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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field club Bulletins
October 1981

A Caithness School in The Early 19th Century
Henrietta Munro

Bower today is a sleepy parish lying in the centre of Caithness but it stands higher than you would think - on the proverbial clear day you can see as many as seven parishes spread out. Bower is still a landmark - but maybe over a hundred years ago it was even better known. Certainly better known to some boys who came - or were sent - from as far away as London, Liverpool and Orkney as well as from other Caithness parishes. Bower School run by Matthew Dunnet was very well known in its time.

Matthew was a bachelor and a very meticulous man - we have his account books from 1833-1865 and the contents might surprise you. Remember this was when Dickens was writing about Nicholas Nickleby's horrific school days. So to Matthew's accounts.

The first entry is 'Jenny Bain Wages 3:10/- per annum' and this entry appears again and again until Jenny dies in 1865 - never a rise and never a helper but once Matthew gave her a present - New Year 1840 - 'To print for a frock 3/- and to making frock 1/-'. And so Jenny and her print frock celebrated New Year 1840 in the schoolhouse in Bower. Apparently there were no domestic problems in Bower.

And the food - Oliver Twist wouldn't have believed it - indeed by the amounts bought most of the boys must have asked for more and ware given it. And no wonder - haddies at 4d., cod at 8d., 1/2 barrel of herring 10/6d. - fish for brains no doubt and every week the boys had plenty of fresh fish. Fowls were 6d. each and frequently appeared on the menu while in windy October the wild geese helped to vary the diet. Meat was scarcer but when it arrived it was in vast quantities, obviously for curing. '961bs beef at 31/2d. lb.', half a sheep or 16lbs mutton at 3d. lb'. Some of the most unusual entries show that the boys were eating fresh oranges as early as 1839 and apples in 1841 and after that both appear regularly in the accounts. Breakfast of course was porridge and milk - tea was bought in tiny quarter pound bags at 1/4d and was of course only for the Dominie's parlour. Every spring the Dominie bought seeds of onions, leeks and carrots and they were always served in plenty - Jenny's onion soup must have been delicious. The evening meal seems to have been bere meal scones, croodie, oatcakes, treacle scones and lots of buttermilk to drink.

The school proper was a long low room finely proportioned with wide windows on either side and as many as a hundred at times - there were day boys also - filled it. We know Matthew was a strict disciplinarian - and no matter how many boys were in the room he knew whether you were listening or not - and what subjects were taught - Latin of course, Greek for some and British history for all and of course geography - so costly maps and hemispheres at 1:2/6d. were bought from Mr. Chambers. Literature as such does not appear to have been taught but the Bible was a schoolbook and between times there was algebra and Euclid and everybody had to learn to spell and write in a clear hand. Who taught? The Dominie of course - he did all the teaching and the boys got it all for 20 a year (including board). If the 20 was a strain what was wrong with barter - young Master Kirk's bills were helped out by a 'fine topcoat and pair of gaiters' and if even that was impossible, why Matthew would teach for the love of teaching - and no one any the wiser. Matthew was a rare bird in Caithness in 1833 - he loved flowers and they had to be really perfumed. The house was surrounded by the Prince Charlie rose, mignonette and sweet peas - we can see his lists of seeds each year - wallflower in 1841, carnations no less in 1842 with balm and honeysuckle. By 1852 broom and whins were all around - delightful gentleman was Matthew.

His parlour must have been a real man's room - Tobacco: a silver snuffbox (presented by the parish): a bottle of 'aqua' - but no books. However by his bill for boots the Dominie must have tramped all the seven parishes every day! A comfortable peat fire and the fine moderator lamp bought in 1857 for 1:4/- and of course Chambers Journal, shared with the local doctor for 30 years. The sofa was presented by the parish of Bower but does not appear to hare been used much and of course the chairs were hard and unyielding. Walking and thinking appears to have been his recreation but he did have two holidays - once in a gig to Lochinver and once, strangely, to Dublin - now this was exciting - Trinity College, Pheonix Park and all. But the shops were best - his shopping list shows that even on holiday he thought of the boys - 'To balls and tops 2/8d., whip 6d.,spinning tops 1/-, big balls 6d. and 3d., Trumpets 1/-, whistles 1/-, 1 pop gun 6d., playthings 1/61/2d. brooch 3/6d.' Was the brooch maybe for Jenny? And what a night the boys must have had on Matthew's return - music, noise, games - they must have raised the roof.

It was a strenuous time - In 1865 Matthew gave up keeping accounts or at least we do not have any more - in 1869 they said he was going to retire. On what? If he was worried the Dominie never said. But providence was kind - going into school one wintry morning in 1870 he fell dead. He left no debts and his total assets were in his Pocket 1/6d. The old boys who knew their master gathered a small fortune for him - and after the stone in the churchyard was raised there was 1200 left - a real fortune in those days. His old boys said 'He was a man of great eminence in his profession, a true friend, courteous, kind and generous'. But being true Scots they put on the front of the tombstone only 'deeply regretted - Matthew Dunnet'.

But Matthew's fame lives on - in country stories and in his meticulously kept accounts book.

Published in October 1981 Bulletin