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Scottish Education
From a Tour Through Scotland in 1807


POLITICIANS have widely differed with regard to the wisdom of enlightening the poor of a country by education. Upon such a subject men of plain understandings would naturally wonder that any variance of opinion could arise. They would conceive that he who prefers darkness to light, who thinks that the common people are most likely to advance the ends of their creation, that they would be more loyal, more brave, and more virtuous, by continuing in a state of ignorance and stupidity, would, by a parity of reasoning, insist that the blind were the most likely to move with certainty, and the crippled with vigour. But a distempered prejudice still maintains that to illumine the head is to extinguish the heart; that ii the humble are taught reading, writing, and a little useful arithmetic, they will soon fancy themselves under the influence of inspiration, and feel as if they had been intended for some high destiny; that they will desert or disgrace the station of life allotted to them by Providence and perish upon the dunghill as vagabonds, or by the gallows as forgers. The poor of Scotland seem to have decided this important question; they can read, and yet are loyal; they can write, and yet are honest ; they can calculate, and yet are virtuous. By the wise and salutary diffusion of education, particularly in parts which appear to be impenetrable -to civilization, upon the sides of frightful mountains, or in dismal glens seldom visited by the rays of Heaven, the astonished and admiring traveller beholds a spectacle at once gratifying and affecting. In a hut of branches and sods, when the hour of labour is over, the young, enlightened by those, institutions which do honour to human nature, are seen instructing those who are younger, or consoling the last hours of venerable and sightless age by reading aloud the Scriptures, or some pious book, printed in their own language; yet in this sorry dwelling the benighted traveller may rest in safety amid the howling storm; not a hand will be extended to him but in kindness, not a voice will be raised but to charm his ear with the: song of other times, or, if he understands the language, to store his mind with the wild, romantic, and beautiful effusions of the Gaelic Muse.

It is equally singular and true that one can scarcely meet with a poor man in any part of Scotland, who is not possessed of the knowledge particularized in the commencement of this chapter, and to this he frequently adds a little acquaintance with 'Latin. The results of this system of education, which I shall briefly explain, are of the most beneficent nature. If the poor remain at home, their deportment is sedate, upright, and orderly ; if they attempt their fortunes in other countries, they bear with them a superior understanding, and a knowledge sharpened by poverty, which enables them to do honour to any situation, and frequently to improve those arts, studies, and pursuits by which the power, prosperity, and character of a country, are at once extended and secured.

The emigration of the humbler classes of the Scotch is a subject of frequent remark. Poor, but cultivated, they quit their native country in the pursuit of fortune in other climes not more congenial to merit, but more m want of talent, and better capable of rewarding it. How happy is it that we live in an age and under a constitution which are propitious to genius, under which humility of origin presents no insurmountable barrier to the advancement of any one, y/ho, to intellect, unites integrity, industry, and prudence.

In the fair pursuit of fortune they spread themselves in the most remote regions of the earth. The celebrated Field-Marshal Keith, who, on account of his having joined King James’s party in the old rebellion, when he was about eighteen or nineteen years old, at the instigation of his mother, after the battle of Sheriff-muir was obliged to escape to France, and who afterwards bad a great share in the revolution which raised Elizabeth the daughter of Peter the Great, to the throne of all the Russias, and was afterwards the chief counsellor and companion of the King of Prussia, is said to have related the following anecdote, illustrative of the erratic disposition of the Scotch :— Being sent upon an important mission to a Turkish officer of high rank, he was received with all the honours and solemnities usual upon such occasions in the east, and which so much encumber and procrastinate the issue of matters of business. The Turk, to his surprise, seemed to feel as he did, a wish to terminate their negotiation as speedily as possible : and upon his learning that the Marshal spoke French, a language with which he too was acquainted, he proposed dismissing their respective attendants, and concluding the objects of their interview in privacy, which the Marshal acceded to. A§ soon as the retinues of both these, personages had retired, the Turk, to the utter astonishment of the Marshal, walked up to him, and in broad Scotch said, "Weel, man, when was ye last at Aberdeen?” On an explanation, which immediately followed this extraordinary interrogatory, it appeared that this eastern chief was no other than the son of a Scottish peasant, who remembered to have seen Marshal Keith in Aberdeenshire, and who, in the pursuit of ameliorating his condition, had wandered into Turkey, where by his good conduct he had raised himself to Asiatic honours.

The same enterprising spirit has led them to colonize where one might naturally suppose only the most powerful inducements of rapid accumulation of riches could have attracted them. A number of Scotchmen have for the last four years bedn settled on the mountains of Caucasus, to whom his Imperial Majesty of Russia has granted, with that noble liberality which always characterises his mind, a charter of extraordinary rights and privileges, by which, in order to induce them to extend their trade and manufactures in a district thinly peopled, and bordering on the territories of many uncivilized tribes of Mahometans and Heathens, they are placed on the same footing with the Evangelical Society of Sarepta. His Majesty secures to them the perpetual possession of ample allotments of land, as near as possible to the village which they have founded and they are exempted from a variety of imposts. The free exercise of their religion is confirmed to them ; and the administration of their internal affairs is for ever vested in a chief magistrate to be chosen amongst themselves, who is authorized to admit as settlers amongst them every description of Mahometans and Heathens, being freemen, and taking the oath of allegiance to his Imperial Majesty.

Why has the Irish peasantry been so frequently rendered the object of an angry policy? a peasantry derived from the same stock as the Scotch, speaking the same language, whose customs and manners were originally the same, and whose natural talents are, to an extraordinary degree, strong and vivacious ? -why, but for the want of the same benign spirit of instruction? Were any one who had visited Ireland to make their amelioration the subject of his pen, I am persuaded that the conclusion of all his reasoning would be, education ‘without proselytism.

Let us compare, by the assistance of a venerable author, the present with the past condition of the Scottish peasantry. In the year 1698, that illustrious Caledonian patriot, Andrew Fletcher, of Saltoun, who so nobly declared that he would readily lose his life to save his country, and would not do a base thing to serve it, tells us, "There are at this day in Scotland two hundred thousand people begging from door to door; and though the number of them be perhaps double to what it was formerly, by reason of this present great distress, (a famine then prevailed), yet in all times there have been about one hundred thousand of these vagabonds, who have lived without any regard or subjection either to the laws of the land or even those, of God and Nature; fathers incestuously accompanying with their own daughters, the son with the mother, and the brother with the sister. No magistrate ever could discover that they had been baptized, or in what way one in a hundred went out of the world. They are frequently guilty of robbery, and sometimes of murder. In years of plenty many thousands of them meet together in the mountains, there they feast and riot for many days; and at country weddings, markets, burials, and on other public occasions, they are to be seen, both men and women, perpetually drunk, cursing, blaspheming, and fighting together.”

These dreadful evils were not mowed down by the sword, they were not exterminated by ferocious penal laws; they were put to the blush by the mild and salutary precepts of mental illumination, the light of which they could not encounter, and withdrew forever from' its presence. This system of education gives to the manner of a low Scotchman an air of sedateness, acuteness, and consideration, which I have never witnessed in the same class in any other country. A low Irishman frequently shapes his answer by a quick and often erroneous anticipation, before the question propounded is half finished. A Scotchman hears you without interruption, and, after a pause of reflection, conveys a firm, modest, and generally a luminous answer. So strong is the thirst for knowledge amongst the lower orders in Scotland, that small farmers and petty tradesmen are known to form themselves into literary societies ; and it is related, upon authority, that the workmen in the lead mines of the Earl of Hopetoun, at Lead-hills, have a common library supported by contribution, containing several thousand volumes. These people work only six hours, and therefore have time to gratify this extraordinary passion for literature.

The philanthropic and political reader will, I am sure, be gratified with a brief account of the enlightened system by which these admirable traits in the Scottish character are effected. Parish schools were erected by an Act of Parliament of Scotland, passed in 1646, which enacted that a school should be established in every parish in Scotland, for the express purpose of educating the poor ; it obliges the heritors and ministers of each parish to meet and assess the several heritors with the requisite sum for building a schoolhouse, and to elect a schoolmaster, and modify a salary for him in all time to come, The salary is ordered not to be under one hundred nor above two hundred merks, that is, not under 5l. 11sj 1˝d. nor above 11l. 2s. 3d. and the assessment is to be laid on the land in the same proportion as it is rated for the support of the clergy, and as it regulates the payment of the land tax's. But in case the heritors of any parish, or the majority of them, shall fail to discharge this duty, then the persons forming what is called the Committee of Supply of the County (consisting of the principal landholders) or any five of them, are authorised by the statute to impose the assessment instead of them, on the representation of the presbytery in which the parish is situated. To secure the choice of a proper teacher, the right of election on the part of the heritors, by a statute passed in 1693, chap. 22, is made subject to the review and control of the presbytery of the district, who have a right to examine the person proposed as to his qualifications as a teacher, and as to his proper deportment in office, when settled in it This election on the part of the heritors is therefore only a presentment of a person for the approbation of the presbytery. The statute of 1646 was repealed on the accession of Charles II. in 1660, on account of its having been passed during the Commonwealth, and lay dormant until after the Revolution, when it was re-enacted by the Scottish parliament in the same form, and remains in force to this hour. All this was excellent; but the income of the schoolmaster, fixed by the provisions of the act, and arising also from the compensations of his scholars, was by much too small. This has been in part remedied: the teachers have now a salary of 15/. per annum, and a portion of land, varying from three to more acres, according to the quality of the land, a small house to reside in, and a school-room built and kept in repair by the society. These teachers are Presbyterians, and under the superintendance of the general assembly.

The church establishment of Scotland is favourable to its school establishments the constant residence of the clergy upon their benefices places the conduct of the schoolmaster and the application of his scholars under the fostering protection of his superintendence, and the teacher himself is often appointed to a vacant benefice.

Instruction in these schools is deeply tinged with religion. The Catechism of the Assembly, the Proverbs of Solomon, and the New and Old Testament, either in English or in Gaelic, impart to the mind of" the rustic student a knowledge of the sacred writings, conformably to the doctrines of Calvin. To preserve their flock, and not to enlarge it by proselytism, seems to have been the sound wisdom of the Scottish legislators. I am assured that proselytism is never attempted. In the country, the English language, writing and arithmetic, are taught at the rate of six shillings, and Latin at the rate of ten or twelve shillings a year. In the towns the prices are higher, but in some places lower than the sums mentioned.

The Highland schools are of more recent institution, and arise from the beneficial effects already experienced from the parish schools. By the 4th George I. chap. 6, it is enacted, “That of the moneys arising from the sale of the Scottish estates, forfeited in the rebellion of 1715, 2000/. sterling shall be converted into a capital stock, the interest of which shall be laid out in erecting and maintaining schools in the Highlands.”

The charity schools established by the Society for propagating Christian Knowledge are, in the next degree, entitled to our consideration. This association derived its origin from the public spirit of a few private gentlemen in Edinburgh, who, in the beginning of the last century, formed themselves into “A Society for the Reformation of Manners,” principally in the Highlands and Hebrides, on account of their remote situation, their total want of schools, the small number of Protestant clergy in the country, the immense extent of parishes, the little intercourse between them and their ministry (who are separated from them by vast mountainous tracts, mountains, arms of the sea, and rivers often impassable), by their language (a dialect of the ancient Celtic, unintelligible to the inhabitants of the Low countries of Scotland), the prevalence of popery in many districts, and the influence of clanship. All these circumstances induced them to erect and endow schools, provided with well qualified teachers, in as many districts of the Highlands as possible, for the instruction of youth in the first principles of religion and literature. Their funds were at first small, but private contributions soon swelled the scanty stream into a noble current; and the subscribers were erected into a body corporate by Queen Ann, in 1709 under the title they now bear; some time afterwards they obtained from the crown an enlargement of their powers, that they might add to their primary objects the cultivation of the most necessary branches of industry ; in consequence of which the women in the remote Highlands, who used to be employed, as is frequently the case in uncivilized countries, in the masculine labours of the field, were engaged in sewing, spinning, knitting stockings, and other occupations more appropriate to the sex.

By liberal contributions, and by the great disinterestedness and discretion of all parties concerned, the funds of this society are in a flourishing condition, though still unequal to the objects of its application, which are continually increasing ; the promoters of it have however the happiness of reflecting that they afford every year the elementary branches of education to nearly 16,000 children. The schools of the society are annually visited by two ministers of every presbytery within whose bounds they are stationed: and at these visitations a report is written and transmitted to the society of the number of the scholars, the branches they are taught, and of their proficiency ; also of the character and conduct of the teacher, and of the nature of the accommodations furnished to him, in compliance with the rules of the society: and until such report is received at the office of the society, the salary of the teacker is not paid. This society has caused to be translated the Scriptures both of the Old and New Testament, as well as a variety of pious and useful treatises, into the Gaelic language, and by means of their schoolmasters have circulated them through the Highlands and islands.

The Highlanders, it is well known, are very proud of literary distinction; and their ambition to teach others, after they have been taught themselves, is very great. Hence the society have upon their lists more candidates than they can appoint. The expenses of this noble institution are conducted with the greatest economy and integrity.

Besides these established schools, the lojyer classes of people xn Scotland, where the parishes are large, often combine together, and form private schools of their own. So convinced are the poor people of Scotland of the advantages of education, that they will submit to almost any privation to procure it for their children, in doing which they have to encounter the expense of clothing and feeding them. At the charity schools no fees are paid. The benefits derived from these schools to the rural Muse of Scotland are too well known to be enumerated. In opposition to Dr. Johnson’s remark, that the schools are deserted in the winter on account of the scarcity of food, it is a well-known fact that the schools are much more frequented in that season than in summer, when the children of those who are fit for, and are required in domestic services are most wanted. The winter, moreover, is not penurious of food in the Hebrides, as the natives are too careful not to provide for that gloomy season of the year.

I shall close my account of these great intellectual sources with the following singular remark made upon them by a Scotchman :—A lady of rank, who had a Highlander in her service, whom she employed as her hair-dresser, one morning as he was, adjusting her head, asked him how many traditionary poems concerning Fingal still remained amongst his countrymen ; to which he replied, « When any stranger entered a Highland cottage, the first question always was from the family to the guest, "Know you any thing of Fingal, or Ossian, or Oscar?” If he did, he was called upon to recite what he knew; if he did pot,, they recited it to him; and upon the lady asking how they could treasure up in their memories so many poems, he said, "Oh, madam before we had so many schools, we had long memories.”

As another mode of diffusing knowledge in the Highlands, I must not omit to mention, that, a short time before I arrived at Inverness, a weekly newspaper had been established, with every prospect of success, by a very respectable bookseller, Mr. John Young, which considering the improvements that have been made in the Highlands in agriculture, in external and internal commerce/ and the general condition of the people, is like to be of considerable public advantage, as well as a source of private amusement, by opening new communications of intelligence. It is rather singular that this should have been the first public print in these parts.


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