Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 19 - Education

In spite of an Act passed in 1646 requiring heritors (land-owners) to provide schools in their parishes, a. report on Easter Ross in 1717 said, '. . . the people are illiterate and speak nothing but Irish.  [29] By this time, however, the parish of Fearn had a legal school and another was needed at Meikle Allan, but nothing was said about the villages. [29]   In 1841 the New Statistical Account said of Fearn, 'There are two schools in the parish but two more are required, one at Hilton and one at Wester Geanies.'

After 1841 what is generally thought to have been a Free Church School was founded in Hilton. It was adjacent to the present Free Church meeting-house, with the schoolroom where the modern meeting house now is and the schoolmaster living in the west end. The dual purpose of education and religion in these Free Church schools ceased when compulsory education was introduced by the Education Act of 1872, but it seems likely however that this little school continued to be used under the Act for a few years, as in 1876 the school log says, 'Our school room too small for so many children, and it was only in the following year that Hilton Public School, as it was then called, was formally opened by the School Board.  

Hilton Public School, opened 1877, pre 1960 (now demolished)

The new school up on the hill had three class-rooms - a large infant room 56 feet long and two smaller ones. The pupils-teachers had a small back-room which later on became the staff-room. The roll jumped from sixty-five in the little school under Mr. William Macdonald and a female assistant in 1876 to two hundred and forty in the new school in 1877 with a staff of a headmaster, Mr. Alex. Mackenzie, Mr. Macdonald as assistant master, a sewing mistress and a monitor. The monitors were pupil-teachers who, on reaching school-leaving age, stayed on to do a four-year apprenticeship, taking exams in Tain each year to qualify for an entrance certificate to
Training College.

From time to time in this record mention has been made of the help given by the children at field work and in the daily fishing activities. How did this affect their schooling? From the school log book one learns that the bane of the teacher's life was absenteeism. It was the cri du coeur of the headmaster year after year and with good reason, as some children were at field work the whole time from April to the New Year. No wonder one of the school inspectors referred to a 'formidable amount of absenteeism, probably without
parallel in that inspection district. [33]

The first entry in the log book in May 1875 says that attendance was very irregular for the following reasons - Fearn mid-summer market, barking the nets, girls being seen off to the herring fishing and children gathering whelks for the Fearn market. In January 1876 the entry reads, 'The irregular attendance of the children of this place is very disheartening. In stormy weather they pour in and when the weather is good they stay away.' This was particularly worrying because it meant that the school grant might be cut down.  

Shandwick, being in the parish of Nigg, should have sent its pupils to Chapelhill School but the way was doubtless much too long for little feet to travel so they came to Hilton instead, forty-two of them in 1886. Their attendance was so irregular that year that Nigg School Board were asked to co-operate in seeing that it improved, even if prosecution was the only answer. The 'vigorous compulsory measures' of Nigg School Board greatly improved the situation the following year, but from then on the Compulsory Officer, or Default Officer, seems to have been kept pretty busy in all three villages and prosecutions were fairly common.  [33]

To start with the annual holidays consisted of about a month's 'Harvest play' for the whole of August, or partly August and partly September, plus a few days at the New Year and a few more for the Old New Year. It was because the children's help was vital to so many jobs at home that they simply played truant when necessary and in 1890 the school began to accept this fact and closed for a few days in April for gathering seaware and planting potatoes, and closed again in October for nine days for potato-lifting, in addition to the normal New year and summer holidays.

In 1891 they altered the holidays completely to suit the people's needs - the summer holiday was done away with entirely and school closed for three weeks in April and a month in October, with a few days at the New Year. Thus the modern Easter holiday developed when the school authorities legalized the children's unofficial departure for potato-planting. The autumn tattie-holiday continued until recently and it was not long before the summer holiday returned too.

The children's progress was retarded not only by absenteeism but by the frequently official closures of the school as well. The half-yearly Communion meant a week off school and it might be closed for as much as six to seven weeks at a time for illness. The log also shows that it was closed for a day at a time so that the master might go to a funeral, to allow the teachers to sign a call to a minister, for inductions, bad weather and the visit of the Moderator of the General Assembly.

In 1878 Mr. Macdonald left to go to Elphin School and Mr. Mackenzie again took charge, to be succeeded in 1888 by Mr. J. Watt, M.A., who married one of the teachers, Miss Macdonald, in 1893, and served for a period of forty years before retiring in 1927.  He came from Aberdeenshire and had no Gaelic which was unfortunate as that language was the dominant one of the Seaboard.  In accordance with official policy at the time he discouraged its use among the scholars. Gaelic proved a stumbling-block in the class-room as one can understand, and in 1902 part of the school inspector's report for that session said, 'The bilingual difficulty (which affects children from the villages) has been taken into account when awarding the grant.'

School photograph c.1920 with Mr J Watt, Headmaster.

With the help of the Default Officer, the introduction in 1889 of prizes for attendance and after a long struggle against indifference, Mr. Watt at last began to imbue parents and pupils alike with a sense of importance of book learning and the school attendance gradually improved. The Hilton children now always came up the school brae in good time, the Balintore pupils with a slightly longer road via the churchyard arrived later, while those from Shandwick came in later still to the constant exasperation of the teachers, whose only consolation was that they were better late than never.

Excerpts from the schools inspectors' reports making interesting reading and emphasize the difficulties experienced by the teachers. One was over-crowding - in 1899 an inspector found 129 children in a room 33 feet by 16 feet. Another was the lack of text and copy books - 'The difficulty of getting parents to supply books at all and the fact that books are in some instances beyond the capacity of the children necessarily retard progress.' They did at least have slates (which were used until the 1930's) and progress was made so that the report of 1890 said, 'On the whole the school is in a hopeful condition and under the hardworking and painstaking Headmaster it can hardly fail to make further improvement.' This it did and two years later the inspector reported, 'The school is conducted with exceptional ability and the results are in all circumstances remarkably good. Higher grant recommended. [33]

The natural ability of many of the boys and girls began to show and Hilton, 'the school on the hill,' acquired a reputation for good work under Mr. Watt, who believed in the salutary 'pandy' when necessary. Satisfactory pupils earned a handsome Certificate of Merit from the Scotch Education Department. One example from 1898 still exists, beautifully bound in green leather, tooled in gold, written in copper-plate and signed by Mr. Watt.

Merit Certificate 1920.

During this time a new wing was added and the roll increased until by 1914 there were five qualified assistant teachers besides the headmaster. A number of pupils continued their education at Invergordon Academy. After the First World War higher education came within the reach of more and more children and a bus service to and from Tain enabled parents to send them to the Academy there for three to six years. Many of these took their 'Highers' and after a college or university course entered the professions.

Mr. G. Crawford, M.A., succeeded Mr. Watt in 1927 and carried on the tradition which kept the school in the forefront in matters educational.

The school became the nerve centre of the Seaboard and a keen interest in it replaced the old indifference of the fisherfolk. Extra buildings were added and as the curriculum became enlarged so did the staff and in 1948 children from neighbouring primary schools were centred there as Junior Secondary pupils.

Today Hilton boasts a brand new school built more or less on the old site in 1960, incorporating primary and junior secondary departments. It is superbly fitted out with every modern piece of equipment and has a modern kitchen supplying school dinners not only to its own pupils but also to several nearby schools. This kitchen replaced that at Portmahomack which supplied these meals when the service was introduced after the Second World War.

The present headmaster, Mr. G. M. Ross, M.A., who succeeded Mr. Crawford in 1953, has a large qualified staff plus visiting teachers, and an excellent all-round education is given up to the age of fifteen to sixteen years. In the field of sport Hilton School keeps the flag flying and is very successful in inter-school events.

Brighter pupils still attend Tain Royal Academy for their senior secondary education and substantial Government grants now make it possible for larger numbers of more able scholars to go to University or Technical College.

Unfortunately, the population of the Seaboard has decreased quite considerably in the past four decades and that fact is clearly seen in a shrinking school population. A decision has been made this year (1971) to close the junior secondary department of the school so that it will then be a primary school. The junior secondary pupils will go to Tain Royal Academy with the senior secondary pupils. Whether the setting up of British Aluminium's smelter at Invergordon and all that that may mean in labour requirements will boost the population of the Seaboard villages and their neighbourhood, and hence the school, is as yet in the future.

Continue in Chapter 20
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