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Home  >  Features  >  Looking Back: The Old Schoolmaster

Looking Back


Looking Back: The Old Schoolmaster

Published in July 1906, this touching tribute by the editor, the Rev Robert Howie Fisher, to his old schoolmaster gives a fascinating glimpse of life growing up in the Orkney Isles in the 19th century.



HE died only last night, my friend of many years. They telegraphed to me the news: for they understood what he meant to me, and that, though the course of our lives ran far asunder, my heart would be sore at his passing.

It is forty years ago since I went first, a timorous laddie, to his school. He gave me at the earliest a piece of “black sugar” – so we called it: it may have other and more scientific names – and it was good. I faced the future thereafter without a fear. Soon there grew up an attachment very strong and lasting on the one side and, I would fain believe, on the other.

His ways were not those of the modern school. His “time table” would have set a martinet aghast. We played for long hours in the bright Orcadian summer afternoons, while the master tended his garden or recorded births and deaths and marriages, for he was Registrar and much else for the parish. Then in the gloaming, our tasks done, we made for home.

One sees now that it would have been better to have been more methodical. But happier one could not be. Was there not the sea by the back of the school, and fields never-to-be-forgotten, where warfare was waged between contending camps of boys, while girls sat and played marbles and other foolish female games.

And if work was not rigidly regulated by hours, at least it was intelligent and unpedantic, and it taught young people that reading was not a burdensome task, but a delight to be sought for and loved. The old schoolmaster did not care much for the modern grammars, with their wearinesses about “the extension of the predicate,” and so forth. But he made his pupils write good English, practising them in the Essay, and the art of polite letter writing; and no one could have sent such a letter from his school as I got the other day from one of the oldest and most famous public schools in England.

Moreover, he was a gentleman. I do not know, or care, anything about his birth and upbringing. But he was a gentleman – refined in his tastes; a lover of his violin and of the dear Scottish songs; a flower-lover, almost to excess, for the longest “intervals” were when the flowers in the great walled garden were at their loveliest; a reader of books, and a kind friend of the simple and the poor. Indeed, he was very poor himself, though in those days I speak of, he was something of a dandy in his dress, and lived (as it seemed to me) amid surroundings of luxury.

He was a humorist too. Stories of the old time sound silly enough to those whose imagination has no link with the man and his ways. Yet it seemed to ma a most brilliant and sardonic wit which made him say to two bellicose lads whom he found at fisticuffs, “Very well done, boys; I cannot let merit like that pass unrewarded; you will come with me.” And they went with him. Surely also there was worth in his reply to the breaker of a window, who had denied the charge on the specious plea, “It wasn’t me, it was my hand.” “Very well, John, I recognise the subtle distinction, and I shall confine my punishment exclusively to your hand."

The rough boys and girls of those days have scattered far and wide. Some of them have done well enough in life, though none of them brilliantly. The old schoolmaster followed them all with an impartial love and pride. How glad he was to hear from them, and especially from those who, as he fancied, did him credit! It is only the other day that he told me of his scholars in San Francisco, in Ballarat, in Johannesburg, and sailing the high seas as captains and engineers.

This is not an obituary notice, such as we print in the magazine about eminent men. For, of course, my old master was quite undistinguished. I know now, as I suspected in early youth, that he was no great scholar. Few readers of Life and Work ever heard his name or the name of his school. But Gilbert Miller, the parish schoolmaster of Cross and Burness in the Orkney Islands, is a beloved memory to many more than the old pupil who writes these lines through his tears.

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