Life in a Country School – by John Graham.

Galloway News – 25th November 1961

It was in the year 1901 that my name was added to the roll of a certain country school not so very far from the ancient town of Kirkcudbright. The school was situated at the top of a hill where three roads meet forming a pyramid and consisted of two classrooms. When the army authorities decided during the 1939-45 war – to call it the “last war” is a bit risky – to take over several of the farms in the district to make a tank range, there was no need for the school, and in 1947 it was officially closed.

There it remains, squat and squalid, a reminder of past times when the noise of children at play could be heard for a considerable radius. The only visitor to this old building is the postman who daily locks and unlocks the red letter-box set in the front wall, just as Wullie Hannay and “Gib” McCall did on their afternoon drive from Dundrennan to Kirkcudbright.

In close proximity to this old school, camp buildings have been erected and along the road a little distance are the palatial barracks built for the accommodation and pleasure of the present-day soldier. The new schoolhouse, which was built of whinstone over fifty years ago, is now the home of the Country Clerk, and a wooden hall, the erection of which was the work of many willing hands in the area, was opened in 1926 or thereabouts.

These are a few of the changes I have seen since my schooldays in this place.

About 1884 William Moffat who had been in charge of this school for a time, was translated to Twynholm, and he was succeeded by a young man from the city of Glasgow, aged about 30 years. His name was Alex Matheson, and he brought with him his wife, Nancy. The quiet countryside must have seemed strange to them after the bustle of the city, and it, probably, never occurred to him that this was to be his home for the next twenty three years.

A few of his pupils of his early days in this little school are still with us – Miss Jeanie Logan, The Lake – a nonagenarian, James Picken who still farms at Milton, Willie Raphael who lives in the old High Street of Kirkcudbright (these two men are both over 80 years of age), and Mrs Kennan, Atkinson Place, Kirkcudbright, who is the daughter of the late James McKie, Farm Foreman, Little Balmae.

Matheson was known as “the maiser,” but in his absence was often referred to as “Sawney.” He was well in the saddle by the time I met him, and my earliest recollections of him were that he looked severe and stern. He was of medium build, had a bit of a paunch, and was pigeon-toed; he smoked a clay pipe (no doubt thinking it was a cool smoke), and must have gone through hundreds of these in his time – probably at twopence a dozen.

When I look on a picture of J.M. Barrie, I am reminded of Matheson, there was just a slight resemblance. He ruled his little school with a rod of iron, in the shape of a good-going pair of tawse. The infliction of corporal punishment seemed to give him much enjoyment and satisfaction, and his pupils soon learned “to trace the day’s disasters in his face”.

At his jokes – he had plenty when he was in the mood – we had to laugh “with counterfeit glee” for most of the time we did not understand what he was getting at. Nevertheless he was a good teacher, and could hold the interest of any pupil who was anxious to acquire knowledge.

When I happen to pass the old schoolhouse – it is seldom I do nowadays – I always look over the hedge into the garden and think of the days when the bigger boys in the school used to weed the paths, and carry out lots of other chores at the behest of “the maister.”

This garden was “a thing of beauty” in summertime. The time soon arrived when I was old enough to take part in this work, as well as cleaning out the stall of the little chestnut mare, and yoking her into the trap which was to convey the family to town. But he did not always take his family with him, and when he had a convivial evening in mind he would “lowse” at the Selkirk Arms, stable the pony there, and drop in to see the landlord, Hugh Carter.

There too he would meet his opposite number, Erchie, from “the Whinnie” and dull care would vanish. In those days it was a decided advantage to have a pony that knew her own way home, and the maister’s mare certainly did.

My love for music was fostered by this teacher. The school concerts which he produced were invariably successful ; for the parents it was a great night, the night of the concert, and one of their ‘homely joys.’ At the dance which followed they would sit into the night watching the young people tripping the light fantastic, cracking jokes, and keeping up a running commentary on the merits or demerits of the dancers.

When the dust began to rise and irritate the throats of everyone, it was the easiest thing in the world to get a man to sprinkle the floor with water from a watering can! Sometimes a party would come out from Kirkcudbright, and give an entertainment.

Among the artistes we would be sure to find Jamie Wemyss who sang character songs with patter in the Wullie Frame style, and Alex Tait whose “Saftest o’ the Family” was his piĆ©ce de resistance. I would give much to see a programme of one of those concerts in the early years of this century.

I have already mentioned the garden chores which the bigger lads were called to do, but there was another queer job which was handed out, indirectly connected with the garden. Once at least another boy and myself were sent on an expedition to a field called ——- ——— named after a hard-fisted farmer who was a tenant long ago.

We carried a bucket, and received our instructions to fill it with sheep droppings, so that a mixture could be made up to promote the growth of garden plants such as onions, &c. Many would have thought this task a disagreeable one, but we did not mind for it was an escape from the drudgery of lessons; we would be in the open air and could breathe freely.

It was a steep climb up the field, but the higher we went, the better the view; the pity of it was that we had not yet learned to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings. There was Dee Estuary beneath us, the Manxman’s Lake, the Senwick Wood with its trees burgeoning in the May sunshine.

Burrow Head promontory, like the tip of a long finger pointing at the Isle of Man, and on our right was the wooded peninsula of St Mary’s Isle. Later in life, scenes like these were to become familiar to me, and were to be indelibly imprinted on my mind. But to our job – the maister would be consulting his time piece and stamping at our delay.

I have heard it said that some folks got a handful of money by following horses, but we did not even get dirty money for following sheep. We were young and carefree and an outing such as this appealed to us; we were glad that the maister had noticed that there were sheep in the field.

School in the days of which I write was not so dull and drab as some of the present-day children might think, there were diversions and distractions, and each week and season of the year had their highlights to liven things up. No doubt we were easier to please, and life was less complicated than it is now.

We always looked forward to the arrival of the baker’s van on two days a week. This van belonged to Gillone, Bakers, Tongland, and was in the care of Alex. Kelly, who always blew his bugle to warn us of his approach. Afterwards his place was taken by Matha Cuthbertson (Cubbieson). The drawer below the van itself was the attraction, for here the sweet cakes were secreted. We were unable to buy all be coveted, and it was with a pang of regret we watched the van being driven off.

We had much the same feeling when, on sunny days, the ice-cream man, Antonio Boni, arrived with his little cart complete with canopy. There was barely room in it for a can of ice-cream, a box of wafers, and himself. One could get a little tub of ice-cream for a halfpenny – a useful and popular coin in these times. Boni would, I think, be the first Italian ice-cream merchant to come to Kirkcudbright – he had his shop in Castle Street, where the crafts shop of Mr Johnston is situated today. After a short stay Boni left the town. Recently I came across the name in Whitburn, West Lothian, and am still wondering whether the Boni’s there are descendants of our Antonio the good.

Twice a week the attendance officer – formerly known as the “whupper in” – would push his bike up the Grange Brae and arrive at the school in a state of breathlessness. This was the stout Jamie MacGregor, who had come to take notes about absentees and put the bigger boys through their paces during the dinner hour. The obesity of Jamie had earned him the name “Baggy” (this was not disrespectful, for nicknames were common). Jamie, a keen Volunteer, was in the Galloway Rifles, and had risen to the rank of colour sergeant. I turn aside to look at his picture seated beside other sergeants, among whom I recognise John A Osborne, Adam Rain and Jamie Livingston. And so Jamie had us marching and countermarching along the country road, and then he introduced the physical jerks – hips firm, knees bent, &c. When I saw Jamie getting down to demonstrate I said to myself “He’ll never get up.” I was wrong, for he rose without effort and without a hint of ungainliness. The short period of physical training over, Jamie mounted his cycle, and, resting his feet on the forks of the front wheel (this was prior to free-wheel days) he sped down the hill and would be at Grange road-end in no time at all.

When funerals took place at Dunrod Kirkyard and the mourners had to come a distance with their ponies and traps, the older boys were allowed out of school to go and hold the horses in the field adjoining the kirkyard. I can remember two such funerals – that of David L Picken, farmer, Milton and Erchie Logan, who had lived at Jordieland after his retiral from a police force in England. Being heavy-footed, I was among the last to arrive and found the horses of the liberal owners had already been gripped. I found myself with the pony of John Edgar, Townhead, not a spirited animal by any means. My difficulty was to keep this lump of horseflesh from falling asleep, leaning on the shaft and breaking it. I had to keep poking it in the ribs, and for this somewhat strenuous exercise I received the large reward of two pennies.

When the summer came round we soon considered the weather warm enough to strip off our boots and stockings on the way home from school. How exciting it all was! John Louden MacAdam had not yet chased the dust from our country roads by his mixture of tar, &c., and our feet sank in the “stour” as we trundled our “gird” made by Wullie Anderson, the silent thoughtful blacksmith in the smiddy at Sawmill. Soon we were down into the Buckland Valley and home.

About the middle of June the word would be passed from mouth to mouth that hoeing had commenced at such and such a farm. I think that “Robbie” Allan, Howwell, would be chairman of the local school board at that time, and as soon as his turnips were ready for singling the school closed for six weeks. I nearly added ‘holiday’ but this would be incorrect, for most of the children worked in the fields during these six weeks, hoeing, cutting thistles and haymaking. The wage was 1s. 6d. per diem, but if the boy or girl was very young, he or she had to be content with ninepence per diem. Farm workers were poorly paid, and farmers had no guaranteed prices or subsidies then. The year 1914 was a long way ahead, and agriculture had not yet come into its own.

After the death of the sixth Earl of Selkirk (Dunbar James) in 1885, his widow took up residence at Balmae, a lovely mansion overlooking the Solway Firth. There she remained until her death in 1921. She was a great horse-woman, and nothing gave her greater pleasure than driving her own carriage and pair. Later, during the 1914-18 war, in order to keep up the morale of the land-workers, she drove the horses in the reaper at Torrs Farm, with Jamie Smith “guiding” or tilting.

Many a Christmas tree did the Countess provide in her home for the children attending this little school. She always opened the proceedings by reciting the Selkirk Grace, as it was called after Burns had himself quoted it at St Mary’s Isle in 1793. But we had to be respectful and remember to say “My Lady.”

Stories of ladies bountiful such as she are not popular today, and are apt to be greeted with a sneer, but we must keep the record straight and realise that children – and adults too – were grateful for gifts received from the hands of the Countess. The Hope family too were generous, and were wont to call at the school with books and toys for the pupils. During the winter months the soup kitchen was maintained through the kindness of many friends in the district, and the children were asked to pay one halfpenny only for a plate of soup. When we got our Christmas holiday (only a few days) each of us received an orange taken from a large brown paper bag – the cost, 40 for 1/-.

This sketchy story of school life would be incomplete without a mention of Bertha who entered the school about 1901 as a pupil teacher. Bertha had, of course, a surname, but we were told not to call her Miss Henry. She was then 17 years of age, good looking with aquiline features, though rather pale. Bertha was talented, and could play, paint and sing. She worked hard to get through her exams, coached by the maister – and succeeded. All the children loved Bertha, and she was held in high esteem in the district.

It must have been about 1907 or 1908 when she left her home at The Lake, along with her family, and settled in Glasgow. I was not to meet her again until 1921, April, when she revisited Kirkcudbright on her way to Kenya, where she was to marry and grow sisal. Before she left she presented a book to me, appropriately entitles “A Dominie’s Log,” and this gift I still treasure. She died in 1953 far from The Lake, which I am sure she loved very much.

Just as the years flash swiftly past us when we are old, so do they wing their way unnoticed when we are too young to care. The five years at this little school, with all their vicissitudes, came to an end and I took my leave. The following year, 1907, just a week or so after one of his friends had planted his lovely begonias (according to instructions given from a sick bed) death laid his icy hand on the maister at the early age of 53. We carried him through the gate of the old kirkyard at Dunrod. A chapter of this little country school had come to an end.


The school, of course, was at Townhead. So far as I can establish, the following is the 1881 census entry for “The Maister.” At this time he was still single, and lived with his parents in Glasgow.

Dwelling: 205 Main St
Census Place: Barony, Lanark, Scotland
Source: FHL Film 0203630 GRO Ref Volume 644-1 EnumDist 45 Page 2

Marr Age Sex Birthplace
Murdoch MATHESON M 60 M Lochalsh (G), Ross and Cromarty, Scotland
Rel: Head
Occ: Gate Keeper Cotton Mill

Helen MATHESON M 55 F Killearn, Stirling, Scotland
Rel: Wife

Alexander MATHESON U 26 M Glasgow, Lanark, Scotland
Rel: Son
Occ: Teacher English

William MATHESON U 22 M Glasgow, Lanark, Scotland
Rel: Son
Occ: Cotton Dresser

Annie MATHESON U 20 F Glasgow, Lanark, Scotland
Rel: Daur
Occ: Power Loom Cotton Weaver

“Erchie”, the schoolmaster at Whinnieliggate was:

Dwelling: Whinnieliggate
Census Place: Kirkcudbright, Kircudbright, Scotland
Source: FHL Film 0224057 GRO Ref Volume 871 EnumDist 9 Page 4
Marr Age Sex Birthplace
Archibald MC KINNEY U 26 M Bathgate, Linlithgow, Scotland
Rel: Lodger (Head)
Occ: Schoolmaster

Antonio Boni, the ice-cream seller, was in Edinburgh in 1881. Although born in Italy, he was a naturalised British subject:

Dwelling: 38 St Mary Street
Census Place: Edinburgh Old Church, Edinburgh, Scotland
Source: FHL Film 0224000 GRO Ref Volume 685-3 EnumDist 22 Page 3

Marr Age Sex Birthplace
Nicholas PACITTI U 35 M (Nat Brit Subject), Italy
Rel: Joint Occupant Head
Occ: Confectioner (Master)

Antonio BONI U 35 M (Nat Brit Subject), Italy
Rel: Joint Occupant
Occ: Confectioner (Partner)