Brian Wilson: Did Scotland’s golden age of education exist?

In 1916, the House of Lords heard that sons and daughters of Lewis crofters get a secondary education at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway and go out into the world to become teachers, doctors, lawyers and ministers
In 1916, the House of Lords heard that sons and daughters of Lewis crofters get a secondary education at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway and go out into the world to become teachers, doctors, lawyers and ministers
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Lewis was seen as a metaphor for Scotland’s ‘best education system in the world’ as the island produced exceptional results. But did such a golden age ever really exist, asks Brian Wilson

Anxiety about the current state of Scottish education rests mainly upon statistics and comparators which show us drifting downwards in both absolute and relative terms. However, there is also an underlying narrative which adds an extra dimension.

Discussion of where we now stand is often prefixed by assertions like: “Scotland used to have the best education system in world.” Whether we ever did is entirely unprovable. Certainly, there was national pride in our education system and a deeply-held belief in its democratic ability to transform the prospects of the poor and send them on their way to great callings in life.

It is the sense that this distinguishing characteristic has been eroded that adds insult to perceived injury. Myth and reality have undoubtedly become intermingled and most who use the “best education system in the world” line would have some difficulty in putting the finger on when, exactly, this happy state of affairs existed.

The best answer might be that it was during the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century. Certainly, that is the period focused on by Iain Smith and Joan Forrest in their valuable book about the evolution of education on the Isle of Lewis. In most respects, it acts as a metaphor for Scotland as a whole, revealing exceptional characters who personified the power of education to open up opportunity.

In part, the power of the narrative lay in the contrast with our nearest neighbour. Smith and Forrest write: “The development of widespread and largely free secondary education in Scotland (1885-1910) was well in advance of what happened in England” though they also caution: “We should be careful of exaggeration. The commonest beneficiaries appear to have been the children of the skilled working class and the lower middle class.”

This did not stop Viscount Haldane, a noted educationist who lost his Cabinet post for comparing English education unfavourably to its German counterpart, waxing lyrical in 1916 about the less emotive Scottish example. He told the House of Lords: “What was called the Nicolson Institute was turned into a secondary school and the effect upon the Hebrides has been extraordinary. The sons and daughters of the crofters go there, many of them with little bursaries which they get through the County Council. They get a secondary education at the Nicolson Institute and from there they go out into the world to become teachers, doctors, lawyers and ministers.”

Haldane held up Lewis as “an illustration of what reform will do if it is judiciously and simply applied”. At the time he spoke, the Outer Hebrides was contributing proportionately more lost lives to pursuit of the First World War than any other part of Britain. Most who fought and died had never previously left their island shores. Those who returned found much the same grim economic circumstances that had previously prevailed and emigration became the escape route for many.

Out of this background, some exceptional individual cases arose; stories well told in this book – though the extent to which exceptions disguise more general rules has always been a nagging doubt about the claims made on behalf of Scottish education. Smith and Forrest recognise this, warning that the case studies should not be regarded as “mere high peaks in a generally golden landscape of talent and opportunity”.

The first figure they focus on is John Lindsay Robertson, a son of Stornoway born in 1854 who by 26 was an Inspector of Schools. He spent the early part of his career raising standards and attendances in rural Lewis, then became HMI for the whole Highlands and Islands, dedicated to promoting secondary schooling and hence widening access to university. He ended up as head HMI for Scotland and there is a road named in his honour in Stornoway. However, for his monumental efforts in lowering barriers to education, Smith and Forrest conclude that he deserves to be “better known than he is”.

The best known academic to come out of Lewis was Robert MacIver, who was born in Stornoway in 1888 and died 88 years later in the United States, proclaimed as one of the world’s leading sociologists. He certainly owed his opportunity to the Nicolson Institute but when he visited Lewis in the 1930s, his impressions were mixed. He acknowledged “how deep are the roots of life and custom” but found the prevailing religion “sombre” and “lacking the boisterous joy in salvation”. He did not return.

Bursaries played a crucial part in allowing bright pupils to stay at school and, in a small minority of cases, go on to university. In this respect, Scotland benefited hugely from an endowment worth half a billion pounds in today’s prices, established by Andrew Carnegie in 1901. Because student fees created such a barrier to access, Carnegie was persuaded to support the “qualified and deserving” in this way, contributing to the tale that any Scottish pupil with brains could proceed in this way. They couldn’t – especially if they were girls.

The emphasis on university access encouraged what Professor Tom Devine describes in the book as the “lad o’ pairts myth, such a core factor in Scotland’s sense of itself in the Victorian and Edwardian era”. The Highland historian, Professor Jim Hunter, notes the pride that crofting families took in the achievements of offspring who had, in effect, been educated out of the community – placing them above those who had stayed and on whom ageing parents were likely to depend.

In a better ordered world, he suggests, far more of those who had progressed through education would have remained much closer to their own homes, in which case the Highlands and Islands periphery, and other rural areas, would have been different places today.

This impeccably researched book combines local interest for Iain Smith’s native island with themes which have much wider relevance. In many respects, the legacy of Scotland’s “golden age” in education, if it ever existed, is more complex and ambiguous than is often implied.

Saints and Sinners - Tales of Lewis Lives, is published by Acair at £15