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Life and Times of D. M. Stuart, D.D.

Chapter II. — First School

page 9

Chapter II.
First School.

The little school-house which supplied the educational needs of the district was in the hamlet of Croft Moraig, or Sarah's Croft, which lay at a distance of about a quarter-of-a-mile from Styx, where Donald Stuart had his home. The building, which was plain to baldness, was situated on the edge of a considerable burn, that had countless linns and waterfalls of a miniature order. The banks of the burn, for miles above the hamlet, were clad with birch and alder trees, while, lower down, it wimpled under the spreading shade of elms and larches, and finally poured its waters into the Tay.

The school-house provided accommodation for thirty children. Its appointments were of a very primitive kind. The fire was kindled on a raised hearthstone, and the smoke, in default of a chimney, found its way into the "clear" through a hole in the roof, which, viewed from the outside, resembled a horn. The fuel was provided by the daily contribution from each scholar of a peat of the regulation length of about ten inches. At one end of the room there was a broad table at which sat the more advanced classes who had reached the stage of arithmetic and writing. At the opposite end were low benches without backs for the accommodation of page 10the younger scholars. The master's seat was placed at the end of the table, close to the fire.

To the wise counsel and persistent advocacy of Alexander Stuart the people were indebted for an important and advantageous change which was introduced into the adventure schools of the Perthshire Highlands. He had served for some years in the Breadalbane Fencibles, and that fact, coupled with the exigencies of his trade, required him to do duty occasionally in certain Lowland towns. He thus acquired a knowledge of colloquial English; and, with a growing experience of the utility of that acquirement, the conviction grew strongly upon him that the children of the Highlands, in order that they might have a fair show in the approaching competitions of life, should be taught English by teachers who knew it, as well as Gaelic, in all their schools. By the time his own boys had reached the age of six years he had become a country dealer on a small scale, and, in furtherance of this new enterprise, he usually made fortnightly visits to Perth, which was distant from his home about forty miles. He now began a strenuous agitation in favour of the appointment of a teacher who would be competent to impart, along with other branches of education, instruction in the English language. The result was that the parents authorised him to engage, for a period of one year, one so qualified, at a salary not exceeding seven pounds ten shillings and board. Willie Moncrief, the new teacher, appeared in due course on the scene of his future labours. He spoke the English of the Lowlands, and possessed, besides, a limited knowledge page 11of colloquial Gaelic. After the fashion of the times, he was boarded by the parents, taking a day or two days for each scholar, according to the arrangement that was made.

"On the opening day," the Doctor said, "my twin brother and I were present with our brod. That was a piece of thin board with the first leaf of the Shorter Catechism pasted on it, having also the alphabet in capitals, in small letters, and in italics, the numerals up to twenty, the letters for the chapters of the Bible, and the usual ab, eb, ib, and so on.

"I took my place in a class of eight—each with a brod. The method followed was that of simultaneous teaching. With our pointer on A, we shouted after our teacher 'A, A,' three times. The leader of the class was then asked to sound it, and all the others followed him in order. The first letter mastered, we went on to the second, and down through the alphabet in the same manner. In a fortnight we had acquired a full knowledge of the brod, and were then advanced a stage, into the Shorter Catechism, which corresponded to the First Royal Reader in the educational syllabus of the present day. In the schools of our order in those times the Second Royal Reader was the Proverbs of Solomon, the Third was the New Testament, the Fourth was the Bible in its entirety, and the Fifth was 'Barrie's Collection.'

"At first sight most people would conclude that the Shorter Catechism was ill chosen to be the first reading book, but, as a matter of fact, strong healthy children of six or seven years of age soon learned to page 12read it. The simultaneous method was adopted here also. The class spelled the first word of the opening question, and pronounced it What, and the second word in the same way, is, and so on with every word, and by the time we had got through the question in this manner six, out of the eight children were able to read it with little hesitation. It can be confidently asserted that in the first six months the class could read with an occasional stumble the entire contents of the Shorter Catechism, and repeat certain questions and answers, with a specially accurate knowledge of the Ten Commandments. When the children were dismissed to their seats their occupation consisted in spelling and pronouncing each word simultaneously. It was in this way secured that the mental impression made through both ear and eye was permanently fixed. It may be taken as evidence of the beneficial results of this system of teaching that before the year was out I was advanced to the Second Royal Reader, which was the Book of Proverbs.

"Though writing and arithmetic were embraced in the curriculum, yet the school was to all intents and purposes neither more nor less than a Bible school. When we were advanced to the Book of Proverbs we received by way of introduction to it a short account of Solomon's life. It was the custom twice a week to exercise us in turning up the more notable texts, and those of us who showed some expertness at this were rewarded with the chief places in the class. By the time we had read the book twice through the more notable texts were fixed in our memory, and some of page 13the class exhibited an aptness in quoting them. The children were not troubled much with verbal definitions, which often only hamper and confuse the mind, but through the simple method of instruction which was earnestly and naturally followed they were led up to such intelligent appreciation of the Word which passed through their hands that they gathered up and carried away with them as much of the lesson as was needed for their practical guidance in life.

"The simultaneous method was employed also in teaching the simple rules of arithmetic. The memory was in constant requisition, and the plan proved most helpful to the children in acquiring the elements of reading and arithmetic."

"I have had very considerable experience in the instruction of children," the Doctor wrote in concluding his notes on this chapter, "and have pleasure in bearing testimony to the high value of the old-fashioned method which my first teacher used so largely and so successfully."

He sometimes spoke of a delinquency into which he had been lured in those early days by some of the boys who were older than he, and to whom the freedom of the blithesome woods was more congenial than the irksome tasks of the village school. They persuaded him to play the truant, and go "berrying" with them in the bush, straitly enjoining him not to let it be known at home. "I'll not tell," he said, "unless I am asked, but if asked, I must speak the truth." The truancy of the boy reached his father's knowledge through inquiries which the teacher made, and, on being questioned, he frankly confessed his page 14fault, and submitted without demur to the punishment which it drew upon him.

The sorrows of others even then touched his heart into a loving beneficence, foreshadowing within the narrow limitations of his boy-life the deeper and larger benevolences of his later years. The bottle of milk which he carried with him to moisten the bread and cheese of the dinner hour at school usually found its way to the invalided son of a widow whose material comforts were few and small.