Dr Helen Young: Making sense of society through historical research

Earlier in the year, I was asked to reflect upon the significance of my ESRC-funded research and express in simple terms how it helps us to make sense of society. Quite a tall order for a historian, I thought, but never one to shy away from a challenge I was up for giving it go. Having spent over three years studying the history of Scotland’s rural schools and their communities I was well-versed in justifying why I had chosen that topic. I’d also got used to a certain amount of academic snobbery towards my research, which being local history is automatically labelled parochial by some. As a result, I had a pretty good idea what my answer would be, but putting this down on paper in a clear and concise manner was another matter.

So, why is my research important? How does it help us to make sense of society? Well, first and foremost it tells us something about lived experience. It drills down into the detail of people’s lives and tells the story of Scotland’s rural schools from a local perspective. While this may be something of a familiar tale, there’s a lot missing from the history books and numerous gaps to be filled. This is particularly true of more recent times, which are yet to be researched in depth. Certainly, there is a tendency for historians to lose interest in rural educational affairs after the Education (Scotland) Act of 1918, which abolished the school board system and established county education authorities. In the words of the Committee of Council on Education at the time, this was seen to be the ‘commencement of a new era’ and it’s therefore little wonder that historians view it as a significant watershed. However, cutting off at this point makes little sense when you’re trying to understand rural society and its schools.

Recognising this, I was determined to take a long-term view and by-pass the usual historical watersheds. I chose to chart the history of Scotland’s rural schools from the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century through to the recent Millennium using a wide range of sources including oral testimonies. My aim was to illuminate local experience on a national scale by weaving together a detailed regional case study of three Highland Perthshire parishes with analysis of a sample of rural districts from across Scotland. By doing so, I was able to challenge oft-made generalisations about rural life and provide a more nuanced picture of social and educational change. Unlike studies which take a cursory historical view, glancing back over a few decades to discern key developments and trends in experience, this approach enabled me to examine subtle shifts over a much longer timeframe and acknowledge difference as well as similarity.

Telling the story of the same communities over time rather than selecting illustrative examples was key to this, offering an unparalleled insight into the people and places that have shaped and at the same time been shaped by society. Thus, the agency and influence of individuals shines through and elements of experience which are often lost to generalization come to the fore. For instance, while some would claim that female teachers of the late nineteenth century simply accepted their inferior status and lesser pay without complaint, the case of one schoolmistress, who demanded more money to teach in a remote rural school in 1892, shows the small but significant steps taken to challenge this. Hidden within the pages of a school board letter book, which took much time and effort to decipher, such detail is crucial to understanding the lived experience behind societal trends.

Helen blog image
OS Map of Kiltyrie School

My findings also challenge the established view that Gaelic suffered at the hands of Scotland’s schoolmasters, being ruthlessly discouraged in their schools throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Whilst this was undoubtedly true in many places, the case study findings show that this experience was not universal, with the language being actively supported in some areas. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the parish schoolmaster of Fortingall was expected to teach Gaelic as well as English, writing, arithmetic, Latin and Greek. Likewise, in the 1860s the Acharn schoolmaster was paid five pounds extra to teach a Gaelic class in which ‘pupils take a great interest’. Furthermore, looking beyond Highland Perthshire, a survey of Gaelic-speaking districts undertaken in 1876 shows that almost two thirds of the school boards were in favour of teaching Gaelic at this time.

Inherited wisdom tells us that, in contrast to their urban equivalents, the rural school boards which were in charge of local educational affairs between 1873 and 1919 were elitist, ineffectual and had a propensity to treat teachers unfairly. A number of high profile cases of teacher dismissals in the 1890s seem to support this, but on closer inspection the charges made against at least one of the boards were completely unjustified, having been driven by professional interests rather than the facts of the case. Uncovered through the painstaking process of archival research, such nuggets of information call into question the accepted version of events and demonstrate the power of perception in shaping societal attitudes and public policy.

Favouring the familiar is also important for ensuring future understanding of the present. There is a common misconception that research exploring the near contemporary history of everyday life, that which is familiar to many and a mystery to none, adds little of value to the historical record. Yet, fast forward fifty or a hundred years and that inherent acquaintance people have with their own history has gone, and unless detailed empirical research has embedded it into the historiography it is likely to be lost or distorted by providence. To make sense of society we must therefore be prepared to question not only what we know about the past, but also what we are capturing in the present. My study does both these things, affirming the value of rigorous historical enquiry and proving its pertinence to contemporary debate.


Dr Helen Young works as a Research Policy Officer at the University of Stirling. She has plans to publish various articles and a monograph based on her thesis. 

Cover Image: Golspie Public School Building, 2015. Photographed by the author. 

Image 1: Ordinance Survey, Perth and Clackmannan Sheet LXIX.9. (Kenmore (Det No3), 1867 (surveyed 1862), 25 inch to the mile, 1st edition. ‘Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland’



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