Saturday 22 April 2023

Victorian schools in Scotland

Schools in Victorian Scotland 

Victorian, as you know, begins with the letter 'v' but actually this particular post was meant to be all about 's' at the beginning of schools. However and undaunted, since Mr. Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens novel 'Hard Times' was all about drumming 'Facts' into the minds of the schoolkids, this contains a lot of  facts about schools in Victorian Scotland. 

Researching schools in Milnathort, Kinross-Shire, was one of my first tasks when I began to write about my character named Margaret. She’s aged almost five when her story begins and I wondered which school she might have gone to. My initial thoughts were not actually ‘Did she go to school’ but definitely more of ‘Which school and for how long’?

I’ve studied enough of Scottish Victorian era schooling before to know that, in 1845, many children were educated to at least the basics of reading, and of writing their own name. Luckier pupils were able to stay at school longer to learn to read well, to write and spell, and to do basic arithmetic. I knew already that schooling in Scotland had a greater uptake than schooling in England at this time, but that it was not compulsory to send a child to school in Scotland till after the Education Acts of 1872. So, in 1845, my character Margaret would only have gone to school if her parents had paid for it.

As an ex-primary teacher in Scotland, I knew that quarterly school fees were commonly paid to the schoolmaster, and that payment for basic reading lessons had to be supplemented by a further fee for the child to learn to write, and to count.

What I did not know was what kind of schools were there were in Milnathort in 1845. I knew that many areas had parochial (Parish) schools but, that in some cases, these places tended to only educate boys. Since girls were destined mainly for domestic service, factory work, or running a household of their own, the priority was often to only give girls basic reading lessons. They spent the bulk of the time at school learning household crafts like cooking; laundry; cleaning and sewing. Some of these girls’ establishments were familiarly named ‘Dame’ schools, i.e. establishments run by females for females. These schools for females perhaps charged less than the parochial schools? Another question to find an answer to!

For the more well-to-do parents or guardians, in the Milnathort area, those who did not employ tutors to teach at home (relatively common for wealthy girls), there were boarding schools their offspring could be sent to, from where a pupil only returned home a few times a year, at special times. In the large cities in Scotland, some pupils (mainly boys) went to schools which were intended to give them a better education than in their parochial, local schools.

In Edinburgh, there were the 'Merchant Company' Schools set up to educate the offspring of Edinburgh merchants, like Melville College, founded in 1832 for boys. Even older, the Mary Erskine School for Girls, founded in 1694, was well-established by the time my character, Margaret, ends up working in Edinburgh in 1851. The Mary Erskine School for Girls is one of the oldest schools for girls in the world. The High School of Glasgow had been established in the late 1100s as the Choir School for Glasgow Cathedral and still exists today, though clearly not in any original building. Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen was originally begun as a school with accommodation for educating boys in the mid-1700s. When it opened in 1750, it had 14 pupils. It grew to become Robert Gordon's College Day School in 1887.


But back to Milnathort...and some questions. Did Milnathort have a Dame School that Margaret would have gone to? Did Milnathort have a parochial school that she would have been allowed to attend along with the local boys of the town?

She is a well-educated young woman, evident later in her story (a 3-book series), but she doesn't come from a well-to-do background. Her parents aren't the poorest in Milnathort though are not the richest either, and are unable to send her to board at any of the above mentioned 'higher fee paying' schools. They manage a draper’s shop, originally owned by her late grandfather but now owned by an uncle who oversees a grocer’s shop in the town. Her father wants her to have the best education possible, and wants to provide that education for as long as he can pay for it. He doesn’t ever want to see Margaret go into domestic service.

So, what school can she go to in Milnathort, in 1845, that would be suitable and historically accurate? I found evidence for a parochial school that was associated with the established Church of Scotland, up on Ba’ Hill (towards the N on the map above) that had long-been established in Milnathort. What wasn’t easy to prove was that girls attended that school for a more thorough education than just basic reading.

On the 1846 map above there is a Free Church, and also marked is a United Presbyterian Church (National Library of Scotland Collections). The United Presbyterian Church is towards the west of the town square on a road named Cockamey, parallel to Stirling Road. The Free Church is marked north-east of the square. Both of those churches would have emerged after The Great Disruption in 1843 (see a to Z post for Dis is for the [Great] Disruption), so those church buildings in Milnathort were built fairly soon after 1843.

On Cockamey, a bit west of the United Presbyterian Church there is a Subscription School. To date, I've not found sufficient evidence of exactly what that meant. Does 'subscription' have to do with how the school was funded other than by parents’ fees, e.g., a collection of some kind?

I decided that the subscription school was built associated with the United Presbyterian Church and that is the one I have Margaret attending. Again, using my interpretation as an author of fiction!

Because some of the old ideas of the established Church of Scotland had been rejected during the 'Disruption', the new churches were more forward-thinking. From research, I noted that the United Presbyterian Church set up teaching colleges to train their own ministers, so it seemed reasonable that Milnathort would have a United Presbyterian School which accepted girls, for as long as the parents or guardians would pay for them to attend.


Most Scottish schools during the 1800s had extremely large classes. Sometimes 70 or so pupils were educated in the same room. To help the schoolmaster maintain the strict and regimented teaching environment, there were a few pupil teachers/teaching monitors in the room. Some Scottish schools had more than one room in their building, if in a more populated area, but that didn’t mean teaching was easier. Classroom discipline was paramount in small, or large, classes!

The image of desks above would have been commonplace in the second half of the nineteenth century, the bench and table combination meant for two pupils, perhaps even three at the infant stages if the class roll was very high.

I started primary school in Glasgow in 1957, close to a century after my character is at school in Milnathort, yet some of my earliest teaching was done in similar Victorian classrooms to the one above. Some furniture was very, very old and very, very chipped! The tiered seating was to enable the teacher to view all the pupils from front row to back row. Where the floor was flat in a Victorian classroom, the teacher's desk was sometimes built on an elevated platform at the front, again giving the height needed to see all the way to the back. Sometimes, it was too easy to trip when descending the steps, if I was too eager to escape the classroom at playtime.

A system of regular assessment was common and a simple strategy established. Pupils who were learning the fastest went to the back rows of the room and those who needed most guidance, and often more control if unruly, sat near the front nearest the dominie, or pupil teacher. An aisle/s separated the long rows of desks enabling the dominie, or the pupil teacher, to walk between, within relatively easy reach of the pupils. and if they themselves could not reach over to reprimand a particular child for inattention, or for making errors, then a blackboard pointer could do the job admirably.

I read somewhere (many years ago) that in some very early Victorian schools, where a level-floored hall was used, the pupils were segregated into smaller ‘units’, and sat down in what was effectively different teaching groups. This would have been in schools which had only bench seating and no individual desks. Pupils who had progressed well would be expected to do their work largely unsupervised while the teacher, or pupil teacher, gave instructions to younger pupil groups. In some schools, in a room of 70 pupils, a bright pupil could ‘move up the ranks/ groups’ quickly if they were achieving at a faster rate than most of their peer groups. Ability mattered. Not age.

Rote learning was the regime in most schools, and memory stretching was paramount to become adept at progressing in all subjects. There was a high degree of chanting from learning the alphabet letters, to doing complicated arithmetic sums. If you read my post on M is for Money a few days ago, you’ll realise how complex it was to do ‘money’ sums pre-1971. Multiplication tables didn’t stop at the twelve times table for the more able learners. Recall of multiples of more difficult prime numbers like 13 or 17 were drummed in to the older pupils.

Spelling was also rote learned and chanted till the pupils were blue in the face, but that system of recall worked for many pupils who could spell ever after till the cows came home!

School pens were terrible
to write with! Drippy ink everywhere.

When a pupil achieved a degree of reading competence, special writing lessons were offered (for a fee) but sometimes these classes had to be taught after the main bulk of the pupils were sent home for the day. It was often a similar case for extended arithmetic lessons, mathematics, and for other studies like the classics, or sciences.

Schools have definitely changed over the decades since my character Margaret goes to school in Milnathort in 1845. Schools have also definitely changed since I personally began my teaching career in 1974!

Time for a break? You bet! Till next time...

SlĂ inte!

images: Wikimedia Commons 

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