Book Review by David Lane
If you are looking for a pacy thriller, a side-splitting work of comedy or romantic fiction, do not buy this book. Its pace is gentle. Its humour is slow and laboured by today’s standards. There are no subtle plots and not a lot of punch lines.And yet it has a real attraction. It takes its readers back to the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and provides invaluable sidelights on the way that people lived in Scotland – especially the highlands and islands – at that time.
John Wilson was a School Inspector from about 1880 (following the Education Act 1872) to 1928, and he must have visited every school on the western side of Scotland, to judge from his numerous anecdotes. The period he covers in his memoirs started well after the clearances, though the population continued to diminish even after his time as Inspector, and many of the schools he inspected are now closed. His era was, though, before the current picture of ferries, modern ports and the bed and breakfast trade was established. One can see a transition, in which compulsory education played a part.
He faced primitive conditions. In one school he did not hear the children enter behind his back as not a single one had shoes. Barefoot children often had to walk miles over hills and moorland to get to school from an early age. Sometimes heavy snow made life more difficult. Many of the schools were very small, and at times it was difficult to attract teachers to work in remote valleys and on small islands.
Yet the commitment of most teachers to their pupils shines through, and many clearly were successful in providing basic educational skills and in opening up the children’s minds in situations where resources were poor and where children had little idea of the world outside their immediate surroundings. One child was terrified, for instance, when the Inspector arrived in a carriage, as he had never seen a horse before.
John Wilson’s character inevitably comes through in his style of writing, his choice of anecdote, his assessments of other people and his sense of humour, which was in keeping with the style of his times but now seems very laboured. He comes over as a well educated, well intentioned, committed professional, keen to ensure that the children had a good education, demanding but prepared to be pragmatic when necessary. He liked it when people recognised his importance (and Her Majesty’s Inspectors were important) and he got shirty when he felt people did not treat him properly, sometimes getting satisfaction from revenge.
By the end of the book, one warmed to him, for all his stuffiness. One picked up something of the slow pace of life in the highlands and western isles during this period, the toughness of existence, the poverty, the hospitality shown to guests, the help given to those in need, the refusal to tolerate fools or those who broke the social code, the strict religious orthodoxy of some and the reliance on the bottle by others, their naivety (in some ways) and their resourcefulness and ability to cope.
If you want to take a look into that world, John Wilson offers a window. But remember, his world was not that of Gervais Phinn. For a start, our sense of humour has changed.
Wilson, J. (1928) Republished (1998) Tales and Travels of a School Inspector Acair, Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
ISBN 0 86152 143 9