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The Education Act of 1872 made primary education available to all Scottish children between the ages of five and ten, leading to large numbers of schools being built to cater for remote areas. Government naturally wanted assurance that the expenditure was effective, the role of the school inspector.
John Wilson was one who being a bachelor was willing to inspect the most inaccessible schools. He covered the whole of Scotland from 1882 to 1920 when transport to many Highlands and Islands communities was so inadequate that on two occasions he hired a yacht. The expense of this was accepted by his employer, being the cheapest means of reaching his work. In the Circe and the Snare he visited the islands and coastal communities from Ullapool to Oban. In Orkney waters he hired the sloop Elizabeth.
In the interests of his work Wilson was prepared to take risks and rough it. When travelling by steamer, lack of piers often meant a risky transfer to shore by ship’s boat which he experienced when travelling to Col, Colonsay, Iona and Gigha. Landing could entail careful timing of a leap ashore and as he said, it was no task for a non-swimmer.
Other ferries were open sailing fishing boats, one of which took Wilson to Mingulay and the Monarch Isles, in those days not just inhabited but having a small school. A chapter is entitled Travelling by Sea and the rest of the book is sprinkled with references to all weather short sea crossings in some very inadequate craft.
Wilson was taken to four schools on the east side of Lewis, south of Stornoway, by the Royal Naval gunboat Seahorse. This close association of the Inspector with the Marines aboard who were used to maintain law and order ashore did not make for good relations with local communities and so the arrangement was not continued. Starvation amongst those displaced by the Highland clearances had led to widespread unrest and he travelled with a revolver which on one occasion was carried loaded in his pocket.
In the chapter Iona and Hinba Wilson emphasises the ecclesiastical interest of the latter, Eileach an Naoihm, “Graveyard of the Saints”. It is the more southerly of the Garvellachs, the ‘Isles of the Sea’ and was used by St Columba as a retreat.
Whereas none of the buildings on Iona were standing in Columba’s day, Eileach an Naoihm “actually contains ruins which bring us face to face with the great saint”. This is all the more interesting to the yachtsman, having the means to reach the island and antiquities to see without the crowds that flock to Iona. Whilst Wilson does not say he visited, his text has the feel of someone who did. For a more extensive treatment see The Scottish Islands, by Hamish Haswell-Smith (2).
Wilson was an adventurous, observant and compassionate man who delighted in seeing the far reaches of the country. In the words of Ronald Black’s introduction to the Birlinn reprint, Wilson’s fascinating anecdotes “show how the best insights into social history are gleaned not by travellers but by those who have access to real people’s lives through their jobs”. This authentic social history makes a fine companion to Walter Weyndling’s Ferry Tales of Argyll and the Isles (3).
Tales and Travels makes compelling reading, a revelation of unsettled times, the difficulty of travelling in the Highlands and Islands and the isolation of some professionals, not just crofters. It recreates life in the small communities that existed in these horse drawn remote areas, among the last in Scotland to see the motor car. It is a gem for the inquiring cruising man, enlivening explorations and entertaining in equal measure.
1. Tales and Travels of a School Inspector, John Wilson, Jackson Wylie & Co, 1928, reprinted by Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh, 2007, ISBN13: 978 1 84158 526 0,

ISBN10: 1 84158 526 2.

2. The Scottish Islands, Hamish Haswell-Smith, 1996, Canongate Books Ltd, fully revised second edition 2004.

3. Ferry Tales of Argyll and the Isles, Walter Weyndling, Sutton Publishing Limited, 1996, ISBN 0 7509 1185 9.

Paul Shave
yacht Blue Spindrift
16 February 2010