[Old & New Edinburgh Contents]
Blackfriars Monastery – Its Foundation – Destroyed by Fire – John Black the Dominican – The Friary Gardens – Lady Yester: her Church and Tomb – The Burying Ground – The Old High School – The Ancient Grammar School – David Vocat – School Founded – Hercules Rollock – Early Classes – The House Destroyed by the English – The Bleis-Silver – David Malloch – The Old High School – Thomas Ruddiman, Rector – Barclay’s Class – Henry Mackenzie’s Reminiscences – Dr. Adam, Rector: his Grammar – New Edifice Proposed and Erected – The School-boy Days of Sir Walter Scott – Allan Masterton – The School in 1803 – Death of Rector Adam – James Pillans, M.A., and A. R. Carson, Rectors – The New School Projected – The Old one Abandoned.
INFIRMARY STREET is now a continuation of Chambers Street to the eastward, and is a thoroughfare of great antiquity, as it led from the north side of the Kirk-of-field, past the Dominican Monastery and into the Old High School Wynd. In 1647 it was a double street with one long continuous line of houses, occupying the whole frontage of the future infirmary, and having six long abutments (or short closes) running south towards the south-eastern flank of the City wall.
On the exact site of the Old Surgical Hospital there stood for nearly four hundred years a great edifice of which now not a trace remains, the Dominican or Blackfriars’ Monastery, founded in 1230 by King Alexander II., and in its earliest charters named Mansio Regis, as he had bestowed upon the monks a royal residence as their abode.
The church built by Alexander was a large cruciform edifice with a central rood-tower and lofty spire. It was renowned for being the scene of the great meeting of all the bishops, abbots, and priors in the realm, summoned in 1512 by the Papal Legate, Cardinal Bagimont, who presided. In this synod, says Balfour, all ecclesiastical benefices exceeding forty pounds per annum were taxed in the payment of ten pounds to the Pope by way of pension, and to the King of Scotland such a tax as he felt disposed to levy. This valuation, which is still known by the name of Bagimont’s Roll, was made thereafter the standard for taxing the Scottish ecclesiastics at the Vatican.
It was to this church that James Beaton, Archbishop of Glasgow and Lord High Chancellor, fled from the Douglases during the terrible street conflict or tulzie in 1519, and, as Pitscottie records, was dragged “out behind the altar, and his rockit riven aff him, and had been slaine,” had not Gavin Douglas, Bishop of Dunkeld, interceded for him., ”saying, it was shame to put hand on ane consecrate bishop.” And here we may remark that the Scottish word tulzie, used by us so often, is derived from the French touill-er, to confuse, or to mix.
The monastery was destroyed by an accidental fire in 1528, but the church would seem to have been uninjured by the view of it in 1544, though no doubt it would suffer, like all the others in the city, at the hands of the English in that year.
In 1552 the Provost and Council ordered Alex. Park, city treasurer, to deliver to “the Dene of Gild x li., that he may thairwith pay the Blak Freirs xx li. owing to them, at this last Fasterns evin, for thair bell, conform to the act maid thairupon” (Burgh Records).
In 1553 another Act ordains “John Smyson” to pay them the sum “of xx li. compleit payment of thair silver bell;” and in 1554-5 in the Burgh Accounts is the item – “To the Blackfriars and Greyfriars, for their preaching yeirlie, ilk ane of thame self ane last of sownds beir; price of ilk boll xxviij s. summa, xvj li. xvj s.”
When John Knox, after his return to Scotland, began preaching against the Mass as an idolatrous worship, he was summoned before an ecclesiastical judicatory held in the Blackfriars’ church on the 15th May, 1556. The case was not proceeded with at the time, as a tumult was feared; but the summons so greatly increased the power and popularity of Knox, that on that very 15th of May he preached to a greater multitude than he had ever done before. In 1558 the populace attacked the monastery and church, and destroyed everything they contained, leaving the walls an open ruin.
In 1560 John Black, a Dominican friar, acted as the permanent confessor of Mary of Guise, during her last fatal illness in the Castle of Edinburgh, and Knox in his history indulges in coarse innuendoes concerning both. His name is still preserved in the following doggerel verse:-
“There was a certain Black friar, always called Black,
And this was no nickname, for black was his work;
Of all the Black friars he was the blackest clerk,
Born in the Black Friars to be a black mark.”
This Dominican, however, was a learned and subtle doctor, a man of deep theological research, who in 1561 maintained against John Willox the Reformer, and ex-Franciscan, a defence of the Roman Catholic faith for two successive days, and gave him more than ordinary trouble to meet his arguments. He was afterwards stoned in the streets “by the rabble,” on the 15th December, or, as others say, the 7th of January.
By 1560 the stones of the Black Friary were used “for the bigging of dykes,” and other works connected with the city. The cemetery was latterly the old High School Yard, and therein a battery of cannon was erected in 1571 to batter a house in which the Parliament of the king’s men held a meeting, situated somewhere on the south side of the Canongate.
The Dominican gardens, in which the dead body of Darnley was found lying under a tree, and their orchard, lay to the southward, and in 1513 were intersected, or bounded by the new city wall, in which there remained – till July, 1854, when some six hundred yards of it were demolished, and a parapet and iron railing substituted – an elliptically arched doorway, half buried in the pavement, three feet three inches wide, and protected by a round gun-port, splayed out four feet four inches wide. Through this door the unscathed body of Darnley must have been borne by his murderers, ere they blew up the house of the Kirk-of-field. It was an interesting relic, and its removal was utterly wanton.
The next old ecclesiastical edifice on the other side of the street was Lady Yester’s church, which in Gordon’s map is shown as an oblong barn-like edifice surrounded by a boundary wall, with a large window in its western gable.
Lady Yester, a pious and noble dame, whose name was long associated with ecclesiastical charities in Edinburgh, was the third daughter of Mark Kerr, Commendator of Newbattle Abbey, a Lord of Session, and founder of the house of Lothian. Early in life she was married to James Lord Hay of Yester, and had two sons, John Lord Yester, afterwards Earl of Tweeddale, and Sir William, for whom she purchased the barony of Linplum. After being a widow some years she married Sir Andrew Kerr younger of Fernyhurst.
In 1644 she built the church at the south-east corner of the High School Wynd, at the expense of £1,000 of the then money, with 5,000 merks for the salary of the minister. It was seated for 817 persons, and in August, 1655, the Town Council appointed a district of the city a parish for it. Shortly before her death, Lady Yester “caused joyne thereto an little isle for the use of the minister, yr she lies interred.” This aisle is shown by Gordon to have been on the north side of the church, and Monteith (1704) describes the following doggerel inscription on her “tomb on the north side of the vestiary”:-
“It’s needless to erect a marble tomb:
The daily bread that for the hungry womb,
And bread of life thy bounty hath provided
For hungry souls, all times to be divided;
World-lasting monuments shall reare,
That shall endure, till Christ himself appear.
Posd was thy life, prepared thy happy end;
Nothing in either was without commend.
Let it be the care of all who live hereafter,
To live and die, like Margaret Lady Yester.”
Who dyed 15th March, 1647. Her age 75.
“Blessed are the dead, which die in the Lord; they rest from their labours, and their works do follow them.” – Rev. xiv. 13.
After Cromwell’s troops rendered themselves houseless in 1650 by burning Holyrood, quarters were assigned them in the city churches, including Lady Yester’s; and in all of these, and part of the college, the pulpits, desks, lofts, and seats, were, says Nicol, “dung down by these English sodgeris, and burnt to asses.”
When the congregation of the abbey church were compelled by James VII. to leave it in 1687, they had to seek accommodation in Lady Yester’s till another place of worship could be provided for them. A small cemetery adjoined the church; it is now covered with buildings, but was still in use about the close of the last and beginning of the present century, and many seamen of the Russian fleet, which lay for a time at Leith, and who died in the infirmary, were buried there.
In 1803 the old church was taken down, and a new one erected for 1,212 sitters, considerably to the westward of it, was opened in the following year. Though tasteless and nondescript in style, it was considered an ornament to that part of the city.
The tomb of the foundress, and the tablet recording her good works, are both re-built into this new fane; but it seems doubtful whether her body was removed at the same time. The parish is wholly a town one, and situated within the city; it contains 64,472 square yards.
With diffidence, yet with ardour and interest, we now approach the subject of the old High School of Edinburgh – the famous and time-honoured Schola Regia Edinensis – so prominently patronised by James VI., and the great national importance of which was recognised even by George IV, who gave it a handsome donation.
Scott, and thousands of others, whose deeds and names in every walk of life and in every part of the globe have added to the glory of their country, have conned their tasks in the halls of this venerable institution. “In the roll of its scholars,” says Dr. Steven, “are the names of some of the most distinguished men of all professions, and who have filled important situations in all parts of the world, and it is a fact worth recording that it includes the names of three Chancellors of England, all natives of Edinburgh – Wedderburn, Erskine, and Brougham.”
Learning, with all the arts and infant science too, found active and munificent patrons in the monarchs of the Stuart line; thus, so early as the sixth Parliament of James IV., it was ordained that all barons and freeholders of substance were to put their eldest sons to school after the age of six or nine years, there to remain till they were perfect in Latin, “swa that they have knowledge and understanding of the lawes, throw the quhilks justice may remaine universally throw all the realme.” Those who failed to conform to this Act were to pay a fine of twenty pounds. But Scotland possessed schools so early as the twelfth century in all her principal towns, though prior to that period scholastic knowledge could only be received within the walls of the monasteries. The Grammar School of Edinburgh was originally attached to the abbey of Holyrood, and as the demand for education increased, those friars whose presence could be most easily dispensed with at the abbey, were permitted by the abbot and chapter to become public teachers within the city.
The earliest mention of a regular Grammar School in Edinburgh being under the control of the magistrates is on the 10th January, 1519, “the quhilk day, the provost, baillies, and counsall statutis and ordains, for resonable caussis moving thame, that na maner of nychtbour nor indweller within this burgh, put thair bairins till ony particular scule within this toun, bot to the principal Grammer Scule of the samyn,” to be taught in any science, under a fine of ten shillings to the master of the said principal school.
David Vocat, clerk of the abbey, was then at the head of the seminary, enjoying this strange monopoly; and on the 4th September, 1524, George, Bishop of Dunkeld, as abbot of Holyrood, with consent of his chapter, appointed Henry Henryson as assistant and successor to Vocat, whose pupil he had been, at the Grammar School of the Canongate.
By a charter of James V., granted under the great seal of Scotland, dated 1529, Henryson had the sole privilege of instructing the youth of Edinburgh; but he was also to attend at the abbey in his surplice on all high and solemn festivals, there to sing at mass and evensong, and make himself otherwise useful in the chapel.
According to Spottiswood’s Church History, Henryson publicly abjured Romanism so early as 1534, and thus he must have left the High School before that year, as Adam Melville had become head-master thereof in 1531. The magistrates of the city had as yet no voice in the nomination of masters, though the whole onus of the establishment rested on them as representing the citizens; and in 1554, as we have elsewhere (Vol. I. p. 263) stated, they hired that venerable edifice, then at the foot of Blackfriars Wynd – once the residence of Archbishop Beaton and of his nephew the cardinal – as a school; but in the following year they were removed to another house, near the head of what is named the High School Wynd, which had been built by the town for their better accommodation.
The magistrates having obtained from Queen Mary in March, 1566, a gift of all the patronages and endowments in the city, which had belonged to the Franciscan and Dominican priories, including the ancient school, which, till then, had been vested in the abbey of the Holy Cross, in January. 1567, they resolved to erect a suitable schoolhouse on the land of the Blackfriars monastery; and this edifice, which was built for £250 Scots (about £40 sterling) was ready for occupation in the following year.
This edifice, which was three-storeyed with crowstepped gables, stood east and west, having on its front, which faced the Cowgate, two circular towers, with conical roofs, and between them a square projection surmounted by a gable and thistle. The main entrance was on the east side of this, and had over it the handsome stone panel, which is still preserved in the last new school, and which bears the city arms, the royal cypher, and the motto.
MVSIS . RES PUBLICA . FLORET . 1578.
At that time, says Arnot, there appears to have been only two teachers belonging to this school, with a small salary, the extent of which cannot be ascertained, and they were obliged to teach grata the sons of all freemen of the burgh.
For the ultimate completion of its buildings, which included a tall square tower with a conical spire, the school was indebted to James Lawson, who succeeded John Knox as one of the city clergy; but it did not become what it was originally intended to be – an elementary seminary for logic and philosophy as well as classics; but it led to the foundation of the University in its vicinity, and hence, says Dr. Steven, “they may be viewed as portions of one great institution.”
The encouragement received by the masters was so small that they threatened to leave the school if it were not bettered, on which they were ordered to receive a quarterly fee from the sons of the freemen; the masters of three, and the usher of two shillings Scots (nearly 6s. and nearly 4s. sterling) from each; and soon after four teachers were appointed with fixed salaries and fees, which were augmented from time to time as the value of money changed, and the cost of living increased (Arnot).
In 1584, a man of superior attainments and considerable genius, named Hercules Rollock, a native of Dundee, after undergoing a full course of study at St. Andrews, became head-master, and among his pupils the name of one alone has come down to us, William Drummond of Hawthornden, the historian of the Jameses, the poet and Cavalier. “In those days,” says Steven, “frequent tumults took place, which seldom or never characterise modern times. The rude behaviour of the boys towards their teachers, particularly manifested in what has been termed a barring-out, was frequently practised both in England and in Scotland in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”
In 1580 the scholars were so turbulent that nine of them were put in the common prison; and during Rollock’s term of office the boys rose in absolute rebellion, and arming themselves with those deadly weapons which then abounded in every Scottish household, they threatened the lives of their teachers. “Rollock being determined not to suffer his authority to be trampled upon with impunity, dispatched a messenger to the Council Chamber for aid. The provost, with other functionaries, repaired to the spot. It was soon discovered that the malcontents would not be so easily subdued, and that they were as much disposed to resist the civic authorities as they had already disdainfully rejected the advice and commands of their excellent preceptor.”
By order of the provost, William Little, the principal door was battered to pieces, the school entered, and the scholars were overawed, though fire-arms of every description, with swords and halberds, were found in their possession; but in such lawless proceedings the boys only imitated the conduct of their seniors, who were daily engaged in raids, brawls, and street tulzies.
As a teacher Rollock was well supported by his countrymen; and in 1591, by the patronage of Queen Anne, some Danes were entrusted as pupils to his care. Save Greek and Latin, nothing had been taught as yet at the High School, but in 1593 a teacher of penmanship, named William Murdoch, was appointed; yet no salary was allowed, though the master was authorised to charge ten shillings Scots quarterly for each pupil “writter.” In 1595 the school was the scene of that famous barring-out and tragic tumult in which Bailie MacMorran was shot, and of which a full relation is given in the account of his residence.
This fatal event greatly affected the sensitive mind of Rollock, while the expulsion of some scholars, and the withdrawal of others by their parents, thinned his classes, and at the same time he lost the favour of the Town Council, and became involved in a litigation, which made such inroads on his slender funds, that at his death in 1599 he left his family in such poverty that the Council in 1600 made a small grant to his widow.
His successor was Alexander Hume, B.A. of St. Andrews in 1574, and for some years a tutor at Oxford; but the precise mode that was daily followed in the High School during the sixteenth century is now quite unknown.
In 1597-8 the studies of the school underwent a thorough revision, and the leading members of the legal and clerical professions willingly aided the somewhat unlettered Town Council, and recommended that in all time coming there should be four regents or masters, “learned and godly men.”
The fourth regent was Principal, and his duties were distinctly defined in a document drawn up in October, 1598.
The quarterly examinations, at which were present the magistrates, ministers, and members of the Bar, took place at Candlemas, Beltane, Lammas, and Martinmas. By all these officials and the masters “nothing was left undone to impress on the minds of the young the abhorrence of the tenets of the Roman Catholics,” says Dr. Steven; “but publicly to caricature the ecclesiastics of another communion was surely unworthy of Protestant magistrates and teachers. In the summer of 1598 the city treasurer was directed to purchase grey cloth sufficient for five dresses resembling those worn by friars, and likewise coarse red cloth to represent (in burlesque) the official costume of his Holiness and the college of cardinals. The Corporation agreed to this outlay on the distinct understanding that at the close of this theatrical display the dresses so used should be given to the poor.”
For many years the history of the school is little more than a biographical list of the various masters and teachers. A fifth class was established in 1614 for the rudiments of Greek during the rectorship of John Ray (the friend of Zachary Boyd), who after being Professor of Humanity in the university for eight years, regarded it promotion to leave it to take full charge of the High School; and when he died, in February, 1630, his office was again conferred upon a Professor of Humanity, Thomas Crawford, who figured prominently amid the pageants with which Charles I. was welcomed to the city in 1633, and with Hawthornden and others composed and delivered some of the bombastic speeches on that occasion.
In his time the number of pupils fluctuated greatly; he complained to the Council that though they had led him to expect “400 bairns at the least,” he had only 180 when he began office. But there is no authentic record of attendance at that early period; and it is curious that the abstract of the annual enrolment of scholars goes no farther back than the Session of 1738-9, while a general matriculation register was not commenced till 1827.
In December, 1640, Crawford returned to the university, and was succeeded by William Spence, schoolmaster of Prestonpans; but to give all the successive masters of the institution would far exceed our space. The masters and scholars had very indifferent accommodation during the invasion of Cromwell after Dunbar. His troops made a barrack of the school-house, and while there broke and burned all the woodwork, leaving it in such a state of ruin that the pupils had to meet in Lady Yester’s Church till it was repaired by funds drawn from the masters of the Trinity Hospital at the foot of Leith Wynd.
A library for the benefit of the institution was added to it in 1658, and it now consists of many thousand volumes. Among the first donors of books were John Muir the rector, all the masters, Patrick Scott of Thirlstane, and John Lord Swinton of that ilk. At present it is supported by the appropriation of one half of the matriculation fund to its use, and every way it is a valuable classical, historical, geographical, and antiquarian collection. The rector and masters, with the assistance of the janitor, discharge in rotation the duties of librarian.
An old periodical source of income deserves to be noticed. In 1660, on the 20th January, the Town Council ordered “the casualty called the bleis-silver” to be withheld until the 1st of March. This was a gratuity presented to the masters by their pupils at Candlemas, and he who gave the most was named the King. “Bleis” being the Scottish word for blaze, the origin of the gratuity must have been a Candlemas offering for the lights and candles anciently in use; moreover, the day was a holiday, when the boys appeared in their best apparel accompanied by their parents.
The roll was then called over, and each boy presented his offering. When the latter was less than the quarterly fee no notice was taken of it, but if it amounted to that sum the rector exclaimed with a loud voice, Vivat; to twice the ordinary fee, Floreat bis; for a higher sum, Floreat ter; for a guinea and upwards, Gloriat! The highest donor was named the Victor, or King.
The Council repeatedly issued injunctions against the levy of any “Bleis-sylver, or Bent-sylver,” but apparently in vain. The latter referred to the money for collecting bent, or rushes, to lay down on the clay floor to keep the feet warm and dry; and so lately as the commencement of the seventeenth century, during the summer season, the pupils had leave to go forth with hooks to cut bent by the margins of Duddingston and the Burgh lochs, or elsewhere. “Happily,” says Steven, of a later date, “all exactions are now unknown; and at four regular periods in the course of each session, the teachers receive from their pupils a fixed fee, which is regarded as a fair remuneration for their professional labour.”
In those days the pupils attended divine service, accompanied by their masters, and were frequently catechised before the congregation. A part of Lady Yester’s Church, was set apart for their use, and afterwards the eastern gallery of the Trinity College church.
In 1680, the Privy Council issued a proclamation prohibiting all private Latin schools to be opened within the city or suburbs, and thus the High School enjoyed an almost undisturbed monopoly; and sixteen years after, in the proceedings of the Town Council, we find the following enactment:-
“Edinburgh, Sept. 11, 1696. – The Council considering that the High School of this city being situate in a corner at some distance, many of the inhabitants, whose children are tender, being unwilling to expose them to the cold winter mornings, and send them to the said school before the hour of seven, as use is; therefore, the Council ordain the masters of the said school in all time coming, to meet and convene at nine of the clock in the morning during the winter season, viz., from the 1st of November to the 1st March yearly, and to teach the scholars till twelve, that which they were in use to teach in those mornings and forenoons. And considering that the ordinary Latin rudiments in use to be taught children at their beginning to the Latin tongue is difficult and hard for beginners, and that Wedderburn’s Rudiments are more plain and easy, the Council ordain the said masters in time coming, to teach and begin their scholars with Wedderburn’s Rudiments in place of the Latin Rudiments in use as taught formerly. RO. CHIESLIE, Provost.”
David Wedderburn, whose work is thus referred to, was born about 1570, and was the accomplished author of many learned works, and died, it is supposed, about 1644, soon after the publication of his “Centuria Tertia.”
In 1699 £40 Scots was voted by the magistrates to procure books as a reward for the best scholars, and when the century closed the institution was in a most creditable condition, and they – as patrons – declared that “not a few persons that are now eminent for piety and learning, both in Church and State, had been educated there.”
In the year 1716 there was an outbreak among the scholars for some reason now unknown; but they seem to have conducted themselves in an outrageous manner, demolishing every pane of glass in the school, and also of Lady Yester’s church, levelling to the earth even the solid stone wall which enclosed the school-yard. About this time the janitor of the institution was David Malloch, a man distinguished in after life as author of the beautiful ballad of “William and Margaret,” a poet and miscellaneous writer, and under-secretary to the Prince of Wales in 1733; to please the English ear, he changed his name to Mallet, and became an avowed infidel, and a venal author of the worst description. Dr. Steven refers to his receipt as being extant, dated 2nd February, 1718, “for sixteen shillings and eight pence sterling, being his full salary for the preceding half-year. That was the exact period he held the office.”
In 1736 we again hear of the Bleis-silver, “a profitable relic of popery, which it seemed difficult to relinquish.” Heartburnings had arisen because it had become doubtful in what way the Candlemas offerings should be apportioned between the rector and masters; thus, on the 28th January in that year, the Council resolved “that the rector himself, and no other, shall collect, not only his own quarterly fees, but also the fee of one shilling from each scholar in the other classes. The Council also transferred the right from the master of the third, to the master of the first elementary class, to demand a shilling quarterly from each pupil in the rector’s class; and declared that the rector and four masters should favourably receive from the scholars themselves whatever benevolence or Candlemas offerings might be presented.”
Thomas Ruddiman, the eminent grammarian and scholar, who was born at Boyndie in 1674, and who in 1724 began to vary his great literary undertakings by printing the ancient Caledonian Mercury, about 1737 established – together with the rector, the masters, and thirty-one other persons – a species of provident association for their own benefit and that of their widows and children, and adopting as the title of the society, “The Company of the Professors and Teachers of the liberal arts and sciences, or any branch or part thereof, in the City of Edinburgh and dependencies thereof.”
The co-partners were all taxed equally; but owing to inequalities in the yearly contributions, a dissolution nearly took place after an existence of fifty years; but the association rallied, and still exists in a flourishing condition.
One of the most popular masters in the early part of the eighteenth century was Mr. James Barclay, who was appointed in June, 1742, and whose experience as a teacher, attainments, and character, caused him to be remembered by his scholars long after his removal to Dalkeith, where he died in 1765.
When Henry Mackenzie, author of the “Man of Feeling,” was verging on his eightieth year, he contributed to Dr. Steven’s “History,” his reminiscences of the school in his own early years, between 1752 and 1757, which we are tempted to quote at length:-
“Rector Lees, a very respectable, grave, and gentlemanlike man, father or uncle, I am not sure which, of Lees, the Secretary for Ireland. He maintained great dignity, treating the other masters somewhat de haut en bas; severe, and rather too intolerant of dulness, but kind to more promising talents. It will not be thought vanity, I trust – for I speak with the sincerity and correctness of a third person – when I say that I was rather a favourite with him, and used for several years after he resigned his office to drink tea with him at his house in a large land or building at the country end of the suburb called Pleasance, built by one Hunter, a tailor, whence it got the name of ‘Hunter’s Folly.’ or ‘the Castle o’ Clouts.’
“MASTERS continued. – First, or youngest class, when I was put to school, Farquhar, a native of Banffshire, cousin-german of Farquhar, author of admired – and indeed they may be called admirable – sermons, and of Mr. Farquhar, the Vicar of Hayes, a sort of ‘Parson Adams,’ a favourite of the great William Pitt, afterwards Lord Chatham. My master was a great favourite of his pupils, about sixty in number.
“Second. – Gilchrist, a good-humoured man, with a great deal of comedy about him; also liked by the class, in number somewhat exceeding Farquhar’s.
“Third. – Rae, a severe, harsh-tempered man, but an excellent scholar, a rigid disciplinarian, and very frequent flogger of the school, consequently very unpopular with the boys, though from the reputation of his superior learning, he had more scholars than either of the above masters.
“Fourth. – Gib, an old man, short and squabby, with a flaxen three-tailed wig, verging towards dotage, though said to be in his younger days a very superior scholar, and particularly conversant in Hebrew. He had then only twenty-five or thirty pupils, who liked him from the indulgence which his good-natured weakness and laxity of discipline produced.
“The scholars went through the four classes taught by the under-masters, reading the usual elementary Latin books – for at that time no Greek was taught in the High School – and so up to Virgil, Horace, Sallust, and parts of Cicero. They were then removed to the Rector’s class, where they read portions of Livy, along with the other classics above mentioned. The hours of attendance were from seven to nine a.m., and after an interval of an hour for breakfast, from ten to twelve; then after an interval of two hours (latterly, I think, in my time, three) for dinner, returned for two hours in the afternoon. The scholars wrote versions, translations from Latin into English; and at the annual examination in August recited speeches, as they were called, being extracts of remarkable passages from some of the Roman poets.
“Of eminent men educated at the High School were most of the leading lawyers of Scotland. In modern times were President Hope, Mr. Brougham, Mr. Francis Horner, Mr. Wilde, the great favourite of Mr. Burke, Mr. Reddie, town clerk of Glasgow, who, during the short time he was at the Edinburgh bar had a high reputation for his ability and knowledge of law. Lord Woodhouselee was at the school with me, in the class below mine; so was Lord Meadowbank, who had for his tutor Mr. Adam, afterwards rector. The Chief Commissioner Adam was of the same standing and class.”
In 1765 began the connection of the eminent Alexander Adam, LL.D., with this seminary, when he was appointed joint-rector with Alexander Matheson, who died in Merchant’s Court in 1799; and of the many distinguished men who have presided over it, few have left a higher reputation for learning behind them.
Born at the Coates of Burghie in Elgin, in 1741, he was the son of humble parents, whose poverty was such, that during the winter mornings, in boyhood, he conned his little Elzevir edition of Livy and other tasks by the light of bog-splinters found in the adjacent morass, having to devote to manual labour the brighter hours of day. In 1757 he obtained a bursary at Aberdeen, and after attending a free course of lectures at the Edinburgh University, he was employed at the sum of one guinea per quarter, in the family of Alan Maconochie, afterwards Lord Meadowbank. “At this time,” says Anderson in his biography of Adam, “he lodged in a small room at Restalrig, for which he paid fourpence per week. His breakfast consisted of oatmeal porridge with small beer; his dinner often of a penny loaf and a drink of water.” Yet, at the age of nineteen, so high were his attainments, he obtained – after a competitive examination – the head-mastership of Watson’s Hospital; and in 1765, by the influence of the future Lord Provost Kincaid, he became joint-rector of the High School with Mr. Matheson, whose increasing infirmities compelled him to retire on a small annuity; and thus, on the 8th of June, 1768, Adam succeeded him as sole rector, and most assiduously did he devote himself to his office.
To him the school owes much of its high reputation, and is entirely indebted for the introduction of Greek, which he achieved in 1772, in spite of the powerful opposition of the Senatus Academicus. Into his class he introduced a new Latin grammar of his own composition, as a substitute for Ruddiman’s, causing thereby a dispute between himself and the masters, and also the Town Council, in defiance of whose edict on the subject in 1786 he continued to use his own rules till they ceased to interfere with him. In 1780 the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the College of Edinburgh, chiefly at the suggestion of Principal Robertson; and before his death he had the satisfaction of seeing his own grammar finally adopted in the seminary to which he had devoted himself.
By 1774 it was found that the ancient school house, built in 1578, was incapable of accommodating the increased number of pupils; its unsuitable state had frequently been brought before the magistrates; but lack of revenue prevented them from applying the proper remedy of the growing evil.
At last several of the leading citizens, including among others, Sir William Forbes, Bart., of Pitsligo, Professor John Hope, William Dalrymple, and Alexander Wood, surgeon, set afoot a subscription list to build a new school, and on March 8, 1775, the Council contributed thereto 300 guineas. The Duke of Buccleuch gave 500, Lord Chancellor Wedderburn, 100, and eventually the sum of £2,000 was raised – but the building cost double that sum ere it was finished – and plans were prepared by Alexander Laing, architect. The managers of the Royal Infirmary presented the projectors with a piece of ground from their garden to enlarge the existing area, and the Corporation of Surgeons also granted a piece from the garden before their hall.
On the 24th June, 1777, the foundation-stone of the second High School was laid by Sir William Forbes, as Grand Master Mason of Scotland. The procession, which was formed in the Parliament Square, and which included all the learned bodies in the city, moved off in the following order:- The magistrates in their robes of office; the Principal of the University (Robertson, the historian) and the professors in their academic gowns; the Rector Adams in his gown at the head of his class, the scholars marching by threes – the smallest boys in front; the four masters, each with his class in the same order; sixteen masonic lodges, and all the noblesse of the city. There was no South Bridge then; so down the High Street and Blackfriars Wynd, and from the Cowgate upward, the procession wound to the High School yard.
The total length of the building erected on this occasion – but now turned to other uses – was a hundred and twenty feet long, by thirty-eight. The great hall, which was meant for prayers, measured sixty-eight feet by thirty, and at each end was a library of thirty-two feet by twenty. The second floor was divided into five apartments or class-rooms, with a ceiling of seventeen feet. It was all built of smoothly-dressed ashlar, and had a Doric portico of four columns, with a pediment.
This, then, was the edifice most intimately associated with the labours of the learned Rector Adams, and one of the chief events in the history of which was the enrolment of Sir Walter Scott as a scholar there when the building was barely two years old.
“In 1779,” says Sir Walter in his Autobiography, “I was sent to the second class of the grammar school, or High School, then taught by Mr. Luke Fraser, a good Latin scholar and a very worthy man. Though I had received with my brothers, in private, lessons of Latin from Mr. James French, now a minister of the Kirk of Scotland, I was nevertheless behind the class in which I was placed both in years and progress. This was a real disadvantage, and one to which a boy of lively temper ought to be as little exposed as one who might be less expected to make up his leeway, as it is called. The situation has the unfortunate effect of reconciling a boy of the former character (which in a posthumous work I may claim for my own) to holding a subordinate station among his class-fellows, to which he would otherwise affix disgrace. There is also, from the constitution of the High School, a certain danger not sufficiently attended to. The boys take precedence in their places, as they are called, according to their merit, and it requires a long while, in general, before even a clever boy (if he falls behind the class, or is put into one for which he is not quite ready) can force his way to the situation which his abilities really entitle him to hold… It was probably owing to this circumstance that, although at a more advanced period of life I have enjoyed considerable facility in acquiring languages, I did not make any great figure at the High School, or, at least, any exertions which I made were desultory, and little to be depended upon.”
In the class with Scott, at this time, were several clever boys among whom he affectionately enumerates, the first dux, who retained that place without a day’s interval during “all the while we were at the High School” – James Buchan, afterwards head of the medical staff in Egypt, where amid the wards of the plague-hospitals, “he displayed the same well-regulated and gentle, yet determined perseverance, which placed him most worthily at the head of his class-fellows;” his personal friends were David Douglas, and John Hope, W.S., who died in 1842.
“As for myself,” he continues, “I glanced like a meteor from one end of the class to the other, and commonly disgusted my master as much by negligence and frivolity, as I occasionally pleased him by flashes of intellect and talent. Among my companions my good nature and a flow of ready imagination rendered me very popular. Boys are uncommonly just in their feelings, and at least equally generous. I was also, though often negligent of my own task, always ready to assist my friends, and hence I had a little party of staunch partisans and adherents, stout of heart and hand, though somewhat dull of head – the very tools for raising a hero to eminence. So, on the whole, I made a brighter figure in the Yards than in the Class.”
After being three years in Luke Fraser’s class, Scott, with other boys of it, was turned over to that of the Rector Adam’s, under whose tuition he benefited greatly in the usual classic course; and in the years to come he never forgot how his heart swelled with pride when the learned Rector announced that though many boys “understood the Latin better, Gualterus Scott was behind few in following and enjoying the author’s meaning. Thus encouraged, I distinguished myself by some attempts at poetical versions from Horace and Virgil. Dr. Adam used to invite his scholars to write such essays, but never made them tasks. I gained some distinction on these occasions, and the Rector in future took much notice of me, and his judicious mixture of censure and praise went far to counterbalance my habits of indolence and inattention. I saw that I was expected to do well, and I was piqued in honour to vindicate my master’s favourable opinion… Dr. Adam, to whom I owe so much, never failed to remind me of my obligations when I had made some figure in the literary world.”
In 1783 Scott quitted the High School, intent – young though he was – on entering the army; but this his lameness prevented. His eldest son, Lieut.-Col. Sir Walter Scott, who died in 1847, on board the Wellesley, near the Cape of Good Hope, was also a High School pupil, under Irwin and Pillans, between 1809 and 1814.
In the spring of 1782, David, Earl of Buchan, the active founder of the Scottish Society of Antiquarians, paid a formal visit to the school, and harangued the teachers and assembled scholars, after which Dr. Adam made an extempore reply in elegant Latin; and nine years subsequently the latter gave to the world one of his most important works, “The Roman Antiquities,” which has been translated into many languages, and is now used as a class book in many English schools, yet for which he only received the sum of £600.
In 1795 we find among the joint writing-masters at the High School the name of Allan Masterton, who was on such terms of intimacy with Robert Burns, and composed the music for his famous bacchanalian song,
“Oh, Willie brewed a peck o’ maut,
And Rab and Allan cam’ to prie;
Three blyther lads that lee lang nicht,
Ye wadna find in Christendie!”
“Willie” was William Nicol, M.A., another schoolmaster and musical amateur, afterwards a private teacher in Jackson’s Land, on the north side of the High Street, in 1795. “The air is Masterton’s,” says Burns; “the song is mine… We had such a joyous meeting that Mr. Masterton and I agreed, each in our own way, to celebrate the business.”
Of the Rector and other teachers we have the following description by Mr. B. Mackay, M.A., in Steven’s work:- “I first saw the High School in 1803. I was then a youth of sixteen, and had come from Caithness, my native county, with a view to prosecute the study of medicine… The first master to whom I was introduced was the celebrated Dr. Adam. He was sitting at his study table with ten or twelve large old volumes spread out before him. He received us with great kindness, invited me to visit his class, and obligingly offered to solve any difficulties that might present themselves in the course of my classical reading, but held out no prospect of private teaching. His appearance was that of a fresh, strong, healthy old man, with an exceedingly benevolent countenance. Raeburn’s portrait of him, hung up in the school, is an admirable likeness, as well as the print engraved from it. He wore a short threadbare spencer, or jacket, which gave him rather a droll appearance, and, as I then thought, indicated economical habits. I was successively introduced to all the other masters, and visited their classes. The first day I entered Dr. Adam’s class he came forward to meet me, and said, ‘Come away, sir! You will see more done here in an hour than in any other school in Europe.’ I sat down on one of the cross benches. The Doctor was calling up pupils from all parts of it; taking sometimes the head, sometimes the foot of the forms; sometimes he examined the class downwards from head to foot, and sometimes from foot to head… The next class I visited was that of Mr. Alexander Christison, afterwards Professor of Humanity. He was seated quite erect in his desk, his chin resting on his thumb, and his fore-finger turned up towards his temple, and occasionally pressed against his nose. When we entered he took no notice of us. He was giving short sentences in English, and requiring the boys to turn them extempore into Latin, and vary them through all the moods and tenses, which they did with great readiness and precision. His class was numerous, but presented the stillness of death. You might have heard a pin drop… The next master to whom I was introduced was Mr. Luke Fraser, whom we found standing on the floor examining his class. He was, I think, the strongest built man I ever beheld. He was then old, and wore a scratch wig. The class, like the rest, was numerous and in fine order. In changing books, however, the boys made a little noise, which he checked by a tremendous stamp on the floor that made both them and me quake, and enveloped his own legs in a cloud of dust.”
During all the years of his rectorship Adam was contributing from time to time to the classical literature of the country. The least popular of his many works is the “Classical Biography,” published in 1800; and the last and most laborious of his useful compilations was his abridged “Lexicon Lingua Latina Compendiarium,” 8vo, published in 1805. Through life he had been a hard student and an early riser. On leaving his class at three p.m., his general walk was round by the then tree-shaded Grange Loan; but in earlier years his favourite ramble was up the green slopes of Arthur’s Seat. Having been seized in school with an apoplectic attack, he languished for five days, and as death was approaching, fancying himself during the wanderings of his mind, as the light faded from his eyes, still among his pupils, he said, “But it grows dark – boys, you may go!” and instantly expired, in the 68th year of his age, on the 18th December, 1809.
His remains were laid in the gloomy little ground attached to St. Cuthbert’s chapel of ease, where a monument was erected to his memory with a Latin inscription thereon, written by Dr. James Gregory of the Edinburgh University. He was among the last who adhered to the old-fashioned dress, breeches and silk stockings, with knee and shoe-buckles and the queue, though he had relinquished the use of hair-powder.
A successor was found to him in the person of Mr. James Pillans, M. A. (the “paltry Pillans” of Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers”), who was elected rector on the 24th of January, 1810. As one of the Doctor’s early pupils, and ranking next to Francis Horner, who had borne off the highest honours, he entered upon his duties with enthusiasm, and the ardour with which he was received in the hall of the High School on his appearance there, augured well for the future. In 1812 he published a selection from the school exercises of his best pupils, a volume, which, excepting imperfections, was most honourable to the boyish authors, the oldest of whom had not reached his fifteenth year. A favourable critique of this unique work – which was in Latin metre – appeared in the Quarterly Review from the pen of the then poet laureate, Southey.
To the cultivation of Greek literature great attention was now paid, and the appearance made by the pupils at their periodical examinations was so brilliant, that on the motion of Sir John Marjoribanks, Bart., the Lord Provost, the Town Council unanimously resolved on the 27th July, 1814, “that there be annually presented by the City of Edinburgh to the boy at the head of the Greek class, taught by the Rector of the High School, a gold medal of the same value (five guineas) as that annually presented to the Latin class.”
“Several circumstances, to which I shall briefly advert,” wrote an old pupil to Dr. Steven, “seemed, in my time, to distinguish the High School, and could not fail to give a peculiar character to many of its scholars in after life. For instance, the variety of ranks: for I used to sit between a youth of a ducal family and the son of a poor cobbler. Again, the variety of nations: for in our class under Mr. Pillans there were boys from Russia, Germany, Switzerland, the United States, Barbadoes, St. Vincent’s, Demarara, the East Indies, England, and Ireland. But what I conceive was the chief characteristic of our school, as compared at least with the great English schools, was its semi-domestic, semi-public constitution, and especially our constant intercourse at home with our sisters and other folk of the other sex, these, too, being educated in Edinburgh; and the latitude we had for making excursions in the neighbourhood.”
In June, 1820, the connection ceased between the school and Mr. Pillans, who, on the death of Professor Christison, was awarded the Chair of Humanity in the University, which he filled long and with the highest honour.
He was succeeded as Rector by Aglionby-Ross Carson, M.A., LL.D., a native of Dumfries-shire, who in 1806 had obtained a mastership in the school, and laboured in it assiduously and successfully. Three months before his appointment as Rector he had declined the Greek chair in the University of St Andrews, to which, though not a candidate, he had been elected. It was while he was in office that the third and last High School – that magnificent building which has been described in our account of the Calton Hill – was erected; and the closing examination in the old school-house at the foot of Infirmary Street took place in the autumn of 1828, and that interesting locality, where the successive youth of Edinburgh for more than two hundred and seventy years had nocked for the acquisition of classical learning – a school-boy scene enshrined in the memories of many generations of men, was abandoned for ever.
In 1828 the disused school-house was sold to the managers of the Royal Infirmary for £7,500, and was adapted to form part of the Surgical Hospital, externally, however, remaining unchanged.