From Kirkmichael School, Almost 200 Years Ago
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By Catherine Czerkawska


It can hardly be called a book at all – there are just a few yellowing pages, bound together though some of them are coming loose, and around the edges are the marks of the bonfire that destroyed the rest of it. Sadly, this was no accidental fire.

“A friend had died” said the lady who lent me the manuscript.” And somebody was clearing out her old desk. When I arrived at her house they had just thrown this on the bonfire. I nearly burned my fingers trying to rescue it, but this was all I could get out of the flames.”

Astonishingly enough these few handwritten pages rescued by my neighbour turned out to date from the Kirkmichael of the early 1800s. This looks as though it was part of the notebook or commonplace book of the school, and offers a handful of tantalising glimpses (for the entries are in many different hands, representing different schoolmasters) into the everyday life of the village only a few short years after the death of Robert Burns, whose life and death would have been well within living memory for at least some of these people.

So what does it contain? And what do the various jottings tell us? Well, brief as they are, they paint a vivid picture of another time and place. The entries and dates are very haphazard, as though later schoolmasters had gone back and filled in spaces: paper was no doubt very precious. One of the earliest I could find, the hand very curly and faded, was dated 13th April 1809 and concerned a woman called Sarah Logan who was a native of Straiton Parish. She “evidently is in indigent circumstances and will in all probability soon become an object of Charity. You will therefore take the first opportunity of informing the session of Straiton that unless they give the session here (i.e. Kirkmichael) a letter that she shall not become a burden upon the Charity Funds of this Parish she will be returned immediately and allowed to remain no longer within the limits of this Parish. “

Not a lot of Christian charity there then,  though it is more evident in the request from 1813 for a subscription fund for “Alexander McCrackan in Spring Garden (where was this?) who has suffered by having his machinery destroyed by accidental fire on the night of 29th June last and from a consideration of the honest and upright character he has uniformly maintained and of his enterprise in establishing and carrying on the bleaching business to the satisfaction of the public we deem it is our duty to assist him in the expense of repairing his machinery.

There are a number of lists. Some of them are lengthy accounts of land values (In 1829, Drumore was worth 54 pounds, 1 shilling and 1 penny. Roan was worth only 35 pounds, 8 shillings and 1 penny, but Merkland was worth all of 69 pounds, 19 shillings and 2 pence!)  Some deal with Kirkmichael school finances. The running of the school including the master’s salary was obviously paid for by contributions from surrounding farms and some contributed more than others. Did this depend on children or wealth or land area or some calculation involving all three I wonder? Why for instance, would Tranew contribute 5 shillings and 10 pence, whereas Barskelly only paid 3 shillings and 7 pence three farthings?

There is a strange mixture of correspondence, laboriously copied into the book, including some  notes of a distinctly social nature. Some are obviously from the teacher himself.

“J R’s compliments to the Directors of the Farmer’s Annual Ball of Kirkmichael and is exceedingly sorry that it is out of his power to do himself the honor of attending their Ball this night. Kirkmichael School, Tuesday Evening.”  So it was a late cancellation and I found myself wondering if it was a relief or a disappointment to the young farmers of the early 1800s.

            Others are from the female side. “Mrs……compliments to Miss…. hopes she got safe home and is in health after the fatigue of sitting up so late.”

In reply comes “Miss ….‘s compliments to Mrs … got home perfectly safe and is extremely well, returns respectful thanks for her obliging enquiries, Friday 2 o’clock.”

But why no names? Were these specimen letters for general use I wonder? At any rate they have an oddly Jane Austen ring about them and why not? The great novelist herself died in 1817 at the early age of 42.

Among everything else there are interesting little curiosities such as the carefully copied out recipes for ink, one very odd experiment with perpetual motion involving a wheel and a huge quantity of quicksilver, one or two lengthy religious meditations, a number  of petitions and legal documents including indentures for young men becoming apprentices, the composition of the local “militia”  and a loyal and very schoolmasterly “Toast”:

“Addition to the friends of Old England, Subtraction to her Wants, Multiplication of her Blessings, Division of her foes and Reduction of her Debts and Taxes.” (not many Scots ready to subscribe to that one nowadays, I’ll bet!)

One note in a faint, sloping hand says that “Mrs Kennedy died on Sunday morning at 6 o’clock being 27th March and was buried on Friday 1st April 1814” and later on in the same book we discover that this was Mrs Kennedy, the wife of the minister David Kennedy because the invitation to her funeral has been carefully copied out in the same faint hand.

In 1815 there comes a lengthy account of the “Great Snow”

“December 15th Stormy day, wind from the west and sleet showers in the forenoon and hail showers towards the evening making the ground gray immediately after the shower but almost melted before next shower.

16th The ground covered with snow about 4 inches deep,  snow showers frequently during the day which covered the earth about 7 inches deep. I shovelled the doors twice this day. Wind NW

17th  More snow during last night. I shovelled the doors a third time, also Sunday morning, the snow this day about 10 inches deep,  in general the weather being always since the snow fell at first, quite calm. Some blades of snow in the evening, hard frost, wind North.

20th I rose about 9 o’clock this morning. There is a strong wind from NE with a very thick snow and drift which continued until the evening incessantly when the snow ceased but the wind continued to drift only what snow fell during the day and the preceding night as the snow that had fallen previous to that was saddened with the nature of the thaw, the hares were only beginning to look out as yet but plenty of partridges this evening is just to my mind. (Not sure what he meant by that last paragraph but I quote it verbatim!) 

21st Beautiful day, keen frost, wind NE I never saw so deep a snow in general though I have seen much greater weather.

22nd  Keen frost in the evening and during night, strong sound from the linn but clear sky and hard frost and wind NE.

23rd Windy with sleet and rain from the south, rained this whole day incessantly. Wind South.

Not a pleasant December then - and no central heating to temper the frosts either.

From 1817 there is a sad little enquiry to the war office about soldiers gone missing and “supposed to be dead”. Also from 1817 is a petition for charity for a Mauchline lady whose worldly possessions including “two good cows” have been consumed by fire and whose son who had been her sole means of support  was killed at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.

Next there is a promise for  “Subscriptions for a Monument to Robert Burns”

“We the undersigned agree to pay the sums annexed to our respective names for the purpose of erecting a monument to the memory of Robert Burns at or near the place of his birth; payable at such time and place as the committee appointee to take charge of the same shall afterwards direct. “

In April 1818 there is more mention of the weather – and again it’s a reference to snow which must have been as much of a peculiarity then as it is in the Kirkmichael of today, particularly in April.

“This day snowed from the North and covered the earth four inches deep. It has hitherto been a very cold spring. Snow began to fall about 12 o’clock, still snowing a little, 5 o’clock. “

And finally, there are permits to travel. It must have been difficult for the “lower orders” to travel about the country without permission from the minister and other “high heid yins”  of the Parish. So we read the following:-

“Parish of Kirkmichael, County of Ayr

You are hereby desired to permit and suffer the bearer Margaret Kew, peaceably and without molestation to pass from this parish to Newton Stewart and is to assist and relieve her as you shall see meet, she behaving herself orderly and discreetly, always keeping the straight or Postroad and not exceeding ten days to perform her journey.

Given at Kirkmichael 11th day of Dec 1828

D Kennedy, Minister (the same one who lost his wife some 14 years previously)

B Bell, Justice of the peace

To the Kirk Sessions and all others whom these presents may concern”

And then, perhaps most interesting of all, written directly under this letter, like an ironic comment on it – but by whom? The dominie himself perhaps?  - comes the old rhyme about the one family who ruled this part of the world for so long:-


“Twixt Wigton and the town of Air

Portpatrick and the Cruives of Cree

No man need think for to bide there

Unless he court Saint Kennedie “


All in all, this is a truly fascinating little document. The only pity is to think about just what went up in flames!


Catherine Czerkawska, Kirkmichael, June 1st 2002

Click here to connect to writer Catherine Lucy Czerkawska's website

Catherine Czerkawska is a resident of Kirkmichael and accomplished writer. Her works include novels, plays for theatre and BBC radio, television drama, short stories, articles and creative content of all kinds.

 See also Catherine's notes from a talk given to the Maybole Historical Society


The transcriptions below, with comments added, were contributed by Catherine Czerkawska. These are taken from the document described above.


Names of the scholars together with their offerings on New Years Day, Kirkmichael School, 1st January 1808

1 Samuel Pagan  £0.5.0

2 John Chrystie  £0.5.0

3 Henry Chrystie £0.1.0

4 Charles Hutchison £0.6.0

5 John McFadzen £0.5.0

6 David Goudie £0.1.0

7 William Goudie £0.1.0

8 Duncan Watt £0.1.6

9 Rosina McMurtrie £0.2.0

10 William McClymont £0.2.6

11 John Hunter £0.1.0

12 Andrew Campbell £0.2.6

13 John Girvan £0.1.0

14 Thomas Girvan £0.1.0

15 William  Muckle £0.1.0

16 James Muir Wilson £0.1.0

17 James Muir Dawson £0.1.0

18 John Mitchel £0.1.0

19 Jane Girvan £0.1.0

20 Isbel Gavin £0.2.6

21 James Wilson £0.1.0

22 William McCosh £0.1.0

23 Margaret McCosh £0.1.0

24 Margaret Muir £0.1.0

25 William Arthur £0.1.6

26 Gilbert Porter £0.1.6

27 Peter McConnel £0.1.0

28 John Dick £0.1.0

29 John Kerr £0.1.0

30 Jane Kerr £0.1.0

31 Thomas Gall £0.1.6

32 William Stewart £3.0.0

33 James McHutchison £3.0.0.

34 Helen McHutchison £0.1.0

35 Christen Cook  £0.1.0

36 John Cook £0.1.0

37 John Ferguson £0.1.0

38 Anne McClounan £0.2.0

39 George Henry £0.2.0

40 David Farquhar £0.1.6

41 Marion Ferguson £0.1.0

42 William Hutchison £0.5.0

43 John McQuiston £0.1.0

44 John Douglas £0.1.0

45 Philip McIlmeal £0.0.6

46 William McClounan £0.1.0

47 John Kerr Thornyhill £0.1.0

48 Hunter Johnson £0.1.0

49 Thomas Goudie £0.1.0

50 Ian Linton £0.1.0

51 Mary Grier £0.1.0

52 Catherine Roger £0.5.0

53 Marion Findlay £0.1.0

54 Joseph Hunter £0.2.6

55 Quintin Dick £0.1.0

Total £4.11.0

 (added later)

Marion Pagan £0.2.6

William Stewart £0.1.0

David Main £0.4.0

Final Total £4.18.6pence.


William McClymont, Samuel Pagan, John Chrystie, Charles Hutchison, John McFadzen, David Main, William Hutchison, Marion Pagan, Janet Hutchison, Isbel Gavin, Robert Paterson, Henry Chrystie, Hugh Henry, David Dobbie, John Arthur, Alexander Dobbie, John Kerr, Catherine Chrystie, Janet Morrison, Agnes Main, Margaret Wilson, Andrew Campbell, John Craick, Hugh Ross, Hugh Muir, Ian Girvan, Thomas Girvan, John Girvan, John Brackenridge, Thomas Goudie, James McJannet(?) James Muir, Mary Muir, Thomas Fulton, Robert Wilson, James Wilson, Gilbert Porter, James Porter, John Mitchell, David Goudie, Adam Goudie, William Goudie, Isbel McHutchison, Helen McHutchison, William McCosh, David McConnel, John McMurtrie, David McMurtrie, Marion Ferguson, Philip McIlmeal, William Ferguson, Mary Ferguson, Agnes Ferguson, Jane McCosh, Sarah Fergusson, Anne McClounan, Mary McClounan, Jane Porter, James McHutchison, James Smith, Thomas Galt, William Muckle, William McClounan, James Aird, John Muir, Agnes Aird, James Craick, John McClounan, John Anderson, Robert Farquhar, David Hannay, James Wilson, James Caldwell, David Dick, James Logan, Agnes Niel, Catherine Roger, David Edgar, Adam Shankland, John McJannet, Roger Kerr.

Total for this year was £7 and 1 shilling



John Chrystie, David Main, James Bell, Charles Hutchison, John McFadzen, William Hutchison, Henry Christie, Robert Paterson, Hugh Henry, William Watson, John McJannet, Catherine Chrystie, Jane McCosh, Anne Watson, Janet Dick, John Kerr  Junior, Janet Hutchison, Margaret McCosh, Thomas Fulton, William McMurtrie, John Caldwell, John  Brackenridge, Janet Morrison, Thomas Girvan, Agnes McLaughlin, Margaret McLaughlin, James McIlmeal, David Dobbie, James Muir, Jane Muir, James McJanet, John Girvan, William Fergusson, Alexander Dobbie, Margaret Smith, Robert Farquhar, Peter Dick, John McTaggart, David Edgar, James Logan, Gilbert Porter, Mary Bell, Kennedy McConnell, John Kerr Senior, Anne McClounan, William Cowan, John Dick, Philip McIlmeal, John Bulley, James Caldwell, John McQuiston, James McCutchon, Catherine Roger, Agnes Niel, Isbel Edgar, James Wilson, Elizabeth Wilson, Jane Girvan,

Total amount raised this year was £5 and 11 shillings but the teacher notes that this 11 shillings was expended on “whisky toddy and cold shrub” leaving £5.

NB Many of these names are to be found in the village and its surroundings today. The school was extremely well attended – and it can be seen that people did come and go to some extent within the community – since there is a suprising variation from one year to the next. How did one teacher cope with so many pupils? Did he have assistance, perhaps from older pupils? Or his own family? It is also interesting to note the variations in contribution – some families were obviously richer than others and could “offer” more than their neighbours.

Meanwhile, an additional note:- the men who were enquired after at the War Office, on 19th May 1834 were James Samson who had enlisted in the Fourth Batallion of the Scottish Royals some twenty years previously and had disappeared some nineteen years previously. He was last heard of “in Spain. His sister Hannah Samson, in Cloncaird by Maybole, County of Ayr thinks he is dead.”

The other missing man was John Watt who had gone missing 6 years previously but was last heard of six years ago “at the Cape of Good Hope”. Marion Kennedy was enquiring about him, but there is no note of her relationship with John Watt. Both men were supposed to be dead.