I’ve been reading ‘Tales and Travels of a School Inspector‘ by John Wilson, an account of travelling round the Highlands and Islands of Scotland in the Victorian era, in the years after the groundbreaking 1872 Education Act which gave every child between the ages of 5 and 10 the right to schooling. If the children concerned did not live near enough a school that one could reasonably require them to get there each day, then schooling had to come to them. Many little one- or two-room schools sprung up around Scotland, and inspectors were dispatched at intervals to check that education was being adequately delivered. To get to those schools the inspectors had to be resourceful, often travelling by cart, by boat, by horse, or wading through deep snow. They often had to stay overnight in farmhouses and manses if there were no inns.
In the course of his work, John Wilson travelled to remote parts of Scotland including Orkney and Lewis. His recollections contain many startling vignettes of life in the last decades of the 19th century and the first of the 20th century.
For example, he writes of inspecting a tiny school ‘in an outlandish corner of a large island’ where the only schoolmistress was a young woman coping gallantly with an isolated geographical and social situation. After the inspector’s examination of her school pupils, ‘she invited me into her house, where she lived alone, for a cup of tea. This I was only too glad to accept… While I waited in the semi-furnished room, with not even the piano which one would have expected to find in such depressing circumstances, she busied herself in the kitchen, alternately whistling and singing.’
I was brought up short by the phrase, ‘with not even the piano which one would have expected to find in such depressing circumstances.‘ It seemed to suggest that a hundred years ago, even in the humble home of a rural schoolteacher, one would naturally have expected to see a piano. How times have changed!