There is no part of Europe, in which education has been a subject of more general attention or produced more important effects than in Scotland. During little more than a century, a system of public instruction established in that country, has not only had the most beneficial influence upon industry and private morals, but has been the principal cause of one of the most remarkable changes of national character that has ever yet taken place during so short a period. At a time when the public attention in this country is so laudably directed towards providing means of instruction for the poor, a few remarks on the effects of a system of general education in Scotland may not be thought unseasonable. The following facts and observations relative to this important subject are principally extracted from the interesting Life of Burns, the poet, written by the late amiable and excellent Doctor Currie.
The system of education in Scotland, though closely connected with its ecclesiastical establishment, owes its first legal existence to a statute passed in the year 1646 by the Parliament of that Kingdom for establishing schools in every parish, at the expense of the landholders, for the express purpose of teaching the poor. On the Restoration in 1660 this excellent statute was repealed; and nothing further was done or attempted for the instruction of the people during the reigns of Charles and James, which were chiefly occupied in religious persecution. But in the year 1696, some years after the Revolution, the statute of 1646 was re-enacted nearly in the same terms, and continues to be the law of Scotland at the present time. Connected with this legislative provision are many acts passed by the General Assemblies of the church of Scotland, which are binding as to matters of ecclesiastical jurisdiction; and the whole together forms a code of regulations, which is eminently distinguished for the reasonableness and practical good sense of its particular provisions, and which experience has shewn to be perfectly effectual for the important purpose intended. So much convinced indeed are the lower classes in Scotland of the benefits attending this system, that, where the parishes are large, they often form subscriptions and establish private schools of their own, in addition to the parochial seminaries.
In the year 1698, about the time when this system was established, Fletcher of Saltoun, in one of his Discourses concerning the affairs of Scotland, describes the lower classes of that kingdom as being in a state of the most abject poverty and savage ignorance; and subsisting partly by mere beggary, but chiefly by violence and rapine, “without any regard or subjection either to the laws of the land or to those of God and nature.” Some of the instances given by this writer of the disorder and violence of that period may remind us of the effects produced by a similar state of things during our own times, upon the Irish peasantry in the disturbed parts of that unhappy country. “In years of plenty,” says Fletcher, “many thousands of them meet together in the mountains, where they feast and riot for many days, and at country weddings, markets, burials, and other public occasions, they are to be seen, both men and women, perpetually drunk, cursing, blaspheming, and fighting together.” [Footnote: Political Works of Andrew Fletcher, 8vo: London 1737, p. 144.] Such was the state of Scotland at the time when the present system of education was established.
It is justly stated by Dr. Currie that, at the present day, there is perhaps no country in Europe, in which, in proportion to its population, so small a number of crimes fall under the chastisement of the criminal law, as in Scotland; and he adds, upon undoubted authority, that on an average of thirty years preceding the year, 1797, the executions in that division of the Island did not amount to six annually, and that more felons have been convicted and sentenced to transportation at one quarter sessions for the town of Manchester only, than the average number of persons sentenced to a similar punishment during a whole year by all the Judges of Scotland. [Footnote: Works of Robert Burns, Liverpool 1800. vol. 1. p. 353, 8vo.]
But the influence of education in Scotland has not been merely negative or confined to the diminution of criminal offences; it has produced in a very eminent degree those habits of industry and frugality, upon which all civilization and improvement ultimately depend. In no age or country have these excellent qualities, the cardinal virtues of the lower orders of society, been more prevalent than among the peasantry and common people of Scotland during modern times: in none have the instances been more frequent of individuals who, by a course of meritorious exertions, have raised themselves from an inferior condition of life to ease and competence, and sometimes to riches and distinction.
It is impossible to conceive any situation more happy and respectable than that of the parent of a well educated family (such as was the father of the subject of this memoir, and such as there are now many others among the farmers and peasantry of Scotland) enjoying the just reward of his paternal cares in the prosperity and success of his children; each of whom he sees engaged in some beneficial pursuit, each bettering his condition in life, and each advanced somewhat in the scale of society above the situation in which he was born. It is this visible progress and continual improvement in the circumstances and condition of families, so frequent in the class here particularly alluded to, which produces the greatest portion of happiness of which any community is capable; which stimulates to intelligent activity, and useful, persevering exertions; and which keeps alive and invigorates that orderly, quiet ambition, which is the foundation of all private and public prosperity, and the great civilizing principle of individuals and nations.
It is true that there are several other circumstances, besides the system of public education in Scotland, which have assisted in producing that extraordinary change of national character which has given occasion to the present remarks. But of the various causes which have contributed to this change, education is by far the most important, and that, without which indeed all the rest would have been comparatively of no avail. It is to early instruction, most unquestionably, that we must attribute that general intelligence, and those habits of thoughtfulness, deliberation, and foresight, which usually distinguish the common people of Scotland, where-ever they may be found, and whatever may be their employments and situations; which ensure their success in life under favourable circumstances; and in adverse fortune serve as a protection against absolute indigence, and secure to them a certain station above the lowest condition of life.
The truth of this remark will be apparent from a few practical instances, drawn from the experience of common life, of that general superiority which is here attributed to the lower classes of the Scotch, as the effect of their superior industry and intelligence — 1. Every one has remarked the great number of professional gardeners from that country, many of whom have been common labourers, and who if they had been no better educated than most English labourers, must always have remained in that situation. Of this numerous class Mr. Dickson, Park’s brother-in law, is a remarkable and most distinguished example. — 2. Scotland supplies a considerable number of stewards, confidential clerks, book-keepers, &c. from a class of society, which in most other countries furnishes only domestic servants. The British Colonies, and especially the West Indies, are chiefly provided with clerks, overseers of plantations, &c. from this source. — 3. The prodigious number of non-commissioned officers in the army, who are natives of Scotland, having been raised from the ranks in consequence of their knowledge of reading and writing, and general good conduct, is also very remarkable. — The recollection of most readers will probably supply them with other examples; but there are two instances, somewhat out of the course of ordinary experience, which deserve to be particularly mentioned.
In the year 1803, Mr. Matthew Martin, a gentleman distinguished for his active benevolence, having been for some time engaged, under the sanction of Government, in a laborious enquiry concerning the “State of Mendicity in the Metropolis,” was desired to make a Report upon that subject for the information of Government. From the statement which Mr. Martin prepared on that occasion and laid before the Secretary of State, it appeared that the number of Scotch beggars in London was remarkably small, especially in proportion to the Irish beggars, with whom it was most natural to compare them. Of 2000 beggars, whose cases were investigated by Mr. Martin, the following is a summary.
Belonging to parishes home 570
distant parishes 336
The second of the two cases is of a still more uncommon nature. — In the course of the expedition against Egypt in 1807, the advanced guard of Major General Fraser’s army having taken possession of Rosetta and occupied a position at El Hamed a few miles from that town, was surprised by a strong corps of Turkish troops, and after an obstinate conflict and the loss of many lives, compelled to surrender. According to the Turkish custom, the prisoners taken were sold as slaves, and dispersed over the whole country; some of them being sent as far as Upper Egypt. Great exertions were naturally made by the British government to redeem those unfortunate persons from captivity; and this was happily effected as to all the prisoners, except a few who could not be traced, by the assistance of Signor Petrucci, the Swedish consul at Alexandria.
From the authentic documents relating to this transaction, it appears that the ransoms paid for the redemption of the captives differed very considerably; the prices varying from between twenty and thirty pounds to more than one hundred pounds sterling for each man. But it is observable, on comparing the different rates, that the highest ransoms were paid for those, who must be considered, from their names, to have been natives of Scotland; and who, it may be presumed, were more valuable than the rest from being more orderly and intelligent. It could not have been easily anticipated that a soldier, brought up in a Scotch parish school, was likely, when enslaved by the Turks and a captive in Egypt, to derive much advantage from his education. Yet it is probable from this circumstance that the intelligence and habits of good conduct, which he acquired from early instruction, might recommend him to his master, and as domestic slavery admits of many mitigations, might procure him kinder and better treatment.
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