Gaelic Schools

(From Aspects of the Religious History of Lewis by Rev M. Macaulay, pages 122-126.)

We can hardly overestimate the benefits which the Gaelic Schools brought to the Highlands and Islands, nor can we appreciate the part they played in preparing the people of Lewis for the blessings which were to be showered upon them from on high. Indeed these benefits have never been lost since, and whenever God is pleased to refresh His vineyard in this island, there is a renaissance of these benefits in the experiences of His people, as well as a renewed interest in the year of the swoonings — "Bliadhna an Fhaomaidh," and in the succeeding years of blessing during the revival that followed. Ministers and men, who were noted during these visitations, are remembered in their fellowships, and many of their utterances, now recalled, are passed on to a new generation. This helps to establish new converts in an assurance that the same power, which worked so efficaciously among them in these days of long ago, has also quickened their own soul, so that a new hope is engendered that what God has done before He can do again.

On the 10th of December, 1810, a circular was sent to a number of influential individuals, in and around Edinburgh, of several religious denominations. It read:— "Several gentlemen propose to meet tomorrow, in the Royal Exchange Coffee House, to talk over the present state of the Highlands, and the importance of some measures being taken in order to instruct the population in the Gaelic language."

This circular was signed by Christopher Anderson, a Baptist minister, who became the Society's Secretary for the first ten years. At this time, as we have already noted, the policy of the S.S.P.C.K. was to teach in English only, but the Edinburgh Gaelic Society opposed this policy, and were determined to instruct their pupils in their native language.

The Resolutions agreed to by the Edinburgh Gaelic Schools Society on Wednesday, the 16th of January, 1811, were printed and a copy was given to all Gaelic teachers for their guidance. These Resolutions were as follows:

  1. That this meeting is of the opinion that the labours of "the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge" for a century past has been highly beneficial, as a means for promoting civilization and Christian knowledge in the Highlands and Islands.
  2. That, although the said Society maintains 290 schools at which nearly 16,000 young people are taught, it is a melancholy fact that many parts of the Highlands and Islands continue in a state of great ignorance, and that only a small proportion of the inhabitants can read in any language.
  3. That the inhabitants of the more highly favoured parts of this country are bound, both by considerations of patriotism and of religion to exert themselves for ameliorating the temporal and spiritual condition of these highly interesting but hitherto neglected parts of their native country.
  4. That the most expeditious, cheapest and most effective method of promoting the instruction of the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands is the erection of circulating schools, for the express purpose of instructing them in the Gaelic language. 5. That this meeting do now erect itself into a Society for this purpose, to be denominated, "The Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools," and that the only object of the Society shall be to teach the inhabitants to read the Holy Scriptures in their native language.
  5. That this Society shall confine its attention as much as possible to those parts of the Highlands and Islands which are most destitute of Education.
  6. That the teachers to be employed by this Society shall neither be Preachers nor Public Exhorters, stated or occasional, of any denomination whatever.
  7. That a Committee be now appointed to draw out Regulations for the guidance of the Society, and to propose a scheme for the management of the schools which they may be able to establish. 9. That a subscription be now opened for carrying into effect the object of the Society, and papers lodged in convenient places for receiving subscriptions from other benevolent persons, who may be well affected to the measure; and that the annual subscription of half a guinea, or more, shall constitute gentlemen members of the Society.
  8. That none of the above Resolutions shall be altered, without having been submitted to two general meetings properly advertised.

In 1815 we see some additions to these Regulations such as that a subscriber of ten guineas at one time shall be a member for life, and that an annual subscriber of three guineas, or a Benefactor of twenty guineas, shall be a Governor.

Schoolrooms were generally built by the people, when promised a teacher. Sometimes an untenanted house in the district could be found. When built it was advised to be as large as possible. Attendances on Sabbath days to hear the Scriptures read, are in various instances numerous, as both parents and children, as well as servants, are present on that day.

We must appreciate that at this time communications were difficult. Although roadmaking from Stornoway to Barvas had commenced in 1791, progress was slow. Thus only those near the central church heard the gospel except on a few occasions in the year, so by reading the Scriptures to the people on Sabbaths, the teachers supplemented the work of the parish minister. Obviously there was only one short step between such readings and exhorting or preaching, so that when questions were asked as to the meaning of what was read, the teachers were greatly tempted to break the rules of the Society, and so face dismissal through bringing the wrath of the parish ministers, and of the Presbytery on themselves. As we shall see later this is exactly what happened, and ought to have been expected in the prevailing circumstances.

In 1812 a similar Society to the E.G.S. was formed in Glasgow. Originally it was to be affiliated to the E.G.S., but soon began to operate independently. It taught both Gaehc and English, as well as Writing and Arithmetic. It sent regularly an annual subscription of £300 to the Edinburgh Gaelic Society. The Inverness Gaelic School Society was formed on the 17th December, 1818 and was called "The Society for the Education of the Poor in the Highlands." Its aim was religious, and it taught the same as the G.G.S.S., but favoured the use of Gaelic in Education. John Cameron taught in the Inverness Society's Central School, and later became an Inspector. It was in this capacity that he first visited Lewis. He later became the minister of Stornoway in 1825.

The first E.G.S. School in Lewis was stationed at Bayble, and the teacher was Mr Angus MacLeod from Skye. He began in midDecember, 1811, with three pupils, but next day he had twenty, and before long he had sixty. He had no books nor blackboards, but wrote out the Alphabet on sheets of white paper. On Sabbaths he had 300 listening to the reading of the Scriptures. He was transferred to Gress in 1813, but he left behind him people who could now carry on the work which he had so successfully pioneered.

Mr MacLeod was equally successful at Gress, where he soon gathered an attendance of 150 pupils. A correspondent writing to the Society about the effect of Mr MacLeod's work in Bayble and Gress says that these schools had done more good in spreading knowledge, and in warming the hearts of the common people to true religion than all the other means which they had enjoyed for the last century.

In 1815 there were eight Gaelic Society Schools in the island, viz., Ness, Melbost, Tolsta, Shawbost, Bragar, Barvas, Valtos and Balallan. All these would have E.G.S.S. teachers, while former pupils would be carrying on the work in places like Gress and Bayble.

In 1819, the teachers were:— Tolsta — John Munro; Garrabost — Neil Murray; Ness — Angus MacLeod; Shader — Neil Murray 2nd; Bragar — John MacRae; Leurbost — Murdoch MacLeod; Valtos — Donald Morison; and Kirkibost — Donald Morison.

Rev. William MacRae, of Barvas, reporting to the Society in 1819, says that Ness had upwards of a hundred on the roll, of whom 80 were present including married people. Their progress since the last examination was truly astonishing, showing the zeal of the teacher as well as the diligence of the scholars. He observes the reluctance of sending the children to school is now mostly overcome, as they read the Scriptures to their parents at home.

When the minister came to examine the school he was usually accompanied by the tacksman, or one of the Society's Inspectors. The parents eagerly listened to the questions and answers. The questions asked of an eight-year old boy at Back in 1839 should give us food for thought, as we compare our knowledge today with the accuracy with which this boy answered the minister. The questions put were as follows:—

Q. How many kings were in Israel?
A. 19.
Q. In Judah?
A. 20.
Q. Were more of the kings evil or good?
A. More were evil.
Q. Where is Bethel?
A. In Israel.
Q. Why did Josiah go to Bethel to destroy the altar, seeing it was situated in Israel?
A. There was no king in Israel when Josiah was king in Judah; the ten tribes had been carried away into captivity.

One of the outstanding fruits of the instruction given by these early teachers was an increasing reverence for the Lord's Day, together with a thirst for the living Word.

One of the correspondents writing to the Society is quoted in the 1821 Report as saying, "The Highlander can no longer say, "No man careth for my soul". His hands, it is true, are still stretched out towards you — but it is as much to indicate his thankfulness, as to ask you to come over and help him."

As these were circulating schools, the Society moved the teachers around every one to three years according to circumstances. The inhabitants then attended to their own education, either by helping each other in reading Gaelic, or by employing schoolmasters at their own expense.

The schoolmasters and their stations in 1821 were:— John Munro at Coil; John MacLeod at Galson; John Macrae at Carloway; Murdoch MacLeod at Leurbost; Donald Morrison at Kirkibost, and Angus MacLeod at Tarbert.

Lord Teignmouth, who paid two visits to the island, says, "In no part of Scotland have the Gaelic schools proved more salutary than in Lewis".

In 1844, the Society calculated that it had, in the space of 33 years, taught more than 90,000 people in the Highlands and Islands to read the Bible in their native tongue. In the 1828 Report we read, "The preaching of the truth to these poor people, when incapable of using the holy records, did not profit them much." While in the 1831 Report we read:— "While the mists of ignorance are through the instrumentality of your schools gradually retiring before the beams of the Sun of Righteousness, the vices arising from ignorance disappear along with them." The Gaelic teachers sent out by the E.G.S.S. were selected with the most conscientious caution. Not only were they good teachers, who were moral in their lives, but they were men who had embraced gospel truth, and knew how to convey it to others. Their Directors were firmly attached to vital piety.

The Lewis people were wont to acknowledge their indebtedness to the Gaelic schools for upards of fifty years, by making a special collection for the E.G.S.S. at the close of every Communion in the island. Rev. John MacRae, MacRath Mor, thus once used with great good taste and telling effect the Gaelic classical phrase in appealing to the liberality of the people:— "Cho fad 'sa bhitheas muir a' bualadh ri lie, agus bainne geal aig bo dhubh, cha bu choir do mhuinntir Leodhais na sgoiltean Gaidhlig a dhi-chuimhneachadh." — "So long as the sea dashes against a rock, and white milk comes from a black cow, the people of Lewis should not forget the Gaelic schools."

Finlay Munro...