The 19th century Knox Institute in Haddington

Education in East Lothian – origins

Former school and library, Haddington

Former school and library, Haddington

When we look at education in East Lothian today, with a range of primary, secondary, and tertiary institutions spread over the county, we are looking at the result of a millennium of progress. Very little research has been done on the origins of our schools but we have good holdings in the archives from the Victorian period onwards – the theme of an exhibition during 2015. Our reference collection helps throw some light on the earlier period. We know that (amongst other examples):

  • Medieval East Lothian had a high concentration of wealthy magnates whose households often included a chaplain, whose duties included preparing younger sons for the Church and ensuring that lay administrators (bailies and stewards) had the skills needed.
  • Dunbar Church was made collegiate by the earls of Dunbar in 1342. Collegiate churches had a college of ordained priests and to support them they elsewhere accumulated choir schools and grammar schools; there is little evidence, but Dunbar and the other East Lothian collegiate churches that followed are assumed to have offered some kind of education to a select few.
  • In 1378 the King’s Chamberlain made a payment to the master of the schools in Haddington. Two years later a further payment was directed to the support of a certain poor scholar, so education extended to more than just the wealthy.
  • Walter Bower (or Bowmaker) (fl. 1380s), Abbot of Incholm, and his near contemporary Andrew (De) Wyntoun, Prior of Lochleven (fl. 1420s), the theologian John Major (b. c. 1446) and the poet William Dunbar (b. c. 1460) are all generally understood to have received their early education at Haddington.
  • John Knox held a position as tutor to the children of the laird of Longniddry in the 1540s; Knox himself is held to be another eminent graduate of ‘Haddington school’.
  • One of the prime intentions of the reformers was to institute a school in every parish. Although this was a slow process in parts of Scotland, it seems to have progressed rapidly in the Lothians. Several reformed ministers are known to have also been appointed with responsibility for running schools.
  • Immediately after the Reformation (the 1560s), Haddington, Dunbar, Spott and Prestonpans had schoolmasters of some skill and eminence – they have been written about and some of them published books and educational texts.
  • Haddington burgh records record the appointment of schoolmasters from 1559 – on the 6th October of that year Mr Robert Dormont to be skoillmaster of the burgh. By 1582 the institution was being referred to as the grammar school and a fair account of it’s progress can be given from around this time.
  • By the 1590s evidence exists to show that aspirant schoolmasters were expected to undergo tests before appointment: to try Andro Dischington, schoolmaster of Dunbar, not only in his ability to travell in the ministry, but also to teache ane grammar schule.
  • Endowments of the 16th – 19th centuries provided bursaries to scholars or, in some instances, established institutions such as Schaw’s Hospital (later the Murray Institute) in Prestonpans.
  • In 1768 the county gained its first, formal tertiary college. Hitherto aspirants for further education had to leave the county. When John Brown, associate presbytery minister in Haddington, was appointed to his church’s professorship, the students came to him. Brown was concerned with Divinity, but also worked to bring his varied students up to a common standard.
  • Industrial developments needed trained staff: Mrs Fall of Dunbar opened a ‘weaving school’ for girls and a generation later Haddington and Dunbar had Schools of Arts (also known as Mechanics Institutes). Miner’s Institutes appeared later in the west of the county.
  • By 1842, 15 out of 27 parochial schools formally examined in the Presbyteries of Dunbar and Haddington were entitle(d) to be ranked as first class.
Murray Institute, Prestonpans

Murray Institute, Prestonpans

So, at one time, an education could be had in the households of wealthy East Lothian magnates from early times, where chaplains were on the establishment. At the same time, formal schools were an essential part of the religious network in East Lothian. Choir schools provided trained singers to support the saying of masses in the collegiate churches instituted in the 14th century (a choir school was reopened in Haddington during 1583 – post Reformation!). Then, grammar schools provided the first step in selecting recruits to the clergy, providing a grounding in the classics.

The Reformation saw the first attempt at providing universal education as burgh and parochial schools were created. In both the Church kept a substantial interest, but in the former the burgh councils had increasing responsibility. Donations provided support for some scholars and higher learning could be had by extra payments to the schoolmasters. Increasingly, supported schools: ‘hospitals’, institutes, penny schools and charitable schools appeared to supplement (mainly) burgh schools and parochial schools. Specialist training was attempted to support industrial initiatives and Schools of Arts supplied eclectic courses (depending on the availability of expert lecturers). Samuel Smiles (who was born in a building now part of the John Gray Centre) recalled Haddington School of Arts as

The 19th century Knox Institute in Haddington

The 19th century Knox Institute in Haddington

an excellent institution … well attended by the leading mechanics of the town. Also in the 19th century, moves were made to bring all of the parochial and burgh schools up to standard – of both accommodation and staff. Education Acts flowed through the century, one superseding another. Under the Acts, education became increasingly a part of the County Council’s evolving remit: the East Lothian Education Committee supervised, and their papers form part of the Archive at the John Gray Centre. And that brings us nicely back to the Exhibition: Best Days of Your Life?

Further Reading (all available in the Local History Collection; quotes in italics above have been extracted form the works below or via the links indicated)

History of Dunbar, James Miller

The Lamp of Lothian, James Miller

Life of John Knox, Thomas McCrie

John Brown of Haddington, Robert Mackenzie

Autobiography, Samuel Smiles

Haddington, History of a Royal Burgh, Gerald Urwin

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *