GLEN Douglas is best known nowadays as the home of a NATO ammunition depot, but in days gone by it was a thriving community with its own school.

The story of the isolated country school is not unlike a person - a protracted difficult birth followed by challenging early years, with maturity a much more settled period, but then unforeseen developments led to its demise.

Local historian Alistair McIntyre, a director of Helensburgh Heritage Trust, is a former pupil, and he has researched its story, with help from a number of people, in particular Mary Haggarty of Arrochar and Ian McEachern of Luss.

What he has written paints a vivid picture of education in the landward area of the Helensburgh district through the years, and it will be serialised here this month.

Glen Douglas has a distinctive setting. Lying at an altitude of around 500 feet and flanked by high hills, the bed of the glen is relatively flat, but at both ends the single-track road plunges very steeply, to Loch Lomond on the east and Loch Long on the west.

As a result it has never attracted much traffic from the busy lochside highways, and is cut off from surrounding communities.

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There was a scattering of homesteads in the glen, and the setting meant that parish schools, like the one at Luss, were effectively inaccessible to any child living in the glen.

As the centuries rolled on, there arose a gradual awareness of the benefits of universal education, and a pioneering school was eventually set up in Glen Douglas in 1727, through the Scottish Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge.

Formed in 1709, the society’s original aim was to promote the spread of the Christian message to outlying areas, especially in the Highlands and Islands, by means of a network of schools. Over time, this was extended to include the teaching of reading, writing and arithmetic.

Helensburgh Advertiser: Annie Ross with pupils in 1950; Alistair McIntyre front rightAnnie Ross with pupils in 1950; Alistair McIntyre front right

Against this background, the first known school in Glen Douglas took shape. In this pre-improvement agricultural era, there were around 13 settlements, with another four nearby. Some of these would have contained several households.

The teacher appointed to what was described as a ‘petty school’ was John McAusland. The location of the school is unknown, but it was a humble structure with drystone walls and thatched roof, probably an adaptation of a barn or outhouse at one of the farms.

What is known is that the teacher resigned the following year. His replacement in 1729 was Andrew McLelland, described as not having his commission because of poor arithmetic, although he did subsequently succeed in gaining the necessary qualification.

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In 1839 the Rev Robert Carr, minister at Luss, wrote: “The inhabitants of the upper part of Glen Douglas are too far from any of the schools in the parish to send their children to them. The number of families affected is four.” So the SSPCK school was no longer in existence by that date.

After the ground-breaking Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, education was made compulsory for children aged 5-13, with a national system of parish school boards set up to implement and manage this objective.

In Glen Douglas, this gave rise to real challenges. The location was remote, and only limited financial resources were available.

In 1873, Row School Board noted that nine children of school age resided at or near Craggan Farm, by Glen Douglas road end, and that they were attending Arrochar School. This would entail a walk to school of at least five miles, and possibly more.

The substantial number of children living at just one location underlines the scale of the problems faced by those charged with delivery of the new system.

Glen Douglas had the misfortune to be located at the meeting point of three different parishes: Arrochar, Luss and Row (Rhu). This was to provide a textbook example of the weaknesses of the parish-based system, with each school board focussed on fighting its own corner.

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The financing of the new school formed a bone of contention right at the outset. In the absence of a custom-built school, the only option was to form one at a farm, all existing habitations in the glen being related to agriculture.

Accommodation was found to be available at Invergroin, a farm situated about mid-point in the glen. As well as finding a place for a classroom, the other vital ingredient was living accommodation for the teacher.

It seems to have been only through the co-operation of the tenant farmer there that space was made available for both. He would have been renumerated.

Invergroin Farm lay in Arrochar parish, and so Arrochar School Board was now in the driving seat. With children attending from the other two parishes, Arrochar was very mindful that the other boards should be contributing to the running costs.

A formula was arrived at whereby Luss and Row would make contributions based on the proportion of children going to school from each of them. This might have seemed a good solution, but in practice numbers attending could fluctuate widely.

While some farm tenants and their employees might be stable over a period, their children could easily slip out of the prescribed age limits. In addition, quite a proportion of farm workers were hired on a year-by-year basis, the term start being either May or November. So the numbers of eligible children varied considerably over a single session.

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What was termed a Combination School Board was formed over and above the existing boards in an attempt to smooth out their differences, and inter-board friction was by no means confined to Arrochar, Luss and Row.

The first known teacher was Miss M.E.Campbell, appointed by Arrochar School Board, but in a rare instance of co-operation, the Board agreed in 1881 to transfer Miss Campbell to Ardlui School, after a request from Luss to have Miss Charlotte Colquhoun appointed in her place.

By the late 1880s Miss Jemima McNaughton, one of the daughters of the postmaster at Arrochar, was schoolmistress. She commuted to the school on String Road, a rough track over wild and exposed terrain between Arrochar and Invergroin.

This was part of a route once used by the McFarlanes of Arrochar to get to and from Luss Church, before the construction of a church at Arrochar.

Miss McNaughton would have got home only at weekends, and only if the weather permitted. It must have been a tough life - and the teachers at this period would have needed to be young, fit and adaptable. All the early teachers were single women.

In those formative years, the school session at Glen Douglas ran from the start of November till the end on July. Miss McNaughton was paid at the rate of £15 for half a year’s salary.

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By 1889, a major difficulty arose - the farmer at Invergroin made it clear that he wanted his accommodation back. The Board told Miss McNaughton that her services would not be required beyond the following July.

Accommodation was available at Doune Farm in Luss parish. Luss School Board confirmed that the school would be conducted in what had been a milk store. But no accommodation for the teacher was to be found at the farm.

It transpired that Mr McFarlan, the tenant at Tullich Farm, also in Luss parish, was willing to provide accommodation for a school on his property over the winter months of the coming session. Presumably there was also living space for the teacher.

It was now becoming clear to all that running a school on such an ad hoc basis was simply not good enough. The boards agreed to provide a custom-built school, and asked for estimates for an iron school sufficient to house 20 scholars, with an attached room for teacher accommodation.

Messrs Braby and Co., of St Enoch’s Square, Glasgow, was contracted to erect a structure. The dimensions, including a room for the teacher, were 20 feet by 14 feet, which sounds very cramped.

In December 1890, Arrochar Board undertook to communicate to Miss McNaughton that they intended to transfer her to the new school, at an increased salary, to be agreed afterwards.

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The new facility went under the grand name of Glen Douglas Public School, reflecting the fact that all the scholars, as they were then termed, would begin and end their formal education there.

The new school was located in Luss, rather than Arrochar, parish. Miss McNaughton was seen as a tried and tested candidate, but she was not long in this new post. Perhaps the very limited teacher accommodation played a part in her early resignation.

This might be reinforced by the resignation in December 1891 of her successor, Miss Clachar. The next appointee was James A.Reid, a resident of Tarbet, and he was engaged for three months at a salary of £30 per annum.

An innovation in 1892 was the introduction of a school logbook, a key source of information about the life of any school. It was limited by a strict protocol, forbidding the teacher to advance any opinions. The average attendance that year was nine boys and 3.6 girls.

A festering source of friction across the boards came to a head in 1893 - the settlement of Arrochar’s share for the cost of the school, amounting to £36.

Arrochar complained that it had not been consulted when the decision to go ahead with a new school was made, because it had no scholars attending at the time. Common sense eventually won the day, and the three boards settled their differences.

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Turnover of staff continued to be rapid, however, and it was not until May 1894, with the appointment of Mrs Millar as teacher, at a salary of £50 per annum, that there was some continuity.

Her appointment coincided with a major milestone in the history of the glen, the opening of the West Highland Railway which meant there was now a direct link to outside communities.

One immediate impact on the glen population was the introduction of families connected with the maintenance of the track. They lived in custom-built cottages beside the track.

The glen’s economy had rested on those employed in agriculture, save for a few children of hut-keepers when railway construction began in 1890.

Hut-keepers, often there with their families, helped run the many construction camps that sprang up at 70 locations, one of which was Glen Douglas.

In 1894, there were 18 pupils on the school roll, several of whom were from such families. However, with the completion of the railway, they moved away.

To be continued next week.

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