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March 20th 1719

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Struggling with English education

At the time of the Reformation it was hoped that in due course a school would be established in every parish in the country.

Unfortunately, this laudable and far reaching objective proceeded only patchily and by the 18th Century there were still many communities without a parish school. The salary of the schoolmaster was the responsibility of the heritors of the parish and their attitudes towards education varied widely. There are many instances of dominies complaining bitterly of the meanness and recalcitrance of the heritors and it became increasingly obvious that this method of financing the parish school was not satisfactory.

In the Highlands there was a further reason to encourage education, a political reason. If Jacobitism was to be eradicated it would be necessary to imbue the people with a new set of values and the Scottish Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge was set up with this aim in view. The S.S.P.C.K. established a number of charity schools in Highland Perthshire. As the first Duke of Atholl was one of the founder members of the Society it is not unexpected that there were a number of S.S.P.C.K. schools in the Atholl area.

In the eyes of the S.S.P.C.K. one of the means of eradicating Jacobitism was to ensure that Highlanders should speak English; so for the first fifty years of its existence all schools under the auspices of the S.S.P.C.K. insisted upon English as the medium of instruction. In many cases this resulted in children reciting passages from the scriptures without understanding a word of what they were saying. However even a grounding in English did make it easier for Highlanders to work and perhaps remain in the Lowlands.

One man who endeavoured to interpret the S.S.P.C.K. policy more sensibly was James Murray of Blair Atholl. He reported that he was teaching the children the Catechism and Psalms in Gaelic after they had learned them in English. This he did “for the good of their ignorant parents who understood not English. That the children when they come home at night may be enabled to read to the families for the edification thereof.”  He asked for some more Gaelic psalm books. He received a frosty answer; the Society was “resolved to give no encouragement to the teaching to read in the Irish language, and therefore will furnish no books for that purpose.” 

A year later Murray was still giving his pupils a modest proportion of instruction in Gaelic. The Minister of Blair Atholl also wrote in support of James Murray, mentioning that “several parents who could not read have got the questions by heart in their houses which was a great help to the Minister in so great a charge.”  The Minister is referring to the annual Catechising of his parishioners. The Society remained adamant that it was “not to continue the Irish tongue but to wear it out and learn the people the English tongue.”  The General Committee of the Society ordered “not only Mr Murray, but all others their schoolmasters to forbear to teach reading Irish upon any pretext whatsoever.” 

It was 1767 before a Gaelic translation of the New Testament was published. Shortly afterwards, the S.S.P.C.K. removed its own interdict against the use of the language.

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