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SCOTTISH WORKING CLASSICS
The lad o' pairts
In 1765, the Scottish pedlar and chapman ‘John Cheap’, alias Dougal Graham (b.1724), first published his bestselling chapbook the Entertaining Exploits of George Buchanan, who was commonly called ‘The King’s Fool’ (1765). This was a humorous, fictionalised account of a character based on the 16th-century Scottish poet, historian and administrator of the same name (1506-1582). Graham introduces ‘George’ as ‘a Scotsman born’, who ‘tho’ of mean parentage, made great progress in learning’.1 He could outwit anyone, and specialised in outwitting Englishmen in high stations.
In one episode, George, having got the better of a certain bishop in a debate on religion, was taunted by a member of the same company of Englishmen, who said George alone possessed all the knowledge that was to be found in Scotland. George denied it: ‘the shepherds in Scotland will argument with any Bishop in England, and exceed them mighty far in knowledge’.2 Three clergymen were selected to travel to Scotland and dispute with shepherds. Clever George, who knew a quicker route, dressed himself as a shepherd:
When he saw the clergymen coming, he conveyed his flock to the road side, where he fell a singing a Latin song: as so to begin the quarrel one of them asked him in French, “What o’clock it was?” To which he answered in Hebrew. “It is directly about the time of day it was yesterday at this time.” Another asked him in Greek, “What countryman he was?” To which he answered in Flemish, “If you knew that you would be as wise as myself.”
The clergymen, admitting defeat, ‘went away shamefully, swearing, that the Scots had gone through all the nations in the world to learn their language, or the devil had taught them it’.3
This popular fiction, reprinted repeatedly and hawked across the British Isles in chapbooks for over a century,4 reveals much about Scots’ attitudes towards education. It shows how their education of the poor was measured favourably in comparison to England’s.’ But it also functions as a warning against falling unquestioningly for the same trick as the English clergymen in our assessment of Scottish working-class classicists.
Literary culture is of high antiquity in Scotland: the Dundee Burgh Library dates back to the fifteenth century and is the earliest town library in Britain.6 The egalitarian tradition extends back to the Reformation, when Protestant reformers identified children’s education as the instrument that could produce literate but godly citizens,7 and attempted to bring in a national school system centrally administered by the Kirk. As John Knox put it in his First Book of Discipline (1560), the ‘children of the poor’ must be educated, and if
they be found apt to letters and learning, then may they not (we mean neither the sons of the rich, nor yet the sons of the poor) be permitted to reject learning; but must be charged to continue their study?
The existing parish school provision was expanded and further regulated, with the aim of providing universal education, and no fewer than four universities were founded in Scotland by the end of the 17th century; the Tounis College at Edinburgh, renamed King James’ College in 1617, as the centre of the Scottish Enlightenment was by 1762 being called ‘the Athens of Britain’ for reasons other than its neoclassical architecture.9
In the 17th and 18th centuries, however, a huge number of unregulated ‘adventure schools’, to an extent comparable with the Irish hedge schools, came into operation to fulfil local needs.1" Lord Brougham’s 1818 report on education found 942 parish schools and 2,222 ‘ordinary’ day schools, mostly adventure schools.11 The teachers were usually kirk officers, who charged small fees in return for a curriculum that, at its best, added Latin and French classical literature in translation and sports to the inevitable Catechism.12 It was with John Murdoch, who ran an adventure school in Alloway, that Robert Burns studied sufficient Latin, in addition to French, mathematics and books such as a biography of Hannibal, to become the world-renowned symbol of the clever, cultured Scot who transcended his labouring-class destiny.13
But opportunities for the poor were certainly not available nationwide nor to everybody. There was a high concentration of classical education around Aberdeen, as we shall see; Mr Roberts, a Church of Scotland preacher, was reading Flavius Eutropius with seven boys and even one girl in Rathven, Moray Parish, in 1842.14 The edition may have been an old copy of Madame Dacier’s for the Delphin series (see above p. 28). Girls had an even harder time than boys accessing intellectual culture, including Classics, though parish schools were open to them; about a third of registered pupils in 1851 were female, and they were sometimes offered Latin.1’ Parents wanted daughters educated in reading (but not writing) English, and they learned to sew, embroider, knit and cook.16
The Dundee Speculative Society was most unusual in admitting women to its debates in the 1770s and 1780s.17 One woman was briefly a borrowing member of Wanlockhead Miners’ Library, but working-class libraries ‘were inclined to be prejudiced against women’.111 The earlier established library nearby at Leadhills did not formally admit women until 1881.19
In the later 19th century, after the introduction of University Local Examinations, the number of girls taking classical languages remained tiny, but it was acknowledged that those who did tended to excel.20 Professors at Edinburgh ran unofficial classes for women on many subjects, including Latin and Greek, and they proved popular amongst supporters of female suffrage.21 Elizabeth Lipp of Fochabers, Morayshire, was the first girl from the north-east of Scotland to train as a certified teacher, at The Church of Scotland Normal School in Edinburgh in the 1870s, a beneficiary of the landmark Education (Scotland) Act of 1872. There she studied English, Geography, Nature Studies and Mathematics, as well as Latin (Caesar and Virgil were the set texts) and Alexander Adam’s Roman Antiquities (1791).22
Lipp was an inn-keeper’s daughter, but her six brothers all graduated from university as well, so careful with money and aspirational were their parents.23 Lipp was lucky, however, to find employment as a teacher at a girls’ school in Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, after achieving the coveted Certificate of Competency.24 There is a recurrent trope of such a prodigiously clever girl, allowed by a broad-minded father to attend Greek or Latin classes, such as Jane Welsh (see below) or the schoolmistress celebrated in John Gait’s 1834 story The Mem (i.e. schoolmistress), in which Miss Peerie ‘excelled every young lady far and near in accomplishments. Greek and Latin were to her household words, and she would read Hebrew as easily as if it had been the A.B.C.’25 But Welsh and Peerie were daughters of a doctor and a grammar school headmaster respectively: there are few signs of working-class equivalents.
Robert Burns’ friend William Nicol, the son of a tailor who had died when he was a boy and who had been raised in penury in an Annan country village, learned enough Latin and Greek from a travelling tutor named John Orr to open a school of his own in his mother’s house and eventually be appointed Classics master at Edinburgh High School in open competition.26 But many remote rural regions were not even reached by itinerant tutors; few highlanders bettered their class position through education.27 In new communities, established by captains of industry around mills and mines, a schoolhouse was often built alongside workers’ cottages and a church, but attendance was not obligatory, and many workers fell through ‘the educational gaps of... the parish system’.28 Moreover, classical provision declined in Scottish parish schools in the 19th century. The Argyll Commission report (1865-1868) reported that the old-fashioned parish system of teaching Latin was holding children back from learning the three R’s, and it was banished in many areas.29 The tradition of the working-class boy who rose on merit can obfuscate the severe class inequality that made such a phenomenon exceptional, and in reality ‘this function of the parish school was more limited than the democratic myth suggests*.30
That said, in some more populous regions ofScotland parishes were furnished, at first by the church and later the state, with excellent educational institutions. Combined with bursary schemes, these provided opportunities for promising working-class boys to be educated alongside their middle- and upper-class peers. Central to the popular narrative is the surprisingly widespread teaching of Latin (and to a lesser degree Greek) in parish schools.
The Old Statistical Account for the 1790s reveals how the educational system could work under optimal circumstances. One Kirkcudbrightshire schoolmaster, was able due to a particularly generous bequest, to offer free tuition in Latin and Greek.’1 The fortunate pupils were taught the learned languages ‘with accompts and some practical parts of the mathematics; in short, every thing necessary to prepare the young student for the university, as well as to qualify the man of business for acting his part in any ordinary occupation’.32 This distinctive feature of the Scottish system ‘was possible’, argues Robert Anderson, ‘because university education itself started at a low level, requiring little more than a rudimentary knowledge of Latin, and because boys could go there at fourteen or even younger’.33 The system created ‘a pool of recruits’ for the Scottish clergy, which the church supported with bursaries, enabling the ‘lads o’ pairts’ from remote villages to gain university educations free of charge, and thus sometimes to leave their poverty behind them. In Chapter 22, on Classics in mining communities, we discuss one such parish, where working-class children could progress to higher social stations via fine educational and reading facilities.
The tradition of the learned working-class lad, despite operating in a twilight zone between historical reality and myth, also illuminates the ubiquity in this book of the engagement with Classics of Scottish people born into all walks of lower-class life across the nation: pedlars, gardeners, poets, carpenters, sailors, crofters, weavers, editors of radical newspapers, professors, philosophers, philanthropists, showmen, planters, prisoners, revolutionaries, circus performers, potters, granite workers, miners, MPs, stonemasons, barbers and gem engravers. A Scotswoman, Esther Easton, featured in the book’s opening section; it concludes with the son of two Scottish socialists, the theatre-maker Ewan MacColl. The aim of the discussion here is to supplement the substantial presence of Scottish people in other chapters by focussing on four discrete dimensions of the Scottish working-class experience of ancient Greece and Rome, all of which affected British and indeed international life more extensively: the remarkable resources for studying and teaching the Classics that existed around Aberdeen, which furnished hundreds of educated men to work in the furthest outposts of the British Empire;34 the cheap and popular publishing ventures of both George Miller in Dunbar and especially the Peebles-born brothers, William and Robert Chambers, whose educational publications found their way across the British empire; the use of classical myth in Thomas Carlyle’s forceful denunciation of capitalism, which became a key text of the labour movement; and the novel about Spartacus by one of Scotland’s best-loved writers, Lewis Grassic Gibbon.