A common curriculum? School textbooks in early nineteenth-century Scotland


How and what children are taught in school continues to be a key societal concern, with debates around national curricula and exam results never far from the headlines. Yet, despite this enduring interest people rarely take more than a cursory historical view of the issue. Eager to show the relevance of history to current policy discourse, this blog explores the use of printed materials in schools across Scotland during the early nineteenth century and highlights the potential for further research.Schoolmasters image

Drawing on analysis of a quasi-random sample [1] of Scottish rural schools, which forms the core part of an ESRC-funded doctoral study of the small rural school and community relations in Scotland from 1872 to 2000, particular reference is made to the Schoolmasters’ Return of 1838 (published in 1841) which includes details of the textbooks utilised by teachers at this time.[2]

Prior to the Education (Scotland) Act of 1872, the education system in Scotland was far from uniform. With a mix of different schools, ranging from the parochial to private adventure, inconsistencies in provision became a paramount concern during the nineteenth century and provided the rationale for a national system of public schools. Instituted by the 1872 Act, this state-governed system quickly led to the standardization of educational policy and practice across Scotland and impacted on all aspects of provision, including teacher training and curricula. Under the direction of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate and with the threat of loss of revenue, schools were rapidly brought in line with national standards and uniformity prevailed. While the contrast with the earlier situation is clear, a closer look at the schools of the early nineteenth century suggests that they had more in common with their successors than is often understood. In terms of the subjects being taught this is certainly the case and an examination of the 1838 survey of schoolmasters reveals that a select number of textbooks were being used by parochial and non-parochial teachers alike.

Prose collection (1)

Encompassing fifty-nine rural parishes from across Scotland, including lowland and highland areas, the sample is intended to give a national perspective on local experience, and analysis of the 1838 return offers a rare glimpse of educational practice in the small rural schools at this time. Across the sample, sixty-three replies were received from parochial schoolmasters (all of whom were men) and sixty from non-parochial teachers (with a small number of women in their ranks).[3] The schools under their charge varied from scholarly establishments aspiring to set local lads on the path to university to dame schools providing infant care and instruction. Unsurprisingly, most sat somewhere in-between, offering rural scholars a basic but seemingly beneficial education. With no uniform system in place and no prescribed curriculum, beyond the use of core religious texts such as the Shorter Catechism, schoolmasters and mistresses had a degree of freedom in choosing how and what to teach. Although limited by the requirements of their employers, who ranged from parish officials to parents and had varying ideas about what should be taught, teachers therefore played an important role in shaping the curriculum within their schools.

A key part of this was the selection and use of textbooks and other printed works. A vast array of literature was in circulation in the early nineteenth century, and numerous volumes aimed at the instruction of the young had been printed. Yet, distribution across Scotland was in no way uniform, and access to such materials in the more remote, rural areas would have been limited.


For the non-parochial teachers in particular, books would have been an expensive luxury, and even in the parish schools a supply of appropriate printed resources was in no way guaranteed. The prohibitive cost of books was certainly a common frustration, and this was expressed by a number of teachers including the parish schoolmaster of Dornock, Dumfries, who felt that ‘a better and cheaper set of books is much wanted’, and the teacher of Borerary Society School in Duirinish, Inverness, who regretted that he had ‘found it impracticable to introduce a regular set of elementary books, owing chiefly to the poverty of the people’. In light of this, it seems reasonable to assume that instruction varied widely between schools, with no common curriculum beyond the Biblical texts. Yet, while the replies to the 1838 questionnaire do reveal a kaleidoscope of schools and teachers across rural Scotland, they also show that a select number of academic textbooks were in widespread use by the 1830s.

According to the return, the most common subjects taught were English reading, writing and arithmetic, but a considerable number of teachers also offered book-keeping, mensuration (the measurement of shapes), geography, mathematics and Latin. Gaelic was taught in most of the Highland schools (25 of those sampled), and in some parishes navigation and land-surveying were also considered of value. Interestingly, in contrast to the parish schools, most non-parochial establishments did not teach history as a distinct subject, an omission which a teacher in Fintry, Stirling, put down to the fact that ‘the parents seem unwilling to purchase text-books for history’. While some schools were clearly better resourced, with numerous books being used across a wide range of subjects, most had access to some primers and the same titles appear time and time again.

The following table shows the number of schools using textbooks for the different subjects.


Breaking these figures down by county does show some variation across Scotland, with those in the more remote counties, and certainly the insular parishes, being less likely to have a selection of textbooks, and the schools in Forfar and Haddington being particularly well-resourced.[4] Nevertheless, access to core English and arithmetic texts was near universal. To give some examples, the most popular texts for English were the Parochial Schoolmasters’ series produced by the Scottish School Book Association, Lennie’s English Grammar and spelling books, and Dr Thomson’s reading lessons. For arithmetic, the books of Bonnycastle, Gray, Hamilton, Melrose, Ingram, Davidson, and Hutton were in widespread use, and Playfair’s expression of Euclid seems to have been a favourite of parochial schoolmasters.

In those schools offering Latin, Ruddiman’s Rudiments was commonly to be found and geography books by Ewing, Murray, Reid and Stewart were favoured by most teachers. Where history was taught, Goldsmith’s abridgement of the histories of England, Rome and Greece was the most used text, but similar works focusing on history of Scotland were also referenced. One of these, pictured below, charted this history from the origin of the Scots to the ‘accession of James to the throne of England’, and dwelt almost exclusively on the manoeuvres, marriages and misfortunes of the monarchy.


While the presence of textbooks in schools tells us little about how they were used or the way in which the content was conveyed to pupils, the fact that both parochial and non-parochial teachers across the country had access to similar texts is undoubtedly significant. Of course much more in-depth analysis of the material in question and its application (which is particularly hard to glean from the sources) is needed to understand the true educational impact of this. However, the very suggestion that there was something of a common school curriculum decades before a national system was introduced, and years before Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Schools began to exercise influence, is enough to whet the appetite for further research.


[1] Quasi-random essentially means being as close to a random sample as you can get for this kind of data. A list of rural school board districts was compiled and sorted alphabetically by county and name. Every 10th one was then selected for the sample.

[2] Answers made by schoolmasters in Scotland to queries circulated in 1838, by order of the Select Committee on Education in Scotland, Parliamentary Papers, 1841 Session 1 (64).

[3] A further twenty schools were sent the queries but did not reply (nine parochial and eleven non-parochial), and this unfortunately means that there is no information for four of the parishes.

[4] As the sample sizes for each county vary, it is difficult to make direct comparison between them. However, this does give an indication of the distribution of books. Analysis of the complete dataset would clearly be worthwhile.

Edited by Katy Jack.