Early Learning Centre

Religious houses were built around Haddington during the 12th and 13th century. The brothers present decided to do more than just spread the word of God. They educated the young men of that area and made Haddington one of the great seats of early learning in Scotland.

The Franciscan Friars were already well known for teaching. They arrived in Haddington not long after death of their founder, St Francis of Assisi. 1243 would see the start of the Friary on the banks of the River Banks, which was situated between the East Port and the doo’cot. It is where the pivotal lessons started. In 1274 John Duns Scotus joined the class. His uncle, Elias, was Franciscan vicar-general for Scotland. John was a priest and philosopher who would join an illustrious list of great men who were educated in Haddington.

As time progressed the teachers realised that they needed a schoolhouse to meet the growing popularity of their lessons. In 1378 Haddington Grammar School was built on a site overlooking the River Tyne, adjacent to Nungate Bridge. The school taught day pupils and boarders.

There was little time for rest and relaxation. Students had to work and pray from dawn to dusk every day. In 1496, an Act, demanding barons to send their sons to school, was introduced, and it is plausible that the local barons would find Haddington Grammar the perfect place to have their sons educated. During this period it was felt that girls didn’t need an education!

One of the rules in the school was that the boys could only speak in Latin. Students like John Mair, John Knox and Robert Cockburn were being taught and trained for a divine life. John Mair [1467-1550], known to many as Haddingtonius Scotus, is considered to be one of the greatest moral philosophers of that period. Hailing from near Berwick, John was a Professor of Theology at Glasgow and a successful author. He was also a friend and devotee of Erasmus, the Dutch humanist and theologian. John Knox [1510-1572], the leader of the Scottish Reformation, was born and educated in Haddington. He would join the Reformist movement and after being heavily influenced by George Wishart, was involved in Reformist events before and after the death of Cardinal Beaton in 1546. While living in England, he served as chaplain to Edward VI.

Another local man Robert Cockburn, who died in 1526, was Parson of Dunbar and later held the Bishoprics of Ross than Dunkeld.

The Reformation saw significant changes made to the education system in Haddington, which was stilled linked with the Church. The priest of St Mary’s quietly disappeared and total powers were soon in the hands of the burgh. Lessons would follow what was written in John Knox’s first Book of Discipline, and the council hired the Grammar’s first Protestant master, Mr Dormant, and an assistant master known as the ‘doctor’.

Another important change occurred in 1571 when James Carmichael became master. Carmichael added dramatic arts to the timetable. He even contributed £10 to help purchase costumes and props. Shakespearian plays took place in the open air using the adjacent bowling green as their theatre. The entertainment lasted for hours and gave the students and staff some welcome relief from what would have been a monotonous, daily grind.

In due course, the ‘Auld Schule’, became unfit for teaching. The building was damp and was flooded on a daily basis because it was near the Tyne. Discussions and designs for a new school began. In 1579 a new and improved grammar school was opened next to the original school. The old school became a master’s house and recreational area for the boys.

Part 2 and Part 3 can be found here

Article originally published in East Lothian Life

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