Past Life: Education yesterday

From Shetland Life, April 1986, No.66

Extract from Points of View by James W. Irvine

Computers, language laboratories, calculators, television, Munn and Dunning – all these and much more are common-place in our classrooms today. We’ve certainly come a long way since 1724 when the heritors – ie, the men with money – met in Scalloway to discuss ways and means for establishing legal “parish schools”. It wasn’t surprising that the meeting was held – there had been no proper schools up to then. (Nor, I may say, did any come as a result of the meeting.) It was all right for the wealthy; they employed private tutors or sent their children to school in the south. Such teaching as was available for ordinary children was usually provided by men who did it as a sort of side-line in slack periods in return for a meagre quarterly payment from parents who had to scrape desperately to afford it, little as it was.

The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge did establish some proper schools. In 1789, when they sent out their first schools’ inspector, they had eight schools in Shetland, with still only two parish schools. Pay for the society’s schools was very low, and it was virtually a necessity to have other strings to your bow. Robert Thomson, for instance, who taught in the society’s school in Fair Isle – he later taught in Quendale – was a man of many parts. In addition to teaching, he built his own sloop, “built from the keel and completely rigged by him”, and he also became a farmer, a cooper and a wright, all “without ever having been an apprentice in any of these trades”.

Little as was the official interest in education, Robert Cowie tells us that by 1861 there were upwards of fifty schools of a sort in the islands, and that “all the people can read, and the great majority can write”. That was probably stretching it a bit. The reading would have been learned from the Bible or from the “Pilgrim’s Progress”, and the writing in many cases would have been very elementary. But that this state should have been reached by a deprived people sunk in penniless debt-bondage, and almost entirely through their own efforts, is surely worth noting.

When the Education Act and compulsory school attendance came along in 1872, and the new schools, many of them still standing sturdily today, began to go up, education in the islands took on a whole new meaning. It was hard slogging at first. Most schools had only one qualified teacher, and rolls could be as high as 80 to 100.

Not every child wanted to go to school. Not every parent wanted to spare a big boy in the hairst or the voar or the peats. But accommodation, equipment and professional teaching were now available and the children of Shetland were on their way. For a long time we educated for export. But that is no longer true, and there is no longer a divide between school and home. We are justly proud of Shetland’s educational standards, and woolly-headed theorists far from the classroom floor must not be allowed to undermine or destroy it.

In passing, it is interesting to reflect that the new schools were staffed for the most part with teachers from outside the islands, who naturally banned the unintelligible local dialect from the schools. The result was that the dialect acquired the aura of an inferior way of speech, an aura which was to continue for the next hundred years. Only now, when so much of it has been lost, has the dialect for the first time become “respectable.”


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