http://northernrenaissance.org | ISSN: 1759-3085

Creative Commons License

Published under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported Creative Commons License.

You are free to share, copy and transmit this work under the following conditions:

Issue 12 (2021) - Communities & Margins

Revisiting the Language Issue: The Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) and Highland Education, c. 1660–1754

Jamie Kelly

​[1]​ Incorporated by royal letters patent in 1709, the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SSPCK) was, for much of the eighteenth century, the only organisation of its kind operating in the Highlands and Islands.​[1]​ Its mission was to establish a network of charity schools in the region to provide religious instruction and basic literary education to remote Highland communities. Schooling, it was believed, was the means by which Jacobitism and Catholicism would be stamped out in the region, and by which hearts and minds would be won for the post-1690 Revolution settlement and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. The SSPCK also aimed to inculcate values of hard work, discipline and thrift, which was to facilitate the spread of manufactories, thereby making the Highlands a useful, improved, and productive part of the British state. However, one aspect of the SSPCK’s mission has overshadowed all others in the historiography: its attitude towards Gaelic and, in turn, its role in the language’s decline. Indeed, from very early on, the Society prioritised English over Gaelic literacy in its schools, and it was not until 1766 that the teaching of Gaelic literacy was formally permitted. This has led many scholars to concentrate on the harm that they believe was inflicted by the Society, by alienating Gaelic from literacy and nurturing a negative attitude towards Gaelic in formal education. Victor Durkacz, for instance, writes that:

literacy, when it entered the Highlands in the eighteenth century through the [SSPCK’s] charity schools, made the English language its medium. The resulting alienation of the mother tongue from education did incalculable harm to the Gaelic language, destroying the people’s confidence in themselves and in their culture. (1983: 23)

Charles Withers describes the Society as the ‘single most important instrument of anglicisation in the 1700s’, which succeeded in ‘devaluing Gaelic in the in the Highland mind’ (1988: 122–36, 405). These approaches find their roots in Michael Hechter’s earlier work on ‘internal colonialism’, which presents the forcible realignment of the ‘Celtic fringe’ to better serve the needs of English-speaking regions as a key part of the process of British state-building in the early modern period (1975: 30–34, 58, 81–87). Perhaps the SSPCK’s fiercest critic, John Lorne Campbell portrays the organisation as the chief perpetrator of ‘a calculated, well-financed attempt, backed by constant political pressure, to destroy [their Gaelic] language and their religion’ (Campbell 1984: 91). A dedicated Gaelic scholar and devout Catholic convert, Campbell saw an intimate link between Catholicism and Gaelic culture. In turn, he traced the declining fortunes of Gaelic language and culture back to the protestant missionary crusade of the eighteenth century, in which the SSPCK played a crucial role.

​[2]​ The SSPCK’s archive (National Records of Scotland [NRS], GD95), however, remains largely untapped, and historians have yet to consider fully the ways in which SSPCK schools were understood and received by the Highland communities they sought to affect. Withers and Durkacz both presume that, to some unknown extent, Highlanders must have resisted the introduction and support of schools, both before and after the SSPCK’s establishment, due to the government’s avowed aim of using education as a means to weaken Gaelic (Durkacz 1983: 46, 50–1; Withers 1984: 30, 122). It has, however, been demonstrated that attitudes towards Gaelic in education were already fully formed within and without the Gàidhealtachd long before the advent of the SSPCK (Bannerman 1983; MacCoinnich 2008; MacGregor 2006; 2012). Furthermore, some studies reveal that formal schooling was much more common in the region than is generally recognised (MacKinnon 1936; Withrington 1986). However, scholars have yet to produce a study which takes both the pre-existing legacy of schooling and the established patterns of literacy in the region and consider how the Society may have fit into this.

​[3]​ Moreover, few scholars have fully considered the SSPCK’s rationale for prioritising English. Many assume the elimination of Gaelic was the primary aspiration of the Society but neglect the wider context which shaped its policy and rhetoric. While Durkacz and Withers make use of the SSPCK collection in their studies, they rely on much of the same—highly selective—evidence to support an overarching, linear narrative of linguistic and cultural declension in the Gàidhealtachd (Withers 1984: 120–37; Durkacz 1983: 57–72). Advances have since been made, however, in broadening our understanding of the SSPCK beyond the narrow lens of linguistic and cultural conflict. In his study of the church’s Royal Bounty scheme, Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart (2003) paints a vivid picture of the political and religious situation in the Highlands in the 1720s and 30s, when the region was on the brink of both the first wave of mass emigration and the final Jacobite rising. The SSPCK features prominently, as one agent among many operating within the framework of the British state, struggling to realise its vision of an ideal Highlands, and often wavering in its priorities. Nathan Gray’s thesis (2011) explores the religious and charitable origins of the SSPCK, while Clare Loughlin’s recent article (2018) explores the theological underpinnings of the SSPCK’s mission in the Highlands and America. These studies shed light on the religious motivations which governed the Society’s early policies for schools, in particular its desire to secure and extend Presbyterianism. Giving children access to the scriptures was seen as an effective antidote to Catholicism, while regular recitation of the established church’s Shorter Catechism, was intended to instil Presbyterian belief among Highland children (Prunier 2004: 123–131; Loughlin 2018: 194–195). Gray’s study suggests that the absence of a Bible in the Scottish Gaelic vernacular in the first half of the eighteenth century may have led the Society to prioritise English as a largely practical matter (Gray 2011: 13). Regardless, the SSPCK collection remains to this day an underutilised resource, and scholars have yet to produce a comprehensive study of the organisation, which considers its place within the framework of the eighteenth century British state and empire, and explains how the issue of Gaelic fit into this. This article looks at an understudied organisation during a formative period of Scottish and British history. The Society sought to facilitate the integration of Highland communities then considered to exist on the margins of mainstream Scottish society, in an era when Scottish political agency was marginalised by the structures of the embryonic British state and empire with its centre in Westminster.

Patterns of Language Use in the Early Modern Highlands

​[4]​ Withers and Durkacz suggest that Gaelic society did not appreciate, nor did it have any immediate use for English literacy at the time of the SSPCK’s foundation. In fact, they argue that its spread was detrimental to the very substance of Highland life, feeding into the common perception that the SSPCK’s efforts to teach English literacy through its schools were unprecedented, unnecessary and traumatic (Durkacz 1983: 23; Withers 1984: 127–8; 1988: 405). This was paralleled and exacerbated by the Society’s unwillingness to countenance the teaching of Gaelic literacy in its schools; something that Durkacz claims was ‘in effect casting away the key to the Highlanders’ loyalty’; essentially an obstacle of the Society’s own making (1983: 23–30, 52–72; Jones 1938: 194). He writes that:

The inescapable conclusion is that the key figures in the Scottish charity school movement, because of their political prejudices against the Gaelic language, set out deliberately to alienate it from literacy. (1983: 30)

The choice which faced the SSPCK, however, was far more complex than Durkacz suggests. The linguistic situation in the Gàidhealtachd at the beginning of the eighteenth century was fraught with complexities, one of which was the non-survival of Classical Gaelic: the literary dialect which had previously enabled written communication between the literati of the Gaelic-speaking world. The cause of Gaelic literacy was complicated further by regional variations in the dialects of Gaelic spoken, which could compromise the ability of Gaels from different parts of Gàidhealtachd to comprehend one another, raising the issue of how to agree on a literary standard. These issues, among others, resulted in doubts, stemming from the Gàidhealtachd as well as the anglophone Lowlands, regarding the utility and necessity of Gaelic literacy. In the studies of Withers and Durkacz, however, the perspectives of ordinary Gaels are notable by their absence. Just as they overlook the extent of schooling in the region, both scholars downplay the role of Scots, English and Latin as languages of record in the Gàidhealtachd centuries prior to 1709. A close analysis of the patterns of language use in the Gàidhealtachd in the late-medieval and early modern periods can shed some light on these complex issues.

​[5]​ From the twelfth century, the Gaelic literati of Scotland and Ireland composed texts using a high-register literary dialect of the language, denoted by scholars as Classical Common Gaelic. It was an artificial language: its grammar and vocabulary, along with the strict metrical requirements for the composition of poetry in it, remained virtually unchanged for 500 years. Formulated in Ireland, it served as a vehicle of High Gaelic culture across a singular cultural province which, in theory, spanned from Cork to Cape Wrath (Thomson 1968; Black 1989; MacGregor 2000: 81–4; McLeod & Bateman 2007: xvii–xxx; MacCoinnich 2008: 309–10). This environment privileged the pursuit of activities such as poetry, history, law, music and medicine. The agents inhabiting this cultural world were the learned orders or aos dàna (folk of gifts): families such as the MacMhuirichs and Beatons, who pursued these disciplines and provided services for their patrons on a formal, professional basis (Bannerman 1998; Thomson 1968). In Argyll and the Isles we find that the language—in its unadulterated ‘Irish form’—was used in the late-medieval period. Indeed, it is from this region alone that evidence survives for the use of Classical Gaelic as a written language, predominantly for medical texts and recording poetry. (McLeod 2004: 36; MacCoinnich 2008: 310). ​[2]​

​[6]​ Knowledge of Classical Gaelic, however, certainly extended beyond this frontier. For example, the famous sixteenth century miscellany, the Book of the Dean of Lismore, compiled and maintained in Fortingall, Perthshire (c. 1512–1542) contains specimens of Classical Gaelic poetry composed in both Scotland and Ireland. It is significant, however, that the author recorded this poetry using a spelling system based on Middle Scots. It is still a matter of debate whether or not the scribes understood Classical Common Gaelic when transmitted orally, but the idiosyncratic way in which they recorded the poetry indicates that there were problems in their comprehension. Nevertheless, it is almost certain that the scribes were much more familiar with Scots and Latin written forms. Indeed, these were the languages in which they had received their education (MacCoinnich 2008: 309–10, 316, 324, 329; Meek 1989; MacGregor 2012: 127–35). While the poetry contained in the manuscript is mainly in Gaelic, we find that all of the prose is recorded in Latin or Scots. Martin MacGregor maintains that this reflected the degree to which Latin and Scots were established as normative languages of written prose throughout the Scottish kingdom because of their official status within church and government. A modus operandi emerged whereby Gaelic speakers embraced Scots as a basic language of written communication, whilst Gaelic was preferred for oral contexts. According to MacGregor, this process ‘was governed not by diktat but rather pragmatic and widespread acceptance of language status and roles’ (2012: 131–2; MacCoinnich 2008: 314).

​[7]​ Indeed, recent scholarship suggests that, by the end of the sixteenth century, Scots literacy among the Gaelic aristocracy, gentry and clergy was the norm, even in areas where the classical tradition retained some influence. According to MacGregor, ‘since the early fifteenth century, it had been practically incumbent upon the political elite of Gaelic Scotland to communicate with central authority in English’ (2006: 145–6). The MacLeods of Lewis, a kindred which sustained strong links with Ireland and came to be considered as the epitome of Irish-influenced incivility in the sixteenth century, demonstrate familiarity with Scots legal forms and practice throughout the period. As MacCoinnich points out, this was borne out of necessity as the MacLeods had to operate within the framework of the Scottish state (2008: 320, 331).

​[8]​ In Argyll and the Isles, Classical Gaelic appears to have only been adopted for a few select purposes, such as for poetry and medical tracts, while the majority of surviving records of the business of clan chiefs are overwhelmingly in Scots or Latin (MacCoinnich 2008: 314). Here, John Carswell, Bishop of Argyll and the Isles, serves as an exception that proves the rule. His Foirm na n-Urrnuidheadh (1567)—a reworking of John Knox’s First Book of Discipline and the first book, in Ireland or Scotland, to be published in Gaelic—stands out as a landmark, particularly as the momentum of Gaelic printing came to a halt following its publication. Nevertheless, despite Carswell’s proficiency in Classical Gaelic, each of his letters, even those addressed to fellow Gaels, are written in Scots. Jane Dawson asserts that this ‘reflected the assumption that it was the appropriate language for this type of communication’ (Dawson 1997: 7). That Classical Gaelic was the medium of the Foirm almost certainly indicates that Carswell’s patron, Archibald Campbell the 5th Earl of Argyll, commissioned the text with an Irish (pan-Gàidhealtachd), rather than a purely Scottish audience, in mind (Meek 1998: 40, 47; MacCoinnich 2008: 323). Here, the paradigm of different of languages for different purposes rings true. As Scots (then English), and Latin, came to be regarded as normative languages of business, it looks likely that literacy in Scots was already prevalent among the Highland elite before the inauguration of the Statutes of Iona in 1609: the first piece of legislation to require the Hebridean elite to send their heirs to the Lowlands to be instructed in English (Bannerman 1983; MacCoinnich 2008: 320–1, 332; MacGregor 2006: 144–7). Furthermore, such widespread acceptance of English and Latin as languages of record may have led to a greater impetus in the Highlands for the establishment of schools from the early seventeenth century onwards (MacKinnon 1936).

​[9]​ Despite the precedent set by Carswell, in using Classical Gaelic as a medium for religious literature, in Scotland the language largely fell out of use by 1700. Despite subsequent efforts by the Synod of Argyll in the mid-seventeenth century to promote Gaelic as a medium for religious texts, there is little evidence that this gained traction outwith Argyll and the Isles in this period (Thomson 1962). In a wider Scottish context, the seventeenth century also witnessed the gradual transition from Scots to English in written forms. The removal of the court to London in 1603, and subsequent tumults which defined the course of the seventeenth century, served only to draw the Highland gentry and clergy southwards, making literacy in English all the more necessary (Horsbroch 1999: 3–14; MacCoinnich 2008: 321, 339). The upheavals of the seventeenth century also led to a sharp decline in patronage for those involved in the Classical tradition. No patronage meant no schools; no schools meant no new recruits and, thus, knowledge of the language withered or went underground (Bannerman 1998: 120–33). Although the Synod of Argyll made progress towards a translation of the scriptures in the Scottish vernacular in the seventeenth century, this never reached publication and the manuscripts were have never come to light (Meek 1988: 11–12).

​[10]​ The litmus test for the vitality of Classical Gaelic literacy in late seventeenth and early-eighteenth century Scotland was the reception of the so-called Irish Bible. Indeed, much of the debate surrounding the SSPCK and Gaelic centres around the Society’s refusal to use this version of the Bible in its schools. The book itself was published in 1685, under the patronage of the Irish philanthropist Sir Robert Boyle, although it was an amalgamation of earlier translations carried out by William O’Donnell, archbishop of Tuam (1602) and William Bedell, bishop of Kilmore and Ardagh (c. 1640; Meek 1988: 10). Its language is Classical Gaelic in a prose form, and its typeface is based on Irish script (Ò Baoill 2010: 17). Shortly after its publication, James Kirkwood, a Scottish Episcopalian minister exiled in England, contacted Boyle to secure leftover copies, believing that these could be used by the Highland clergy in lieu of any Scottish Gaelic scriptures. He also hoped that these would be accessible to ordinary worshippers, providing a basis for mass literacy in Gaelic (Durkacz 1983: 17–23). The Irish font proved to be the first obstacle, as Gaelic-speaking ministers were much more accustomed to reading Roman script. In response, Kirkwood arranged to have Robert Kirk, the Episcopalian minister of Aberfoyle, transliterate the text in a roman script, make modest morphological changes to the verbs, and provide a gloss for certain unfamiliar Classical Gaelic terms. It was believed that this impression would be more familiar to Gaelic-speaking ministers and, as the campaign for charity schools in the Highlands increased in momentum, Kirkwood was insistent on using the Bibles as a basis for literary instruction (Durkacz 1978: 31; Black 2008: 75).

​[11]​ While more research is undoubtedly required into the distribution and reception of the Irish Bible, the available evidence suggests that most English-literate Gaels simply would not have been familiar with the Classical Gaelic used in the text; indeed, some may have been wholly unacquainted with Gaelic orthography (Meek 1990: 3). This is testified for Ross-shire, in a letter written by Angus Morison, episcopal minister of Contin, addressed to the Earl Marischal’s chaplain, Patrick Dunbreck. In 1713, Morison advises against the printing of a second edition of Kirk’s Bible, stating:

it seems that manny think yt the generality of the highlanders can read the Irish or at least easily acquire it, [but] believe me few ministers can read it skillfully & to read it unskillfully seldome fails to confound the Subject […] I know not six that can read the Irish without loss & perhaps not twenty in all Scotland, nor do I know, except only one, that can read the Irish, but can read the English farr better.

Elsewhere in the letter, Morison described ‘the reading of it [Classical Gaelic]’ to be ‘more difficult than that of any other language that I know’ (NRS, CH12/12/817). Morison—also known by his Gaelic moniker, Aonghas Dubh—was far from an outsider in Gaelic society. Morison was a native of Lewis, and alumnus of the Stornoway grammar school, where the curriculum was focused on English and Latin. Yet, he was a fluent Gaelic speaker; son to John Morison, tacksman of Bragar; and brother to the famed Gaelic musician Roderick Morison, An Clàrsair Dall (the Blind Harper). He was also a composer of Gaelic verse, a dedicated Jacobite, and identified strongly as ‘of the Highland blood’ (Fasti vii: 30; Matheson 1970: xxxiii–xliii; NLS, MS 1401, fol. 16). ​[3]​ Nevertheless, Morison found the Classical Gaelic of Kirk’s Bible to be particularly difficult to decipher, partly because he was not familiar with written Gaelic and partly because it was different from the vernacular he spoke. This is also reflected in Duncan MacRae’s Gaelic verse in the Fernaig Manuscript, for which he adopted an English orthography due to his unfamiliarity with traditional forms of written Gaelic (MacCoinnich 2008: 330n).

​[12]​ For all of Kirkwood’s good will, tolerance and evangelical fervour—much commended by Withers and Durkacz—in supporting the use of Irish Bibles in charity schools, the fact that ordained ministers struggled to read the text would not bode well for the ability of schoolmasters to teach it (Durkacz 1983: 18–30; Withers 1984: 43–5). At the time of publication, the majority of literate Gaels simply could not read the book. For most ministers, the English Bible, written in the language in which they received their literary education, was entirely serviceable. Many relied on the English as a platform from which they could translate and adapt the message ex tempore from a single definitive text to better suit local dialects and customs (Cheape 2004: 19; Black: 2001: xiv–xv; Meek 2002: 84, 90).​[4]​ Donald Meek has even suggested that scriptures may have been largely preserved within the oral tradition, effectively constituting virtual oral Bibles, which could be consulted to embellish pulpit rhetoric, or provide spiritual edification to parishioners in lieu of the minister (96). This certainly explains the deep biblical knowledge exhibited by many non-literate Gaelic poets, and the continued functionality of the Gaelic sermon as a fundamentally oral art (100–4; MacLeod Hill 2016: 56). To many, Gaelic and English were considered to be not mutually exclusive, but complementary. Even beyond the eighteenth century, it was entirely conceivable in the minds of many Scottish Gaels that both languages could happily coexist within the respective contexts assigned to them by Gaelic society. Scots, then English, served as a language of literacy—for business, correspondence and engagement with church and government—while Gaelic continued to thrive in an oral context; far from the zero-sum linguistic conflict portrayed by Withers and Durkacz.

Education in the Highlands Before the SSPCK

​[13]​ Most studies concerned with education in the early modern Highlands have argued that the region was all but devoid of schooling until outside agencies such as the SSPCK entered the scene (MacKay 1914: 198; Jones 1938: 165–76; Durkacz 1983; Withers 1984; Houston 1985: 74, 82). Vast parishes, scattered population settlement and geographical obstacles are all cited as factors obstructing the establishment, support and penetration of schools in the region. However, many of these scholars maintain that cultural distinctiveness played a substantial, if not the most significant, role. As the education acts of 1616, 1633, 1646 and 1696 illustrate a desire on the part of the government to remove Gaelic through English schooling, so the presumption goes that there must have been widespread hostility to formal education in the Highlands (Withers 1984: 29–30). Durkacz, for instance, concludes that:

Obviously the various education acts passed by the Scottish parliament between 1616 and 1696 had little impact on the massive educational problems of the Highlands. (1983: 46)

He goes on to argue that, to some unknown extent, there must have been resistance to the introduction of SSPCK schools ‘in the light of the attitude adopted […] towards the Gaelic language’ (50). It should be noted, however, that the arguments of Withers and Durkacz reflect the official line taken by the SSPCK from its foundation, that, to keep ordinary Highlanders

in those wretched dependencies, the propagation of true Christian Knowledge, and of the English Tongue, has all along been opposed by Popish Heads of Clans. (SSPCK 1714: 6)

Of course, as a charity organisation reliant on donations and subscriptions, it benefitted the SSPCK to an extent to paint such a bleak picture of the spiritual and educational state of Highlands. By reinforcing the perception of the region as one alienated from the rest of the kingdom and wilfully kept ignorance by a vindictive Catholic elite, the Society’s mission gained credibility, thus serving to loosen the purse-strings of would-be contributors. It is a great irony that the SSPCK records themselves are replete with references to schools pre-dating the organisation. Even as the eighteenth century progressed, the SSPCK found little issue with disregarding a multitude of local schooling initiatives—mainly as these did not fit their rigid definition of ‘legal parochial schools’—to highlight the continued barbarity and ignorance of the Highlands (Withrington 1962). Furthermore, it has been demonstrated beyond any serious doubt that Highland Catholics were just as likely to seek education as their Protestant neighbours (Prunier 2004: 123–65; Roberts & MacWilliam 2007). We should, therefore, be cautious about taking these claims at face value, as Withers and Durkacz have done. Both scholars maintain a view of Highland-Lowland interaction that focuses primarily on differences between the regions, glossing over any similarities and ambiguities, instead highlighting the role of Lowland ‘cultural intrusion’ as the main driver in the decline of Highland exceptionalism.

​[14]​ In 1986, Donald Withrington warned historians to be more cautious when asserting that distinctions in language and culture necessarily inhibited schooling in the region. While admitting that the several education acts referred to by these scholars contain an undeniable attack on Gaelic, he argues that this was but ‘one element in a generalised policy aimed at political and social stability’, which at several junctures, corresponding neatly to the dating of each of the education acts, was being disrupted in the Highlands (Withrington 1986: 61). Accordingly, Withrington argues that we should pay more attention to the ways in which ‘economic or social (perhaps religious or political) pressures’, shared throughout Scotland, and which affected the ability of communities to support schools and schoolmasters, could be ‘exacerbated [in the Highlands] by greater poverty or remoteness’ (62). This perspective raises the possibility that the educational problems in the Highlands at the turn of the century were not necessarily related to demand, but rather to issues of supply. To follow up on this hypothesis, however, historians face undeniable difficulties, not the least of which is the sparse and scattered nature of the evidence.

​[15]​ It is often presumed that the paucity of source material for schooling in the Highlands is, in its own right, adequately revealing of its poor state. It cannot be denied that, for most Highland regions, the quantity and quality of records are much worse than for most areas of the Lowlands, and the further north and west we cast our eyes, the worse the situation tends to become. However, Scottish parochial schools, both Highland and Lowland, were not centrally managed, nor did schoolmasters tend to adopt the sort of record-keeping practices that would have produced contained collections for individual schools. While evidence can certainly be gleaned from the records of the agencies responsible for parochial education—above all in the records of local church courts—references to schools are generally scattered unevenly throughout. Indeed, these difficulties are testified in the studies of Withrington, Beale and Boyd, who explore the early history of education in Haddington, Fife and Ayrshire respectively (Withrington 1963, 1965; Beale 1983; Boyd 1961). In this respect, we could argue that the evidence for schools in many Lowland parishes can be equally lacking, yet few historians doubt that many Lowland parishes were adequately provided for. We must, therefore, contend with the possibility that, even if more church court records for Highland regions were accessible, they may not yield enough information to indicate satisfactorily the extent and consistency of schooling over time, as is the case with much of the Lowland record. By supplementing church courts records, where possible, with other sources—such as estate chartularies, receipts, legal documents, private correspondences, and even SSPCK minutes—it is possible to piece together a more complete picture for Highland education.

​[16]​ The records of the Synod of Argyll are perhaps the richest source of evidence we have for formal schooling in the Highlands. This undeniably energetic church court demonstrated particular concern with education in the seventeenth century, and maintained detailed records which remain extant and in a good condition today. There is, however, a substantial gap in the record between 1661 and 1687, from the restoration of episcopacy in the church up to James VII’s indulgence. The minutes between 1639 and 1661 have since been published by the Scottish History Society (MacTavish 1943). The surviving manuscripts were the subject of an article published by Donald MacKinnon (1936), which attempts to represent the extent of schooling in the region between 1638 and 1709. By parliamentary acts of 1644 and 1690, respectively, the vacant stipends within the bounds of the Synod were made available for educational purposes, facilitating a large-scale expansion of the schooling system on the western mainland and in the Hebrides. For the post-Revolution period, MacKinnon traces no less than 25 schools established by 1698 with these funds in various locations between Kintyre and Lewis, with an additional 14 itinerant ambulatory schools and 5 grammar schools (52). He locates fixed schools in Campbeltown, Dunoon, Kilmallie, Skye, Raasay, Islay, Jura, Arran, Iona and Bute, among other places. It is noteworthy that that these schools were dedicated to teaching English and Latin and not, as far as we are aware, any Gaelic (53–4). MacKinnon argues convincingly that the work of the SSPCK in the region after 1709 ‘was largely auxiliary to that of the synod and much more limited in scope’ (53). Accounting for the gap in the record for the Restoration, MacKinnon argues ‘the cause of education in Argyll and the Isles had been crippled by the appropriation of the vacant stipends’ for the maintenance of the restored Episcopalian clergy (50–1). However, this has since been cast into question. While a shortage of funds may have precluded the sort of expansion carried out between 1690 and 1698, Episcopalian control did not lead to a decline in local interest in education. Indeed, Allan Macinnes argues that the Episcopalian clergy ‘approved and furthered the Presbyterian endeavours of the 1640s to extend schooling in Highland parishes’ (1996: 176). Education certainly remained a prerequisite for producing qualified ministers regardless of church polity, and provision in Gaelic for Highland parishes remained a major preoccupation (Withrington 1986; Kennedy 2014: 315–16). This suggests that the period may have seen more continuity than disruption.

​[17]​ Support for education in the Highlands, however, was far from confined to Argyll and the Isles. In 1918, John Hunter, minister of Rattray in Perthshire, published two hefty volumes on The Diocese and Presbytery of Dunkeld, 1660-1689; the second of which includes an overview of education in the region and exhaustive list of schoolmasters (87–101). Using Hunter’s study in conjunction with Withers’ list of Gaelic-speaking parishes, Withrington traces a steady growth in provision from 1636 onwards, continuing through the Restoration into the post-Revolution period. While in 1635 only one or two of the 21 Gaelic-speaking parishes (5%) had schools, between 1636 and 1670 we find that 15 parishes (71%) were provided at some time, with some operating continuously throughout the period. Between 1671 and 1700, at least 18 out of the 21 Gaelic-speaking parishes in Perthshire (86%) were supplied with both school and schoolmaster. Moreover, these were not simply the Lowland-border parishes that Durkacz maintained were more likely to provide schools (Durkacz 1983: 46). Moulin, Weem, Logierait, Blair Atholl, Dull, and Fortingall all contained at least one school by 1690 (Withrington 1986: 64–5). When the need to improve educational facilities in the Highlands became more politically expedient in the 1690s, King William arranged a gift of £150 Stirling to be paid out yearly from the Bishopric of Dunkeld for the use of Highland schools in the shires of Perth, Dumbarton and Stirling (Leneman 1982: 154–5; Atholl Muniments [NRAS 234] Box 45/9/124).

​[18]​ With regards to schoolmasters, we find that many were university graduates, while others were university students looking to supplement their income. Many of them instructed children not only English, but in Latin grammar, reading, writing, arithmetic and mathematics (Withrington 1986: 65). And the curriculum was not determined purely by the schoolmasters, but often in accordance with local demands for specific subjects. Adam Fergusson, father and namesake of the later philosopher and historian Dr Adam Ferguson, left the school of Moulin after some years because the schoolmaster was deficient in his knowledge of Latin. He soon returned, however, in 1683, when the minister recruited a more qualified schoolmaster: a recent graduate from King’s College, Aberdeen, Duncan Menzies (Fagg 1994: 289–90).

​[19]​ A similar trajectory can be traced in other Highland regions. In the Gaelic-speaking parishes of Aberdeenshire, Withrington identifies schools in the parishes of Glenmuick, Tullich and Glengairn in 1696 and 1699; Kildrummy in 1646, 1676 and 1680; Glenbuchat in 1687; and Strathdon in 1667, 1675, 1683 and 1686; and Aboyne and Glentanar, where a Mr James Smith, student in divinity, was appointed schoolmaster in 1700 (Withrington 1986: 65; Simpson 1947: 88–96; CH2/602/1: 5). In Banffshire, at least 15 of the 17 Gaelic-speaking parishes, had schools between 1671 and 1700, including a grammar school established in Inveraven in 1633. This is matched in Nairnshire where, from 1650 onwards, we find schoolmasters appointed for all four Gaelic-speaking parishes—Auldearn, Ardclach, Cawdor and Nairn—and a reputable grammar school in Fortrose, which was maintained by a mortification from the MacKenzies of Seaforth (Withrington 1986: 65; MacInnes 1951: 227). In Angus, all three Gaelic-speaking parishes—Clova, Cortachy and Lochlee—had schoolmasters teaching Latin grammar by 1690. In Sutherland, schools can be traced in Creich and Strathnaver, from 1630 and 1620 respectively. In the Highland parishes surrounding Loch Lomond, references has been found for schools in Buchanan, Drymen and Luss (Withrington 1986: 65–6).

​[20]​ In Inverness-shire and Ross-shire, we find schools in the lower-lying parishes of Kirkhill and Wardlaw in 1672 and Croy in 1680. There were grammar schools at Petty and Dornoch, as well as the ancient grammar school of Inverness. In these schools, Latin, English, Greek and other subjects were taught (MacKay 1896: l–li; Macinnes 1951: 223). However, schools were also established in the more upland western parishes, including Daviot in 1672, Dingwall in 1663, Kilmorack in 1649, Boleskine some time before 1630, and Kiltarlity and Convith in 1630-33, 1671-74, 1681, and 1684-87 (MacKay 1896: xlviii–li; 1921: 14–17; Withrington 1986: 67). In 1696, the government stepped in to support a grammar school at Maryburgh, near Fort William, with the generous salary of £30 Sterling. In 1690, Colonel John Hill wrote to the Duke of Queensbury, wherein he indicates that ‘the people are very glad of the chartour for Marybarrow [Maryburgh], and of the expectation of a school for their children’ (Fraser 1976: 73).

​[21]​ The Fasti produces names for two schoolmasters in Lochaber – Thomas MacPherson, who served as ‘schoolmaster in Lochaber’ in 1660 before entering the ministry, and James Gettie, ‘sometime schoolmaster of Kilmallie’ before his ordination as minister of Inveraray in 1711 (vol. iv: 11; vi: 355). In 1698, Donald MacMarcus was appointed catechist-schoolmaster for Lochaber, anticipating the Royal Bounty-SSPCK scheme of joint catechist schoolmasters by three decades (NRS, CH2/557/3: 227; see Stiùbhart 2003). References can also be found for a grammar school in Kingussie, which was established with an endowment in 1652, but experienced regular issues procuring these funds which continued into the eighteenth century (Withrington 1986: 66).

​[22]​ This is not to suggest that the Highlands were adequately supplied with schools before 1709. Questions remain regarding the consistency with which these schools operated and the social standing of their attendees. Indeed, the unique problems facing the region—of large, disjointed parishes, mountainous terrain, scattered settlements and the division of land by water—meant countless children went without schooling. In larger parishes, particularly those consolidated into ‘united parishes’ in the seventeenth century, there were often disagreements among tenants and heritors regarding the most suitable location to settle a school. While no parochial school can be traced for the united parishes of Crathie and Braemar, there was a qualified schoolmaster in the parish in the 1700s: a Mr John Hunter, a graduate of King’s College, referred to across sources in 1711 as ‘present schoolmaster in Braemar’ (NRS, GD124/15/1056; GD95/2/1: 248). The following year, the laird of Abergeldie informed minister Adam Fergusson of the main reason why a parochial school had not yet been settled. It appears that many of the inhabitants were unwilling to pay their quota of meal for the schoolmaster ‘unless they could expect to benefite by haveing a school near ym’ (NRS, GD124/15/1051/1–2). In 1699, the Synod of Aberdeen had petitioned the government ‘for obtaining the benefite of his majesties gift for encouraging schoolmasters in Highland parishes’ within their bounds, in order to circumvent this issue. But, unlike with Argyll and Perthshire, government assistance was not forthcoming (NRS, CH2/840/11, 126).

​[23]​ Here, there are parallels to be drawn with Inverness-shire, specifically the united parishes of Moy and Dalarossie, Boleskine and Abertarff, and Daviot and Dunlichty. In 1672, the reason given for the absence of a school in Moy was that ‘the townes within the parochin were far distant one from the other’. In the same year in Boleskine and Abertarff, there was no school ‘in regard the townes in the parish were remote the one from the other, and they had no convenience of boarding children’. In a large united parish, facilities for boarding would have been necessary so that scholars did not have to travel long distances daily. In Daviot, despite earlier successes in erecting a schoolhouse, by 1682 the minister report ‘that they could not nor had any schoolmaster because there was no encouragement for ane, nor no mediat centricall place quhere they could fix a schoole to the satisfactione of all concerned’ (MacKay 1921: 16).

​[24]​ The situation is less clear in Wester Ross due to a lack of surviving records. However, in 1707 the newly erected Synod of Ross, containing the most northerly mainland parishes, claimed that the main obstacle to schooling in the region was the lack of qualified men, or problems with attracting sufficiently qualified schoolmasters. This minute is worth quoting at length:

In regard the want of schools in great measure proceeds from the scarcity of young men fit to teach, therefore the Synod recommends to the several presbyteries not to give recommendations to young men for burses at the profession until they pass some time in the bounds, after their graduation, as chaplains or schoolmasters: as also that they correspond with the Synods of Argyll and Moray to see if they can spare any young men fit for teaching schools. (NRS, CH2/312/1, 26–7)

While this can be read as offering a bleak impression of education in the region, it should be noted that the synod was expressing specific expectations regarding what constituted a ‘sufficient’ schoolmaster. Indeed, the synod was proposing that presbyteries forego the granting of bursaries to university students entering the ministry until they had employed their skills, such as knowledge of the classical languages, for some time as schoolmasters. The problem, then, was not that there were no men qualified to be schoolmasters, but that most of those who were considered sufficiently qualified were being fast-tracked into the ministry to fill vacant pulpits in Gaelic-speaking parishes (Withrington 1962: 96–7).

​[25]​ It may be that the education acts, more suited to the conditions in the Lowlands, ‘had little impact on the massive educational problems of the Highlands’ as Durkacz maintains, but it is clear that local agents were making concerted attempts, through the Restoration to the post-Revolution period, to overcome these obstacles in their respective localities (1983: 46). Provision was no doubt exacerbated by the social catastrophe of King William’s Ill Years in the 1690s, during which, in Highland and Lowland alike, a schoolmaster’s salary seemed an unnecessary luxury (Boyd 1961; Withrington 1965; Beale 1981; Cullen 2010: 90–91, 132, 161–2). Nevertheless, many Highland parishes were just as aware of the advantages of education as their Lowland counterparts, striving at least to have legal parochial schools set-up. Indeed, after 1690, ministers of the established church in the Highlands demonstrated a keen awareness of the importance of schools in winning the hearts and minds of those disaffected to church and state.

​[26]​ In schools that were established, the curriculum was focused overwhelmingly on instruction in English and Latin, and not (as far as we know) any Gaelic. It appears that a method of instantaneous translation was used, at least in more isolated regions, to aid the learning of English, and develop the ability to translate ex tempore. In 1721, the ministers of Glenelg, Kilmuir Easter and Lairg wrote collectively to the SSPCK, seeking to clarify the organisation’s stance on the use of Gaelic in the classroom:

shewing that through a defect of the present method of teaching in some of the Societies Schools in their Highland bounds, these good ends proposed are much frustrate, for in places where nothing of the English tongue is understood, the Children are taught to read only in English which they understand not, and are denied the benefite of expounding and translateing the same by the help of their masters into their mother tongue as is the ordinar fashion and practice of the Gramar Schools. (NRS, GD95/1/2: 170. Italics mine.)

It was generally expected that English and Latin would be taught. Angus Morison, the Episcopalian minister of Contin whom we encountered earlier, indicates that internalised stigma towards Gaelic in education was already abroad in the Highlands before the SSPCK. In discussing a proposal for setting up Episcopalian schools, he insisted that these institutions should make allowance for

a Doctor for the Latine Gramer & English […] for without a Doctor for the other languages, the youth would not come in, for noe man in his right senses, would bestow on his son meerly for the Irish. ​[5]​ (NRS, CH12/12/817)

It is instructive that, throughout the SSPCK minutes, we find no explicit indication of popular resistance to schools neglecting to teach Gaelic, but many examples of communities and schoolmasters chafing against the Society’s exclusion of Latin from the curriculum. John Hunter in Braemar turned down the SSPCK’s offer of a job not only because he refused to sign the Confession of Faith, but also because he was prohibited from teaching Latin (NRS, GD124/15/1051/2). John McPherson, schoolmaster in Bracadale resigned his post in 1720 as many scholars ‘gone elsewhere to Learn Latine’ (NRS, GD95/2/3: 23–4). John McBean in Kilmalie was reprimanded on multiple occasions for teaching Latin, despite his insistence that attendance would drop if he did not (NRS, GD95/2/3: 32–3, 274–5). In 1727, the Presbytery of Long Island petitioned the SSPCK, requesting that the schoolmaster in South Uist be allowed to teach Latin ‘as the two popish schools do, that protestant children be not in danger of being perverted by popish schoolmasters’ (NRS, GD95/1/3: 5–6). Withrington observes that ‘most parishes sought, and expected to have, a graduate as a schoolmaster, or at least a young man who had been at a college and was suitably versed in languages’. Indeed, the absence of a classical school was considered discreditable in some Highland parishes (Withrington 1962: 96–7). Latin, after all, was a must for those hoping to enter university. It appears that by 1709 the concept of a school education had long been widely embraced and that, contrary to SSPCK rhetoric, many communities knew exactly what they wanted from a school and sought to have their voices heard.

SSPCK Language Policy in Context, 1709-1754

​[27]​ This oft-quoted passage from 1716 has been understood by many scholars to represent the Society’s definitive attitude towards the language:

Nothing can be more effectual for reducing these countries to order, and making them usefull to the Commonwealth than teaching them their duty to God, their King and Countrey and rooting out their Irish language, and this has been the case of the Society so far as they could, For all the Schollars are taught in English. (NRS, GD95/2/2: 95)

Once again, it is important to note that the Society’s rhetoric did not necessarily correspond with its policy, nor did it reflect circumstances in individual schools. Indeed, evidence suggests that the SSPCK grew more hard-line in its anti-Gaelic rhetoric as a result of the Jacobite risings between 1715 and 1746. Nathan Gray demonstrates that the document from which the above quote has been taken, a memorial to the Scottish commission of police, should not be considered a policy statement, but a proposal to the government in favour of state support for schooling in the Highlands (2011: 196–7). The Act for the more effectuall Securing the peace of the Highlands, which came in the wake of the 1715 Jacobite rising, ordered that a Royal Commission be appointed to ‘lay before his Majesty of the proper places for establishing schools, of the necessary salaries for the maintenance of them, that all needful provision may be made for that end’ (1 Geo I c. 54), and the SSPCK sought to exert its influence in this. The Jacobite risings were something of a double-edged sword for the Society. While contributions and the prospect of state-support might suffer from the Society’s perceived failure, the right turn of phrase and some shrewd spin could make all of the difference at a time when anti-Gaelic sentiment was at a peak. That the SSPCK archive contains two prior draft versions of this document suggests that members sought to refine their rhetoric for different audiences to increase the likelihood of garnering support, especially in its presentation of the Highlands. With regards to language, the earliest draft adopts a much gentler tone than the final version, stating that

One of the main aims in their Erection was to set up Charity Schools throughout the Highlands & Isles to the Extent that, in consequence of having Knowledge, particularly of the foundations of the Christian Religion, they might be the better & more useful subjects. Since, that teaches them duty to the King, Love to their Countrey, Justice to their neighbours, laudable industry in the work of their Generation, and occasionaly, the national language, without wch they, in great measure, remain useless to themselves and the world. (NRS, GD95/10/62; emphasis mine)

Regardless, there was no formal ban on teaching Gaelic books in schools until 1719, nor does this appear in Society publications until after 1720.

​[28]​ Gaelic was almost certainly used for oral communication in the classroom, while several SSPCK schoolmasters were teaching children to read the Gaelic Catechism and Psalms. In 1713, William MacKay, schoolmaster in Durness, informed the Society that, as his parishioners only had Gaelic, ‘he must examine, sing, and pray with them in that language, unless the Society give other orders’. The Society responded ‘that he may catechise his schollars and pray and sing with them in Irish […] But that he must teach them only to read Inglish books’ (NRS, GD95/1/1: 198–9). It should be reiterated that the unwillingness to sanction the use of Gaelic books in schools did not necessarily stem from short-sighted prejudice, but from contemporary uncertainties regarding the correct standard and actual utility of written Gaelic, and the limited number of approved Gaelic texts available. Nevertheless, the SSPCK itself was dispatching copies of the Synod of Argyll’s Gaelic Catechism for schools in Skye and St Kilda as late as 1718 (NRS, GD95/9/1: 1, 315). While English was promoted, Gaelic was being utilised.

​[29]​ There is even reason to believe that the founding members initially considered including Gaelic as part of instruction. The original call for eligible schoolmasters that was circulated among the universities, synods and presbyteries in 1711, specifically requested:

men of piety, prudence and gravity, who understand and can speak, read and write both in the English and Irish languages. (NRS, GD95/2/1: 197)

Considering this call for bilingual schoolmasters together with the failure to mention Gaelic in the founding documents, it is not unfathomable that the Society was at first open to using Gaelic literacy as a means of inculcating Presbyterian doctrine (Gray 2011: 200). It would quickly become clear, however, that very few qualified to be schoolmasters could read Gaelic with precision, while they were all capable of reading English. Of the Society’s earliest recruits, Kenneth Beaton, bursar of the Synod of Argyll, graduate of Glasgow University and the first SSPCK schoolmaster in Bracadale, was perhaps the most likely candidate to have Gaelic literacy (Inveraray Castle Archive, Bundle 571). ​[6]​ His father was John Beaton, minister of Bracadale, himself the son of Angus Beaton of Husabost, physician to the Isles in the classical Gaelic tradition (Fasti vii: 166). While John inherited his father’s classical manuscripts, according to Beaton genealogist Thomas Whyte, following his death none were ‘able to read it. Nor could he indeed, without the aid of one from Ireland’ (Bannerman 1998: 68–9; Whyte 1778: 6). In turn, it seems unlikely that Kenneth would be able to instruct scholars in Gaelic literacy. In 1737, despite the intent of several benefactors to donate Irish Bibles for the use of John MacLeod, the SSPCK’s missionary to the Highland colony at Georgia, he would later write to the SSPCK requesting that English Bibles be sent instead (NRS, GD95/2/5: 312). It should be understood that the SSPCK’s original intention was to focus first and foremost on teaching children to read the Bible and, at this point, this simply could not be done with Gaelic.

​[30]​ In 1723, the SSPCK further articulated its language policy. Gaelic was permitted, perhaps even encouraged, for translating English texts to enable children to arrive at an understanding of what they read. However, those with a grasp of English were to be banned from speaking Gaelic except when translating, and, ‘for the benefite of those who are learning the same’, ‘clandestine Censors’ were to be appointed ‘to delate Transgressors’. The Committee also agreed to consider proposals for an ‘English and Irish vocables’ for use in schools, a project that eventually bore fruit in 1741 with the publication of the first Gaelic dictionary, entitled A Galick-English Vocabulary (NRS, GD95/2/3: 188–90). In part, these modifications came in response to the 1721 Representation Anent Teaching Irish, a petition from several Highland ministers from Ross and Sutherland which flagged up the problem of rote learning in some schools. As indicated earlier, simultaneous translation was established practice among educated ministers and the route taken in several grammar schools. Furthermore, the publication of a Gaelic dictionary, it was hoped, would expedite the process of translating from Gaelic into English and vice versa. This policy was soon endorsed by Highland presbyteries, following a meeting between the SSPCK committee with the Highland ministers present at the 1723 General Assembly (NRS, GD95/2/3: 199–200). It should be noted that these proposals may have chafed against the sensibilities of some Highland landlords. Aberdeenshire heritors, Kenneth McKenzie of Dalmore and Lewis Farquharson of Auchendryne, wrote to the SSPCK in 1712, in favour of a non-Gaelic speaking schoolmaster, arguing that ‘it is more advantageous for this place that he want it [Gaelic] Since we are Obleidged to send our Children to the Low country to Learn the English’ (NRS, GD124/15/1056). Nevertheless, as a fundamentally religious organisation, the ultimate goal was that a minister would no longer be necessary for something as fundamental to the Protestant faith as accessing the scriptures.

​[31]​ The wider political context was also a significant catalyst for the SSPCK’s attempt to take a more concerted approach to Gaelic from 1723. It should also be noted that the measures pertaining to Gaelic were but one element in a broader overhaul of the Society’s management methods. Meetings were streamlined; inspection and surveillance in schools were stepped up, with local correspondence boards composed of Highland gentlemen appointed to carry out these duties; and, finally, lobbying activity in London was heightened (NRS, GD95/1/2: 230-3, 243-4, 250-1, 296-301). Following the abortive 1719 rebellion and the 1722 Atterbury Plot—a failed plan to kill King George on his journey to Hanover—Westminster was becoming more receptive to ideas for tackling the ‘Highland Problem’ and the SSPCK stood to gain financially (Stiùbhart 2003: 104–8). A fund of £20,000 had allegedly been earmarked from the Forfeited Estates to implement the 1716 Royal Commission’s plan to establish schools in the Highlands. It was estimated that the funds would support 151 additional schools, with schoolmasters receiving a generous salary of £20 Sterling (NRS, GD95/1/2: 236–7; The National Archives [TNA] SP54/12/229). It is conceivable that the membership believed, given access to this fund, it could make progress towards removing Gaelic. Regardless, this fund was not forthcoming. SSPCK publications would continue to bemoan that ‘no part of this money hath ever been received by the Society’ (SSPCK 1774: 9). As a result, the increase of schools proceeded slowly and salaries remained low, contributing to the SSPCK’s effective hijacking of the Royal Bounty from 1729 to augment schoolmasters salaries in return for their also serving as parochial catechists (Stiùbhart 2003: 125–9).

​[32]​ Due to the Society’s inability to enforce language policy on the ground, the treatment of Gaelic continued to be dictated by local conditions and the attitude of individual schoolmasters. In turn, the SSPCK introduced no further measures concerning Gaelic until 1751. Although space does not permit a fuller exploration of the moderating influence that local attitudes had on SSPCK language policy—indeed, this would constitute an article in its own right—a couple of case studies are illustrative. For instance, Alasdair Mac Mhaighstir Alasdair, the famed Jacobite poet, used his position as a catechist-schoolmaster in Ardnamurchan to promote Gaelic (and the knowledge of English) through his 1741 Galick-English Vocabulary: an unprecedented project which, regardless of the SSPCK’s intentions, undoubtedly galvanised the move towards Gaelic literacy (Black 2009: 50–3). In Perthshire by the 1730s, it became standard practice to pay SSPCK schoolmasters for ‘precenting in Irish’ during church services (Young 2016: 44). When we consider that many SSPCK schoolmasters also served as Royal Bounty catechists, many of whom used the Synod of Argyll’s catechism, it may even be that this facilitated an increase in Gaelic literacy, and ensured that the classically influenced written Gaelic preferred in Argyll became more hegemonic. In 1738, the SSPCK began quietly to disregard its own language policy: distributing copies of the ‘Confession of Faith in Irish’ among schools ‘For instructing of the Highland Children to translate the Irish into English’; a reversal of the initial insistence on translating English texts into Gaelic (NRS, GD95/2/5: 353). On the other hand, the presbyteries of Caithness and Aberdeenshire frequently requested schoolmasters with no Gaelic (NRS, GD95/1/2: 126; GD95/1/3: 51–2; GD95/2/6: 404; GD95/2/7: 101).

​[33]​ It is revealing that, in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite rising, the SSPCK’s London board advised the Edinburgh Committee to include ‘wearing out the Irish Language and spreading the English tongue’ in its forthcoming pamphlet ‘to recover its Credite in England’ (NRS, GD95/2/6: 320). This no doubt applied in Scotland as well. Apart from the Gaelic-English vocabulary project, the language issue is conspicuous by its absence in the minutes between 1725 and 1745. In 1751, it was enacted that children who had some proficiency in English were to be chastised for speaking Gaelic in and around the school (NRS, GD95/2/7: 30–1). This measure was reiterated in 1753, suggesting that it made little impact (117–8). Nevertheless, in 1748 the Society backed a Gaelic translation of Baxter’s Call to the Unconverted. Before the translation was carried out, the SSPCK did question its utility, pointing out that ‘those in the Highlands who can read the Irish, can also read and partly understand the English’, and suggesting that an English version would be just as useful. Nevertheless, in the same letter, it agreed to find a translator ‘if this well disposed Gentleman’, Irish philanthropist Dr John Damer, ‘Judge otherwise’ (NRS, GD95/2/6: 496–7). The SSPCK paid Alexander MacFarlane, minister of Arrochar, £50 for translating the text, and, after publication in 1750, it was distributed among SSPCK schools alongside the Gaelic Confession of Faith (641). In 1754 the organisation would embark on a campaign to translate the New Testament into Gaelic, later published in 1767 (NRS, GD95/2/7: 253–4). In this respect, these final efforts to double-down on Gaelic in schools can be considered a short-term, intense, but ultimately hollow endeavour, reflecting the climate of oppression in the wake of Culloden.


​[34]​ This article has attempted to shed some light on the problems with the established view of the SSPCK as an agent of ‘anglicisation’ above all else. A close reading of the SSPCK collection reveals the ambiguities and subtleties in the Society’s language policy. We cannot be certain, for instance, that the organisation had the elimination of Gaelic in sight from the very beginning. Indeed, the original recruitment drive sought to incorporate candidates with Gaelic literacy. Contemporary uncertainties concerning the utility of Gaelic literacy—not to mention the limited financial and human resources available—may have led the Society to prioritise English as a largely practical matter: something within the realm of possibility at a time when members were eager to get things up and running. Furthermore, the extent and nature of schooling in the Highlands prior to the advent of the SSPCK suggests the organisation was tapping into and building a pre-existing tradition by prioritising English literacy, rather than pursuing an unprecedented and traumatic programme of denaturalisation.

​[35]​ It has also been demonstrated that the Society’s rhetoric was often at odds with its own practice. Despite the Society’s strongly worded memorial from 1716, no steps were taken to ban Gaelic texts from the classroom until 1719. It was not until 1723 that an attempt was made to limit the amount of Gaelic spoken in schools. We must bear in mind, however, that this was no blanket ban. Instead it served as something of an addendum to the more productive measure of ensuring that children translate texts from English into Gaelic: the tried and tested method of instructions in many grammar schools. Nevertheless, the Society had no way of enforcing these policies, instead entrusting local agents who could either moderate or impose them. On occasion, the SSPCK would even disregard its own rules regarding Gaelic, for example quietly encouraging the use of the Gaelic Confession of Faith in schools. Indeed, it seems that when the Society’s rhetoric, and even its policies, were at their most flagrantly anti-Gaelic—such as in 1723 and 1751—behind the scenes it was, whether knowingly or unknowingly, acting as a conduit for those who wished to see Gaelic elevated in status.

​University of Glasgow​


​[1] The phrase ‘Highlands and Islands’ is adopted here for the sake of convenience and brevity. The SSPCK’s remit included the Highlands, the Western Isles, and Orkney and Shetland. As the reviewer has pointed out, however, examples of the phrase from before the beginning of the century seem to imply that ‘Highlands’ and ‘Islands’ were considered two separate entities. Indeed, the lumping together of Highlands and Islands into one region may itself result from the geographical discourse of the SSPCK.​[back to text]​

[2] Literacy in Classical Gaelic was common among the elite in this region during the sixteenth century. Hebridean elites such as Domhnall Gorm (d. 1616), Ruairidh Mòr of Dunvegan (d. 1626), for example, regularly signed their names in Gaelic using a Gaelic script, indicating that they had received an education in Gaelic. See MacCoinnich 2015: 320, 321, 335. ​[back to text]​

[3] My thanks to Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich for this reference from the Delvine Papers, NLS.​[back to text]​

[4] Note, however, that evidence of written Gaelic sermons has been found for MacKay country, aka Dùthaich MhicAoidh, from as early as 1700, illustrating that not all ministers relied solely on the English Bible for the delivery of sermons. Evangelical Protestantism had deeper roots here than in other parts of the Highlands and a lack of evidence for elsewhere suggests that this was exceptional. See Macdonald 1962 and MacKay 1996.​[back to text]​

[5] This is also an ironic joke about Angus’s brother, Roderick, who was sent to a bardic school to learn Classical Gaeli. Their father, John Morison of Bragar, later lamented that he had spent more money on Roderick’s education that the rest of his children combined. See Matheson 1970: xlii. My thanks to Domhnall Uilleam Stiùbhart for drawing my attention to this reference.​[back to text]​

[6] My thanks to Dr Aonghas MacCoinnich for this reference.​[back to text]​



National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh

MS 1401, Mackenzie of Delvine Papers, fol. 16

National Records of Scotland, Edinburgh

CH12/12, Episcopal Chest

CH2/312/1, Synod of Ross Minutes (1707-1717)

CH2/557/3, Synod of Argyll Minutes (1687-1700)

CH2/602/1, Presbytery of Kincardine O’Neil Minutes (1700-1713)

CH2/840/11, Synod of Aberdeen Minutes (1697-1705)

GD95/1, SSPCK General Meeting Minutes (1709-1735)

GD95/2, SSPCK Directors’ Committee Minutes (1709-1759)

GD95/9/1, Register of SSPCK Schools (1710-1761)

GD95/10/62, SSPCK Papers transferred from New College (1716)

GD124, Mar and Kellie Papers

Blair Castle Archive (NRAS 234)

Box 45/9/124

The National Archives, Kew

SP54, State Papers Scotland Series II

Reference Works

Scott, H. (ed.). 1915-28. Fasti ecclesiae Scoticanae: the succession of ministers in the Church of Scotland from the Reformation, 8 vols (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd).

Printed Primary Sources

SSPCK. 1714. An Account of the Rise, Constitution and Management of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge (London: R. Tookey).

SSPCK. 1774. An Account of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge from its commencement in 1709 (Edinburgh: A. Murray and J. Cochrane)

Whyte, T. 1778. An Historical and Genealogical Account of the Bethunes of the Island of Sky (Edinburgh: Neill & Co)

Edited Primary Sources

MacTavish, D. C. (ed.). 1943-44. Minutes of the Synod of Argyll, 1639-1661, 2 vols (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Matheson, W. (ed). 1970. An Clarsair Dall: Orain Ruaidhri Mhic Mhuirich agus a Chuid Ciuil / The Blind Harper: The Songs of Roderick Morison and His Music (Edinburgh: R&R Clark Ltd).

Thomson, R. L (ed.). 1962. Adtimchiol an Chreidimh: The Gaelic version of John Calvin’s Catechismus Ecclesiae Genevensis: a facsimile reprint, including the prefixed poems and the Shorter Catechism of 1659, with notes and glossary, and an introduction (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd)

Books & Articles

Bannerman, J. W. M. 1983. ‘Literacy in the Highlands’, in The Renaissance and Reformation in Scotland, eds. I. B. Cowan and D. Shaw (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press): pp. 214-35.

Bannerman, John W. M. 1998. The Beatons: a Medical Kindred in the Classic Gaelic Tradition (Edinburgh: John Donald).

Baoill, C. Ò. 2010. ‘A History of Gaelic to 1800’, in M. Watson & M. Macleod eds, The Edinburgh Companion to the Gaelic Language (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press): pp. 1–21.

Beale, J. M. 1983. A History of the Burgh and Parochial Schools of Fife (Edinburgh: Scottish Council for Research in Education).

Black, R. 1989. ‘The Gaelic Manuscripts of Scotland’ in Gaelic and Scotland, Alba agus a’ Ghàidhlig, ed. W. Gillies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press): pp. 146–74.

Black, R. 2008. ‘Gaelic Religious Publishing, 1567-1800’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 24: 73–85.

Black, R. 2001. An Lasair: Anthology of 18th Century Scottish Gaelic Verse (Edinburgh: Birlinn).

Boyd, W. 1961. Education in Ayrshire over Seven Centuries (London: Hodder & Stoughton Ltd).

Campbell, J. L. 1945. Gaelic in Scottish Education and Life: Past, Present and Future (Edinburgh: W. & A. K. Johnston Ltd).

Campbell, J. L. 1984. Canna: The Story of a Hebridean Island (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

Cheape, H. 2004. ‘Gaelic Genesis’, Scottish Book Collector, 15–23.

Cullen, K. J. 2010. Famine in Scotland: the ‘Ill Years’ of the 1690s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press)

Durkacz, V. E. 1978. ‘The Source of the Language Problem in Scottish Education, 1688-1709’, The Scottish Historical Review, 57: 28–39.

Durkacz, V. E. 1983. The Decline of the Celtic Languages (Edinburgh: John Donald).

Fagg, J. B. 1994. ‘“Complaints and Clamours”: the Ministry of Adam Fergusson, 1700-1754’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 25: 288–308.

Fraser, W. 1876. The Earls of Cromartie, Their Kindred and Correspondence, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh).

Gray, N. P. 2011. “A Publick Benefite to the Nation”: the Charitable and Religious Origins of the SSPCK, 1690-1715 (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Glasgow).
Hechter, M. 1975. Internal Colonialism: The Celtic Fringe in British National Development, 1536–1966 (London: Routledge).

Horsbroch, D. 1999. ‘Nostra Vulgari Lingua: Scots as a European Language, 1500–1700’, Scottish Language, 18: 1–16.

Houston, R. A. 1985. Scottish Literacy and Scottish Identity: Illiteracy and Society in Scotland and Northern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).

Kennedy, A. D. 2014. ‘The Condition of the Restoration Church of Scotland in the Highlands’, The Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 65: 309–26.

Leneman, L. 1982. A Social History of the Atholl Estates 1685-1785, (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh).

Loughlin, C. 2018. ‘Concepts of Mission in Scottish Presbyterianism: the SSPCK, the Highlands and Britain’s American Colonies, 1709–40’, Studies in Church History, 54: 190–207.

MacCoinnich, A. 2008. ‘Where and How Was Gaelic Written in Late Medieval and Early Modern Scotland? Orthographic Practices and Cultural Identities’, Scottish Gaelic Studies, 24: 309–56.

MacDonald, J. ‘The Rev. John MacKay’s Gaelic Sermons’, Scottish Gaelic Studies X: 176–202.

MacGregor, M. 2000. ‘Làn-mara ‘s mìle seòl (“Floodtide and a thousand sails”): Gaelic Scotland and Gaelic Ireland in the Later Middle Ages’ in A’ Chòmhdhail Cheilteach Eadarnìseanta Congress 99: Cultural Contacts Within the Celtic Community: Glaschu, 26-31 July. Celtic Congress (Inverness: Celtic Congress): pp. 77-97.

MacGregor, M. 2006. ‘The Statutes of Iona: Text and Context’, The Innes Review, 57: 111–81.

Macinnes, A. I. 1996. Clanship, Commerce and the House of Stuart, 1603-1788 (East Linton: Tuckwell Press).

MacKay, J. 1914. The Church in the Highlands, or, The Progress of Evangelical Religion in Gaelic Scotland, 563-1843 (London: Hodder and Stoughton).

MacKay, W. 1896. Records of the Presbyteries of Inverness and Dingwall, 1643-1688 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press).

MacKay, W. 1921. Education in the Highlands in the Olden Times (Inverness: Northern Chronicle)

Mackay, W. R. 1996. ‘Early Evangelical Religion in the Far North: a Kulturkampf’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 26: 104–134.

MacKinnon, D. 1936. ‘Education in Argyll and the Isles, 1638-1709’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 4: 195–207.

MacLeod Hill, A. 2016. The Pelican in the Wilderness: Symbolism and Allegory in Women’s Evangelical Songs of the Gàidhealtachd (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Edinburgh).

McLeod, W. 2004. Divided Gaels: Gaelic Cultural Identities in Scotland and Ireland, c. 1200–c. 1650 (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

McLeod, W. & Bateman, M. (eds). 2007. Duanaire na Sracaire / Songbook of the Pillagers: Anthology of Medieval Gaelic Poetry (Edinburgh: Birlinn).

Meek, D. E. 1988. ‘The Gaelic Bible’ in David F. Wright, ed. The Bible in Scottish Life and Literature (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press): pp. 9-23.

Meek, D. E. 1989. ‘The Scoto-Gaelic scribes of Late Medieval Perth-shire’ in Bryght Lanternis: Essays on the Language and Literature of Medieval and Renaissance Scotland, eds. J. Derrick McClure & M.R.G. Spiller (Aberdeen: Aberdeen University Press): pp. 387–404.

Meek, D. E. 1990. ‘Language and Style in the Scottish Gaelic Bible (1767–1807)’, Scottish Language, 9: 1–16.

Meek, D. E. 1998. ‘The Reformation and Gaelic Culture: Perspectives on Patronage, Language and Literature in John Carswell’s translation of “The Book of Common Order”’ in J. Kirk, ed. The Church and the Highlands (Edinburgh: Scottish Church History Society): pp. 37–62.

Meek, D. E. 2002. ‘The Pulpit and the Pen: Clergy, Orality and Print in the Scottish Gaelic World’, in The Spoken Word Oral Culture in Britain, 1500-1850, eds. A. Fox & D. Woolf (Manchester: Manchester University Press): pp. 84–118.

Prunier, C. 2004. Anti-Catholic Strategies in Eighteenth-Century Scotland (Frankfurt: Peter Lang).

Roberts, A. & MacWilliam, S. 2007. Scalan: Glenlivet’s Hidden Cottage, 1717-1799 (Aberdeen: Blairs Museum & the Scottish Catholic Heritage Commission).

Simpson, Ian J. 1947. Education in Aberdeenshire Before 1872 (London: University of London Press).

Stiùbhart, D. U. 2003. ‘The Genesis and Operation of the Royal Bounty Scheme 1725-30’, Records of the Scottish Church History Society, 33: 63–141.

Thomson, D. S. 1968. ‘The Gaelic Learned Orders and Literati in Medieval Scotland’, Scottish Studies 12: 57–78.

Withers, C. W. J. 1984. Gaelic in Scotland, 1698-1981: The Geographical History of a Language (Edinburgh: John Donald).

Withers, C. W. J. 1988. Gaelic Scotland: The Transformation of a Culture Region (London: Routledge).

Withrington, D. J. 1965. ’Lists of Schoolmasters Teaching Latin, 1690’, Miscellany of the Scottish History Society, 10: pp. 121–142.

Withrington, D. J. 1962. ‘The SPCK and Highland Schools in Mid-Eighteenth Century’, The Scottish Historical Review, 41: 89–99.

Withrington, D. J. 1986. ‘Education in the 17th Century Highlands’, in The Seventeenth Century in the Highlands, ed. Lorraine MacLean: pp. 60–69.

Young, H. L. 2016. The Small Rural School and Community Relations in Scotland, 1872-2000: an Interdisciplinary History (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Stirling).