by Dr Jean Barclay

The Charity or Free School was established in Dunfermline in 1797 by the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor with the backing of the Town Council and soon became known as the ‘Poor School’.  This account of the Poor School is set against the background of religion and of education in Dunfermline at the time. In the 18th century there was an ‘awakening’ in religion and several evangelical organisations were founded in Scotland to improve religious knowledge and moral behaviour, particularly among the poor.  Three of these would become involved with the Poor School.

Firstly, in Edinburgh in 1709 the Society in Scotland for Promoting Christian Knowledge was founded as the `younger sister` of the Society for the Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK), which was launched in 1698 by Anglicans in London. The aim of the SSPCK was to establish schools, above all in the `uncivilised` Highlands and Islands, to `Teach to Read, especially the Holy Scriptures and other good and pious Books; As also to Teach Writing, Arithmetick, and such like Degrees of Knowledge`.  Catholic missionaries had already established a foothold in the north and the SSPCK hoped to `settle the religious situation, foster a sense of belonging to the Presbyterian Church and provide a bulwark against Jacobitism`.  The SSPCK was accepted by the Church of Scotland which in April 1723 ordered a collection for its work in the Highlands and Islands (1).

Secondly, in 1786 the Scottish branch of the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor (SPRKP) was founded in Edinburgh.  The SPRKP had been established in England in 1750 as an inter-denominational group which aimed to provide bibles and religious tracts throughout the land and to open Sabbath and evening schools. Thirdly, the Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home (SPGH) was founded in Scotland in 1797 by Robert and James Haldane and other evangelists with the three priorities of mission, ecumenism and education.  It became noted for its itinerant lay preachers who attracted great crowds to their meetings and became a thorn in the side of the Church of Scotland (2).

Early in February 1796 the ministers of the Abbey Church received a letter from Horatius Cannan, secretary to the Society for Promoting Religious Knowledge among the Poor, who sought support in setting up a free school in Dunfermline.  The Kirk Session who had resolved in December 1787, when the topic of Sunday schools was mooted, that they `had no power in establishing public or private schools` or in `joining other men to do so`, passed the letter on to the Council.

The Council corresponded with the Society about the proposal and on February 27th agreed that a charity school would be a good thing if properly managed, but stressed that it would be wrong to give the clergy of the established church (the Abbey) the right of presenting scholars because they would favour their own congregation and neglect those from other places of worship. The Council resolved to go ahead with the school and to provide the building, a free house for the schoolmaster and a salary of ten pounds a year, on condition that the right of presenting scholars be vested solely in the Town Council. The Council had no objection to the patronage of the schoolmaster and everything else regarding the school being left entirely to the Society.  

On March 28th the Council slightly altered the statement above to the effect that `the Council shall have the privilege of presenting half the number of scholars only, and the Society shall have the right of presenting the other half, but expressly declaring that the Society shall not be at liberty to absolutely make over their right of presenting scholars to any public or private body in this place without the consent of the Town Council, and that it shall be understood that the Town are only to furnish a school room and the salary specified in their former minute` (3). No `free house` is mentioned this time.

In the light of education in Dunfermline at the time, the provision and running of a free school by a charitable body which provided some financial input had certain advantages for both the Council and the Kirk Session. There was only one burgh or public school, the Grammar School, which took boys from six or seven until about 14, a handful of good private schools and `ane or twa auld men and women who taught ABC lessons and the Single book` (4).  The Grammar School had become something of a burden to the Kirk Session and the Council as its income depended on school fees and its numbers were declining year by year. The trouble was that it had not kept up to date.  In 1775 a new plan had been mooted with the salary of the doctor or rector to go to a teacher of navigation, bookkeeping and geometry, etc, but the Kirk Session felt unable to support this and it did not go ahead (5).  With few alternatives, although neither the Session nor the Council were strictly in favour of private schools they had to make use of them or at least tolerate their existence.  In September 1798 when John Foggo, assistant to Mr, Jesson, doctor or usher at the Grammar School, resigned his position and sought permission to open an academy for teaching English, the Council, `considering the present situation of the publick schools of the Burgh`, could make no reasonable objections. At the same time the rector, Peter Ramsay, requested an increase in salary due to the cost of living and the decay in the school owing to `Latin not being taught to children as formerly`.  In November 1800 Mr. Ramsay requested a further rise as the numbers had fallen from 60 to 20 over the last ten years, adding that the mode of education had been changing for some time past and grammar schools everywhere had declined (6).

The Kirk Session supported a few poor boys at the grammar school, where they could only learn English and not Latin, and also paid `school wages` to several owners of private schools in the landward areas outwith the burgh, using Drysdale`s mortification, a fund for the education of poor children, until it ran out.  Poor people might value education but find school fees beyond them and in June 1795 the Kirk Session agreed to pay the school wages for two of the children of Andrew Philp, weaver in Collier Row, because `for want of strength and bad trade he was unable to give his children proper education`.  Andrew was one of the first to sign his children up for the charity school (7).  

Planning for the free school went ahead and on May 10th 1796 the Council agreed with David Stobie for a lease of his house at the east end of town for ten years after Whitsunday at the yearly rent of three pounds ten shillings sterling.  This large house had probably been used for weaving as David Stobie’s father, William, had been a weaver, possibly with more than one loom. The house was at the very end of the town, past the site of the old East Port at the junction of the Backside and the Gallowgate (later Queen Anne Street and Viewfield Place).  The tack or lease of the house was signed and also for a piece of ground to the rear, partly occupied as midden stead (dung heap) for ten shillings, making the rent four pounds a year.  Repairs were to be made on the house by Deacon Henry Thomson, wright, at the Town`s expense

By May 6th 1797 no schoolmaster had yet been engaged and the Council resolved to let the building for half a year on condition that the tenant would be obliged to leave the upper flat on eight days` notice if a schoolmaster was appointed.  The lower part of the building was apparently to be used for the school. On July 22nd Council finally received a letter from Horatius Cannan stating that a trial of candidates for the master of the Charity School had taken place and Alexander Balfour, parish schoolmaster at West Calder, had been found the best qualified.  It would be announced from the letteron (lectern) in the Kirk that the School would be opened about August 1st and that parents who wished to have the benefit of that institution, in so far as the patronage of the Town Council extended, should give in their names to the Town Clerk (8).

The Minutes of August 12th 1797 contain a list of the 35 names given to the clerk for admission to the free school which would be passed on to the schoolmaster but whether additional children were sponsored by the Society is not known (9).  The school went ahead as planned and its routine probably followed that of other charity schools, a good deal of prayer and catechism, the three `Rs` and, with some adaptation for the youth of the children, instruction in manual skills, sewing, housekeeping , etc, to `fit them for the occupations of a humble life` (10).   

Nothing more about the school is reported in the Council minutes until July 1799 when it was being managed by a second organisation, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel at Home, and problems had arisen.  Leading members of the SPGH had been inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution and believed that Christianity suffered because the established Presbyterian Church claimed too much civil and religious privilege. They became itinerant preachers and attracted vast crowds as they went about the country preaching their radical sermons, to the dismay of the established church and the more conservative elements of society.

In their tour of Scotland in May 1798 two members of the SPGH, James Haldane and John Aikman, came to Dunfermline and preached outdoors to crowds of people in Williamson`s Woodyard at the north-west corner of Chalmers Street and in an open space in Woodhead Street, and established Sunday schools in the district.  In the summer of 1799 James Haldane came to Dunfermline again, this time with Greville Ewing and the Rev. Rowland Hill, and they preached to crowds in Halybluid Acres near the Town Green.  Reverend Hill reported afterwards that `I preached to near 2000 people in a neighbouring field in the evening and gave them another sermon on the Wednesday morning` (11). In May 1799 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, alarmed by the actions and popularity of the itinerant preachers, issued a `pastoral admonition`, which linked the evangelistic movement in Scotland with recent events in France and named the preachers of the SPGH as men `whose proceedings threaten no small disorder to the country` who abused the name of liberty `as a cover to secret democracy and anarchy` (12).     

In July 1799 Provost Moodie read the pastoral admonition to the Town Council and added that it had been reported that Mr. Balfour, teacher at the free school, was active in supporting Mr. Haldane and others and that the magistrates had reasoned with him on the propriety of his conduct.  Mr. Balfour had acknowledged his connection with these vagrant teachers and, although the magistrates told him that this was displeasing to them and that they behoved to report him to the Society, he seemed altogether regardless and said that he would glory in suffering for the truth or words to that purpose.  The Council authorised the Provost to report Balfour`s conduct to Mr. Cannan, Secretary of the Society.  On August 3rd a reply was received from Mr. Cannan saying that he would lay the letter before his directors and added that Mr. Balfour had been cautioned before and they would see what he had to say. The directors took no action but would seek the advice of Mr. Rolland, advocate.

On August 17th the Council read a letter from Mr. Balfour in which he stated that `I confess that I am a hearer of the Itinerants sent out by the Society for Propagating the Gospel at Home and am noways hostile to them nor to any who wish for the Salvation of their fellow creatures, but I deny having presented to any of them but Mr. Haldane and, in a short conversation with Mr. Rolland in Dunfermline, told him how I was led to do it.  I also deny that I ever went to Edinburgh to invite Mr. Ewing here. That the Itinerants were chiefly countenanced here by persons who were formerly Friends of the People or suspected to be United Scotchmen my being a stranger in this place makes me that I cannot positively say, but if they are countenanced chiefly by such they must be numerous indeed and as it appears that my companions are such I deny that and say they believe with me that it is a Christian duty to be loyal and subject to the powers that be, not for wrath (divine indignation) but for conscience sake`.

Having been asked earlier if political reformers attended the itinerant sermons, Mr. Balfour wrote that they had not `but I wish such persons to attend them that, if it pleased God to open their hearts by the preaching of the word, they may be led to dispute upon nobler subjects`.   Mr. Balfour`s letter ended, `By these remarks you will easily guess at my sentiments with respect to Itinerants and if they are not satisfactory to the directors and the Town Council I cheerfully resign my charge as their teacher at Martinmas, depending upon God through Jesus Christ for the supply of all my wants`, Alexr Balfour (13).   The Provost and Council decided that Mr. Balfour`s statement was not satisfactory and because of his countenancing these itinerant preachers they declined continuing the schoolhouse and the proportion of salary paid to him, but would continue if the Society found any other teacher properly qualified for that office.

On September 9th 1799 the Council received another letter from Mr. Cannan of the SPGH stating that they had given Mr. Balfour one month to make up his mind and that `The Directors know how much your countenance and support are necessary to render such an Institution extensively useful and they are not insensible of your exertions both in trouble and expense when the school was first established to forward the benevolent views of the Founders` (14).  Mr. Balfour appears to have resigned shortly after this and the school was left in limbo but the Council did not entirely neglect the building and in March 1800 ordered George Peadge, wright, to make the necessary repairs on the laigh (lower) storey of the Charity School. The work was probably done because the building was used for other purposes including the meetings of a Young Men`s Religious Society (15).

In October 1801 a letter was received from Mr. Cannan, recommending Mr. James Sorely as successor to Mr. Balfour, and asking if the Council would continue the salary, and the Provost was authorised to reply agreeing to this.  The master`s accommodation probably left much to be desired as in January 1803 the Council received a letter from Mr. Sorely stating the he had been `indifferently accommodated` with a dwelling house since he came to Dunfermline a little over a year ago. He had already been in three different houses and now petitioned for the house below the school for which he would pay rent after it was repaired. The Council considered that repairing the house to make it fit for a dwelling house `would render it entirely useless afterwards to be used as a Weavers House` but allowed Mr. Sorley or the Society to repair it to their pleasure and Sorley to possess it upon paying rent to the Town. George Peadge was again ordered to make the necessary repairs on the laigh storey of the Charity School (16)

Although the Kirk Session had not involved itself in the founding of the school it was happy to make use of it.  In December 1802, when the wife of James Burt, coal hewer in Baldridge, requested a few shillings for her children`s school fees to William Simpson, schoolmaster, she was given half a crown and ordered to send her children to the free school as the Session would pay no more school dues for her.  In 1803 when Widow Spowart at Halbeath desired help with school fees for her two children at Halbeath School she was given four shillings and ordered to send her children to the free school as soon as they were able to come (17).

As the population of Dunfermline increased there was a serious shortage of school places. On May 31st 1803 the Council, considering the present state of schooling, authorised a subscription for schools to be set on foot among the inhabitants and public bodies.  In November 1804 the matter was raised again and the Provost called a meeting with the Guildry to consider raising a fund `for the building of new public schools in the town` and said that the Council would give £300 until they saw what the Guildry and other public bodies would raise. Nothing materialised for several years and the Council and Kirk Session must have remained grateful for the Charity School (18).

Mr. Sorely left after three years and on February 3rd 1806 the Provost received a letter from Mr. Cannan indicating that the directors of the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge (SPCK) among the poor (yet another organisation) had appointed Alexander Davidson, assistant teacher at Burntisland, to succeed Mr. Sorely as teacher of the Poor School.  The Council approved and offered the same salary as that of his predecessor (19).       

The school seems to have carried on with mixed success for another ten years. Ideas about education were changing and teaching the children of the poor separately and on strict religious principles perhaps seemed stigmatising and old fashioned.  Some of the mills and collieries now had their own schools, a new building was planned for the Grammar School (increasingly known as the High School) and the Lancasterian School would soon be established in Priory Lane.  The Guildry’s plans for the Commercial School were underway and this would offer a modern curriculum suited to the changing times and the increasing demands of trade and industry. The days of the Poor School were numbered and by 1814 it had closed and its premises had been taken over by Messrs. McIntosh and Inglis for a flax spinning mill (20).

The Poor School had had a short life of only about 18 years.  It was a creature of its times and had outlived its usefulness, but the poor families of Dunfermline may well have been sorry to see it go.


1. Details of the charities taken from several on-line accounts.  The collection raised £60 Scots in Dunfermline.  Volume 4, Kirk Session Minutes (KS Minutes), National Records of Scotland (NRS), CH2/592/4, April 1st and 14th 1723.

2. Brothers Robert Haldane (1764-1842) and James Alexander Haldane (1768-1851) were landed gentlemen from Stirlingshire who became evangelists and left the Church of Scotland to become Congregationalists and then Baptists. 

3. Vol. 9, KS Minutes, Dec.9th and 14th, 1787. Vol. 13, Council Minutes, NRS B20/13/13,  Feb. 2nd and 27th and March 28th 1796.

4. E. Henderson, Annals of Dunfermline, Glasgow, 1879, p. 520. There was also officially a `Sang School` attached to the Abbey but this was no longer a school as such and its `master` variously took on the roles of  precentor, Kirk Session clerk or keeper of the records. Two masters, James Christie and later James Rankine ran their own music and singing schools.  Christie was one of five school masters named as being active in the Burgh in 1789, the others being Messrs. Dewar, Reid, Ramsay, and Jesson, the latter two being teachers at the Grammar School.

5. Vol. 9, KS Minutes, Dec. 28 1775.  E. Henderson, Annals, op. cit, pp. 590-591.  John Reid was already teaching mathematics, geography, navigation and other practical subjects to more than 80 children and adults at his school in what is now Queen Anne Street. 

6. Vol. 14, Council Minutes, NRS B20/13/14, Sept. 8 1798 and Nov. 10 1800.  The `publick` schools of the Burgh were the Grammar School and the Sang School.  New schools with modern curricula were increasingly called `academies`.  

7. Vol. 9, KS Minutes, June 21 1795.  Between 1610 and 1766 mortifications for the poor had been made by Queen Anne of Denmark, John Drysdale and John Reid.  Adam Rolland of Gask gave the Kirk Session regular donations for the poor in 1791 Rev. James Thomson left £100 Sterling for their benefit.  Among the private school owners who received `school wages` from the Kirk Session in the 1790s were Mr. Christie in the Horsemarket, Mr. Stewart in Hallbeath and teachers in Charlestown, Crossgates and Torryburn.

8. Vol. 14, Council Minutes, May 6 1797, July 22 1797.

9. Vol. 14, Council Minutes, August 12 1797.  The children on the list were:

John Thomson, 9, Betty Thomson, 6, Jean Thomson, 11, children of the deceased. John Thomson, tailor;

Thomas Hardie, 7, Helen Hardie, 6, children of Thomas Hardie, weaver;

Andrew Duncan, 8, son of Andrew Duncan;

William Rolland, 8, Kathrine Rolland, 6, children of William Rolland, weaver;

Alexander Erskine, 6, son of William Erskine;

William Flockhart, 7, son of James Flockhart;

William Walls, 7, son of John Walls;

Isobel Harley, 6, daughter of William Harley;

Patrick Stewart, 6, son of Betty Siddell;

James Davidson, 9, grandchild of James Wilson;

John Hamilton, 6, Betty Hamilton, 8, children of John Hamilton, weaver;

James Imrie, 8, grandchild of J. Wardlaw;

William McNaughton, 6, son of Angus McNaughton;

Andrew Philp, 9, Ann Philp, 9, children of Andrew Philp;

Charles Ouston, 6, son of Henry Ouston;

Johanna Ogilvy, 6, daughter of Widow Ogilvy;

George Crawford, 7, son of Widow Crawford;

Thomas Boag, 9, son of James Boag;

Couston Love, 6, daughter of Gavin Love;

James Logan, 6, son of Janet Scotland;

John Templeman, 7, William Templeman, 7, Ann Templeman, 6, children of John Templeman, weaver;

Mathew Barclay, 9, son of Isobel Anderson;

Christian Stevenson, 7, daughter of Andrew Stevenson;

Adam Rellock, 7, son of Widow Rellock;

William Philp, 7, son of Isobell Hatton;

James Hog, 7, son of Alexander Hog;

John Wilson (gap), William Wilson a soldier.

10. Sarah Trimmer (of the SPCK), Reflections on the Education of Children in Charity Schools, London, 1792, p. 8.

11. E. Henderson Annals, op. cit, pp. 540-1.  Thulia S. Henderson, Memoir of the Reverend E. Henderson, London, 1859, pp. 16-19.  John Aikman (1770-1834) was a Congregational minister from Edinburgh; Greville Ewing (1767-1841) a Congregational minister from Glasgow, and Rowland Hill (1744-1833) a famous preacher from London. 

12. The Friends of the People and the United Scotsmen were radical groups who were influenced by the revolution in France.  In the early 1790s a number of Dunfermline people had been members of the Friends of the People and are said to have held their secret and `seditious` meetings in the school of Adam Dickson in the Maygate.

13. Vol. 14, Council Minutes, August 17 and Sept. 9 1799.  Proceedings of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, Edinburgh, May 28 and June 3 1799.

14. Vol. 14, Council Minutes, Aug. 17 and Sept. 9 1799.  

15.  E. Henderson Annals, op. cit, p.544. T. S. Henderson, Memoir, op. cit, pp. 18-20.

Vol. 14, Council Minutes, March 23 1800.

16. Vol. 14, Council Minutes, Jan. 26 1803.

17. Vol. 10, KS Minutes, Dec. 7 1802 and Sept. 6 1803.

18. Vol.14, Council Minutes, May 3 1803 and Nov. 8 1804.

19. Vol. 14, Council Minutes, Feb.4 1806.

20. E. Henderson, Annals, op. cit, pp. 586, 588, 590.