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Chapter IV - Education

The story of how the people were educated serves as a typical illustration of the state of education in most of the Highlands. The heritors were legally bound to supply a school in each parish. It did not concern them that in a wide parish, populous districts with many children might be at a distance of twenty or more miles from the parish school. Kinlochbervie, being but a district of the civil parish of Eddrachillis, had no parish school. It was in the Scourie end of the parish.

There was no compulsion to educate children, and when parents desired to have their children educated they usually formed an association or club who invited a teacher to come and itinerate among them. He went from house to house, staying a week with each family till all the families in the association were visited. They also paid so much per head or per family towards the teacher's salary.

The first regular school was opened in Oldshore by the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge. A Church or Assembly School was subsequently erected on the shore at Badcall Inchard. When the road from Rhiconich to Oldshore was constructed, a new school was erected at the roadside, which was meant to serve the whole district from Achlyness to Kinlochbervie. It consisted of one large class-room and a room and kitchen for a dwelling house. A large garden was laid out and walled round for the use of the teacher. That was in 1846.

The total cost of the house and grounds when finished was 315 17s. 6d. The value of the site was 7s. 6d., that of the garden 45. The erection of the garden wall cost 11 10s., while the schoolroom, dwelling house, desks and forms cost 250.

The first teacher appointed to the new school was Mr. John Cameron, a student, studying for the ministry of the Church of Scotland. Being a student, his appointment was only temporary. He was succeeded in 1847 by a Mr. John Jack, who remained only for two years. His successor was Mr. Alexander McKellar, a professional teacher, who remained for some years.

His position was by no means a happy one. He was appointed by the E. C. Presbytery of Tongue, but as the children were all Free Church and attended the Free Church School, he was often without any pupils. A complaint was lodged with the Presbytery that he was neglecting his work and that the school was for days never opened. He suspected that the complainant was the Rev. Robert Clark, his minister, and his reply was not likely to placate that gentleman, while it throws a clear light on the educational and social life of the time.

His letter, dated, April 12/52, runs, "I am in receipt of yours of the 6th, and in reply beg to say that I am no day during school hours, if not in the Schoolhouse, out of sight of the premises, except on Tuesday now and then, when I go a distance of half a mile to see the newspapers, and even then I am not more than one hour absent, and it is a well-known fact to those who are acquainted with this locality that it is no fault of mine there being no children attending this School, for since I came there have been none spoke to me of coming, except last winter was a twelve month, six made their appearance, when there was no teacher in the Free School, but as soon as they secured a teacher they left, with the exception of two, and these left when they had finished their quarter."

The reply did not satisfy the Presbytery, who again wrote asking whether "he has from the time of his appointment opened the School regularly at the usual hours." His reply, addressed to the clerk of Presbytery, was worthy of a good lawyer. It effectually exposed and closed up the minister.

"I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter of the 29th November, 1852, enquiring whether I have from the time of my appointment opened the School in this parish regularly at the usual hours, and in reply I beg leave to state that I consider the fact of the Rev. Mr. Clark having hitherto signed my certificate at the end of each term, sufficient proof in every respect of proper conduct on my part up till Martinmas last, and that since that period I have punctually attended to such scholars as are under my charge, and in proof thereof I invite investigation into my conduct." The Presbytery allowed the matter to drop.

In 1859 Ir. Peter MacDonald, a native of the parish of Blair Atholl, was appointed to the School, where he remained till the new education system came into operation and the School Board took over the School. They continued to employ him till the old school was evacuated and the new one at Inshegra occupied.

On coming to Badcall Inchard, Mr. MacDonald was accompanied by his father and a sister. The old man was a great favourite, for he would sit ceilidh by the hour, yarning the stirring tales of Perthshire, which were more thrilling than any that the peaceful Reay Country could boast of.

The teacher married after he was well advanced in years, and the lady he brought to the Schoolhouse charmed the children. Her presence, her manner, and her singing were a joy. To those who knew her every remembrance of her is a lasting treasure. Her husband was respected and feared by most of the young, but she was beloved by all.

One of the most notable teachers in the Oldshore School was also a Mr. Peter MacDonald. He was popular in his ways, and a general favourite with the people. He helped them with their correspondence and in other ways. More than a generation of the people of Oldshore owed to him all the education they had received.

The people of the parish were always anxious to give their children the benefits of such education as they could get at that time. It is pathetic to read of them pleading with heritors and Presbyteries to help them to get teachers for their children, and to see them time after time turned away disappointed. Take a concrete case. Kinsailie and Molban had a large population in the thirties and early forties of last century. There was no school for their children, and they were too poor to provide for themselves. They approached the heritors through the Presbytery but met with a refusal. Then they approached the Free Church to which they all adhered, but they were told there was no money available for such remote places.

The Free Church Schools were well attended. Quarterly fees were paid, but attendance was voluntary. Young men and women, away from home at the fishing, at farm work, and at domestic service in the summer months, came home in winter and improved their education by going to school. It was no unusual sight to see fully grown bearded men trying to puzzle out the mysteries of the alphabet and of the multiplication table side by side with infants of tender years.

The Achrisgill school by the riverside was transferred to Inshegra, where a school and dwelling house were built on the site on which the present school stands. When the Scotch Education Act carne into force, the Free Church handed over all her schools throughout the country as a gift to the nation. It was a magnificent gift, worthy of the high and generous spirit that had animated her through all her career in the service of the people and the nation. During the interval between the conveyance of the buildings to the School Board and the erection of the present school, the premises were converted into dwelling houses, where two or three families resided.

Two young men from Achrisgill devoted themselves to the teaching profession. Hector Calder was appointed master at Achrisgill in 1866. For three years he served with conspicuous success, the attendance showing an increase of 45% in the period. In 1869 the Presbytery transferred him to the important school of Sangoinore. The Rev. James Ross, himself a distinguished teacher and educationist, was then newly settled as Free Church minister of Durness. He saw that Mr. Calder was marked for promotion in his profession, and he encouraged and guided him to go through the usual course of training for it. In the Entrance Examination to Moray House, in 1872, he stood second for Scotland, and in the Exit he secured "excellent" in eight subjects, and "very good" in eight. In Religious Knowledge he was first in both entrance and exit examinations. He was distinguished by very great energy and strength of purpose, which enabled him rapidly to master any subject he took in hand.

His first appointment was at Lochinver, from which he was transferred to Gartmore in 1877. There he taught with much success till 1884, when he was selected by the Foreign Mission Committee of the Free Church to go to Lovedale as headmaster of their elementary department. There he laboured with characteristic devotion till death claimed him. High appreciation of his work and character was recorded in the Minutes of the Lovedale Board of Education.

"Mr. Calder had at heart the welfare of those under his care ; their rectitude and spiritual welfare was an ever present desire; and there must be now, all over the country, hundreds of young men whose lives have been influenced by him.

"The moral advancement of the native pupils was to him the supreme end of Missionary labour. To it intellectual progress was distinctly subordinate, being only a means to an end. For this end and with the certain hope that it would be ultimately realised, he laboured faithfully until God called him to his rest."

Mr. John MacKenzie, Aclirisgill, attended the parochial school, first as a pupil, and then as a monitor and assistant. Being a lad o' pairts, he qualified for the profession, and taught for a time at Skerray, and then at Sands, in the parish of Gairloch, where he spent the rest of his teaching life, and where the work of his life and the worth of his character are still held in high esteem.

There were places in the parish, such as Ardmore, where the School Board was not under legal obligation to educate the children. The people were all Free Church; and the Free Church Ladies' Highland Association sent students there in the summer months to teach the young. The people erected a school at their own expense and by their own labour, so keen were they that their children should have the benefits of education.

Our national system of education has had the effect of putting this remote parish on a par with other remote rural parishes, and of advancing the standard of education to the general national level. Modern parents, in their desire to advance the interests of their children, may be sometimes seriously discontented with things as they are, but the beneficent change in educational facilities and attainment that has taken place in the parish in the course of the past century calls for profound thanksgiving.

In Memories Grave and Gay, Dr. John Kerr tells a story which illustrates the low state of education in the parish in his day, and at the same time the proud interest parents took in their children's advancement.

On the afternoon of the day of the Presbyterial Examination of the school, two parents, Duncan and Norman, met in Rhiconich Inn, when a discussion arose on the comparative merits of their daughters, Mary and Jessie. A wager of half a mutchkin of whisky was laid, and as Duncan was newly out from the school where he witnessed an examination it was agreed that he should conduct the test.

The girls meanwhile were amusing themselves outside. Norman rang the bell and asked the servant to send in Jessie. When she appeared, Duncan commenced:-

"Jessie, your father says you're a grand scholar, and as clever a lassie as our Mary. Now jist tell me this, do you know the meaning of a verrub (verb) ?

"No, I do not," said Jessie.

"That will do for you; jist go you away and send in our Mary."

When Mary appeared, Duncan said, "Now, Mary, I have been telling Norman that you are the best scholar in Sutherland. Jist show how clever you are. Do you know the meaning of a verrub (verb)?"

"Yes," in quite a triumphant tone, "it's a noun."

Duncan looked defiantly at Norman and says, "There, now, my friend, what do you think of that? Didn't I tell you she was the cleverest lassie in the Reay Country?"

"Well, I see she is cleverer than my Jessie whatefer. I have lost the half-mutchkin, and we had better send for it now," he added, contentedly ringing the bell.

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