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Personal Glimpses of Gravir VIII: School
Personal Glimpses of Gravir VIII: School
An account of life in Gravir, by Calum Macinnes, 8 Gravir.
Like the church, the school was built shortly after the passing of the 1872 Education Act. Twelve schools were built in the district of Lochs, five of them - Kershader, Cromore, Marvig, Gravir and Lemreway - in South Lochs. The total cost of the twelve schools, and the headmasters' houses attached to them, was 20,311. (This information was received from Angus MacLeod, Marybank, a former pupil of Marvig School or, as it was called, Planasker School). The Gravir School was opened in 1881 with up to 100 pupils on the roll. (A count of the children, aged between 5 and 13, living in Gravir in 1873, showed that there were 83 of them; the number in that age range in 1880 was probably nearer 100). Like the church, it was built of stone, sand, gravel and mortar and had a sturdy roof of Ballachulish slate. (The slate left over after the school's completion was used to roof the house at No 7 Gravir, owned by Duncan Mcleod; this was the first 'white' house in the village.)
Since that time the imposing structures of the two have overlooked and overshadowed the huddle of low, thatched contour-hugging houses of the village and between the two of them have been the foci of village life. The church, in its own uncompromising way, looked after the people's spiritual needs, and the school catered for their educational needs albeit in a foreign language, English. All the head teachers at the end of the last century, and at the beginning of this century, were monolingual in English and so the study of Gaelic was, unfortunately, neglected.
The church had narrow, straight-backed white pine pews, but the school was furnished with long hardwood desks, with integral backs, and strong cast-iron supports at the ends. They could seat up to six boys and girls comfortably.
The desk surfaces were disfigured with the initials of former pupils, gouged deeply into the hardwood using the ubiquitous penknife. Who was N.M.L. and when did he carve his initials? Was he disciplined in any way for doing so? Who was A.M.K? The initials were mute testimony to the fact that, at times in the past, discipline was lax and supervision inadequate. Attempts, mostly unsuccessful, had been made in the more recent past to eradicate the initials by planing the surfaces. Who was M.M.I? Certainly not me - the practice had been discontinued at the time that I entered school in 1926, after my fifth birthday. I couldn't, nor could my classmates, speak any English - with the possible exception of the minister's son - and so initial instruction was through the medium of Gaelic. The teachers introduced English speech as we learned more words in the language.
I don't remember my first day in school. Our house was just opposite the school and I was thus aware of school routines since babyhood. Enrolling in school was not therefore a traumatic transition from the known to the unknown for me. I seem to recollect that I was happy to be, at last, part of the school, rather than seeing and hearing its activities from across the river.
Although I don't remember my first day as a schoolboy, I have vague memories of incidents during the first year. We five year olds in the infants' class were crammed into two of the long seat/desks at the end of 'the big room' as the main classroom was referred to in Gaelic. If my memory is accurate the room contained pupils in the first six years of primary education. It was staffed by two teachers, so each of them would have responsibility for three year groups. There was a certificate fixed to the wall at one end that stated that the room had approved accommodation for 88 pupils.
One incident - or rather a series of similar incidents - concerned a girl who was rather restless. She moved about in her allocated place and sometimes, in so doing, she exposed part of her anatomy that, if the proprieties were observed, should be hidden from the gaze of others. She was frequently reprimanded for this. In those days, in the mid-twenties, some of the older woman did not feel the necessity of using underwear: they were, in any case well clothed in long, voluminous garments and the need to use underwear was minimal. The practice was often extended to young girls but their shorter dresses gave the wearing of knickers more importance! The girl in question is still hale and hearty and is now a grandmother living in the south of Scotland. Wouldn't she be embarrassed if I mentioned these incidents to her?
The Three Rs
In the mid-twenties teaching emphasis was on rote learning. Soon after admission to the infants' class, the alphabet was learned and a start was made on the number tables, often to the accompaniment of the teacher marking time by tapping a ruler on the desk top. This method of learning is in marked contrast to the more relaxed, less dictatorial methods of the present day, but the old method had not a few virtues while the more modern approach is not always as effective as its advocates make it out to be. A judicious mixture of the old and the new is probably the most effective prescription for the early years of schooling.
In those years we did not use paper, pencil and pens. We had slates, made of thin, natural slate within an oblong, wooden frame. The writing was done by using a thin cylinder, of approximately drinking-straw diameter, - a slate pencil. The writing could be erased with a damp cloth - the preferred teacher's method - or by a quick, surreptitious spit and a stealthy rub with a jersey elbow.
We had one reading book from which the following is a typical quote: 'The cat sat on the mat'. We sometimes used plasticine for modelling and we were allowed to do raffia work occasionally. The walls of the room were largely unadorned - what a contrast to a present day classroom wall! - but there were a few reproductions that were never changed. One of them I found topical and attractive: it showed Norwegian fishermen pulling in long lines, with great big cod the principal catch. They were in a small boat, similar to our own rowing boat, in a choppy sea, and the faces depicted, reminded me of some Gravir characters of the time. The caption was simply: 'Cod fishermen in the Lofoten Isles'.
There were, of course, none of the modern technological aids such as tape recorders, language laboratories and computers, which, used sensibly and selectively, bring excitement and breadth to present-day teaching methods.
The Strap (Belt, Tawse)
All teachers owned a leather belt, or strap, in the mid-twenties. The strap's desirable provenance was Lochgelly in Fife where, it was thought, the most effective weapons were made. I use the term 'weapons' advisably. I have always advocated the strap's discontinuance while at the same time acknowledging its effectiveness in certain cases of gross indiscipline. Its use as a punishment for ignorance or inability to learn was, I think, unforgivable, but it was often used for these purposes in the mid-twenties. Unfortunately, the teaching profession has not yet come up with an alternative, effective deterrent for its use in cases of persistent indiscipline. Suspension from school seems to me to have the opposite effect to that intended.
In 1616, an Act was passed for the establishment of Parish Schools in Scotland. Among its objects the extinction of the Gaelic language was regarded as barbaric and uncivilized. No Parish School was opened in Gravir and, in fact, the first school to be opened was under the auspices of the Edinburgh Society for Gaelic Schools (1811). The Gravir School was opened in 1822 at No 21 Gravir. The Bible was the main text book. Little is known about this school and it was followed, in 1850, by a school opened by the Edinburgh Free Church Ladies' Association. Instruction in this school was through the medium of English. In 1858 the Association's Superintendent reported, rather surprisingly, that four pupils, one a girl, were learning Latin in the Gravir School.
Incidentally, the first Lewis university graduate was a Gravir man: Kenneth MacKenzie, No 4 Gravir, born in 1856, graduated with a first class honours degree. He had a career as a headmaster on the west side of Lewis.
Other interesting facts concerning education in Gravir include the fact that free breakfast porridge was provided for school children for some time from January 1888. To encourage school attendance, it was decided in June 1888 to give a pair of clogs to children who had achieved 300 attendances (150) days in the academic year.
When the fine new school was opened in 1881, the first headmaster was Mr A F Cuthbert, Portree, Skye. A succession of headmasters, some of whom were dismissed for dereliction of duty, followed, until the appointment of Mr Murdo Matheson, No 27 Gravir, on 1 May, 1919 after his demobilisation from the army. He was the headmaster of the school - an amiable, considerate man - when I enrolled in 1926 and he remained head until World War Two when he died in the new house he had built on croft No 11 Gravir. Most of the above information was provided by Mr Angus Macleod, Marybank, my brother-in-law.