STATEMENT by Rev. RODERICK MACDONALD, Minister of South Uist.
DRIMSDALE, SOUTH UIST, 6th October 1883
The Royal Commission not having been in session for the last few weeks, I delayed writing until now, although I had a desire to add to what I said before the Commission in May last, and this in consequence of statements made by others at the same time ; which statements I think call for remark, and, in connection with a pamphlet (to be noticed further on) lately published, reflecting on the conduct of the South Uist School Board, require some correction. I was therefore glad to receive your printed circular, of date 17th July last, informing me ' that the Commission would be glad to receive any written statement which I might be disposed to offer.' At the same meeting at which I was examined by the Commission at Lochboisdale, the Rev. Mr Mackintosh, C.C., Daliburgh, was also subjected to examination, and in the course of his answers he stated that, as the Catholics of the parish formed such a large majority of the population, the School Board as presently constituted did not properly represent the inhabitants of the parish ; that consequently the Protestant element should be eliminated out of the Board, or at all events placed in such a minority as to give the Catholic members the whole control of the Board's business, so that the Catholic religion should be taught in all the schools, adding that if the Protestant members were men of honour they ought to resign, and make room for Catholic successors. I cannot profess to remember the ipsissima used by Mr Mackintosh, but I am satished that I do not misrepresent him, at all events I have no wish to do so, and if I have unintentionally misstated his views I shall be glad that he should correct me.
The question of the representative character of our School Board I shall deal with before I finish this paper; meantime I shall say a few words regarding the connection of Protestantism with the educational interests ol South Uist previous to the passing of the Education Act of 1872, and in limine. I beg leave to state boldly, and that without fear of contradiction, that all the interest taken in the instruction of the young in the parish of South Uist up to 1872 was taken by Protestants
In this connection let me add that I am unwilling to make any statements that seem to betray controversial motives. I repudiate the idea. It is distasteful to me, and I have never indulged in it, but, as I must speak, I am bound to speak the truth, for the circumstances of the case require it. First and foremost, then, in speaking of educational matters, the old parochial schools naturally have a claim to take precedence. I do not, however, require to say much about them. They do not need to be lauded by me or anyone else. They are now a thing of the past, but they can never be forgotten.
It was a grand idea that was at the basis of their institution. They left their mark on the Scottish nation, and if they did not make Scotland, as some allege, the best educated country in the world, Scotland unquestionably owes them an unspeakable debt of gratitude. But Scotland outgrew the capabilities of her parish schools, and they had to be supplemented, and supplemented they were, and that nobly, especially in the Highlands, upwards of half a century ago. Some Highland ministers, conspicuously among them the Rev. Dr Norman Macleod, the Highlanders' friend, drew the attention of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland to the destitution that existed in the Highlands. Whereupon the Assembly sent Dr Macleod and Principal Baird as a deputation to the Highlands of Scotland, visiting among other places the parish of South Uist, but before doing so, calling upon the Catholic Bishop of Lismore, who gave them letters of introduction to the priests in the Highlands. Everybody hailed with delight the noble project. The report of the deputation resulted in the formation of the General Assembly's Education Scheme, and I speak from personal knowledge when I state that they sent some of their very best teachers to the parish of South Uist, men of education and scholarship, well qualified to discharge the onerous duties of their important office, and there are living still in this parish men who speak with affection, gratitude, and respect of those teachers who were instrumental in bestowing upon them the blessings of education.
When, in addition to this, I mention the Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, with its numerous schools, planted in sequestered and outlandish places such as South Uist, not only for the purpose of giving an elementary English education, but also for teaching the natives a knowledge of useful and industrial work, it will be admitted that the Church of Scotland has nobly done her work in the education of the country.
It was all needed and more, and Lady Cathcart, recognising her duties to the people, and finding that there was a good held for a school in Benbecula, erected a splendid seminary there, and supplied a teaching staff, costing, including incidental expenses, a sum of £200 a year. This school gives not only elementary, but also secondary education, with industrial work, including sewing, knitting, washing, and dressing, on an extensive scale. Her Ladyship has done much, very much, for her people since she acquired possession of her Long Island properties, but, should she have done nothing more than the bestowal of this single blessing of the means of education for the young, she deserves their earnest gratitude.
All these schools were undenominational and unsectarian in the best sense of those terms, inasmuch as they were open to all, and no child's creed interfered with. There may have been a rare case of interference on the part of an over-zealous teacher, but the constitution of the schools did not sanction it, and the authorities having their superintendence scrupulously discouraged it.
Due credit ought also to be given to the Free Church, which, shortly after her formation, instituted an education scheme of her own, and certainly she was not neglectful of South Uist She had excellent schools doing good work in this parish, and, npon a review of the whole subject, I humbly think that we were less in need of the provisions of the Education Act than many places.
All this time, it may be asked what was done for the educational interests of South Uist by its Catholic population ? The answer is—literally nothing. The Protestants educated the Catholic children, many of them for nothing, and I believe I am right in saying that more than one respectable priest in the Highlands will acknowledge that they received the elements of their education in our Protestant schools. And do I blame the people of South Uist for this ? By no means. They had their own chapels to build, they had their priests to pay, and they were poor. In these circumstances, then, seeing that the Roman Catholics of South Uist never spent a single farthing (as far as I know) in the education of the youth of the parish, I think, to say the least of it, the proposal of M r Mackintosh seems very cool, viz., to use the money of the Protestants (for the Catholics pay only a small fraction, about one-fifth of the rates) to teach the tenets of the Church of Rome, and make use of an Act of Parliament, the spirit and letter of which I venture to say are entirely against any such purpose. In speaking of the Roman Catholic population of South Uist I have to say that, having lived among them for upwards of a quarter of a century, I found them most obliging, civil, and respectful; they were contented, happy, and loyal, and I have no doubt would continue to be so were outsiders to let them alone; nay more, I shall add, that having had many dealings with them, that having some of them in my service every year since I came to live among them, I have the most unbounded confidence in their truthfulness and honesty. In fact, there are many illiterate Roman Catholics, men and women, in South Uist to whom I would trust uncounted gold. Whether this is owing to racial heredity and transmitted qualities, or to clerical teaching, I shall not take it upon me to decide.
The pamphlet alluded to at the beginning of this paper bears the name of the Right Rev. Angus Macdonald, resident Catholic Bishop at Oban. It consists of a number of letters which passed between the Bishop and some office-bearers connected with Lady Cathcart's Long Island properties. I believe, however, it does not contain the whole correspondence. I have it not beside me, but I read it cursorily some time ago, and the purport of it seems to be to show that in the administration of the Education Act there were no concessions made to the Roman Catholic population—in fact, that they did not receive from the School Board the consideration which, from their numerical majority, they were entitled to.
I do not think this is correct Shortly after the passing of the Act there was a meeting of what may be called the local authority, when (the bulk of the people seemed to take no interest in the matter) we set about the election of a Board. I myself having had some experience in teaching, and as member of presbytery having had the superintendence of a number of schools, and as the minister of the parish, and as such supposed to be interested in anything that concerned the welfare of the parishioners, was expected to take part in the proceedings—so I offered my services, but on condition that two priests and the Free Church minister should be on the Board. Acting on this suggestion, the above parties, along with the requisite number of others supposed to be the most suitable, were duly nominated and subsequently elected, and became the first School Board of South Uist.
Since writing the above, I am reminded that there being more candidates nominated than the number of members to which the parish was entitled, a Protestant candidate, who afterwards became a very efficient member of the School Board, retired, so as to make room for one of the priests, and to avoid the expense of a poll.
A slight difficulty occurred at the very first meeting of the Board as to the question whether our meetings should be opened by prayer. This would have been agreeable to the majority of the Board, but, seeing that it might offend the Catholic members, it was ruled that each member should put up a mental prayer for himself, and that there should be no public audible prayer. By this concession some of us incurred a certain amount of unpopularity. However, we thought we did right.
The next difficulty was touching the teaching of religion, and we did minute that religion should be taught according to what is called use and wont, but this was not acted upon, and we thought it better that religion should be relegated to Sabbath Schools or any other means that the clergy might select, and that, according to the spirit of the Act, the energy of our teachers should be solely directed to the communication of a thorough sound secular education.
In the selection of teachers we never asked what was the creed or denomination of any candidate. We were entirely guided by the certificates of character and qualifications which they produced. In point of fact, we appointed two Catholic teachers, but none of them came forward. In the case of one of them we kept the school vacant for some time, and were obliged to appoint another, the Catholic candidate appointed failing to appear. We employ Catholics as compulsory officers. We have given gratuities to Catholic children to enable them to prosecute their studies with the view of their becoming teachers.
At first, in advertising for teachers, we made a knowledge of Gaelic a necessary qualification, but afterwards we abandoned this in order to widen the area of selection, and also to give Catholic candidates a chance, Gaelic-speaking teachers being, as we understood, scarce with them. So that I do not think we are righteously accused of denying to Catholics the consideration to which they are entitled. In fact, we considered ourselves as representing the whole and not any section of the population. Moreover, we have spent a great deal of time and trouble in getting school buildings erected, carrying on the extensive correspondence necessary for obtaining building grants, appointing teachers, and superintending the whole educational machinery ; and I venture to say that our efforts have been crowned with considerable success. We have a full and an excellent staff of teachers at present. All our teaching grants for the last year have not yet come in, but one grant is announced amounting to £123, 15s. In short, we have borne the heat and burden of the day, and if we are spared to see the end of the present triennial period, I have every confidence that we shall be able to show that our labour has not been in vain.
On the subject of the crofters' grievances I do not intend to enter—grievances they have, as who has not ? —but I do not think they succeeded in stating their case properly. The question is not what happened thirty, forty, or a hundred years ago. The problem to be solved is what to make of the crofter now. This problem I do not attempt to solve. But, however loath one may be to admit it, I fear that a sentiment uttered by a man in high quarters, and who ought to know, viz., 'That the crofting system is doomed,'is a sentiment, however unwelcome to many, is nevertheless true.
To offer any advice is needless and ungracious, especially when the party to whom the advice is given is predisposed to treat it with indifference, if not with contempt In regard to emigration, which appears to many to be the only- cure for the overcrowding which admittedly exists among Highland crofters, every man must be left to the freedom of his own will. I have already stated publicly, and have before and since given utterance to the same sentiments in their own hearing, that with all my love and affection and respect for my fellow-countrymen, the peasantry of the Highlands, who, however, I fear, are getting spoilt, I would much rather hear of their being comfortable and happy elsewhere than to see them struggling with adverse circumstances in their own country, constantly fighting with poverty, and often on the brink of starvation.