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Memories of 'getting the belt' in Caithness are all part of the past that shaped our lives

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HERITAGE MATTERS: The Wick Society's regular column about local heritage

The tawse or corporal punishment was banned in Scotland’s state school in 1987.
The tawse or corporal punishment was banned in Scotland’s state school in 1987.

Growing up in Caithness meant attending school. There were of course exceptions and exemptions, particularly in the rural schools where farm work was considered a necessity, although many learnt as much on the farm as they did at school.

Others of course, town and country, simply absconded and a visit from the ‘wheeper in’ followed.

Where the parents were found to be guilty of unofficially keeping their children at home, they could find themselves at odds with the courts. Children who were found to be simply skipping school might, on their return, encounter the tawse.

The tawse, or corporal punishment, was banned in Scotland’s state schools in 1987 (private schools eventually followed suit 10 years later), but for many of us the tawse was all too real, and we have a variety of memories of teachers who ‘wielded the strap’. Teachers also had a variety of ways in which they administered the punishment. Some kept the instrument in their desks, while others were known to wear it over their shoulder, so it could be easily accessed and applied.

The preferred supplier of the tawse to schools was the firm of John J Dick Leather Goods of Lochgelly in Fife – hence the name often given, the Lochgelly Tawse.

The Wick Heritage Museum has wonderful examples of three versions of the tawse – one with two tongues, a third that offered a three-pronged approach and relative subsequent mark and one that had five tongues! All three sit proudly in the schoolroom display, hanging over the teacher’s desk, ready for action.

The John O’Groat Journal of 1884 highlighted one Thurso teacher who kept and applied three different named versions – The Constable, which was a soft pliable tawse; the Baillie, which was a stiff hard belt that left a significant mark; and finally the Sheriff, which was only brought out on criminal occasions.

One teacher (not named) back in 1880 apparently replaced his tawse with a knotted piece of rope about three quarters of an inch thick. “He would cause the offender to be taken up on the back of a fellow scholar, when the kilt was turned up and the lower part of the body laid bare and then the knotted rope was applied without mercy.”

To counter that, a Mr Craig, teacher at Bower, “when a boy or girl got tired and listless, he wasn’t brightened by the tawse. No, he or she was marched up to the schoolhouse for a cup of tea”.

Caithness’s eminent historian, James Traill Calder, was also a teacher, and he too is recorded as making use of the tawse. A report from 1901 describes Mr Calder as “capable and conscientious and generally gave much encouragement especially to scholars he considered ‘clever’. However, everyday fare included a “smack of his tawse”.

Our heritage is everywhere and includes everything we did or experienced throughout our Caithness lives. Memories of ‘getting the belt’ tend to stick with us and we are glad it is now forbidden, but the thing about our heritage is that it was often the norm at the time, and we should remember it as a key part of the past that has shaped our present and hopefully will inform our future.

The tawse is now an item of heritage which allows us to look back and see how our ancestors lived, worked, played and were punished.

  • The Wick Heritage Museum is now open three days a week – Thursday, Friday and Saturday, from 10am to 4pm each of these days. As always the season is scheduled to close at the end of October. Discover more about the Wick Society and our heritage on the website, www.wickheritage.org

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