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Historical Articles     Caithness Field Club Bulletins

R. E. MacCallum

At the time of the Brubster Clearances there were only two permanent schools in the parish of Reay; the parochial school at the west end of the village of Reay (NC 958645), built c. 1774, and an Assembly school at Melvich which had been established in 1831 by the Education Committee of the General Assembly, hence its name. Both schools had a roll of about 90 pupils in the winter months but fell to below 30 in the summer when older pupils were withdrawn to herd or help on the land.

In a return on the state of education in the parish, dated 10.8.1825, it was reported that the parochial schoolhouse consisted of a schoolroom, a bedroom and small lumber room. The schoolmaster's salary had been fixed at 400 merks in 1803; in addition, he received 6 in school fees, 4 for his duties as session-clerk, and 3 for drawing-up the annual militia list, giving him a total income of 36 p.a. Subjects taught included Greek, Latin, English Grammar and Mathematics but the majority of pupils received instruction in reading, writing and arithmetic.

In a footnote to the return, the schoolmaster (D. Mackenzie) said that. since 1803 many places in the vicinity of the school had been much depopulated by the 'sheep farming system' and the greatest part of the remaining inhabitants were in a state of great poverty and were unable to pay school fees (at that time ranging from 10 to 20p per quarter).

Four other schools are mentioned in the return, viz. one supported by the Edinburgh Gaelic School Society, whose teacher had an annual salary of 20, and a school for reading, writing and arithmetic which was supported by the Glasgow Auxiliary Gaelic School Society; its teacher had a salary of 10 plus 10 from other sources. Both schools were ambulatory, i.e. had no permanent site. There were two other schools which were entirely dependent upon whatever could be raised in school fees and parents' support; neither was of 'permanent continuance'. One of these may have been at Brawlbain which is said to have had a school in the 1780s.

The population of the parish was estimated in 1826 by the Inverness Society for the Education of the Poor in the Highlands to number 2537, three-quarters of whom were Gaelic speakers. 987 (i.e. 49 per cent of) children aged 8 years and over were said to be able to read.

An Abstract of Education Returns shows that in 1834 there were still only two permanent schools - at Reay and Melvich - but by 1840 things began to improve. A new parochial school was built at Reay (probably on the site of the present primary school) and the John o' Groat Journal reported in June 1840 that the school at Brubster, which had been opened eight months earlier by Captain Macdonald of Shebster, had been examined and the 54 scholars present 'had acquitted themselves, reflecting great credit on their excellent teacher, Serjeant William Campbell.' Also at this time an enquiry was held in Thurso into the division of common lands in the Parish of Reay and one witness said that as a child she had herded her mother's cattle as far as the schoolhouse on the west-side of the Burn of Skaill (at Hallum). A sketch plan shows its location on the east side of the road from Shebster to Achreamie at ND 016657.

In 1843, when the established church was split asunder on the issue of patronage (i.e. the right of congregation rather than the landed proprietors to choose ministers), nine of the eleven parish ministers In Caithness left the church and joined the new Free Church of Scotland. It was said that when the Rev. Finlay Cook walked out of his church in Reay he was followed by most of his congregation; a few of the richer people, such as the heritors and farmers, with some shepherds and managers were all that remained of the once large congregation. Mr. Forbes, the village schoolmaster, remained faithful to the established church but had a much depleted roll and, according to Calder, gave up and went to America.

Mr. Cook, now churchless and homeless, preached for several years in the old churchyard at Reay and then in a barn at Shebster while he awaited the building of a church and school on ten acres of 'miry clay' at Shebster, which had been given to the congregation by Sinclair of Forss. Most of the work was carried out by the menfolk and the new school was opened in 1849. Evander Matheson, former teacher of the Assembly School at Barrock, was appointed as schoolmaster. A description of the school and its eccentric teacher is to be found in Jenny Horne's books "This was my Glen".

Unfortunately, no parochial records for the period 1843 to 1870 survive but newspaper reports often provide useful information. For example, we learn that William Campbell was until 1859 teaching in the Free Church school at Isauld and it may be assumed that he forfeited his post at Brubster because of his adherence to the Free Church; indeed the school itself appears to have closed possibly because most of the pupils were withdrawn and transferred to the Free Church school at Shebster. In 1860 it was reported that Mr. Campbell had passed the Government examination in Aberdeen and qualified as a certificated teacher.

Isauld School was examined in April 1867 and the pupils under Mr. Shearer were reported to have performed well, showing that the school 'continued to maintain its efficiency.' In that same month a letter in the Caithness Courier complained that there was need of a new school. Buldoo School, situated between Upper Dounreay and Borrowstone, was said to be almost uninhabitable and the writer hoped that when the factor came to live axaongst them, he would make speedy arrangements to make both Isauld and Buldoo more comfortable for teachers and pupils.

An earlier report shows that a school, taught by Donald Macpherson, flourished for a time in the vicinity of Dounreay. It is first mentioned in April 1853 and In April 1866 it was inspected by the Free Church minister who reported that during the course of his examination 'the scholars evinced a general knowledge, especially in Scriptural History, for which it had always been famed.' Mr. Macpherson died in 1871 at the age of 60. (NB: Dounreay is referred to as Skaill School in the 1884 Valuation Roll.)

Another obituary in the Caithness Courier (5.10.1894) mentions the death of Hector Mackenzie, aged 88, formerly teacher in Shurrery School; unfortunately, no indication is given of when and for how long he taught there.


Following the passing of the 1810 Education Bill, setting up a national system of education, the new Parochial School Boards were required to carry out a survey of existing schools (e.g. their age, condition and accommodation, number and qualifications of staff, and the school populations in each district, and to submit to the Scotch Education Department an estimate of their educational needs. These surveys are usually contained in the minutes of School Boards and provide us with a picture of educational provision prior to 1870. All the Reay parochial records were, I believe, destroyed shortly after the Second World War but it is clear from newspaper reports that only Reay and Shebster Schools were thought to be in satisfactory condition. The new School Board declined to accept responsibility for the school at Shebster, possibly wishing all pupils to attend Reay School, but was persuaded to reconsider its decision and Shebster remained open until 1936.

The School Board was in no great hurry to provide new schools and it was not until 1879 that a new school was built at Dounreay, followed by Brubster in 1880 and Brawlbin in 1893. A school, possibly for estate workers, functioned at Shurrery from c. 1884 to 1923.

Brubster School had only eight pupils when it opened in 1884, all aged between 5 and 10 years, but the roll fell to four in 1913 and the school was closed in 1917. When Shurrery closed in 1923 the school was re-opened with a roll of three, which gradually grew to fifteen in 1937, but again fell to three in 1958,when it was finally closed.

This article first appeared in the Caithness Field Club Bulletin April 1988