Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Memoirs of a Fisherman's Son - Part 1, Chapter 6

Chapter VI

Primary School Days

I am one of those folk who really did enjoy my school days! Lessons and homework presented no problem: but I suppose I was lucky in this respect.

In the first class we all adored Miss Gray and literally would do anything for her. After I had acknowledged that the alphabet started with 'a' and ended with 'z' for school purposes she used to call me out to the front of the class to recite the alphabet 'the proper way Alex'. Sums seemed to come naturally and I was able to demonstrate to my grandfather how to count, add, multiply and subtract 'the proper way'. His way was to use (and that only in relation to adding) what he told me was the method used by the Romans.

For each unit he made a short vertical line on the paper until he reached '5' when he made a diagonal line through the four verticals. Two such groups made XX (10), three made XXX (15) and so on!

From earliest days we had to learn poems and practice passages from the bible by heart. But there was also learned the multiplication tables, up to 12 x 12 by heart. Teachers had no radio, televisions, video tapes, recorders or the like to help them. Only radio had been invented at that time in the 1920's and the Highlands of Scotland did not have its own transmitter until 12th October 1936 when the first signals were sent out from the newly erected mast at Burghead. But our teachers had large poster-like sheets which were hung on the blackboard or the school room wall to elucidate for us the lesson/subject being taught. For instance the alphabet and a clock face were on the first two sheets Miss Gray used!

During the first four years at school we used slates and slate pencils for all our written work. Teachers always resented the screeching sound which slate pencils could make on the slates: but this did not deter even the least likely pupils from deliberately scratching his or her slate 'just for fun'. We all had a small sponge attached to our slates by means of a short-length of string and were supposed to clean the slates by dipping the sponge in the water in the inkwell (which was part of each desk) and rubbing out the written material with the wet sponge. However, as children who, mostly, wore jerseys knitted by our mothers we often found it more convenient (especially the boys!) to spit on the slate and rub out whatever was on it with the forearm of our jersey! This was done when the teacher was not looking but if one were caught suitable punishment in the form of the strap (or 'tawse' as some called it) followed.

For me the use of the strap or belt was much to be deplored: I regarded it, from a very early age as a form of torture greatly to be avoided. Indeed I succeeded during all my school years to avoid being strapped: maybe it was because I was regarded as something of an invalid by reason of the asthma from which I suffered. But I do remember having to 'do lines' as punishment for some misdemeanour. This entailed one in the most tedious business of writing out 50, 100 or even 200 times some such words as 'I must not speak in class' and that during the precious after school Hours.

From the third year onwards in Ardersier Public School (the official title) in the 20's and 30's when the late Donald McIntosh (affectionately known as 'specky' because he wore gold rimmed spectacles) was Headmaster, every pupil had to learn to spell ten or twelve words every night and be examined on them first thing next day. The teachers read out the words while the pupils wrote them in a jotter or on a slate. When this was completed jotters or slates were exchanged with your neighbour and as the teacher read out the correct spelling, words that were correct were 'ticked' while wrongly spelt words were marked with a cross. All those pupils who had more than three errors were sent to 'Specky' to be strapped! I remember when in his class seeing, every day, about 9.30 am a procession of small children lining up to be belted. It was a frightening sight. Those with most mistakes were given 'six of the best'. The more the strap was applied the higher rose the Headmasters' blood pressure and his temper.
'Twas a sorry business altogether. My father told me once that this barbarous behaviour on the part of Specky arose from the fact that he had been shell shocked in the first war: and that was probably an accurate diagnosis coming from one who was the most gentle of men.

On one occasion, when in my last year at Primary, a very well built tall country lad in our class refused to be strapped but after much shouting by Specky put out his hand. When the strap arrived in the palm of his hand he closed it and pulled the strap from Specky: thereupon he proceeded to give the Headmaster 'some of his own medicine' by belting him around the ears until the Headmaster fainted. You can imagine the uproar! The teacher from the adjoining class room, a little inoffensive chap, entered and in his quiet voice, asked for silence and an explanation. With that the farmer's son walked out and was never again seen in school. He went on in later life to make a fortune from farming! I should add that there was a change of policy after this and teachers were left to mete out punishment in their own class rooms.

When in the third year at school I had the privilege every day not only of going to the station to find what the time was but to be party, unwittingly, to a romance! Every afternoon our teacher, Miss Sinclair, called me out to the floor and handed me an envelope with instructions (on the first occasion only) to run with it to Milton of Connage Farm and hand it to Mr Forbes in person. I must not tell anyone where I was going and was to bring back whatever message he gave me. The need for secrecy was emphasised. Milton was less than a mile away: I knew it well as one of my duties at home was to go there every morning 'for the milk'. Of that later. How I was pestered by my fellow pupils to tell them what I was doing! It did not take me long to realise that my daily trips to Milton were all part of a romance which happily resulted in due course in the parties concerned being married.

Our class room after Primaries I and II were so arranged that the rows of desks were set out in tiers: there were four tiers, the front one being on the room level (the same level as the teachers, the fire place, the backboard etc.) with those behind being each about six inches higher than the one in front. The brightest pupils occupied the highest tier with whoever was top of the class (following the weekly 'exam') being placed at the right hand end of the row when facing the teacher. This was my favourite seat!
Our third teacher was a dear lady, Miss Cowan, who lived in a 'large' house in the village square opposite 'our' church, namely the United Free Church. I remember her mainly because of the enthusiastic way in which she taught arithmetic: every day saw some new layout of figures on the blackboard, put there before we arrived in the class room. I owe a great deal to Miss Cowan for the encouragement she imparted to us (or at least those of us who seemed willing to learn). Mental arithmetic was a daily exercise whether it be adding, subtracting, multiplying or dividing. No calculator in those days!

After Miss Cowan's class we were given the great privilege of being taught in the vestry of the Free Church for no less than two years by another much loved teacher, Miss Stark. She cycled from her house in Cawdor every day come rain or shine. She also had a wonderful way with children of 9 and 10 and because we were remote from the school (about 200 yards I suppose!) nobody was ever sent up the brae to be strapped! And Miss Stark did not use hers although she often reminded us that it was indeed in her desk. This we found to be true by looking in the desk one day when she was not yet arrived from Cawdor! On sunny days she used to take us out on to the hill behind the church not only to gather wild flowers as part of a nature lesson but for 'ordinary' lessons like reading aloud, reciting poems, mental arithmetic and singing. How we loved lessons in the open air. Sometimes she would tell us to take lemonade and pieces (sandwiches of bread and jam or cheese). On these occasions we would have a 'picnic' on the hillock above the postie's well or away further north on the top of Cromal hill (We all knew it as Cromwell Hill!) where there was a lovely smooth area of green grass (or 'sward' as Miss Stark said it was) surrounded by a grassy bank. Here was located one of the two village water reservoirs but we understood this particular one was there to supply the Fort and that water from it passed through an underground pipe to the water tower outside Fort George. The latter was really a block of flats on three levels with the water tank on top. The flats were occupied by soldiers and their families. This building has been preserved but I understand is no longer used to house families but it does serve as a reservoir for the Fort.

When on that subject I had better mention that children of soldiers stationed at the Fort attended Ardersier Public School : my recollection is of 20 to 30 children at any one time. Whereas the local village children went home 'for their dinner', ("lunch" not yet having arrived on our scene) Fort children had their dinner brought to them by a soup kitchen - i.e. an Army vehicle (mule drawn) specially designed for cooking in the field. The cookery/woodwork room (a building adjacent to but separate from the main school building) was used as their dining room. On most days of the week their sweet or third course was what every soldier called 'duff'. It was a kind of sponge cake, bright yellow in colour, sometimes containing currants or raisins and always piping hot. How the village children loved it! I well remember hurrying through my dinner at home and running up to school hoping to be given a piece of duff! Quite often I was successful.

Miss Stark always had a party in her vestry class room at Christmas time. At this songs were sung solo and in chorus and poems were said all before the 'big eats' were partaken. Johnstone the baker whose business and bake house were 'a few doors along on the other side of the street' and Jimmy McPherson the kindly grocer (of whom later) with his shop more or less across the street were both very generous in their donations to Miss Stark's party. We all ate well and were given the left-overs to take home to our mothers.

Prior to one of Miss Stark's Christmas parties, I had been off school for several weeks but she came and invited me to 'try and come' and if, I felt able, to say a poem. I did go and greatly enjoyed being back among my pals on this last day of school before Christmas: no lessons! All the items to be performed were written up on the blackboard and my name among them with the word 'Poem'. My father had suggested that I do what he had once done when at school! When my turn came I went out to the front of the class floor pointed to a spot on the back wall and said "Do you see that spider on the wall? Boys and Girls that is all". To Miss Stark's astonishment, I returned at once to my seat but to her horror there really was a spider on the wall! It had been put there beforehand by one of my chums who had been encouraged so to do by a penny from my grandfather.

From Miss Stark we graduated to Specky the headmaster! He was a 'terror' but I have no cause to complain. It would be remiss of me to omit a tribute to his ability as a teacher. He may have had a dreadful temper but he certainly instilled knowledge into those who were capable of assimilating it. In my first year with him I had the honour of being Dux and winning the silver medal - however I told him I did not want a medal to put away in a drawer but would like a watch which I could wear. He was taken aback, to say the least and took some days to consider my request! In due course he told me to go to Mr Finkelstein in the market in Inverness and choose a silver watch but, he said, there would not be sufficient funds to have it engraved. I was duly presented with my Dux watch at the school prize-giving early in July. This watch remained on my wrist for at least 12 years. It was 'wounded' during a battle course I was on when at O.C.T.U. The following year I sat the Inverness County Council examination and was awarded a bursary of £9 per annum to Inverness Royal Academy.

The £9 covered the cost of a season ticket from Fort George station to Inverness during the Autumn and Winter terms only. In the good weather during the summer term (and the summers were always good in those days!) I would cycle the 10 miles to school.

All through my school days (until I was 16 years of age) I suffered from bronchial asthma developed, as mentioned earlier, from an attack of measles and double pneumonia at the age of two. Each successive doctor who came to Ardersier had a different remedy, one said I must be dressed in knickerbockers to keep my legs warm and have a pad of thermogene wool on my chest below a flannel shirt and woollen jersey! My poor mother ensured that I did as the doctor ordered. Another, a new, young, Glasgow doctor arrived on the scene a year later and deplored the way my mother was 'padding the boy up with all these clothes'. He got what he deserved! His treatment was to let the boy wear short trousers, cotton vest and pants, a cotton open-neck shirt and pullover! You can imagine, perhaps, what a 'ninny' I had felt going to school in knickerbockers and heavy polo neck jersey (my pals did no know, fortunately, about the thermogene wool!) and how relieved I was to have the winds of heaven blowing about me when I appeared dressed like other boys!

No matter what medicine the doctors gave me - and I have swallowed gallons of everything from Veno's Lightening cough cure to cod liver oil emulsion - the only means whereby I could get relief (in other words freedom to breath easily) was not approved of by the doctors of the day. It was called 'Hinksman's Asthma Reliever' and it did! (it cost 1/6d per tin, and I must have used at least 25 tins each year!) this was a combination of various herbs ground to a fine powder. As soon as I felt an attack coming on or awoke during the night to find myself in the throes of an attack, I would put about a teaspoonful of the mixture in the oval depression on the lid, set a match to it and inhale the smoke which was given off. Relief came within a very short period: less than two minutes. Wherever I went as a boy I had my tin of Hinksman's with me: this continued until I was 16 when the burden was lifted from me as mentioned later.

Other children in the village also suffered from this dreadful affliction: some like me used Hinksman's, others a similar product called Potters' Asthma Cure or herbal cigarettes. The latter I tried from time to time but found no help in them. However as it gave me a feeling of superiority over my fellows, I used, deliberately to smoke those cigarettes from time to time: to the great envy of my fellow pupils!

Strangely enough, (Perhaps for psychological reasons?) I was almost always unable to attend school on Mondays because of asthmatic attacks but during the Winter months I would be off, for two or sometimes three months suffering from bronchitis. Successive doctors issued certificates to the effect, that I was unable to attend school 'by reason of bronchial asthma' - They always used these words - and this was delivered to my teacher. However we were such a close knit community that always during periods of prolonged absence my teacher would call on Fridays immediately after school. The purpose of the visit was three-fold : (One) to enquire after my health, (two) to tell me what books to read, what arithmetic to do and what poems to learn etc. (in other words all the work to be done in class the following week) and (three) to correct last week's lessons! Indeed I was always able to keep well ahead of the class although confined to the house and at the end of the school year expected to be first in the class! It was not until my last year in Ardersier school that I had the salutary experience of being in the proxime accesit position - wasn't I deflated! It seems that the Headmaster felt he could not award the Dux (Gold) Medal, that year, to a boy who had been off school more often than he had been present in class and that notwithstanding the examination results. The medal went to a Fort boy who, subsequently, was expelled from the Royal Academy for misbehaviour. However I did have the pleasure that year of winning the Art prize donated by the village doctor and came away from the prize giving with several books including the 'Special Prize' in the shape of 'The Scottish Chiefs' which bears a suitable inscription.

When I was about 10 years of age there was a total eclipse of the sun at 5.20 am (BST) on Wednesday 29th June 1927. This was such a special event that every school child was told, well in advance, about the eclipse. Certainly we in Miss Stark's class were taught more about the solar system and universe in the month before the actual eclipse than ever before or since! For the great day we all had to find a small piece of glass (usually from a picture frame) and cover it with soot by holding it over a candle for a couple of minutes. It had to be rendered 'opaque' - a word which came into my vocabulary at that time. We were told the eclipse was to commence very early in the morning and all the children over a certain age were expected to appear at the top of the hill above the Free church before 5.00 am. I well remember the vast number of adults and children gathering on the hill, all armed with pieces of smoked glass. We looked through our glasses at the sun rising above the sea horizon at 4.30 am brilliant in all its glory in a cloudless sky. In due course at 5.29 am the black shadow appeared on one side of the sun and we watched, awe-struck, as it crept across and eventually blotted out the light of the ruler of the day. What an eerie feeling all experienced in the total darkness and complete silence and how cold it was: we shivered. This state of complete darkness continued for, I suppose, ten minutes or so and then as the light of the sun appeared from a mere sliver of that heavenly body a great shout of joy, and I am sure, of thankfulness rang out from all the watchers. And then, wonder of wonders, it seemed that every bird in the locality came to life and raised a song of thankfulness.

Never shall I forget the experience. Our teacher told us that there would not be another total eclipse of the sun in our part of the world until 11th August 1999. I made a mental note at the time that I would have to attain the age of 82 if I was to see it! (Note: I have learned from an Edinburgh Astronomer Doctor Neil M. Pratt that the 1927 eclipse was only 95% but for us all it was 100%, and total darkness, and the next partial eclipse in this area will occur on 11th August 1999 (it will be total in Cornwall).

A word is necessary regarding the annual school prize giving. This took place in the War Memorial Hall and was attended not only by the School children, who were marched there class by class, but their parents, relations friends and neighbours. As all the working fishermen in early July were 'away at the herring fishing' those who had children at school were absent from this important event. The hall stage was suitably decorated with flowers. Each class 'performed' on the stage in turn, short plays, songs, recitations (of poems) by individuals. Towards my last year at Primary School I took part in a play in which I had to sing (in public for the first and last time!) a ditty which goes "Ha, ha, ha, you and me, little brown joy how we agree!" During this song I had of course to hold aloft a brown beer jug much to the dismay of my dear mother who disapproved of 'drinking'.

After the concert the Headmaster gave a report on progress during the year now ending and then introduced some local notable like the Minister, the doctor, the wife of the commanding Officer of the 'Seaforth Depot' at Fort George the Director of Education or the oldest person in the village.

The person concerned handed over the prizes, normally books chosen by the pupils' teachers. As each prize winner's name was called out he or she proceeded to the table at the front, took the book in the left hand and shook hands with the right. After scouting was introduced at Ardersier all Scouts in the happy position of being prize winners always came to attention and saluted before and after the prize was handed over.

When I was about 9 there was great excitement in the village over a decision by the County Council to build a new school! What in fact was built was an addition (located in our playground) to the old school comprising two larger and one small classrooms and with the toilets outwith the building! To them moved the two 'top' classes, including the Headmaster's. The small room was used for giving a select few an introduction to Latin; German or French. At least it was in that room that I studied these languages as a preliminary to going to the Academy!

In the two senior classes girls were given tuition in domestic science in the 'Cookery Room' a corrugated iron building situated beside the old school. It was there that boys were instructed by the Headmaster in Woodwork. In addition each boy in the two senior classes had allocated to him a 'plot' in the school garden and there we were taught the elements of gardening. The crops we grew were, so far as I recall, used for the benefit of the school-house! Any knowledge I have of carpentry and gardening started in those classes and I still use my dutch hoe, my spade and my plane in the manner taught by Donald McIntosh.

During the whole of my time at Ardersier Public School it was customary for pupils to be given homework to do each evening after school. Apart from the inevitable 'spellings' we had to learn the meanings of the words to be spelt, to do 'sums' set by our teacher, to read prescribed passages from a novel, to learn by heart poems or passages from scripture. In our house we had to do our homework as soon as we came home from school. No play was allowed to interfere with homework! When it was completed to our mother's satisfaction then we could feel free to do as we pleased. Chapter 7 >>>>>


Orcadiana said...
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Orcadiana said...


Your story of the romance between Miss Sinclair and Mr Forbes interested me - he, Tom Forbes, was my great uncle. He and Annie (Sinclair) married, and lived at Milton of Connage until his death in the 1950s (while at Perth bull sales). Annie moved to Abertarff Road in Inverness and lived there until her death around 1990. They had no children and are buried in Breaklich cemetery (which lies between Ardersier and Gollanfield). Tom's parents and siblings are also buried there.

Thanks for filling me in with this lovely bit of my family history!

Linda Forbes

Milky Bar Kid said...

Hi there Orcadiana. Thank you for telling me about your family. Have i the right to add this information to my my father's blog?