Sport, recreation and education on Bute, Arran and Great Cumbrae, c. 1850-1900

This paper was given at two conferences: ‘Historical Perspectives on Scottish Education’ (The Royal Society of Edinburgh, 21 October 2011) and the History of Education’s annual conference (Glasgow University Union, 27 November 2011). I have included questions from the audience at the end.

This paper will examine the presence of sport and recreation in the Firth of Clyde during the late Victorian period, with specific reference to the Rothesay Academy and Thomson Institute on the isle of Bute. This is very preliminary research, and I have yet to include a great deal of theory within this examination. This is much needed, as Buteshire is a region with very little modern scholarly research done on it, save for Alastair Durie’s histories of tourism, and Rosemary Hanna’s work on the philanthropy John Patrick Crichton-Stuart, the third marquess of Bute. Any help is appreciated (see below for comments and queries received on this paper). Tourist migration into Buteshire, and the migration of labour and capital from the islands towards Lowland industry, greatly affected the culture of Bute, Arran and the Cumbraes from the 1840s onwards. In many cases, the explosion of tourism accelerated a process of cultural change that had already begun. The New Statistical Account stated that by the mid-nineteenth century Rothesay, which had hitherto been considered a Gaelic-speaking town, fully spoke English. In 1841, around 5,800 people lived in Rothesay; in ten years, that number increased by 1,300. By 1900, the population rose by over two thousand. Meanwhile Millport, which overlooked the Ayrshire seaside resort of Largs, had a population of just over one thousand in 1841, rising up to over 1,500 in 1871.[1] The story was very different in Arran, where there were no such urbanised locales save for a few villages, and where the Hamilton estate, after clearing the land and replacing the tenantry, carefully guarding development on the island.[2] This paper is an examination of the origins of Rothesay Academy, and what its roughly-organised sport and gymnastics programme tells us about the state of change in this region during the late nineteenth century.

From the 1850s onwards, there was middle-class demand in Rothesay for a better standard of education. The 8 May 1858 leader of liberal newspaper the Buteman best articulated the idea behind the establishment of Buteshire’s principal educational institution, Rothesay Academy, stating that the burgh was not only large enough for an educational institution in its own right, but would be the logical location for a secondary institution which took in students from Argyll, Arran and the Cumbraes; as Rothesay, it said, was ‘undoubtedly the nucleus’ of this land. The paper acknowledged, however, that the journey may be fraught: ‘sectarian influence and party feeling’, it stated, were the only barriers. On Bute, this was hardly insignificant. Sectarianism, in this case, does not mean ‘Catholic’ v. ‘Protestant’, but instead delineates boundaries between different branches of Presbyterianism. The Disruption of 1843 was a defining moment in Bute’s modern history. An estimate made during the 1893 jubilee of the Free Church of Scotland placed the amount of Rothesay residents who defected to the ‘wee Free’ at five out of six.[3] This was in direct contradiction to the wishes of Bute’s principal landlord, John Crichton-Stuart, the second marquess of Bute, who was rumoured to have threatened evictions for those farmers who went over to the Free Church.[4] The gardener of the Mount Stuart estate, John Smith, was sacked by the marquess after holding prayer meeting for the Free Kirk at Kilchattan Bay.[5]

So, then, the formation of a formal academic institution on Bute was not without controversy. In its leader giving its support to the project, the Buteman nevertheless warned against the enterprise being an entirely private one; it needed to be open to the different branches of Presbyterianism.[6] Indeed, a mix of public, private, and religious interests indeed came together in the formation of Rothesay Academy Ltd., a joint stock company started in March 1861 for the purposes of starting and maintaining a secondary school on Bute. To get the community involved, the company placed notices in the newspapers for subscriptions from local business owners and farmers to raise £3,000 for the institution’s initiation. The directors of the company were a varied group of merchants, ministers, town and county officials, and the patrons included the third Marquess of Bute (who was then in his minority), and his ever-present factor, Henry Stuart. Education for county residents was not the only concern, however, as the company was also seeking to attract year-round student boarders, especially from wealthier families, to Rothesay. Former burgh official Archibald MacKirdy stated at the 1891 opening of Rothesay Academy’s new wing that: ‘The idea they had in establishing this Academy, was that they would be able to attract families from a distance, by presenting exceptional advantages in the way of education…’[7] By 1866, eighty-three pupils were enrolled.[8]

Once in the education business, the trustees of the company were mostly happy to get out; they would make room for a group with a very different agenda. The trustees of the late Duncan Thomson had bought out the company in 1868, with the hope of utilising and expanding the Academy as a school run explicitly by the Free Church. The school, at this point, was given the title of the Rothesay Academy and Thomson Institute, and a new staff educated and approved by the Free Kirk was employed. This was a brief existence, however, and the minute books of the Thomson Bequest not only discuss the nuts and bolts of running a school, but also the financial wrangling of former members of the company.[9] Being the main educational institution of the Clyde islands, the direction of the school was transferred to the Burgh of Rothesay School Board in 1873 after the enactment of the 1872’s Education (Scotland) Act. But the disputes did not end there: since much of the new ground and expansion of the Academy were paid for by a bequest, the Free Kirk contended that the wishes of the original donor would be violated should the Board wish to proceed fully with running the school as they saw fit.[10] Elections for School Board typically took place on party lines, with the two parties being members of different churches, so religion was a key element of any school board campaign. The Buteman even noted that candidates in the 1876 election for the North Bute school board who were members of the Established Church were trying to broaden their appeal amongst the Free Kirk portion of the electorate, stating that, ‘if elected, do more for the interests of the Free Church than the Free Church candidates!’[11] Across the Firth in Largs and Fairlie, similar discussions were occurring between newly-formed School Boards and landlords’ estates; this was, after all, the era of Use and Wont, and discussions about the appropriateness of religious education in state schools would continue to rage for decades to come.

Move on, however, the School Board would. 1879 was a year of change in both the Academy and the Rothesay Public School. In its 24 May 1879 leader, the Buteman stated: ‘Now that our School Board are engaged in overhauling both their education institutions it is to be hoped they will come to a wise decision and make education as attractive a feature in our town as any of the many attractions which have made Rothesay so prominent amongst Scottish watering places.’ William Mackay, a graduate of Aberdeen University, was hired as rector from Elgin West End School, and would stay in the position for nineteen years until his death in 1898, aged 47.[12] Mackay had previously spent time at Ayr Academy with another Elgin native, Dr. John MacDonald, and under his rectorship the school had a flourishing sport programme in place by the 1870s, one which produced the Rev. W.W. Beveridge, Dr. John Smith, and William Allan, three of Scottish sport’s ‘muscular Christian’ elite. The first football club at Edinburgh University was founded in 1878; and, as Robert Anderson states, it was based around students from Ayr Academy.[13] Of course, like at Ayr Academy, sports were only part of the puzzle, and it also seems logical a modern-style timetable and curriculum were also introduced. Anderson states that school sport clubs symbolised the efforts of Scottish schools to forge a more ‘corporate’ identity by the mid- to late-nineteenth century.

According to the staffs at the Rothesay Library and the Bute Museum, a fire destroyed most of Rothesay Academy’s records from this period. The library also was missing a ten-year gap – the 1880s – from its microfilm collections of the Buteman and the Chronicle. Those papers are based at the National Library of Scotland, and must be examined for more evidence. Local school board minutes discuss the nuts and bolts of expenditure far more than any overwhelming interest in sport, and these records show that drilling of boys had begun at the academy by late 1873 with the appointment of James Anderson as janitor and drill instructor. Anderson, a former colour sergeant in the Durham Militia, was one of 29 applicants for the post, and was paid £40 per annum and given residence in the Academy tower.[14] It was in 1879, around the time of Mackay’s arrival, when Rothesay Academy’s athletic escapades began to appear within the Buteman and Rothesay’s Tory weekly, the Rothesay Chronicle, with references being made to a Rothesay Academy association football club in November of that year.[15] By 1890, such occurrences were seemingly more organised, and one of the main events in Rothesay’s annual sporting calendar was the Rothesay Academy Athletic Sports, which was participated in by Academy pupils, and by Rothesay Public School and St. Andrew’s Roman Catholic School students. The annual Academy sports of 21 June 1890, for example, held on Rothesay’s Public Park, included foot races, leaping, throwing cricket balls and light hammers, and five-a-side football, and also included accompaniment by a marching band. Admission was sixpence, with an additional sixpence to have a seat in the grandstand.[16] A year later, great fanfare was given to the opening of Rothesay Academy’s new extension, which included a new gymnasium / kitchen and canteen. The new gymnasium was paid for by £40 out of the Academy’s Athletic Fund, whose money was raised at students’ sports and concerts. During the proceedings, Rothesay’s ex-provost Robert Sharp stated that:

‘Thousands of years ago the Greeks recognised [‘that a gymnasium in connection with a school was an excellent thing’], and to this was no doubt due to the fine race of men which that nation produced. It was perfectly understood now by those who were acquainted with the matter that they could not have sound, healthy boys and clever lads unless these lads had sound, healthy bodies.’[17]

The programme of one games day from June 1897, listed in the Rothesay Academy Magazine, showed that there was a bit more at play than simply Greek-style athleticism, however, for dancing was an important part of the competition, including the Sword Dance and the Highland Fling.[18] This was a time when the lines between school days, burgh games days, and Highland gatherings were heavily blurred.

The rituals of gymnastics had become regular as the 1890s moved on, as the educational ethos of the Academy became more focused.  This was displayed in the series of vibrant magazines put together by students and teachers at the institution. At the Rothesay Library, and as listed on COPAC at the British Library, the only surviving magazines are the ones from 1894 to 1898; 1894’s first one is no. 37. They show the Academy, at the September start of the 1894-95 session, provided a secondary curriculum of four years, which included English, classics, maths, science, modern languages, drawing and music. No Scottish history was taught, but those of England on the British Empire were. Students from Bute, Arran and Cumbrae were received for free, with boarders from elsewhere paying £45 a term. The climate, stated the magazine, was ‘most suitable for boys from India, who are kept during Holidays’. Meanwhile, gymnastics took place every Saturday for both boys and girls under the direction of gymnastics instructor George Pirie, with special encouragement for boys who were training for June’s annual school sports.[19] The school sports were patronised by town officials. However, the onus still seemed to be on students to do the organising of any such competitions themselves, and the enthusiasm varied heavily from year to year. Despite having ‘annual’ sports, the 1894 prospectus states regarding the previous June’s sports that: ‘The boys were late of setting about arrangements, and, as the prospect of success was then doubtful, it was resolved not to have the annual games.’[20]

Ostensibly, this cancellation was due to bad weather. But a look at the Academy’s magazine shows that interest and participation in all sports, not just athletics, fluctuated a great deal in the space of five years, and casts doubt on the idea that Rothesay Academy might have had an athletics ‘programme’, as such. Team sports included football and cricket; and, to a lesser extent, rowing and rounders; there is no mention of rugby either in the magazine or in the local newspapers, despite the proximity of Routenburn Preparatory School in Largs, a J.A. Mangan-style ‘muscular Christian’ institution – complete with a chapel! – started in 1892 by Old Lorettonians Norman Maclachlan and E.P. Frederick, who turned out several ‘football’ fifteens and cricket elevens that competed against second- and third-tier sides from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Ayrshire schools.[21] More research is needed for the 1880s. Of all sports engaged in by Academy pupils, football was seemingly the most popular, but any football clubs associated with the school did not take part in any organised league competitions – school or otherwise – until the autumn of 1898, when Academicals joined the Buteshire Juvenile Football League along with Bute clubs Ellangowan, Woodlea and Mayflower. This was the four-team league; and, as was a problem for all football clubs on Bute, the Academy had trouble finding opponents, and dropped out of the league by January 1899, in the same season.[22] The magazine makes reference to football clubs being formed every year, rather than one continuous club that lost and gained members through graduation and enrolment respectively.

Academy cricket clubs had a similarly-brief shelf life, despite the Rothesay Chronicle indelibly associating the game on Bute with the school. Cricket was popular, if not so much as football, amongst the youths on Rothesay’s Public Park in the early 1890s, and the Bute County CC, which included a number of Rothesay elites, played against a number of mainland sides. But these associations were not always positive: the Chronicle told the tale of one boy who went to practice with Academy cricketers in May 1892, one who was consistently scolded by ‘one of the masters’ for not getting the game right.[23] Certain kinds of people, it seemed, could more easily associate with the cricket academicals than others. When they played Busby CC from Renfrewshire at their Blairmein sports ground in June 1892, they included in their team McGairy (a Royal Victoria Athletic Club footballer), Blanc (a former Castle Douglas CC cricketer), and the Rev. Mr. McClement in their team, the Chronicle’s sport correspondent stated that it was not clear how exactly this could be called an Academy team. The journalist stated:

No one seems properly to understand whether the club is confined to the Academy (P’s and F.P.’s) or whether it is open. Of course, it is not right that all and sundry should be admitted, but we might suggest admission by ballot.[24]

There was indeed no clear delineation between pupils’ and former pupils’ clubs – all were listed as being the same within the Academy magazine. Rector Mackay and other school officials, in response to this disorganisation, put together a formal Academy athletic club in December 1895, one which had written rules, regulations, and different subscription fees depending not only on the sport, but on the status of the participants: former pupils had to pay two shillings, sixpence more to play cricket, in addition to the three pence to join the Athletic Club, and sixpence to join the cricket club in the first instance.[25] This was at a time when Rothesay Academy was an increasing target in the local press. When Bailie Walker, a member of the School Board, attempted (and failed) to table a motion to make Rothesay Academy wholly free to attend, a chain of angry letters were sent to the Chronicle, most of them against the measure, for fear that Rothesay ratepayers would be subsidising the education of wealthy, out-of-town children.[26] More research needs to be done on weather this was truly the socio-economic strata at which the institution was associated – certainly there was poverty in the Firth – but it was clear as to what the Academy was associated with. Even the provision set aside for a sports ground like Blairmein established the Academy as a breed apart, as the reason for other football clubs’ struggles on Bute was through the denial of public playing space by municipal officials and the Bute estate, both of which tightly controlled the development of land on the island.

And yet, an even closer examination of the school magazines adds yet another layer of complexity to cricket’s relationship with the Academy, for there was an additional sport at the Academy – one which has been written very little about, if not at all. This sport was targette. My first mistake was Googling the word, and coming up with one reference – and one reference only – to a strategy game that looked related to draughts. But looking at the scoring, it’s clear that the closer relation is cricket: there are first and second innings; the game is scored in runs; the bowlers attempt to claim wickets off of batters. During the annual school sports, the male event of throwing a cricket ball was analogous to the female event of throwing a targette ball.[27] The balls are themselves are referred to as targettes, but there is no reference in the Oxford English Dictionary as to the balls or to the game itself. This was not a game for the boys; it was played by girls, and the inclusion of a former pupils’ fee for the targette club of one shilling, to go along with the three pence fee for the targette club, indicates that similar issues of former pupil and community participation existed within this sport as well, despite mum discussion of it within the newspapers.[28] This is surprising as, for a time, the game seemed very popular amongst girls at the Academy. At the outset of the 1894 school year, the magazine exclaimed and asked incredulously: ‘The Targette Club is a leviathan among clubs. Did you ever hear of a school football club with 80 members in it?’[29] Much of the coverage of it might be down to good literature. The magazine’s June 1895 account of the ‘senior match’ between two squads is highly detailed.[30] But like the boys’ sports, the targette club seemed to suffer from fickle tastes; while still being covered, the 25 November meeting of the club, in the next school year from the previous match, was poorly attended. Problems that bedevilled local sports like football and cricket – namely in the execution of rules and management – also proved an impediment to the girls’ targette club.

More research needs to be done on this topic, and a better study of it would go a long way towards understanding the regional variations and traditions of alleged foreign invaders like cricket, and how these games manifested themselves into certain local and educational situations. As a whole, the piecemeal source material, and gaps in the evidence – especially the lack of a log book – leave the researcher with many unanswered questions. Where did Rothesay Academy’s students all come from, both within and outside the Firth? Is it possible for a burgh school of the nineteenth century to be both inclusive and exclusive? Was the school, deep within heartlands of the Free Church, a true representation of the ‘muscular Christian’ ethos, or was the sport programme of the school more symptomatic of the need to build community amongst a disparate population? And finally, what role did gender play in the development of sport at the Academy, what exactly is targette, and what does this tell us about what historians think they know about Victorian school sport? This paper has hopefully posed some new questions on an underexplored geographic region of Scotland, and will help to enliven discussion on the early years of school sport outwith Scotland’s cities.

Comments / questions so far:

  • What were children in the Firth of Clyde during the period (with specific reference to reference) playing outwith the educational establishments?
  • Around Scotland in the 1860s, were there similar limited companies that resembled Rothesay Academy Ltd.?
  • How will the gap in sources be addressed? (Questioner’s answer:  through pictures of the Academy and these sporting clubs.  Author’s answer:  examination of the records of the Scottish Education Department, and research in the 1880s editions of the Buteman and Rothesay Chronicle.)
  • How was money for kit raised? Is there any evidence of provisions for kit?
  • Question about Academy’s relationship with the community – author agreed more was needed on the link, and that this would be part of his research

[1] Isobel M.L. Robertson, ‘Population trends of great Cumbrae Island’, Scottish Geographic Journal 89 (1) (1973), 53-62; A. Cameron Somerville, ‘Population and Community Life in Bute, in The Third Statistical Account of Scotland: The County of Renfrew and the County of Bute, ed. H.A. Moisley et al (Glasgow: Collins, 1962), 454-53; Rev. Robert Craig, ‘Parish of Rothesay, Presbytery of Dunoon, Synod of Argyll’, in The New Statistical Account of Scotland : The Statistical Account of Buteshire (Edinburgh : William Blackwood and Sons, 1841), 105-13.

[2] J.I. Little, ‘Agricultural Improvement and Highland Clearance: The Isle of Arran, 1766-1829’, Scottish Economic and Social History 19 (November 1999), 132-154

[3] Buteman supplement, 8 April 1893.

[4] Buteman, various dates. These claims will need to be examined fully, as other primary sources of the time dispute that there were any evictions on Bute such as were seen on Arran; the Buteman was a highly-partisan paper.

[5] Rev. Thomas Brown, D.D., F.R.S.E., Annals of the Disruption; with Extract from the Narratives of Ministers who left the Scottish Establishment in 1843 (Edinburgh: Macniven and Wallace, 1893), 362-63.

[6] Buteman, 8 May 1858.

[7] Buteman, 11 April 1891.

[8] Argyll and Bute Archives, CB/5/9/1, Rothesay Academy Ltd. Minute Book, 1861-68, 28 February 1866 AGM.

[9] Argyll and Bute Archives, CB/5/7/1, Duncan Thomas Bequest Minute Book, 11 June 1873.

[10] Argyll and Bute Archives, CB/5/4/1, School Board of the Burgh of Rothesay Minutes (SBBRM) (4 April 1873 – 9 April 1888 [#1]), 11 June 1873.

[11] Buteman, 15 April 1876.

[12] Scotsman, 12 July 1898.

[13] John Strawhorn, 750 years of a Scottish school: Ayr Academy, 1233-1983 (Ayr: Alloway, 1983), 46-49, 69-71; Robert Anderson, ‘Secondary schools and Scottish society in the Nineteenth Century’, Past and Present 109 (November 1985): 195-98. For more on ‘muscular Christianity’ and the games cult, see J.A. Mangan, Athleticism in the Victorian and Edwardian public school: the emergence and consolidation of an educational ideology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981).

[14] SBBRM1, 22 September 1873, 1 October 1873.

[15] Buteman, 1 November 1879.

[16] Buteman, 21 June 1890.

[17] Buteman, 18 April 1891.

[18] Rothesay Academy Magazine sports supplement (June 1897).

[19] Rothesay Academy Magazine 37 prospectus (1894).

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ed. F.L. Robertson and N. MacLachlan, Routenburn Preparatory School: Directory, Second Edition, 1892-1903 (Glasgow: James MacLehose and Sons, 1903).

[22] Rothesay Academy Magazine 51 (Christmas 1898); Rothesay Chronicle, 14 January 1899.

[23] Rothesay Chronicle, 28 May 1892.

[24] Rothesay Chronicle, 11 June 1892.

[25] Rothesay Academy Magazine 42 (December 1895).

[26] Rothesay Chronicle, 14 April 1894, 12 May 1894.

[27] Rothesay Academy Magazine sports supplement (June 1897).

[28] Rothesay Academy Magazine 42 (December 1895).

[29] Rothesay Academy Magazine 37 prospectus (1894).

[30] Rothesay Academy Magazine 40 (June 1894).


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