A School in South Uist: Reminiscences of a Hebridean Schoolmaster, 1890-1913 … a review

As I was saying earlier, I’ve been hooked to this book set in one of the Hebridean islands. An English schoolteacher in the late 1800s, for want of more earning, applies to teach in a school in South Uist. As luck would have it, he gets picked as head teacher. It is his first trip to Scotland, and certainly his first to one of the isles. Now, just like this man, I too was new to Scotland last year. I visited my first Isle this year. Though there’s been about 120 years between us, the emotions that the isles of Scotland evoked in him are much the same as they did in me.

From Wikipedia, “The Hebrides comprise a widespread and diverse archipelago off the west coast of mainland Scotland. There are two main groups: the Inner and Outer Hebrides. These islands have a long history of occupation dating back to the Mesolithic and the culture of the residents has been affected by the successive influences of Celtic, Norse and English-speaking peoples. This diversity is reflected in the names given to the islands, which are derived from the languages that have been spoken there in historic and perhaps prehistoric times.”

They are islands in the Atlantic and their coasts are rugged, windy, and unforgiving. The landscape is different on every island. Skye for instance is dominated by the sharpness of the Cuillin hills and the jagged cliffs on the Trotternish peninsula. Arran, however, has gentler slopes and a softness of landscape. The islanders are kind and deeply religious, and it is easy to understand why. If you’ve ever been there, you’ll have seen that the sea and the rain and the wind make a combination of tremendous proportions. And if there is a God, he resides there. 

Anyway, back to the book. So our schoolmaster begins an instruction in English, and as his pupils have spoken Gaelic before his arrival, it takes everyone a while to adjust. His experiences during his stay include getting lost and hardening up. Everything is relatively new to him, weddings, dances, food, celebrations, hospitality. And as almost no one speaks English, his experiences are less vocal and more tactile, if that’s possible. He appreciated the wildlife and the weather, the culture and the life. And for his part, he did a wonderful job at school, with the help of father Allan, and brought in new practices like a lending library, midday meal, and an exercise routine. 

This book has made it to my best books read list. It is a brilliant memoir. The book is probably hard to find and definitely not very popular, so you might have to look for a while for it. However, in the meantime, what you could occupy yourself with, is the BBC Series on Hebrides. It is brilliant!

Quote: “One calm night my brothers went out into the garden, and called me to join them, and, on my doing so, one of them said in an awed voice: ‘Isn’t it wonderful!’ The word was justified. All was perfectly still; not a murmur came from the sea, no cry of bird nor bark of dog was heard, and there was a complete silence.

Overhead the sky was a canopy of deep cobalt-blue. There was no moon, but myriads of stars shone so brightly in the clear air that by their light the whole landscape around us stood out in every detail to the south: the hills, the lochs, the road down to the sea, the sea itself with its islands placid and dark, the crofters’ cots, and the inn by the shore. The stars did not appear to be in the sky but hanging from it like globular lams, so that I remember my impulse was to raise my arms and to clasp my hands around them, as would be the urge had they been beautiful scintillating diamond balls. 

On our looking north there was not a star to be seen, but a huge black curtain of brooding cloud lay across the horizon for many miles from east to west, shutting out all beyond. As we watched wonderingly, a wave of light crossed this dark curtain like a beam from some gigantic search-light sweeping from east to west, a distance of, perhaps, fifty miles; again and again this light wave swept backwards and forwards across the black cloud; then the top edge of the dark curtain of cloud became tinged with crimson as though an enormous fire were burning behind it and were reflected at the top edge. Streaks of light now flashed upwards and then downwards on the black barrier of cloud; brilliant streamers of coruscations in different colours next appeared, till the whole brilliant spectacle resembled a mammoth firework display, but far transcending in splendour any such human effort.

Gradually as we gazed in silence, the brilliance of the lights began to wane, whilst the whole curtain seemed to pulsate; fainter and fainter became the manifestation, the waves of light fewer and slower, till at last they ceased altogether, and nothing remained but the silence, a dark cloud, and the star lamps in the dome of the sky overhead.”

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