James Hunter

James Hunter (1810 - 1890)

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jh1James Hunter  -  School Master of Mearns

Born in Kilmarnock, son of James Hunter, shoemaker and Mary Wylie, James Hunter held teaching posts in Irvine and Dumfries before his appointment to Mearns in 1847 where, in addition to being the school master, James was also the first Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths in Mearns Parish.

John Knox’s ideal was to provide “in every considerable parish a master fit to teach the Grammar and the Latin tongue”. When James Hunter was appointed as master in the Parish School, the school was situated at Mearnskirk  about 100 yards from the Kirk on the site of the present Mearns Parish Church Manse and his qualification would have satisfied John Knox .

At the time of his appointment, the pupils he taught were those whose parents wished them to have an education and could pay the fees. He achieved quite remarkable results. The Second Statistical Account of the Parish published in 1842 stated that the school as “one of the largest and airiest in the West of Scotland”. 103 pupils were enrolled in the school at that time where the subjects taught  were Reading, Writing and Arithmetic and in addition to Latin, Geography and English Grammar.

It is clear that James Hunter  was an able teacher, for following an inspection of the school in 1858, he was commended for his knowledge of Latin, Greek, Mechanics, Algebra and Geometry.  

Following the requirements of the 1872 Education Act (Scotland) when elementary education for children aged 5-13 years became compulsory, the new school, Mearns Public School, was opened in September 1876 on the Kilmarnock Road (now Ayr Road). It  should be remembered that although education was compulsory, a small fee had to be paid. Not all parents could afford even this small fee, and often wanted  their children at home to help with the work of the farm.

At the time of the Centenary celebrations in 1976, a Centenary Handbook was published and in that Alasdair Morrison, Head Teacher at that time, wrote a profile of James Hunter based on the entries which Mr Hunter recorded in the school log book.

“The entries from the inspectors’ reports show that he had a justifiable pride in what he had achieved and though it is too long ago for anyone to be able to state with precision how he felt, the entries in the Log Book give the impression that education after 1872 was quite a shock to him and he found very little to be happy about under the new set-up. The whole tenor of his reports is that of someone who finds things a bit too much for him. There was certainly little desire among many parents to see their children educated and it would appear that anything he did to try and cut down the truancy appeared to have little success. He appears to have been quite severe on the pupils but only with much heart-searching. He found discipline difficult and complained about having in 1883 to put down a rebellion through the medium of the tawse. He found a great deal of his time was taken up with trying to extract fees from parents unwilling or unable to pay and at one time sent ultimatums to the fact that no more than a week’s grace would be given under penalty of expulsion from school for non-payment of fees. In June 1879 he writes that 21 scholars were dismissed for non-payment of fees and only 4 returned immediately with the money. He complains bitterly about truancy and the fact that little was done about it, and it would appear that he was quite glad to retire when the time came in 1884.”

It is truly the picture of a disillusioned scholar who claims on Friday, 23rd September, 1881, in the school log, “This has been a heartless week of business — so many blockheads to look after.”

Mr Hunter remained as master at Mearns Public School until his retirement in 1884 at the age of seventy four. He died at his home, Broombank in January 1890, aged 79 and is buried in Mearns Kirkyard.

In his honour, the approach road to the present Mearns Primary School which opened in 2003 was named Hunter Drive.  

Marion, one of his four daughters, was a teacher in Mearns until her retiral. She died in Mearns in 1934 aged ninety one.

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