The fascinating story of a school in South Uist

 After an arduous journey by train and ferry, he arrived at Lochboisdale, at night to be met by the redoubtable Fr Allan McDonald, who set off at a brisk pace to walk the three miles to where Rea was to sleep for the night.

Island life was never for softies.  I wrote previously about the conference exploring the negative impact the Education (Scotland) Act 1872 had on the teaching of Gaelic. But other legislation around that period had a more positive effect on the islands. The true story of the innovative young English headmaster on South Uist offers a fascinating example.

A panoramic view of South Uist against a blue sky

South Uist panorama, unchanged since the time of Frederick Rea

The Education Act set up local boards to administer schools and appoint teachers, but initially these were dominated by the factors or agents of absentee landlords. They invariably nominated a Protestant, even though the islands were overwhelmingly Catholic. Crofters and farm workers were in the majority on the boards, but they kept quiet for fear of being evicted.

That changed with the Crofters’ Act of 1888, which gave tenants security of tenure. The islanders used their new status to exert their voting power and advertised for Catholic teachers.

One man who answered the call was Frederick Rea, who was a Catholic, but coming from the Midlands of England was not only not a Gaelic speaker, but completely unfamiliar with the seemingly primitive life in the islands. After an arduous journey by train and ferry, he arrived at Lochboisdale, at night to be met by the redoubtable Fr Allan McDonald, who set off at a brisk pace to walk the three miles to where Rea was to sleep for the night.

Rea became headmaster of Garrynamonie school, where none of his barefoot pupils spoke English. He had to teach them through two “student teachers,” girls barely out of school themselves who translated his lessons.

The South Uist of 1890 could not have been more different than the bustling cities Rea was used to, but he took to the experience with wide-eyed wonder and enthusiasm and stayed 23 years, bringing his ailing mother up from England so that the pure air of the islands could benefit her health. He even took up trout fishing in the island’s myriad water-lily filled lochs.

Highland cow reflected in a pool of water lillies

Rea’s memoirs, edited and published by John Lorne Campbell in 1964 under the title A School in South Uist (republished several times by Birlinn) have the fluency and charm of a writer who treats each new experience, no matter how strange or daunting, as an adventure. I first read them on the island where the events described had taken place a century before. I thoroughly recommend them.

The conference, hosted by Hebridean Archives, is at Balivanich Primary School, Benbecula on 25 August.

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