Aberdeen and the north-east

At the time of the Old Statistical Account, fees for the parish schools were typically set according to a hierarchy of subjects. ‘Reading’ by itself might cost around Is 6d per quarter, while ‘Writing and Arithmetic’ would cost commonly between 2 and 3s. ‘Latin’ was reserved for those willing and able to part with around 5s per quarter.3’ Here we can see exactly how classical education functioned as a tool of social division. The more costly Latin helped distinguish the middle classes from the masses, while the ability to read and speak English (not a given in Gaelic-speaking communities) enabled the poorest to access classical authors through translations in emergent cheap print media.36 Despite regional variations, however, some working poor could enter the parish schools and even learn Latin, since there were systems in place for their fees to be covered. These had long been the responsibility of the kirk sessions—groups of parish elders—but in 1845 the obligation was transferred to the new Poor Law authorities, or parochial boards.37 Some subsidised school places were provided by schools in exchange for supplements made to the schoolteacher’s salary.38 Such ‘bequests’ were usually named after the founding benefactor.39

The most celebrated was the ‘Dick Bequest’, established by James Dick (1743-1828), a shoemaker’s son. He made a fortune trading in the West Indies and died leaving the vast sum of ,£113,787 for schoolmasters in the shires of Aberdeen, Banff and Moray. To secure a generously salaried position, teachers were required to pass a special Dick Bequest Examination, which ensured university-level standards of Latin and Greek provision; once in post they were regularly inspected.40 The bequest strengthened the connection between northeastern parish schools and the universities of Aberdeen, including Marischal and King’s Colleges (united in 1860), both of which offered numerous bursaries. Boys competed for these by examinations in Latin translation into English and in Latin composition—writing ‘versions’.41

There survives a detailed account of a class at the university in the 1860s. Alexander Shewan (1851-1941), the son of a Peterhead ‘Master Mariner’, graduated from Aberdeen University with a first-class degree in Classics in the 1860s. After serving in the Indian Civil Service, he retired in 1897 to St. Andrews, conducted research into Homer and compiled Meminissejuvat: Being the Autobiography of a Class at King’s College in the Sixties.42 Shewan’s understanding of the class position of his peers is to be handled with care. He claims that many of the 137 students attended university only because they had won ‘those precious bursaries’.43 He says that northern Scottish schoolboys saw the annual competition for Aberdeen bursaries as equivalent to the ancient games at Olympia.44 He praises the boys’ training in the parish school, or (as he calls it) the dura virum nutrix (‘tough nurse of men’). In the parish school, he explains, ‘the laird’s son and the ploughman’s, the sons of the carpenter and of the Lord of Session met together’.45 It is perhaps a consequence of the lofty company he kept in later life that Shewan speaks of his and his fellow students’ ‘humble origins’. Status is relative. He may, as a bursary boy, have felt inferior in class terms to his wealthier co-evals, but his life was lived at a comfortable distance from physical labour, skilled or unskilled.

Shewan was impressed that his Greek tutor was from plain Scottish farming stock. Professor William D. Geddes (1828-1900), who was indeed relatively low-born for a university professor, entered the University and King’s College, Aberdeen, at the age of 15, graduated a few years later, taught at a local grammar school and was made Professor of Greek at his alma mater in 1855.46 He had previously been educated at Elgin Academy, which was, like some other academies and ‘burgh schools’, expensive enough to remain ‘the preserve of the middle classes. Not for the poor’.47 Geddes may have been relatively low-class for a professor, and he walked 65 miles from his home to Aberdeen to attend his first bursary competition, but he was not therefore (as Shewan implies) from a family of poor labourers.

According to Shewan,

no fewer than 48 (of the 80 about whose education he had information) received their early education in their native villages. Of most of us it may be said that “our lives in low estate began”. Few were of wealthy houses.48

Of these, some may have been from middle-class families who sought to save money by entrusting their sons to the excellent local schoolmaster for their early education. Almost all, Shewan explains, completed preparation for the ‘bursary contest’ at one of Aberdeen’s two grammar schools, although he personally attended a private school called the ‘Gymnasium’, on the humanist German model.49 Like Horace, whom he quotes (pauperum sanguis parentum, ‘blood [son] of poor parents’ Odes 2.20.5—.6),50 Shewan exaggerates his humble origins.

The Aberdeen bursary system constituted a significant formal educative route to the heights of classical scholarship for north-eastern boys of humble origins, but in the second half of the century, when Shewan attended, it was heavily trodden by middle-class boys. Shewan records that, of the 90 boys in his class, there were 4 sons of landed proprietors, 4 in government, municipal or railway service, 10 medical men, 4 professors, 4 lawyers, 15 ministers (2 of whom were also professors), 15 businessmen or shop owners, 3 schoolmasters and 25 farmers.51 The numbers are not complete (90 out of 124), and the designation of‘farmer’, for example, is ambiguous. All the same, these figures show that odds were stacked against the average son of a labourer.

The Dick Bequest and Aberdeen bursaries made the north-east of Scotland an oasis of classical education, but Shewan’s account exaggerates how democratic and meritocratic it was, at least in the later 19th century. For most poor students, their social ascent ceased at the not-much-higher rank of schoolteacher or minister, usually after many gruelling years working as a pupil teacher and private tutor, which subsidised them through school and university respectively. In order to break into prestige professions, boys required additional and exceptional help from above. The arbitrary system of sponsorship and patronage continued to provide the sole framework in which real ‘rag to riches’ mobility could take place.52

Had the system been more egalitarian further back in time? Thomas Ruddiman was born in 1674 to a Catholic tenant farmer in Raggel in the parish of Boyndie near Aberdeen, and has been described as the archetypal ‘Lad o’ pairts’.53 He shone in his Greek and Latin classes in the nearby Inverboyndie parish school.’4 At 16, he left home to compete for and win a bursary at what was then King’s College, Aberdeen. His bursary enabled him to graduate; he later taught for a living. In 1699 he met by chance an eminent physician, Dr. Archibald Pitcairne, who helped place him in relatively lucrative positions in the Advocates’ Library at Edinburgh and at Glasgow University.” Through his benefactor’s intervention, the promising scholar was enabled to smash through his class ceiling and enter Edinburgh society as a scholar, printer and moderate Jacobite man of letters.

Ruddiman produced several editions of Roman texts, including, most notably, Livy and Virgil. But his most profound influence was exerted through what was to become the scourge of British schoolboys for generations, The Rudiments of the Latin Tongue. First issued in 1714, this primer became a publishing phenomenon. Repeatedly revised and reprinted throughout his life and until as late as 1886, it helped generations of schoolchildren and autodidacts alike take their first steps in Latin. Crucially, it was bilingual: it was in English and Latin throughout, whereas other grammars at the time and long after were often written entirely in Latin.56 On visiting, in August 1773, the small town of Laurencekirk near Aberdeen, James Boswell, in his Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, recorded that it was there that

our great grammarian, Ruddiman, was once schoolmaster. We [he and Dr Johnson] respectfully remembered that excellent man and eminent scholar, by whose labours a knowledge of the Latin language will be preserved in Scotland, if it shall be preserved at all.57

In Chapter 5 we encountered Hugh Miller of Cromarty, just north of the Moray Firth. At parish school, he found Ruddiman’s Rudiments ‘by far the dullest book I had ever seen. It embodied no thought that I could perceive,—it certainly contained no narrative’.58 He did not attend university and regarded the Aberdeen curriculum as intellectually limiting (see above pp. 114-15). But the contretemps with Ruddiman’s Rudiments experienced by Alexander Bain (1818-1903) did lead to much greater things, as we saw in the same chapter (pp. 106-8). The Aberdonian son of a handloom weaver, Bain became a philosopher and Regius Chair of Logic at the newly united University of Aberdeen. He recalls being drilled in Ruddiman’s Rudiments and ‘found the memory work not at all congenial—but still I did it’.59

Like Ruddiman, Bain was aided by a chance meeting with an older and more economically secure man. In November 1835, he was in a bookshop owned by one member of his mechanics’ class when the Reverend John Murray overheard their scholarly conversation.60 Murray was the minister of North Parish, Aberdeen, and after a few meetings supported Bain in his effort to go to university, by helping to teach him Latin and preparing him for the bursary competition. As the competition drew closer, Bain was permitted to study for three months at the grammar school with no fee.61

Despite his progress, he did not win a full bursary, but his benefactors’ support resulted in a ‘vacant bursary’ being found for the bright 18-year-old, which had 2 years left to run.62 And that was how the Aberdeen weaver could become a Professor of Philosophy. In the 1860s, the Argyll Commission investigated the backgrounds of university students and found that over 20% of students came from working-class backgrounds.63 Anderson notes that ‘the figures showed that most working-class students were older than middle-class ones, and came after a period of work and self-education, not straight from school’.64 Bain was one of these older students, if only by a few years, who were originally self-educated and fought hard to win and finance their university place. They still required a ‘leg up’ from individuals who knew how to play the system. But Bain never forgot his birth-class and, in 1850, as we have seen earlier, contributed articles on ancient society to an encyclopaedic multivolume series Papers for the People, published by the Chambers brothers (see above p. 106).

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