THE school here in Lismore has been back for several weeks now after so many months of closure. It was a mad week in March when, with only a few days’ notice, the spring term ended so abruptly. The head was leaving at the end of term and suddenly there were Mothering Sunday cards to produce, a good luck card and gifts and drawings for a farewell folder, as well as organising some ongoing work for the youngsters to do at home. It seems a lifetime ago now.

The new head took on a virtual school; she was unable to come and visit and is now rising to the challenge of organising an actual school with pupils new to her who have been off for so many months plus working within the strict new regulations.

Social distancing is easier here as there are only 11 pupils in the main school from P2 through to P7 and three in the pre-five unit. Last year school numbers reached the dizzy heights of 12, with at least one child in every year group. Easier to organise at the moment perhaps, but challenging to ensure appropriate differentiation for each pupil from a single time-tabled lesson. This roll number might seem small but it’s actually a welcome improvement on past years. 

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Chatting with a neighbour recently she was describing how when she was at the school here about 30 years ago there were six of them, which went down to two shortly afterwards, and she thought then right down to a solitary pupil for a while.

The current building is a low 1960s pebble dash originally built with one classroom/dining hall, toilets, office and kitchen with another classroom added since. Centrally located on a hill high above the Oban ferry slipway, the children are collected from here and there in a bright yellow school bus, all wearing masks of course at the moment. From the playground there is an amazing view across the sea loch to the mainland, especially stunning in bright winter sunshine when there is snow on the distant mountain tops.

Historically, education has seemed to be highly valued on the island even before the 1872 Education Act with its compulsory attendance for all those between five and 14.

The population size fluctuated and over the years there were schools at various locations serving the scattered townships. By the 1870s there were two public schools at Baligarve towards the north and Baligrundle further south. It was the remaining Baligarve children who made the trip to the new school at Achnacroish.

Walking as I do with my dog every day, one of my favourite walks is down by the Balnagowan loch. I was long perplexed by a little detached stone building almost opposite the old steading at Killandrist near the current heritage centre. It is a little bigger than one of those garages you get on suburban housing estates where you can only just squeeze in a modern car and remarkably well-preserved. I was astonished to discover it had been a school house. Passing by, it’s hard to visualise the rows of pupil 
desks and the schoolmaster out in front with perhaps a stove for winter warmth. The present island school seems vast by comparison.

Alexander Carmichael is typically shown in photographs looking stern with a long white beard and wild hair, and it’s very difficult to imagine him sitting quietly at one of those desks listening attentively to the teacher, but after attendance at the little Killandrist school he went on to study at Greenock Academy and then in Edinburgh. 

As an exciseman in the late 19th century he journeyed around the Highlands and west coast islands and on his travels collected the native songs, prayers and blessings previously only passed on by oral tradition. His extensive collection was finally published over many years in the six volumes of the Carmina Gadelica.

Rosemary Barry