Moray House School of Education and Sport

The dominie

The appointment of the local schoolmaster, or dominie, was an important responsibility of the parish. The schoolmaster, because of his scholarship, was a key member of the local community, second only to the minister himself.

More often than not he had studied at a university, although poorer parishes were not able to afford such a scholar. All had to subscribe to the Confession of Faith, a 40-page document. Some parishes set an examination for their prospective dominie. Often the successful candidate would be installed at a formal ceremony, perhaps with parents crowding onto the benches usually occupied by their children. The kirk minister would start with prayers followed by the provost praising the parish’s newly appointed dominie. In some parishes the tradition was for the new schoolmaster to teach their first lesson in the presence of both the children and their parents and local dignitaries. He would then be presented with the keys of the school together with rent-free accommodation in the school house.

The dominie had tenure for life; dismissals were uncommon, usually on grounds of religion, politics or morals or an overenthusiastic punishment of pupils with his tawse. There is a record of one Invernesshire schoolmaster who began teaching at the age of 29 and died 70 years later still in post. The dominie’s teaching would be subject to an annual scrutiny by local dignitaries until 1840, thereafter by government inspectors. Tradition has it that the dominie typically wore black clothes: dark trousers, frock coat all covered by his academic gown. His local salary would be augmented by the fees paid by the children, although the poorest could be supported from parish funds. He might also undertake other community responsibilities such as acting as clerk, bookkeeper, surveyor or factor; or he might provide private tutoring or even write textbooks. For some, the role of teacher was a stepping-stone to higher things. The minister’s status and salary were a particular attraction and dominies often undertook further theological studies.

Children would enter the parish school at the age or 6 or 7. In the class the younger pupils would work alongside the older ones. The day was often a long one, sometimes beginning as early as 5 in the morning although more often at 6. The alphabet would be learned through the Shorter Catechism and from 1616 all children had to learn the Catechism by heart. Reading progressed through the Proverbs to the Bible itself. The minister would examine the pupils on their ability to read the Bible. The majority of children would not progress much beyond this stage of reading. However, some older pupils would advance to arithmetic and Latin and a few to writing. A number of parish schools prepared their more able pupils for direct entrance to university. In the Lowlands of Scotland even this basic education meant that there was almost universal literacy. A practice common throughout Scotland at the beginning of the 19th century was the public examination of pupils held on the morning of the last day of the summer term. The Scottish education system helped the brighter boys, with parental and teacher support, to advance beyond their roots. Thomas Carlyle, writer, historian and polymath, was born into relative poverty in Ecclefechan, Dumfriesshire, yet through the schooling and support available was able to go to Edinburgh University and on to London.

The local dominie often worked in isolation from others in his profession. Devising his own methods he would endeavour to teach his class despite its wide range of ages and abilities. He might take the older more able boys in a special class before or after the rest of the school. Some of these would progress to the larger burgh schools, and a few to university usually at the age of 14 or 15. Here they would find even larger classes, with knowledge drilled in by the lecturer. Many lasted only one or two sessions before leaving for a job.