Attribution: Anne Gordon & Barbara Scott (Nigg Old Parish Church)

School Log Books

The two features which follow appeared in the Ross-shire Journal in September 2000

The wearying road to school

In the first of a two part feature, Anne Gordon discovers a picture of day to day life drawn from the school logs of Pitcalnie and Nigg.

The subject of education is never out of the news these days and so it is interesting to look back to how things used to be over the past hundred plus years with the aid of the log books of two Easter Ross primary schools, Nigg and Pitcalnie, both in the same parish.

If school log books confined themselves to nothing but school work they would make dull reading but they shed an excellent light on the social history of the area – epidemics, fishing, farming, fairs and markets, the war years and much more besides. They can even come up with unusual dates, such as February 31.

Although the parish of Nigg had a parish school by 1716 it was not one which many people remember attending. The original school was in the old Post Office house and, even after the passing of the Education Act of 1872, teaching continued there for a few years.

Pitcalnie School, now a private residence

Pitcalnie School, now a private residence since it closed in the early 1990s.
Attribution: Photo original courtesy of Andrew Allan.

That Act made elementary education free but compulsory and so the in the accommodation in the old school was totally insufficient for the number of pupils. In 1875 there were 131 on the roll, of whom 114 were present one hot summer day so that the school had to dismiss early because of the overpowering heat.

In late 1876 the parish “was invaded with tradespeople” as a new school was built. The school room or ‘big room’ was 36ft x 17ft, the classroom or ‘wee room’ 13ft x 15ft; and when all was ready the children marched from the old to the new bearing a Union Jack.
Almost simultaneously another school was built at Pitcalnie, with a big room 34ft x 17ft and a wee room 13ft x 12ft, opening in September 1877 with 21 children present. It soon drew in more pupils so that Nigg School’s roll fell to a more manageable 70 by 1879.
In fact, Pitcalnie’s new buildings were soon barely adequate. In 1889 the wee room, designed for 20 children, held 37. In 1901 its roll reached a peak of 73 but fell slowly thereafter. The constant moving of farm workers, especially at the May terms, affected the children’s education badly and also affected schools – in 1922 Pitcalnie had no less than 23 children leave at once.

Both schools had a certificated teacher (CT) in charge with, at Nigg, a pupil teacher (PT) helping, and at Pitcalnie the headmaster’s wife acting as sewing mistress. In the 1880s, however, Donald Ross, CT at Nigg, often taught the whole school of 70-plus mixed-age children on his own, a “task ar too large for one teacher unaided.”

A pupil teacher was a senior pupil hoping to go into teaching and getting practical experience as well as extra tuition from the CT to enable him or her to pass exams before going into proper training. Alternatively a Monitor or Monitress could help with teaching – that was a senior pupil more or less the equivalent of a school prefect.

At Pitcalnie the first headmaster and his wife, Mr and Mrs Deans, had frequent bouts of ill health and during one of them a monitress with the help of an older sister, taught the school with 55 children for six weeks and did so again another year all by herself for three weeks.

Salaries are not often mentioned but in 1901 Pitcalnie’s Mr Campbell CT received £100 per year, rising to £110 in 1903, while his wife as sewing mistress got £10 per annum. The PTs and monitresses were unpaid so it was clearly a saving to make use of them.

There appear to have been three holidays a year, a short Easter one, really for potato planting, a long summer one so that the children could work at harvest. and a short one for the New Year. Nigg School’s log for 1895 says “Attendance today is rather thinner than it was on the other days of the week. no doubt on account of its being Christmas Day.” Until 1834 New Year was ‘Old Style’, almost a fortnight later than it is now, thereafter New Style, and in time Christmas Day itself became a day off, with its associated holiday from about December 27 to January 6.

Discipline was maintained with the tawse but guidelines were issued by the School Board in 1898. Nor more than six strokes of a leather strap might be given and then only on the hand and only by the headmaster.

It could be applied for truancy, falsehood, bad language, dishonesty, bullying and so on, but not for want of preparation of work until efforts had been made to find out the reasons behind that. All punishments had to be recorded at once. An intriguing rule was “Mocking of scholars by teachers not allowed in school.”

The records of punishments include neglect of lessons, disobedience and truancy, filthy language and lying, absenteeism, tricks, obstinacy, carelessness, wanton destruction of a reading book, inattention, sullenness, stubbornness, dourness and running away from school without cause.

In 1898 Pitcalnie’s list of punishments shows boys each receiving six strokes for non-preparation of lessons, for disobedience and for destroying furniture in the school and denying doing so. Some boys got four strokes for disobedience but a girl got only three for the same offence.

Successful teaching was fraught with difficulties, one of which was ill health. The log books of both schools show a catalogue of coughs, colds and flu. Scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough were common, with mumps breaking out now and again.
Often the schools had to be closed for two to six weeks because of these outbreaks and although schools were meant to be open a certain number of days a year, ill health could make this almost impossible. The consequent poor results could and often did mean a reduction in the amount of grant payable to the school so that teachers were penalised for something totally outside their control.

Ill health was often due to poverty. In 1877 an entry says that the Nigg Ferry children came out badly because “a number of them are destitute of proper clothing:’ In 1890 another said “A number of the younger children are absent owing to colds caught through imperfect cladding.”

With no school transport many children were exhausted in class. In 1895 one log book says “Strenuous efforts are being made to overcome the dullness and drowsiness which pervade a large number of the children. The distance which fully 50 per cent of them have to travel to school is no doubt a cause of weariness and lack of brightness as many of the infants seem from time to time to be pretty well exhausted before the close of the day’s work and when they arrive at school in the morning are not always in a fit state to receive instruction.” In 1925 there were three children, aged just five, who were said to be “not strong enough to walk the distance to school.”

Poverty inevitably meant an inadequate diet and in 1909 a concert was held under the chairmanship of Mr Romanes of Pitcalzean to raise money for a soup kitchen. About 30 children initially used it and it was recorded that there was no doubt that it made for their health and brightness.
However, in 1920, although the Inspector’s Report particularly mentioned the value of this mid-day meal at nominal cost, the kitchen closed for lack of funds. It does not appear that Pitcalnie had anything of the sort.

School books were not free until 1900 and some extracts from the log books for the 1880s say, “A hardship bitterly expressed here is the parents’ inability to provide books for their children. A number attend wanting (lacking) books. Great difficulty in getting children provided with Readers. Parents refuse to buy them as they consider one book sufficient.”

Further problems came with the fisher communities at the north and south ends of the parish. Pitcalnie School’s log in 1882 referred to the irregular attendance of children from Shandwick where about 36 were said to be living totally uneducated and it was felt that school was failing to serve them. It was two and a half miles from Shandwick whereas Hilton School in the parish of Fearn was only one mile and so efforts were made to enforce attendance at Hilton upon the Shandwick children and by 1887 this appeared to be working.

Wartime in the classroom

Anne Gordon concludes our two-part feature on the picture of Seaboard society 100 years ago, through the school log books of Pitcalnie and Nigg schools.

In the late 19th century Nigg Ferry was largely a crofting and fishing community and there in particular parents relied on the children’s help with both crofts and boats. Whenever the herring fishing began, according to the school log, these children came to school “with the utmost irregularity… they just come and go like shoals of fish until the fishing is over”.

Little wonder that in 1893 there was the comment “The Ferry district is quite a drag upon the school, elsewhere the children attend with laudable regularity”. There was a visiting Compulsory Officer but his visits were utterly disregarded by people at the Ferry. There was obvious exasperation in the statement made in 1894, “The Ferry children defy all art to bring them out”.

Nigg School, now a private residence.

Nigg School, now a private residence.
Attribution: Photo original courtesy of Andrew Allan.

In those days coal came by sea and was unloaded from beached boats directly onto the shore or into carts and this was an excellent reason for absenteeism. The children got as near the boats as they could and picked up whatever fell from them or the carts and their parents were only too glad to have them play truant to do this.

Even with large numbers of pupils, the education formerly given was far wider than might have been expected although, undoubtedly, much would have been learning by rote. Around the turn of the 20th century and into the 1920s subjects included reading, along with reading from newspapers for senior children writing and ‘penmanship’, arithmetic, geometry and algebra, English literature and composition, geography and history, French and Latin. Nigg School was fortunate to have had as headmaster during that time a Mr Alexander Polson, a most enlightened teacher with a broad view of education and a real concern for the children.

The needle work, darning, dressmaking and use of a sewing machine were introduced for older girls as well as organised games. The older boys had garden plots, used parallel bars, played football and cricket. The little ones did raffia work and made mats and baskets, did ‘floretta work’, stencilling, embroidery cards and learnt music and dancing.

Mr Polson believed that there was a lot to be learned outside the classroom too. Older children were taken up Nigg Hill to see the lie of the land and to identify such places as Dunrobin, Dingwall and the Black Isle, to see how wild flowers dispersed seeds and at Adam’s Dam (Bayfield Loch) to see how the leaves of water plants floated on the surface. The little ones went to the shore to see flowers and find shells.

The 1914-18 War took place while Mr Polson was at Nigg – he had a son killed in action in 1915. There was a great deal of military activity in the immediate vicinity of the school with the Scottish Rifles camped between Nigg School and Pitcalnie House and the Black watch beyond the Territorial Hall. There were men constantly marching past to the sound of bagpipes which was a great distraction to the children but the school threw itself into the war effort as much as it could.

The parallel bars were lent to the gym instructor of the 3rd Scottish Rifles and the school itself was used from 4-8 pm as a reading and writing room for the men, a useful service but one which made it difficult to get cleaning done.

Mrs Polson encouraged the older girls to do Red Cross work knitting ‘scarfs’ making small bomb bags for regimental bombing classes and also eye patches. They met on Saturday mornings and became a branch of the Ross-shire Red Cross.

Pitcalnie School, away from the immediate presence of troops, does not seem to have been similarly involved. The terrible flu outbreak of November 1918 caused both schools to be closed for 10 days whole the Sanitary Officer disinfected them with sulphur but fortunately there were no deaths and in July 1919 the children were learning songs and hymns for the peace celebrations.

In the 1939-44 war there were many servicemen in Nigg but at dispersed sites and were not nearly so much affected. There is mention of one evacuee, a child from the bombed area of Wallasey but it may be that he or she was in fact the child of one of the soldiers at North Sutor who came from there and some of whose wives came north to be near them.

In 1943 there were five evacuees at Nigg School but they were local ones, from Geanies, when that area was cleared of people to free it for training for the expected invasion of France.

Treats were a feature of school life, in both wars the troops were very good to the children welcoming them at their sports while in January 1917 the officers of the Scottish Rifles entertained them in the YMCA Hall with a darkey troop, cinema show, tea and presents. In the 1939-45 war the sailors at Nigg Ferry gave a Christmas treat during the holidays and presented each of them with 2/6d worth of savings stamps.

Great kindness was shown by the Romanes family of Pitcalzean and Dunskaith to Nigg School. Every year they gave a Christmas tree with presents for all. There was a special treat in 1908 when a member of the family who was local secretary of the Naval League, arranged for the senior children to be shown over the battleship ‘Majestic’ when the fleet was in the firth and when they returned to shore they were given tea by Miss Romanes at Dunskaith.

It seems that there may have been a requirement for good attendance to qualify for a treat as one log book for 1910 particularly mentions that although the week was stormy and cold, the attendance was the best for several months because of a forthcoming treat.

One year Mrs Romanes provided something different – a roast beef and plum pudding dinner in the soup kitchen before the children attended a carol singing service in Pitcalzean chapel. (Although the log books do not say so, Mrs Romanes’s kindness went far beyond treats. She provided a piped water supply to stand pipes for the convenience of people at Nigg Ferry, paid for milk for poor families, herself sat up at night with an ill child to give its mother a rest, and much more).

Others gave treats too, including Mr Henderson, Ankerville, who came up with some enjoyable ideas. In 1908 he arranged for the children to be taken by cart to Nigg Station to go by train to Tain, where they were shown the old buildings, had sports on the links and tea. In 1913 it was a picnic on the sands and in 1914, after school hours, he entertained them with his gramophone.

While treats encouraged good attendance, other extra-mural activities led to absenteeism, such as Rarichie market held till the late 19th century at the end of November; Tain had a mid-summer market an Agricultural Show and one year a Franchise Demonstration; there were Highland Games in Cromarty and once a Review of Volunteers at Invergordon, both of which meant a sea trip which added to the fun.

The arrival of the Channel Fleet in the Cromarty Firth in spring and autumn a marriage, a local furniture sale, even a dancing school at Nigg Ferry in the 1880s were all irresistible attractions. When there was a menagerie in the district in 1907, the headmaster wisely allowed just half an hour for dinner and let the children go at three o’ clock to be in time for a special youngsters’ performance.

Church inductions and soirees feature in log books as children could not do two long walks in one day – and the non-school event won hands down. There were of course, official holidays now and then – Coronations, Jubilees, Empire day, VE Day, royal weddings and even the wedding of a daughter of a School Board member.

But as the years went on things changed and numbers fell so that both schools closed in February 1991. Nevertheless, not only was the teaching good but they have left a valuable legacy in their log books.

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