The First Schools in the Seaboard Villages

The 1872 Education Act established compulsory schooling and paved the way for the nationwide provision of schools and teachers throughout Scotland. Hilton Public School opened in 1877, serving Hilton, Balintore and adjacent areas in the parish of Fearn. There were two other schools in Fearn parish, one at the Hill of Fearn and one at Balmuchy. To begin with, the Shandwick children were required to attend Pitcalnie School, the nearest school in Nigg Parish, it seemed that they just did not make the effort and very few of them were even enrolled by their parents. Pitcalnie was really too far away. By 1887 arrangements had been made between the Fearn School Board and their counterparts in Nigg, this led to the Shandwick pupils being accommodated in Hilton. From then on the children of the three villages would be educated together in Hilton Public School.

Before 1872 access to education was much more haphazard, despite John Knox and the Scottish Reformer’s plans after 1560 for a school and schoolmaster in every parish throughout the land, as well as a church and a minister. It is doubtful if this was ever achieved.

Both Fearn and Nigg had parochial schools from quite an early date. The Fearn school was described in 1791 as, “but indifferent” in state with about 100 scholars. In 1793 Nigg had a school but had no schoolhouse and the teacher’s annual salary was only £8.68 per day. In Nigg the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, (the SSPCK) had appointed by that date a schoolmistress to, “instruct young girls in the different branches of education necessary for their sex.” Presumably this included knitting, sewing and spinning. Were girls considered unworthy or incapable of a fuller education at that time?

Few of the fisher children would make their way to the old schools at Fearn and Nigg. The distance of the villages from the schools would be a real disincentive when attendance was not compulsory and walking was the only means of getting there. The children of the Seaboard Villages had to wait for other voluntary organisations to come to their aid, or for schools to be founded in their own community, thus allowing them to acquire the rudiments of reading, writing and arithmetic.

On 21st March 1837 The House of Commons printed a document called “Abstract of Educational Enquiry Scotland”, the document was largely compiled by the ministers of the Church of Scotland, who had gathered the material in 1834. The report provided the facts on the state of education encompassing the surrounding area in detail.

Fearn parish had two schools in 1834. One of the schools was the Parochial School, otherwise known as the “antique school of The Road to Balintore”, near to the Abbey. The other school was known as the “old meal mill”, both schools taught similar types of subjects but differed in some areas. The Parochial School was more academically focussed and taught: English, reading, writing, arithmetic, bookkeeping, Latin and interdisciplinary subjects including elements of geometry and Greek language. The other school was described as “the school not parochial”, this school was more vocational, despite teaching similar subjects to its counterpart such as, English and Gaelic reading, English grammar, writing, arithmetic and bookkeeping, it also taught sewing and knitting. The more vocational school was kept by a man and his wife who were allowed £19 per annum by the SSPCK”. This “non parochial” school was in Balintore and was situated in, what is now East Street, next to where the Balintore Hotel now stands. The Parochial School had 109 scholars, 77 boys and 32 girls. The SSPCK school in Balintore had 130 scholars on its roll, 84 boys and 46 girls.

Another statistic from the Fearn minister Mr Ross, was that there were 77 children in the parish between 5 and 15 years old taught to read, with 34 taught to write. The figures do not tally with the actual numbers of children on the rolls, the difference between school roll and school attendance could explain that particular anomaly. After the establishment of universal education in 1872, the Hilton School log continued to complain bitterly of the irregularity of attendance on the part of the pupils. Things would be no better in these early days before compulsory attendance, on the contrary things could have been much worse. It may be that the 239 pupils on the school rolls in the parish in 1834 were not represented by bairns, “bums on seats” except once in a blue moon. Fisher children were an essential part of the family economy, there were many duties that might keep them out of school. Lines had to be cleaned and baited after the bait had been procured. Seasonally there would be a gathering of sea ware for fertiliser, the planting of potato rigs, then the potato lifting. Younger siblings constantly had to be looked after, their mothers were usually fully employed in all of the above activities, as well as cleaning, curing and carrying fish “to the country” for sale or barter. Even getting bait in those days might mean the long walk to and from Nigg Bay was necessary for mothers and children. A point worth noting is that an absent mother needed in-house childcare, which meant that even for children enrolled in school, attendance might be sporadic. The early school teachers had huge obstacles in their way. They could not assume that the whole community had cottoned onto the concept of education and were enthusiastic about it.

The “Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge” had been established by Royal Charter from Queen Anne in Edinburgh during 1709. The Charter’s purpose was, “to erect and maintain schools to teach to read, especially the Holy Scriptures and other good and pious books: as also to teach writing, arithmetic and such like degrees of knowledge in the Highlands, Islands, and remote corners of Scotland”. Balintore was obviously considered to be in a situation where the need for a school was considered very great, in turn leading to the SSPCK stepping in to help.

It appeared that in 1834 Nigg parish had 4 schools, evidence of this can be seen in a report, sent by parish minister Mr MacAdam as part of a parliamentary enquiry. Unfortunately the fourth school has not been as easy to identify as the other three, this has lead to a lack of information on that last school. The SSPCK school for girls was recorded as being in operation as early as 1793.  The Secession Church at Chapelhill was recorded as a school and the final school known about was the Parochial School.  There were 27 children in the Parochial School, 14 boys and 13 girls, while a total of 60 pupils were taught in the other three schools, consisting of 30 boys and 30 girls. Mr MacAdam complained that, “nearly half of the inhabitants are dissenters who have a school of their own and consequently do not send their children to the Parochial School. Several of the young people attend the schools in Fearn… Education is at a low ebb in this parish, partly owing to the poverty of the people, however chiefly owing to dissent. It is, therefore impossible for any teacher to succeed.” Mr MacAdam was a good man, despite this it is clear that he did not like the Chapelhill dissenters, nor did he appreciate their presence in his parish. Mr MacAdam’s statistics for those learning to read and write were: 10 children under the age of 5 and 100 children aged 5-15 could read, whereas children aged 5-15 who could write numbered only 30, a stark contrast to the numbers that could read at that age. Once more the numbers do not tally with the stated school rolls. All the Shandwick people were staunch adherents of the Chapelhill congregation. It appears more likely that the Shandwick children would have gone down the road to the SSPCK School in Balintore, if they attended school at all.

The Balintore School appears for the first time in the SSPCK Annual Report in May 1818, it is mentioned as a “new erection” during the course of the year between May 1817 and May 1818. The report failed to print the right name and the school was called, “Balunton in the presbytery of Tain.” Mr Walter Aird was the schoolmaster, his salary was calculated at £15 per annum, despite the fact that in his first year he actually had no pupils. In 1818 – 1819 Mr Aird had 109 pupils and Mrs Aird was named as a female teacher with her salary calculated at £4 per annum. The number on the roll fell slightly to 81 pupils in 1820 – 1821, numbers didn’t really recover as a rise to 82 between 1825 – 1826 shows. The parish minister Mr Ross can be seen to have added to the parliamentary report in 1834, he had submitted the pupil roll as 130. The number could be seen as an aggregate of ordinary pupils, as well as those who were in the female, non academic school. The figures quoted seem overwhelmingly large for a single teacher, even if his wife had some minimal input. The SSPCK school was the only school in the villages for more than twenty years after it was founded, it was probably attended over those years by most of the youngsters in the three villages. The book, “Easter Ross, a double frontier” produced by Mowat records dissatisfaction expressed to the SSPCK in 1826 regarding the state of the teacher’s accommodation at Balintore, this dissatisfaction concerned the location of their quarters above the school room, the low standard of comfort and the lack of heat.

The 1841 census confirmed the existence of only 2 schools in Fearn parish, the Parochial School at Fearn near the Abbey, with 25 year old Robert Rose as teacher and the school in Balintore where Walter Aird aged 59, was “Society Teacher”. Walter Aird appeared in the 1837 list of communicants of the Fearn Parish Church. It was a very small list, as was common in the north then, very few parishioners were actual communicants.

The 1851 census did not record a teacher actually living in Balintore instead that teacher resided at Fearn Parochial School next to the Manse. Others that lived there included William Brodie aged 25, who was the Parochial Schoolmaster, his 48 year old father, also called William, who was Society Teacher and 16 year old Hughina Brodie, also in the family, who was a Sewing Mistress. Perhaps the incommodious living quarters at the Balintore School necessitated the older Mr Brodie’s residence with his son at the Fearn Schoolhouse. The SSPCK returned two years earlier between 1848 – 1849, William Brodie was already noted as the schoolmaster in Balintore at this time, with Miss Hughina Brodie named as the female teacher by 1850 – 51. Mr Aird, the former Balintore teacher, was retired in Invergordon according to the 1851 census. incidentally the census also recorded that he had been born in Rosskeen around 1782. The SSPCK’s returns for the years before 1818, show that Mr Aird had been headmaster of the school at Boath in Alness parish before taking up the post in Balintore. Mr Aird was on the SSPCK list of superannuated teachers in the report of 1847 – 1848. It seems very likely that Mr Aird had been forced to retire from his position at Balintore after the 1846 judgment of the Court of Session, the judgement declared that the SSPCK, according to its articles of constitution going back to the days of Queen Anne, could employ only people who were attached to the Church of Scotland. Local tradition informs us that all the elders and most of the congregation of Fearn Abbey had seceded to the Free Church in 1843. Mr Aird was almost certainly among them and perhaps lost his employment as a consequence. Mr Aird was thought to be about 65 in 1847 which today would allow him to retire, however there may have been no retiring age in operation around this time.

The 1851 census also revealed a new educational development in the Seaboard Villages, there was now a Gaelic School in Hilton, run by 33 year old John Maclean from Lochbroom. The school in Hilton was often called a Free Church School, however this does not seem to be correct, all the references are to a Gaelic school, and a Gaelic teacher. The date this school was setup remains unverified but speculation would allow the date to be no earlier than the release of the 1841 census and not before 1851. However, by 1851 it can be assured that there were two schools in the villages, the SSPCK School in Balintore and the new Gaelic School in Hilton.

Gaelic schools were instituted by the Edinburgh Society for the Support of Gaelic Schools, set up in 1811, in later years auxiliaries were also established in Glasgow and Inverness. These schools taught Gaelic and other subjects but the main stated purpose was, “to teach the inhabitants of the Highlands and Islands to read the sacred scriptures in their own tongue”.

Two other schools were established by 1851, one near the old Free Church Manse on the Fearn to Balmuchy road, whose teacher was Neil Ross aged 25, another school was opened in Hill of Fearn, the teacher there was 21 year old Kenneth Morrison. These two schools were in fact Free Church schools. At a house in the Loans resided Hugh Mackillop aged 39, he was the brother of the household’s owner, who was the parochial schoolmaster at Nigg. Hugh Mackillop is recorded in the 1851 census as being at this house, which leads to the conclusion that he had been visiting his brother over the weekend.

The 1871 Census record provides the following information on the teachers and schools in the parish of Fearn:

Hill of Fearn: Teacher, William Miller, 29, born Lybster.

Near F.C. Manse: Teacher, William Sutherland, 23, born Edderton.

Hilton: Gaelic School Teacher, Malcolm Morrison, 35, born Stornoway.

Balintore: Teacher, James Wilson, 57, born St Andrews, Teacher of English and something which cannot be deciphered from the source. 

Balintore: Rose Ross, 48, Teacher of Sewing, born Cromarty.

In addition, the census of 1871 shows several teachers that are not clearly related to a particular school but worked within the Fearn parish.

At Clay of Allan: William Corbett, pupil teacher, 16, born Tarbat.

At Clay of Allan: Alexander Ross, 23, born Logie Easter.

At Fearn Farm: Hugh MacCulloch, 20, Boarder, Schoolteacher, (Suspected as being the parochial schoolmaster but not verified), born Resolis.


The Education Act and Provision of Compulsory Education came into force in 1872, just a year after the 1871 census. The old pattern would change forever with the parochial school board taking over the provision of school premises and teachers.

The Ordnance Survey Name Book was compiled in 1871 and from this book it can be deduced that there were indeed five schools in the Parish of Fearn at this time:

A Free Church School: No grants or bequests connected therewith. Liberally supported by the heritors and F.C. trustees. Attendance about 50. Ordinary branches of education taught.

Hill of Fearn Village: A Free Church school. Average attendance about 80. A mixed school.

Hilton of Cadboll: A mixed school. Not entitled to any grant further than £25 per annum. A free house and garden together with Scholars fees complete the master’s salary. Attendance about 50. Ordinary branches of learning including lessons in Gaelic.

Balintore: A mixed school situated in Balintore. Received £20 from the SSPCK. Attendance about 55. Has a free house and garden. Scholars fees complete the master’s salary. Ordinary branches of education taught.

Parish school: Situated east of Farm Steading at Fearn, little is known about the Parish school.

When the new school system was set up after 1872 there would be only three schools in the parish of Fearn, the Public Schools at Hilton, Hill of Fearn and Balmuchy, however, before 1872, the Seaboard only had two schools for its large population of youngsters. In Balintore there was the SSPCK School in East Street, located on the area in front of the Balintore Hotel. In Hilton the Gaelic School and schoolhouse were in the building across the road from the present day Free Church, the old schoolroom was used in more recent times, up to the 1970’s, It was used as the Free Church Meetinghouse. The numbers enrolled in the schools seem enormous in comparison with the staff. There were 55 pupils at Balintore and 50 in Hilton, both groups covered the age range from 6-12 or so, each school only had one teacher. Times have changed dramatically for the better, for children and for teachers. It would appear that not all the village children of the appropriate age groups were, in fact scholars. In Shandwick and Balintore the number of 6-12 year olds amounted to about 70, thus giving a shortfall of about 15 children not in school, if there were about 55 pupils in Balintore. A total of 68 6-12 year olds in Hilton meant there were maybe around 18 children that were not in school. Those figures are only rough counts and make no allowance for a few children older than 12 still being educated. The children may have not stayed in school for their full primary education. The fees to be paid must have been a major deterrent to the poorer families in the community, poverty was the norm, especially in the years when the fishing were poor.

Both the SSPCK and the Gaelic Schools Societies, whilst providing basic education, also had a stated religious and missionary purpose. It is worth remembering that the other three schools in the landward part of the parish had also been founded by the churches, the old Parochial School endowed by the Established Church, those at Hill of Fearn and Balmuchy were also provided by the new Free Church after 1843. This pattern was echoed all over the country. Our modern and increasingly secular Scotland has forgotten that it was the churches and religious bodies which provided the foundations for our present day educational system.

It was The two voluntary agencies, the SSPCK and the Gaelic Schools Society that the people of the Seaboard Villages were particularly indebted to,  before the Act of 1872 came to pass. It was these bodies which first provided education locally and accessibly for the children of the Seaboard, even when the people themselves may have been unenthusiastic about such a provision. As well as educating the children, there is refuted to have been an influence that teachers had on the moral and spiritual outlook of the community during their time there.

The new Hilton Public School was not opened formally until 13th February 1877 and from then on the scholars of Balintore and Hilton including the nearby parts of Fearn parish were taught together. Until the new school was built some other building had to be used. Almost certainly that building was the school in Hilton, although it is difficult to imagine that all the children from Hilton and Balintore could be accommodated there. It is possible that the Balintore building also remained in use, although there is no mention of this. There had been 55 pupils on the roll in Balintore and 50 in Hilton during 1871, this allowed for up to half of the 55 pupils in Balintore to have been from Shandwick but taught in Nigg parish, therefore those pupils would not have been taught in a school provided for them by the new Fearn School Board. There would still have been at least 80 children and probably many more if there was full compliance, with compulsory enrolment. If they all turned up there would be fearful overcrowding. The Hilton School Log Book on November 24th 1876 confirms this, “Attendance large and regular. Our schoolroom too small for so many children.”

After searching for material or information relating to the transitional period after 1872, it appears there is a distinct lack of documentation of this period. The lack of information obtained around this period of time is interesting and provides much speculation about the events that happened during it, however for the moment speculate is all we can do. Any new information or leads on where the information could be procured would be greatly appreciated.

The Log Book of Hilton Public School starts with the account of the visit of Her Majesty’s Inspectors carried out on 29th April 1875, written up on 12th May 1875. The inspection happened 2 years prior to the building of the new school, which clearly indicates that the school was already functioning as Hilton Public School at that time. Early entries complained about the poor attendance, a problem that was to continue for years. “June 25th 1875. Attendance this week very small due to field labour. Average attendance 33.” The official HMI Report showed a dire situation, “April 10th 1876. Examined school. Present 26 boys, 39 girls. April 14th 1876. As soon as our examination was over most of the children returned to their field labour as usual.” A total of 65 children attending on the day of inspection was far short of the maximum possible,  33 was abysmally low. The Master’s log bemoaned earlier in 1876, “…. but most of the children of this place have no mind or heart for education especially as long as they can come and go as they please.”

Reasons given in the log for non-attendance included: the gathering of whelks for the market, the hauling in and launching out of boats for the herring fishing, the attendance of the Fearn midsummer market, the barking of their nets, herring fishing, lifting and planting of potatoes as well as gathering sea ware for fertiliser. One sad entry on 17th March 1876 recorded that, “the little barefoot children do not attend so regularly owing to the heavy snow and storm.”

The opening of the new school saw a huge increase in the pupils enrolled and attending. At the inspection in May 1877, there were 130 boys and 110 girls, these figures show more than 3 times the attendance at the inspection conducted a year earlier. Around 1885 or 1886 the Shandwick children were also attending Hilton Public School, so that now all the children from the villages were being educated together. The Nigg School Board had tried hard but to no effect, to get the Shandwick pupils to attend Pitcalnie School when it opened, eventually an arrangement was entered into with the Fearn Board allowing them come to Hilton, which was much more accessible. The Inspector’s Report for Pitcalnie recorded of Shandwick in 1882 that, “about 36 children are alleged to be growing up in the village uneducated”. The Hilton Report in 1885 stated, “From Shandwick and its neighbourhood in the parish of Nigg 42 children attend this school, most of them irregularly”.

Attendance continued to be a problem overall for Hilton Public School, not just with regards to the Shandwick children. The 1886 inspection was critical in the extreme, “This state of affairs reveals a formidable amount of absenteeism and is probably without parallel in this inspection district.” It appeared that the Seaboard people still did not take well to the idea of compulsory education of their children. The arrival of James Watt as Headmaster in 1888 however, marked the beginning of a new era, while local tradition remembered him as being a stern disciplinarian and very negative in his attitude to the Gaelic language and its use, under his leadership the attendance, discipline and academic standards all improved greatly. The Log Book certainly implies that the scope for improvement was immense.

We have moved well into the modern era and away from the early schools of the Seaboard Villages. Many of us older members of the community were educated, as our parents and grandparents were, in the old school above the brae, which dubbed the new school in 1877. That building has since gone, only the Schoolmaster’s house remains. The old SSPCK School in Balintore, located on East Street, built as the first educational building in the villages some 200 years ago, has also now sadly vanished. Maps from around the time still show where the old school would have stood, despite the distinct lack of any current physical evidence. Only the old Gaelic School of the 1840s in Hilton remains. Now a dwelling, its honourable history probably unknown to most of those who pass by, possibly altered greatly as a building from the original, it serves as the sole physical reminder from our days, of the schools in which our forebears received their first, apparently very reluctant, grounding in the 3 Rs (an abbreviation pertaining to basic orientation of educational means such as reading, writing and arithmetic).      


The Statistical Account of Scotland, (Fearn parish 1791, Nigg 1793).

The Ordnance Survey Name Book, 1871.

Decennial Census, 1841, 1851, 1861 and 1871.

“Easter Ross 1750 – 1850 the Double Frontier”, Mowat, 1981.

Annual Reports of the SSPCK.

Abstract of Educational Enquiry 1837.

Log Book, Hilton Public School.

Log Book of Pitcalnie Public School.

oral historical sources, traditions and folklore.


J.A. Skinner. March, 2014.