James Lothian Mitchell - Part 1

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by Iain Sommerville

James Mitchell

(This is the Internet version of a series of four articles which were published in the Burgh Buzz, Burntisland's community newspaper, in 1999-2000.)

Part 1 - Setting the Scene: The Early Years

This story begins in the village of Hillend, near Inverkeithing in Fife, and ends 45 years later in Glasgow. But the main events took place in Burntisland in the early years of this century. It is the story of a man who ran Burntisland School for 14 years, and who transformed the inherently conservative Town Council into a catalyst for the common good - a man whose breadth and depth of knowledge was unsurpassed, and who was one of the foremost orators of his time.

The man was James Lothian Mitchell. Mention his name in Burntisland today, and you'll get a blank look. And yet, when he died in 1908, the Dunfermline Journal was moved to remark that there was no better known man in the area. He has no official memorial in the town which he knew so well, and to which he devoted the best years of his life. But there is no more enduring reminder of the man and what he stood for than the fine Public Library in the High Street. His perseverance with the project, in the face of strong opposition, brought the library - and Andrew Carnegie - to Burntisland in 1907.

This is Mitchell's story - and also the story of a uniquely turbulent period in the history of Burntisland. In the early 1900s, the town was deeply divided. Bitter divisions on the Town Council spilled over into the School Board, which itself became a political battleground. A number of the issues of principle being debated in the town at the beginning of this century are still with us today: issues such as public sector jobs for friends and relations; conflicts of interest; the powers of School Boards; and - of critical importance to Mitchell - the right of public sector employees to take an active part in local politics.

James Mitchell

Mitchell as a young man, in a pose typical of the period

James Mitchell had an inauspicious start in life. He was born on the 17th of August, 1863, in the village of Hillend, the illegitimate son of an agricultural labourer and a domestic servant. Nowadays no-one would bat an eyelid. But things were different in 1863, and Hillend was scandalised. Mitchell's mother was summoned before the United Presbyterian Kirk Session in Inverkeithing, charged with fornication. She received the customary rebuke and was absolved. But her son James would bear the very real stigma of illegitimacy for the rest of his life.

It soon became obvious that he had intelligence far above the normal. At school in Hillend, and then Inverkeithing, he outshone his fellow students. The strength of his personality, which in a few years would put him in the forefront of public life in Burntisland, helped him to cope with his illegitimacy.

In 1882, at the age of 18, James Mitchell enrolled for teacher training at the Free Church Training College in Edinburgh (Moray House). At the same time, he embarked on studies for the degree of Master of Arts at Edinburgh University.

Edinburgh seems to have agreed with him. He won prizes and medals from engineering to art, from philosophy to physics, and from law to mathematics. He also won plaudits from his teachers who confidently forecast that he would rise to the very top of his profession. He was described as one of the ablest men to have attended the University of Edinburgh.

After completing his education in Edinburgh, Mitchell taught at schools in Aberdeen and in the west of Scotland - but always kept his eye open for new challenges.

Burntisland gets a new headmaster

Meanwhile, in Burntisland, an era was drawing to a close. David Low had been headmaster of the burgh school for over 35 years. He had certainly made his mark on the town, both as a teacher and as a town councillor.

David Low's reign had encompassed many changes, including the opening of the new school in Ferguson Place on the 11th of September, 1876, and the opening of the West Dock in December of the same year. These were indicators of Burntisland's prosperity in that period. But in 1890 an event occurred which was to change Burntisland forever - and not for the better. The Forth Bridge opened. Prior to that, Burntisland had been a busy passenger and freight terminus. The Burntisland/Granton ferry had been the principal means of crossing the Forth. But from 1890, while coal exports continued, passenger traffic dwindled. This trend was well underway when David Low died in April 1892.

Burntisland School

The 1876 school building in Ferguson Place (rebuilt in 1913 after a fire). The Higher Grade school building of 1901 is just visible on the right. The complex now houses Burntisland Primary School.

When the headmaster's post was advertised, there were a large number of applications. Although he was only 28 at the time, James Mitchell was one of the applicants. The School Board of Burntisland opted for the combination of youth and talent which he offered, and he took up his duties as headmaster in August 1892.

James Mitchell brought energy and progress to the school. Schools Inspectors were active in those days, too, and they always praised Burntisland highly in their reports. Pupils achieved results in Government examinations which were rarely matched elsewhere, according to one of the Inspectors. The same Inspector commented on the fact that little or no advanced instruction had been attempted in Burntisland before Mitchell's appointment, and credited him with the almost unaided establishment of the town's Higher Grade school, which opened on the 27th of September, 1901. (A Higher Grade school was a basic secondary school. They were introduced in Scotland in 1899, and before long they were providing a secondary education for some 20,000 pupils who previously would have left school at the end of their primary education.)

Mitchell had also gained a remarkable reputation in the Church of Scotland Teacher Training College in Edinburgh, where the Rector commented that no other school matched Burntisland in the quality of the students which it sent to the College.


The School Staff

Mitchell (back right) with the staff of Burntisland School (circa 1896)


The Pupil Teachers

Mitchell with the Burntisland Pupil Teachers (circa 1905)

Pupil Teachers

In the 60 years up to 1906, Scottish schools used the system of Pupil Teachers. It was introduced when there was a seemingly insatiable demand for education, but little money available for employing additional staff. Promising boys and girls were selected at the age of 13, and apprenticed to their head teacher for four years. In return for a very modest salary and some additional instruction for themselves, they taught classes of younger pupils under the supervision of the head teacher.

After this gruelling apprenticeship, the best of the Pupil Teachers went on to teacher training colleges.


The School Science Lab

Burntisland School science lab (circa 1905), with one of the Pupil Teachers in the foreground and Mitchell keeping a watchful eye from the rear

At the same time, Mitchell was gaining recognition throughout Fife and beyond as a speaker and essayist, both on education and on the wider issues of the day. In 1902 he accepted a fresh challenge, and allowed his name to go forward as a candidate for the Town Council. One of the attractions would have been that it provided a further opportunity for him to demonstrate his ability to apply academic knowledge to the solving of practical problems.

The Council had 12 members, who each served for a period of three years. Four of them retired each year, in rotation, and so the town went to the polls every November. Additional elections for the School Board and for the Parish Council ensured a high level of political interest and debate. In those days, the voting franchise was, broadly speaking, confined to male ratepayers (about 60 per cent of adult men). Although the town's population was 4,800 (compared with 6,100 today), some 70 per cent of adults did not have the vote.

The practices of leafleting and canvassing were widely used for the first time in the 1902 election. Mitchell went one step further, and booked the Music Hall for his own public meeting. The next day he topped the poll in his first electoral contest.

Please click here to continue to part 2 of 4.

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