The year is 1785. Plans are being laid for a building, approximately 33′ x 18′, that will provide a schoolroom, along with a bedroom and kitchen for the schoolmaster. The calculation allows for five windows and one outside door. The upper part of each window will be glass, with wooden shutters on the lower half, and the floor will be bare earth.
The site of an old croft house at Croftnallain has been chosen for the school, and an estimate (beautifully written in copperplate writing) for £13 17s 2d has been submitted, by Neil MacDonald, Mason in Fortingall, to the Earl of Breadalbane. This was later adjusted to £16 0s 0d to allow for some refinement to the work and to take into account materials (worth £1 8s 8d) salvaged from the old croft. The exact date of the estimate is not recorded, but MacDonald says that he will ‘endeavour to have the above mentioned house finished about the beginning of August next’.
He was true his word and he records receipt of payment from the Earl of Breadalbane for the ‘expense of building a schoolhouse’ on 10th August 1785. On 10th September of the same year, John MacNichol, Wright in Killin, submits expenses of £10 1s 10d for ‘Plenishing the Schoolhouse of Fearnan’. This has involved providing the doors and windows for the building, partitions for the 3 rooms, the scholars’ tables and seats, a seat for the schoolmaster and two shelves for books.
At last, Fearnan has a school.
But it had been a long road to get to this point. It was more than 200 years since John Knox first advanced the idea of a schoolmaster being appointed to every parish, and 150 years since the Parliament of Scotland’s first (of two) Education Acts that established legislation for schools to be set up in every parish. Schools were under the supervision of the local Presbytery, while the Parish Heritors (estate owners) were responsible for the salary and accommodation of the school master in rural areas.
By the 1760s, parish schools had been established in Kenmore and Killin, but these were too far from the homes of many of the children who lived around Loch Tay. The Society in Scotland for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) helped to widen the network of schools by making provision in some of the outer-lying areas, including Fortingall. However, the SSPCK had an agenda – their aim was to teach and encourage the spread of the English language (most people were Gaelic speakers,) and to end the attachment to Roman Catholicism which was associated with the rebellious Jacobites.
The (Jacobite-supporting) Robertsons were the Heritors of Fearnan up until the Barony was forfeit to the crown after Culloden (along with the estates of many other Jacobite supporters), and it is reasonable to assume that they would have had no interest in paying for the children on their estate to be taught in English. So Fearnan remained without a school.
Parents in the village, who wished to see their children educated, had to pay the cost of a schoolmaster themselves – when the cost could be afforded. This resulted in frequent interruptions to their children’s education. The schools in Kenmore and Fortingall were inaccessible from Fearnan, due to the River Tay in one direction and the River Lyon in the other (neither having a bridge at this point).
In 1762, the parents of Fearnan petitioned the Factor of the Forfeited Estates, Ensign James Small, to try to raise the funds for a school:
“Petition of the tenants of Fearnan complaining of the distance from the schools, those next to them, Kenmore and Fortingall are the nearest, above 3 miles distant, with the rivers Tay and Lyon ‘interfering’, and being unable to board out their children, had the misfortune to seeing them growing up in ignorance.” (A H Millar: A Selection of Scottish Forfeited Estates Papers.)
The petition was lodged in 1762, but not ‘read’ until 1764. Although the Barony of Fearnan became part of the (Crown-supporting) Earl of Breadalbane’s estate in 1765, it took a further 20 years before work started on Fearnan’s schoolhouse, funded by the Earl.
Education in Fearnan
Few records for the early period of Fearnan School have been found and we have little information about the first 100 years of its existence.
We do know, however, thanks to the Rev William Gillies, that “there is no doubt that many of the teachers employed at that time were poorly qualified and that they were miserably paid. They taught in houses that had been hastily and roughly built; the conditions both of themselves and the children were extremely trying and compared very unfavourably with modern standards of comfort.” (“In Famed Breadalbane”, 1938)
The Education Act of 1872 was an important milestone for education in Scotland and confirmed the decreasing influencing of the church and the assumption of responsibility for education by the state. It established that schools were to be funded by the combination of a grant from Parliament, a payment from local rates and a fee charged to each pupil. Religious instruction was to be held only at the beginning of each day; teaching was to be in English; and an inspector would examine the school on a regular basis in all subjects except religion.
School records improve following the 1872 Education Act and, from 1875 to 1968, nine teachers held the position of Head Teacher at Fearnan School. A single teacher would have taught all age groups in the same classroom and, until 1920 the school year ran from October to August of the following year.
- April 1875 Miss Mary Barclay (for five weeks only because of the uncomfortable condition of the school)
- 1875 – 1897 Mr Robert Ramsay
- March 1897 Miss Janet Cunningham
- 1897 – 1901 Miss A S Cunningham
- 1901 – 1903 Mr Duncan Paterson
- 1903 – 1928 Miss Lizzie McLaren Roberts
- 1928 – 1930 Miss Barbara Mackay
- 1930 – 1951 Miss Margaret Purves
- 1951 – 1968 Miss Catherine Maynard
From the latter part of the 19th century to the start of the 20th century, the school roll hovers around the mid-thirties, but varies considerably – sometimes as high as 46 and sometimes down to 25. Through the years of the 20th century, numbers slowly declined and were usually below 20.
An important requirement of the 1872 Education Act was the keeping of a Logbook by teachers, briefly recording school activities, attendance and the factors affecting attendance. The Fearnan School Log Books were rediscovered a few years ago by Ian McGregor, and the weekly entries provide us with a sense not only of life inside the school building, but also of the cycle of life in Fearnan and the impact of the weather, illness, and the different seasons on the village more than 100 years ago.
The entries are always short and to the point and, in many ways, they are like modern-day ‘tweets’ coming to us down the years.
Illness: Outbreaks of chicken pox, whooping cough, measles and other childhood illnesses are reported and are a reminder of the dangers and risks before inoculations brought mass protection. At one point, 8 out of 13 pupils were absent due to whooping cough, and there was a severe outbreak of measles in the 1890s.
“Attendance regular though still lower than it should be. The reports of each new case of measles hurts the attendance considerably.” (27th June 1890)
“Attendance a little better this week, although a good many are yet sick. There is a great deal of distress in the village just now both among old and young.” (20 February 1891. An earlier entry had commented on severe colds in the village.)
“Mumps has broken out amongst the scholars and greatly reduced their attendance.” (Dec 17th 1909)
The introduction of vaccinations, although a life-saver, was not an unalloyed blessing for some:
“The doctor visited the school on Tuesday and vaccinated all the children. Two scholars absent today, their arms much swollen.” (9th July 1920)
A week later the teacher reports:
“ Attendance much reduced owing to the vaccination – the three boys who were vaccinated for the first time being absent the greater part of the week.”
Early in 1915, references to Belgian Influenza and pneumonia start to appear in the Log Book. Fearnan, and indeed the wider area, suffered a serious epidemic. A telegram was received from the Medical Officer of Health ordering the school to be closed for a week from the 22nd to the 26th February. Two pupils were seriously ill and, the teacher records, ‘there are still many sufferers in the village’.
The annual agricultural cycle had a considerable impact on attendance as individual families needed to maximise the labour resources available to them.
“Attendance not so good this week, all the villagers being busy potato lifting.” (October 19th 1894)
“Attendances are very irregular, many are engaged securing the hay, while others were at the sheep-clipping.” (31 July 1885)
While attendance suffered from village children being taken out of school to help with agricultural work, the children of itinerant workers would boost numbers by joining classes temporarily.
“Attendance improved. A tinker child who enrolled on 18th September has left this part of the country (suddenly). The village people are complaining that clothes have been stolen.” (3rd October 1923)
“The attendance has been very irregular this week. The Steam Saw Mill having left the district, we have lost seven scholars.” (May 2, 1884)
(The Steam Saw Mill would have been brought to the area to process felled trees. They were belt-driven from a steam traction engine, which could also be used to transport the saw (usually a circular saw). A considerable volume of cut timber would have been needed to to make it worth bringing the mill to Fearnan, although the fact there was a pier in the village would have made the onward transport of the processed wood (probably planks) easier – possibly to the railway at Killin and from there by rail to locations throughout the UK. A team of 6 – 8 men would have been required to assemble and dismantle the saw on site – hence the number of children temporarily attending the school.)
Weather: The School Log Book show that extreme weather is not unique to our times:
“The children are every spare minute engaged dragging home firewood. The weather still continues of the roughest nature and many of the villagers have not yet been able to return to their own houses.” (December 8, 1893).
“The loch has risen a little since last week. On Monday we put a mark on the west side of the Black Craig to show the lowness of the water. The mark is a groove in the rock about a foot long, but it may be mentioned that last week the water was an inch or so below the marking line.” (October 1894).
“Wednesday was the stormiest day anyone in the village can remember. It was followed by the most intense frost, the thermometer frequently going as low as 0°F (-17.8C), the ink in the school all frozen and the milk and water in the houses turned to blocks of ice.” (9th February 1895).
“The weather is of the severest nature. The steamers on the loch were unable to get past Ardeonaig with ice this week. The oldest inhabitant never saw Loch Tay frozen before.” (15th February 1895).
“We had a very heavy snowstorm in the beginning of this week. Monday a few of the little children were kept at home but the snowplough being round, all got to school on Tuesday.” (21st March 1879).
“Work this week has been carried out under great difficulties. A storm of unusual violence raged, and the children were so wet on Wednesday that it was impossible to keep them long.” (17th March 1904).
Visitors: The school masters and mistresses recorded visitors to the school. They included the school inspectors, the local minister, people who came to teach sewing and singing, the Drill Master and the School Nurse (latterly) and local dignitaries.
“Lady Breadalbane and Mrs Grahame of Letterellan gave the children some lessons in deportment, and how to show respect to one another; and then some lessons in dancing.” (November 1884).
Tuesday was a holiday to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee. The children were each presented with a medal from Lady Godolphin in commemoration of the event.” (June 1887).
In the 19th century, Christmas Day was not a school holiday, but the children did have a celebration to look forward to:
“On Wednesday, Lady Breadalbane, accompanied by Mr and Mrs Grahame, kindly invited the children to Taymouth Castle on Friday next for their Christmas treat. All are in great glee over it.” (December 19th1884)
World War 1: Thanks to the School Log Book, we have a sense of the village responding and reacting to the big events of the time. Throughout the period of WW1, there are frequent references to the children collecting money for the Red Cross and for the wounded, writing letters, and sending parcels to local men who had been wounded.
“A parcel was sent to one of our wounded soldiers in hospital by the children here. Each child also wrote a letter to him.” (8th November 1918)
The response within the village to the news of fatalities is recorded:
“Again, sad tidings! The brother of the brave soldier referred to a fortnight ago has succumbed at the Western front to pneumonia whilst another who has been in the transport service for some time has been killed. Both of these lads had seen four years’ service in the army and both deserve the high encomiums passed upon them by the villagers. Both were much beloved and are much mourned.” (November 8th 1918)
The Log Book provides a first hand account of the news of the end of the war reaching the village. On 15th November 1918, the Head Teacher, Miss L M Roberts wrote:
“The glad tidings that the Armistice was signed and that peace once more reigned reached us on Monday about three o’clock in the afternoon. Captain Thistle and Mr Peter Dewar called and made known the welcome news. The children cheered and all at once hastened to hoist the “Union Jack”. The children then sang the National Anthem and were dismissed. The village received the news quietly, the bereavements being too recent to admit of any demonstration of joy. The lumber camp of Newfoundland soldiers ceased work until Wednesday but there was no disturbance in this village.”
The Best Days of Your Life?
With a single teacher responsible for all age groups, the influence of that teacher would have been very significant. We know very little about most of them, other than a few short entries in the Log Book by school inspectors, which suggest they fulfilled their responsibilities satisfactorily. More information is available from former pupils about both Miss Purves and Miss Maynard, whilst information about Mr Robert Ramsey comes from press reports of the time.
In December 1896, local newspapers and the Glasgow Herald carried details of the dismissal and subsequent appeal of Robert Ramsay. Earlier in the year, parents, guardians and ratepayers in the school district of Fearnan had signed a petition for the dismissal of Mr Ramsay and presented it to the School Board of Kenmore.
The petition set out examples of “the brutal treatment their children had received from Mr Ramsay during his fits of passion” over a period of some considerable time. These examples included children being kicked, thrashed, and thrown against a wall. One ten year old girl was threatened with having a slate put through her skull; a young boy was stripped of his clothing and made to stand outside on the school porch in winter; another girl came home black and blue after having been dragged out of the school room and flogged. Among many other complaints, several former pupils reported being struck about the head with the walking stick that Ramsay used.
The School Board took the decision to dismiss Ramsay but met again in December to hear two petitions – one appealing against the dismissal, and one urging the board to adhere to its decision. The first petition was presented by ratepayers and householders in Kenmore and urged the board to reconsider its decision saying that many of the original petitioners had changed their minds. However, signatories to the second petition (ratepayers and parents in Fearnan) made it clear that not only had they not changed their minds, but that a number of the alleged signatories to the appeal petition had neither signed nor given their permission for their names to be included.
Following the presentation of the 2 petitions, the Board met in private and decided to “adhere to the resolution to dismiss Mr Ramsay”.
Reports of the time make it clear that this episode was an unhappy one for all concerned. From our 21st century standpoint, it is difficult to understand why such brutality was allowed to go on for so long. However, views expressed by some at the time, suggest there was a strong belief that as long as the children attained the expected academic standard, then all other factors were side issues. The school was regularly inspected, but it appears that it was only the educational standard that was being inspected.
Things seemed to settle for the children of Fearnan from the point at which Mr Ramsay left in 1897. That is, until Miss Purves arrived in 1930.
Miss Purves’ period of tenure at the school is still within living memory and several contributors to this blog have commented on her harsh and sometimes callous attitude to her pupils.
Kirstyn Jandt wrote to Ian McGregor when he was writing his book, “Fearnan. The Story of a Highland Village in Northern Perthshire.” She recalled her cousin, aged 5, crying at nights at the prospect of starting school, such was the fear the schoolchildren had of Miss Purves and, in a memoire of his time in Fearnan, Alastair Barnett recalls:
“Although summer was my favourite time of year, a dark cloud hovered about my subconscious. That cloud took the form of our schoolteacher. In an age when many of Scotland’s classrooms were ruled in oppression, Fearnan School was no exception.
“My early school days were unspeakably miserable. The teacher was a tall, narrow woman with a pointed face and metal-framed spectacles. She crushed any form of self-expression and appeared oblivious to the physical and emotional pain she inflicted. Her teaching methods, while some might argue effective, were draconian. Feelings ran strong in the village about her cruelty, but despite numerous complaints to the authorities, nothing was done to remedy the situation.
“…………… some time after I had moved on to Breadalbane Academy in Aberfeldy, she left for Aberdeen. ………. For the upcoming generation of village children, including my brother Iain, the clouds had rolled away, and a breath of spring arrived in the form of her replacement, the always smiling and caring Miss Maynard.”
And indeed, with Miss Maynard’s arrival in 1951, a curtain seems to rise and the first school photos appear, with happy, smiling pupils gathered proudly beside their teacher.
Here they are again dressed as Cowboys and Fairies, having made the costumes themselves under Miss Maynard’s expert guidance, for an end of term tea party for their parents. All their schoolwork was laid out for inspection in the school.
Names missing from the handwritten script round the photo are: Ally Grey of Duallin Farm (between Chic McLaren and Douglas Grindlay); Iain Barnett is the boy to the right of Archie McLaren and next to him is Johnny (or Jimmy) Grey also of Duallin Farm. Elizabeth Campbell was, of course, better known to us as Elizabeth McLaren.
Isobel McLaren (now Isobel Johnstone) laid the village wreath at the recent Commemoration for those who died in the Fearnan Air Crash.
Three of the children in another photo from the late 1950’s also joined us at the Commemoration – Shenac Kelloe (nee Cameron), and Alex and Billy McEwen.
Around this time, Cameron Thomson started as school bus driver and continued in this role for a period of some 27 years. Starting early in the morning, he would pick up the older children from all along the lochside and bring them to Fearnan, where they were able to catch a bus to the secondary school in Aberfeldy; then he went back along the loch to collect the wee ones to take them to Fearnan Primary School. He remembers some of the bad winters, when the snow fell heavily and the snowplough piled big heaps on the verges, making the road to Lawers more like a bob sleigh run.
Cameron, seen on the left in his horn carving workshop around the same time that he was the school bus driver, thoroughly enjoyed his role. He knew all of the children’s names and would hear their news and stories of what had happened in school that day.
His favourite time of year was the period leading up to Christmas when the children were learning Christmas Carols in class. On those wintry afternoons, as it wove its way along the side of the loch, the bus would be filled with the sound of their young voices, practising their newly learned Carols.
After Fearnan School closed, he continued as the school bus driver, taking the children to Kenmore Primary School instead. His daughter, Lesley, appears in the photograph below.
The School Bell Rings for the Last Time (1968)
School numbers varied widely over the years it was open. Numbers were boosted at the beginning of WW2 when evacuees from Glasgow joined the school roll. After the war, the closure of Lawers School brought an additional 7 pupils to Fearnan, but by the time the school closed in March 1968, the role had dropped to 10 pupils. The pupils were transferred to Kenmore Primary School on the 4th March.
Here are 9 of the last pupils to attend the school, photographed in 1965.
Miss Maynard had taught at the school from 1951 to its closure in 1968. On Friday 1st March 1968, the last entry on the School Log Book reads:
“Attendance 100%. Pupils made their last attendance here today. This is the final entry in the Log Book. Fearnan School closes today. Catherine C Maynard. Head Teacher.”
A small ceremony was held and the photo below shows Isobel Johstone’s mother, Mary McLaren, presenting Miss Maynard with a gift on the occasion of her retirement from Fearnan School.
At this point, Miss Maynard went travelling across Canada but, some years later, she returned to Scotland to teach at Kinloch-Rannoch Primary School, where she taught 3 more members of the McLaren family – Isobel’s own children. And, when she retired for the second time, it was Isobel’s daughter, Irene, who was chosen to present Miss Maynard with a parting gift.
We know from the School Log Books that the school, modified and developed over the years, was an important building in the village, and for much of its existence, it would have been the only public space. It was used, for example, by the local WRI and the Drummond Hill Football Club; for Gaelic functions and church services; and by The Fearnan Literary Society (1886), whose activities were previously reported on this blog.
After the school closed, it was used as a children’s hostel and Outdoor Centre until that closed in 1975. For a while, it provided a base for groups such as the Fearnan Art Group, but in 2002 plans to convert the building into a community arts centre, with studios available for artists from home and abroad failed to attract sufficient financial support. A few years later, the school building was sold and it became a residential property.
These words form Alastair Barnett’s memoire, Fearnan, a Refuge in a Storm conjure a vivid picture of a time when the school was central to the village, and of that excited moment of release at the end of the school day:
“Even today when I think of Fearnan it’s not difficult to visualise village life as it was then, and when I close my eyes, I can see clearly the white-capped waves on the loch and hear the children’s voices carried on the wind as they tumble from the schoolhouse at the end of the day: Wee Billy and Andy, Margaret, Mary and Isobel, Archibald, Jim, Donald, Elizabeth, Dochie, Jenny, the Grindlays …..”
Calling all former pupils – if you attended Fearnan School and have memories or photographs to add to this article, please either use the Comment section below, or send them to firstname.lastname@example.org We would love to hear from you.
Sources and Copyright
The following sources were used to write this article:
Ian McGregor – Fearnan, The Story of a Highland Village in Perthshire.
WA Gillies – In Famed Breadalbane
Alastair Barnett – Fearnan, a Refuge in a Storm
National Archives of Scotland
AH Millar: A Selection of Scottish Forfeited Estates Papers
Fearnan School Log Books 1875 – 1968
Glasgow Herald December 1896
Personal memories of former pupils
The copyright of the text in this article, except where other sources are quoted, lies with Fiona Ballantyne, and the copyright of the photographs lies with the person who took them.
It’s hard to dismiss melancholy reflections of my early school days as I look at the photo of the forlorn old schoolhouse. But elusive memories of fear soften with a misty, over-the-shoulder glimpse of the happy days I remember in a beautiful, romantic village.
Thank you for your wonderful in-depth historical essay Fiona. I found the story of Fearnan School fascinating. Your efforts to keep the story of Fearnan’s past alive are profoundly appreciated.
Thanks also for the photo of Mary McLaren, a lovely, friendly, always smiling lady. She looks exactly as I remember her. My best wishes to the McLaren family. And thanks to everyone who contributed.
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