow. In crossing from Strathtay I lost my way and wandered westward off the line amidst bogs and ice, so that it was a dilapidated youth I was when I finally reached Port-na-craig. My boots had got soaked in ice water, and next morning my toes were blistered, and I had a sore journey back with Duncan Mackerchar round by Dunkeld to Cargill.

Pitlochry looked a very small village when we passed through it on that sunshiny morning after the snowy night on our return to Cargill. Some eighteen years had yet to elapse before railway connected Perth and Inverness, and caused forthwith to make old villages expand into towns and new villages to arise for the accommodation of summer visitors. In the winter of 1849 Aberfeldy, although a small village, was bigger than Pitlochry and of more local importance. Birnam had scarcely begun to tower over and absorb little Dunkeld. Mickle or old Dunkeld, with its now partly restored cathedral, has remained throughout the whole era more unchanged than any place on the line from Perth to Inverness. It still belongs to the far off past. The old villages which expanded into towns and the new ones which have been called into existence by railway and steamer communications with the crowded cities and industrial districts of the South, as well as with the whole world, have now made the Highlands a happy hunting-ground for sportsmen, and one large shealing for summer visitors. Mingled good and evil are the result. The old humble shealing existence was part of the agricultural system. It helped mightily to keep a large and hardy population, dependent on cultivation and grazing, spread out over the face of the country, people content with simple, natural life if they only had a bare sufficiency of absolutely necessary means of subsistence. To all appearance the Highlanders, with their ancient language, were impregnably race-defended. But with the sheep regime began the change which culminated in the conversion of the Highlands and Isles into summer resorts. Visitors brought with them the artificial life of towns, and Highlanders who served them commenced to turn their backs upon farming pursuits and forget their ancestral language, although bilingualism would often be materially, and always intellectually, useful to themselves and to their children. "Sluagh gun teangaidh, sluagh gun anam" a race which loses its language loses its soul but it would only fortify its soul to acquire other languages while carefully keeping its own as a sacred inheritance and source of inspiration. Gaelic suffered no fatal detriment from the sheep regime and the invasion of the Lowland farmers and shepherds. The real destroyers have been the children of the Gael themselves; and I fear the Gaelic Societies, Mod, and Comunn Gaidhealach, began their revival movement when the decay had gone too far for being but very partially stopped.

Before leaving Cargill, I had to look for a substitute, and was lucky enough to find one at once, who sowed and reaped, or rather sold the crop which grew on the glebe the farmers had so generously ploughed for me. My substitute was a Highlander from Aberfeldy, who went to some other school in the Lowlands next year. For seventy or eighty years before the setting up of the school board system, Highland schoolmasters were constantly drifting southward, very many to the Lowlands, and not a few to England. I suppose they must have been good teachers in other respects, but I suspect they met with special favour in various places where broad dialects held sway, because they spoke and wrote book English. After the passing of the Scotch Education Act, Highland school boards reversed the former rule by preferring teachers from the Lowlands to Highland ones. This preference contributed to the forces which were killing the Gaelic language. In this matter, the Gaelic revival movement has done much to induce school boards in Gaelic-speaking places to appoint teachers who can understand, read, and speak and teach the language of their pupils. But the southward drifting of the Highland teachers continues and must continue, since the professorial chances in the south are much better than they are in the Highlands.

Examination before heritors was rather a new thing. It was the usual custom that, on personal knowledge or certificates, they should select and nominate a man for the parish school vacancy, and that the Presbytery should examine him, and either appoint him or reject him. As it happened, I had to undergo two examinations; for the Presbytery examination was the real seal of appointment, and not the one before the heritors. In my own case, the examination before the heritors was of a more searching kind than the legal one before the Presbytery. But I did myself far more justice in the first than in the easier one, for when before the heritors, as I had no idea of being appointed, I was perfectly self-possessed, and rejoiced in being catechised in such a manner as allowed me to make use of some of my desultory reading as well as of my more scholastic studies. Before the Presbytery I must have been flurried and nervous, for I managed, or mismanaged, to misstate a mathematical proposition with which I was quite familiar. In Latin and Greek I succeeded much better, and in general knowledge subjects I passed muster. My appointment was therefore ecclesiastically confirmed. As the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the parish schools were covenanted State institutions under the Revolution Settlement, ministers and schoolmasters had to take the same oaths of loyalty as officers of State, Members of Parliament, Magistrates, and others holding public office. On the morning of the day on which I was examined by the Presbytery at Weem, Mr Stewart, the minister of Fortingall, took me to Moness House, where I was sworn by Mr Campbell of Glenfalloch, a ruling elder of the Church of Scotland, whose son, fourteen years later, succeeded the evicting Marquis as Earl of Breadalbane. His son's son is now the third Marquis. Parish schoolmasters might hold different views on the public questions of the day, but few, if any of them, took any pronounced part in politics. They did not think it suited their profession to speak, write, or act as political partisans. I fully agreed with that view, and acted upon it all the years I was a parish schoolmaster. As an ex-officio freeholder, I had the right to be registered as a voter. But I never allowed myself to be registered, because I wanted to keep out of party politics while teaching the children of Whigs and Tories, and was in honour bound, as I thought, to remain neutral in the conflict which divided the parents of my pupils. The schoolmasters who did register themselves gave quiet votes, and were never mixed up with hot political agitations. Their school board successors do not always act so wisely.


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