Tuesday 4 April 2023

D is for Disruption, the Great Disruption

D is for the Great DISRUPTION 

April A to Z Blog Challenge Day 4


What was the Great Disruption of 1843?

In my current work in progress, my main character is born in 1839. When I investigated which school she was likely to have gone to, it led me into a bit of a convoluted trail. What follows might seem to be more about schools but bear with me because the Great Disruption had a lot to do with schools as well as to do with the churches.

I already knew that in Scotland, at that time, going to school was a more common thing than in other parts of the United Kingdom. I also knew it was more common for boys to gain some education at this time, and for fees to have been paid. Attending a school in Scotland wasn’t compulsory till 1872, so prior to that in the 1840s it depended on whether parents could afford to send their children, and what they were prepared to pay for in quarterly fees.

It seems that charges for learning to read were different from learning to write. I found some costs, though can’t corroborate the date for them, where it stated it could cost from 1 shilling and sixpence  -  to two shillings, a quarter year, for learning to read. Add on a further sixpence each for writing and arithmetic per quarter! (Amounts to be clarified sometime in the future)

Orwell Parish Church, Milnathort

The actual charges may have depended on who was teaching them as there were schools where pupils were taught by stickit ministers’! I love this term but perhaps would not have liked to be in those schools. A stickit minister’ was someone who had failed a divinity degree at university and who managed to acquire a job as a schoolteacher instead. As an ex-primary teacher that doesn’t fill me with the idea that those men really wanted to be teachers. (women were never ordained back then) The concept of droning on to a church congregation once a week as a minister, and being faced with a class of sixty or even seventy pupils on a daily basis as a teacher (dominie) is mind-boggling. Such teachers tended to have a job for life, even though they were supposed to be paid a visit once a year by the Presbytery of the Church of Scotland to check on their progress. The salary for a parochial school teacher was very low, so pupil fees tended to be a large complement to the basic salary.

I wondered if, because Milnathort was a relatively small mill town, education for girls might only have been what was sometimes referred to as a ‘Dame’ school. In Dame schools, girls learned some basics of reading, perhaps even the writing of one's own name for some, but the main focus was on turning out a female who had the skills necessary to keep a household going i.e., could cook; could sew; knew about child rearing and about keeping a house clean and tidy. Unfortunately, females who were destined to work in the local woollen mills were likely to have little time in a day to practise those housewifery skills. At least, not before they began to run their own home and rear their own family.

During my researching of schools in Milnathort, I found out that there was a parochial/ parish school associated with the established Church of Scotland which possibly did have some girls on the roll but, to date, I’ve been unable to get proof of this. However, as a result of what was termed THE GREAT DISRUPTION there was also a Free Church and a United Presbyterian Church in Milnathort. that made me wonder if they also had a school associated with them?


I set off to understand what exactly that GREAT DISRUPTION was. Scotland had been largely a protestant country for centuries before 1843, in fact since the ‘Reformation’, the Church of Scotland afterwards being the established church. 1843 changed this somewhat. A great schism/ disruption to the norm happened in 1843 after long decades of rumbling dissent. In 1712, the Patronage Act had been signed which gave the local gentry/ local lairds the power to choose the next minister. This often led to unwise choices and no doubt some degree of bribery. The church congregations had no say in who preached to them from the pulpit every Sunday, attendance being expected/ almost compulsory, at this time, except in exceptional circumstances like serious ill-health. By 1843, the porridge-pot bubbled over and there was a mass walkout of congregations and ministers who disagreed with the patronage system.

In 1843, at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh, the unthinkable happened! The retiring Moderator (most senior post-holder for one year) read out a protest, bowed to the Queen’s Commissioner and walked out. That was the official signal for the mass walk-out of church ministers across Scotland. A total of 474 ministers left the Church of Scotland and officially set up the FREE Church of Scotland. A system was set in place where the congregation had a say in who they employed as a minister.

Unfortunately, for some of the walk-out ministers they lost their incomes, their manses (houses assigned by the church) and their future livelihoods. For some parishioners, they had no church building to attend till the Free Church built brand new churches and, in some cases, attached schools. The Free Church set up its own training colleges for its own ministers in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

Churches termed Burghers and Anti-burghers were then peppered around Scotland – the Burghers being the adherents of the traditional established Church of Scotland with the local patronage system intact, and the Anti-Burgher Churches where the congregations (or representatives of) chose their ministers.

To make it even more complicated for me as the researcher of Milnathort, there was also another church there in the early 1850s named the United Presbyterian Church. This was also an ‘Anti-Burgher’ church and is the one I have chosen to have my main character attend with her parents. I’ve used a bit of author invention in sending her to the school associated with the United Presbyterian Church, though I have no direct evidence of such a school. (Yet!)

Great Disruptions indeed!

Till the next A to Z,


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