A school fit for the twentieth century

Aberlady’s school opened on May 21, 1931 with a speech by the head of Scottish education. Built to replace a now-demolished Victorian school on the High Street, it was seen as the state of the art…

Aberlady school, now Aberlady Primary School, in 2020, 89 years after its official opening.

IN SUMMER 2020, work was due to start on an extension to Aberlady’s school to make it fit for the 21st century and increase its capacity to accommodate children from the new houses at West Aberlady, also known as Meadowside. This work has now been delayed to 2021, the year of the school’s 90th anniversary.

The first phase will involve landscaping a new approach to the school, with a ramp suited to wheelchair access; then will come a proper kitchen for freshly cooked meals, an extended hall and two splendid new classrooms, plus a variety of facilities such as better toilets, a reception area and a small library. We’re also hoping for low-carbon energy systems.

Over the years Aberlady’s parents have been remarkably tolerant of the slow decline in the state of the school buildings. Roughly 100 years ago, when plans were being hatched to build the present school and close the old one, the mood was very similar.

‘Patient and long-suffering’

Calls for a new school seem to have begun around the turn of the century. In 1912, there were concerns over the condition of the existing school, a handsome Victorian building constructed in about 1870 on a site next to Kilspindie House, and since replaced by an extension to the hotel now known as Duck’s.

A tinted postcard of the Victorian school, sent to New Haven in the USA in 1908.

The reverse of the same postcard – it might be of interest to Paterson family members.

The state of the old school was a hot topic for a while on the letters page of the Scotsman newspaper, one writer suggesting that ‘Aberlady school internally and externally has been obsolete for the last twenty years’. However, the First World War intervened and inevitably school improvements were put on hold.

On April 8, 1924, the Edinburgh Evening News reported on a meeting of the Haddington School Management Committee at which Aberlady’s headteacher, Mr AM Jamieson, ‘asked what was being done’ about a new school. The chairman, Mr William Murray, replied that ‘the necessity for a new school was overdue’ and added that ‘it had been talked of for 30 years, and the Aberlady folk were a patient and long-suffering class’.

A view from the early 1900s of the schoolmaster’s house, the school and Kilspindie House; and a report from the Edinburgh Evening News, April 8, 1924.

By 1926, plans for the new school were well under way, but ratepayers and parents were unhappy with the site proposed by the education authority, on Sea Wynd. A report in the Edinburgh Evening News of June 9, 1926 describes a ‘largely attended meeting’ held in the village’s reading room – now part of Hall House – to protest against the location ‘at a corner near the old drill hall in close proximity to continuous motor traffic between Edinburgh and North Berwick and therefore considered dangerous to the pupils’. The following March, a petition signed by 500 Aberlady residents objecting to the site was presented to the local MP (Scotsman, March 9, 1927).

The community proposed an alternative site, set back from the main road, not far from The Pleasance, where a street of ‘houses fit for heroes’ had been built in 1919–20. Ultimately, the public got its way. Plans were prepared by Francis William Hardie, East Lothian’s county architect, and were approved in September 1929 – almost exactly the time of the Wall Street Crash – with a projected cost of £3,246 (Scotsman, September 20, 1929).

The school in the 1950s, from the ‘Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian’ (2000).

The design was described in the Scotsman of May 22, 1931: ‘The school consists of three classrooms, hall, staff rooms, cloakrooms, with a combined cookery and manual instruction room… The classrooms are characterised by their lightness and airiness. The rooms are heated by low-pressure hot water, the artificial lighting is electric.

‘The site extends to two acres and has been laid out in grass and flower borders. Part of the area has been covered in tar macadam for playgrounds and drill purposes. There are large and airy playing sheds for both boys and girls, and the sanitation is on the most modern lines.’

The school was officially opened on May 21, 1931, with a ceremony and a speech by Sir William Wallace McKechnie, Secretary of the Scottish Education Department. In declaring the school open, McKechnie observed that a thoroughly up-to-date school was something Aberlady had not seen for quite a time and that was not likely to be repeated for many years. Eighty-nine years later, his statement has proven to be entirely accurate.

May 17, 2020 • by Dora Roden

Further reading

A PhD thesis on the topic of rural schools written by Helen Louise Young at the University of Stirling in 2016 is an excellent survey of the history of education in Scotland, and also has a number of useful insights into Aberlady and its people.

Dr Young’s insights are drawn largely from the Aberlady chapter of the East Lothian volume of the Third Statistical Account of Scotland, written in 1949 by Aberlady’s minister from 1918 to 1958, Dr Thomas Caldwell.

Equally worthwhile is the contribution by Iain Macaskill to the Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian, a project begun in 2000. It includes his account of the school after 1945, with the reminiscences of William Doig, headteacher from 1960 to 1972 (and successor to Alex Ross, headteacher for almost 30 years from the school’s opening in 1931).

‘The small rural school and community relations in Scotland, 1872-2000’
Helen Louise Young
dspace.stir.ac.uk/bitstream/ 1893/ 24372/ 1/ FINAL THESIS HLY Oct 2016.pdf

Article by Dr Helen Louise Young for the Scottish History Network, 2017
scottishhistorynetwork.wordpress.com/ 2017/04/26/ dr-helen-young-making-sense-of-society-through-historical-research/

Fourth Statistical Account of East Lothian, Aberlady, Education

Third Statistical Account of Scotland, East Lothian volume, from libraries
capitadiscovery.co.uk/ eastlothian/ items/ 59027


Portrait of Sir William Wallace McKechnie, Scottish National Portrait Gallery
www.nationalgalleries.org/ art-and-artists/ 3122/ sir-william-wallace-mckechnie-1872-1947-educationalist

Scottish Education Department documents, 1930s, National Library of Scotland
digital.nls.uk/exams/ browse/ archive/ 143486133

1 thought on “A school fit for the twentieth century”

  1. I attended the Primary School for the first time in 1954 or 1955. It was as described with three classrooms and an assembly and drill hall. There was also a dining hall, the headmaster’s office, a teachers’ room, and the janitor’s room outside the hall. It was a fun place to be. My first headmaster was Sandy Ross, then Bill Doig came along and he modernised teaching quite a bit with the use of radio, and a tape recorder. The playing area was segregated between boys and girls. I went home for lunch. It was a happy time. Why the address of the school is now shown as Moor Road is a huge mistake; Kirk Road clearly extended as far as the Kirk. The school sports were pretty amazing, high jump, long jump, you name it. Winning was all! Aberlady was a different, smaller place then and I remember it warmly. I’ve a poem or three from the time of the old school on Main Street.

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