The oldest school in Dundee was the Grammar School, but exactly how old it was we cannot say.
The first historical glimpse comes at the beginning of the 13th century. About 1220, Gilbert, Bishop of Brechin, granted a charter to the Abbot and monks of Lindores. In this he not only confirmed all previous grants, but added a clause which appeared in no previous charter — "They are also permitted to confer the schools of the same town upon whomsoever they please".
That is to say, the Abbot of Lindores was given the right to appoint masters in the schools of Dundee, and it implies that some schooling was being given. It was about sixty years thereafter (according to the poet, Blind Harry) that our great Scottish hero, William Wallace, attended school in Dundee. The Wallace's home at Elderslie was broken up during the invasion of Edward I. Wallace's father was forced to go into hiding, but the boy and his mother found shelter with their relatives, the Crawfords of Kilspindie.
Blind Harry's story goes on — "In till Dundee Wallace to school they send Till he of wit full worthily was kenned."
And it was while he was attending this school in Dundee that Wallace had his celebrated encounter with Selby, son of the Commander of the English garrison quartered in the Castle of Dundee.
It is easy to picture the haughty young Selby, clad in his silks and finery, taunting the dour Scots lad, clothed in homespuns — boasting of England's power, and truculently brandishing his dagger. Wallace would no doubt suffer in silence for a time. Then, his Scottish blood rising in anger, he would fell the Sassenach to the ground. That is what happened, and it was indeed a first blow for Scottish freedom. Realising his danger, Wallace fled to Kilspindie. It is said that when he reached Longforgan he rested for a little beside a cottage door, sitting on a meal-kirn, and no doubt he had a bite to eat — a scone or a bannock — before hurrying on his way again. This cottage in Longforgan is marked by a wall plaque, and the meal-kirn is in Dundee Museum. In town, a metal plaque on the wall of St. Paul's Catholic Church bears this inscription — "Near this spot William Wallace struck the first blow for Scottish independence".
For a long time after this stirring episode we hear little of the Grammar School. In 1555, the Abbot of Lindores tried to dismiss the master, Thomas McGibbon, because he was teaching Protest¬ant doctrines to his pupils. The Town Council upheld the Rector, and the Abbot retaliated by excommunicating the councillors! In the end the Lords of the Congregation stepped in, and MacGibbon retained his position. After the Reformation the School flourished, and in 1589 (with a grant of £10 a year from the Queen herself) the Town Council provided it with a new building in St. Clement's Lane. This was occupied for 200 years, and then the scholars moved to another building in School Wynd. One of the Rectors, David Lindsay, became Bishop of Edin¬burgh, and had Bibles and fauld-stools hurled at his head in the famous St. Giles riot in 1637. Another, Patrick Lyon, was forced to resign because of his sympathies for the Jacobite cause.
In the 17th and 18th century the schoolday extended from seven or eight in the morning until six in the evening. Holidays were short — three weeks in the summer, a day at New Year, a day at the spring and autumn fasts. Saturdays were not holidays, and Christmas and Easter were regarded as Popish or pagan festivals. In these early days the School taught Latin, Greek, oratory, grammar, moral letters, "gude manners and cumlie order". Inter¬esting information concerning rules and customs which live on to some extent in the present High School can be gleaned from the old records of Dundee Town Council. But what a pity Robert Fergusson the poet did not write about his two years at Dundee Grammar School, as he did about his life at St. Andrews University and Edinburgh.
There were now three Burgh Schools in Dundee. The English School had been established by the Town Council in 1702, though it had possibly derived from the Sang School, founded long before the Reformation. Whatever its origin, its local habitation was now under the Old Steeple, where the nave of St. Mary's had been, before it was smashed by the guns of the English in 1547. Later on in the 18th century, when the site was needed for St. Clement's Church, the School was moved. The "flitting" took the scholars a little west to a new building at the corner of the Nether-gate and School Wynd, now called Lindsay Street. And this build¬ing the English School shared with the Grammar School. Dundee Academy was founded by the Town Council in 1785, with leanings towards mathemetics and the sciences. The building had been a hospital used by the Trinitarian Friars before the Reformation. Its first Rector, Mr James Weir, was described as "a gentle¬man of considerable ability, but rather a projector". Apparently his trouble was an irrepressible desire to solve the mysteries of perpetual motion. The Academy was closed in 1795, but a legacy enabled it to be re-opened in 1801, under a brilliant mathematician, Rector Thomas Duncan. By 1820 it had again fallen on hard times, and the building was very dilapidated. St. Andrews R.C. Cathedral now stands where the Dundee Academy stood.
In 1829 a proposal took shape that these three Burgh Schools should be combined in one new building. A Board of Directors was constituted, and their first task was to give effect "that the several public schools of this Burgh shall form or be incorporated in and with the Public Seminaries to be erected". The Directors certainly put their heart into this new under¬taking. They seem to have fully realised that this was not only a chance to provide an adequate school, but also a unique oppor-tunity to erect a building of architectural distinction.
The site ultimately chosen was on the north side of the Meadows, a public "common," and the general conception was to place the new school in a position facing the Town House, so that it would form a dignified termination to a projected new street, leading from the one to the other. There was only one real objection. A few feared that "the persons of the scholars" might be endangered by traffic, and that the "noise and tumult" might disturb them at their studies. How-ever, these fears proved groundless. Obviously the High School pupils have always packed a power of concentration and a fleetness of foot — and never more than today! The new building was designed and executed by George Angus, a distinguished Edinburgh architect, and he also designed the new street. The foundation stone of the school was laid by Lord Kinnaird on 9th August, 1832, and the foundation stone of the Earl Gray Dock was laid the same day. It was also the day chosen for the celebration of Earl Gray's Reform Bill, and the new street was called Reform Street for that reason. The School building was completed in two years, and officially opened on 1st October, 1834. The total cost was £10,000, the greater part being obtained by public subscription. "The Dundee Public Seminaries" was an appropriate name, for although they were now housed under one roof, the three schools each continued to lead a separate existence in its own sweet way. There was no Rector, and teachers had much freedom. There is an amusing episode of an early drawing-master who found his classroom very cold. We find him being reprimanded by the Dir¬ectors for "without knowledge or consent of the Clerk of Works, cutting an opening in the roof of his classroom to enable him to fit up a stove . . .".
In 1859 the Directors obtained a "Charter of Incorporation" under which the name of the School was changed to the High School of Dundee, and for some years prior to 1882 the "rectorial duties" were performed in rotation by one of the Headmasters, known as "The Censor". Even then, each of the nine Headmasters remained uncontrol¬led head of his own department, and each piled on the work as if no department but his own existed. Some of them persistently ignored the school bell, and then there was a polite exchange of notes between heads, usually with no apparent result. At this time the High School might be .described as a school without a head, or (like the fabled Hydra) one with nine heads. The masters were equal in power. They collected their own fees from the pupils attending their classes, and they paid their own assistants. Altogether, it was a peculiar system, and if it was not quite unique in Scotland, at least it persisted in Dundee High School until a very late date, for it was 1883 before a Rector was appointed. It should be noted, nevertheless, that this peculiar system was quite successful. The masters were all men of wide experience and con¬spicuous ability. In appearance they were tall, dignified, heavily bearded and very impressive. In class they were free to develop their own individuality in teaching methods, and all worked hard and loyally for the good of the School. With the appointment of George Ross Merry in 1883, the School entered upon a new era of its history. Under its first Rector it nourished, and extended its activities and influence. Both Dr. Merry and his successor, John Maclennan, who became Rector in 1904, grew old in the service of the school. Their self-sacrificing energy and deeds of wisdom are beyond all praise. A third Rector, Ian M. Bain, took charge in 1932, and guided the School triumphantly through the very difficult years of the Second World War. Now, under its fourth Rector, David W. Erskine, the School goes forward to greater endeavours than ever. A steady increase in the number of pupils has made reconstruction of the main building imperative, and the playing fields have also been extended. However, the pillars at the top of Reform Street remain as they were, and their position is not without its symbolism in the life of Dundee. Around them cluster shrines of Religion and Art, while seats of Commerce, Industry and Manufacture are within a stone's throw of their gates. These classical pillars stand for something very real, the permanence of an unbroken tradition of scholarship and learning, extending through 700 years and more.
A NOTE ON THE D.H.S. BADGE
The present school badge took the place of an older badge which was considered unsuitable by the Lord Lyon, King of Arms. It was designed by Colin Gibson in consultation with Rector Ian M. Bain and the Lord Lyon. The design includes the Cross of St. Andrew and the Crozier of the Abbot of Lindores, the Crown of the Virgin, a Pot of Three Growing Lilies (representing Dundee), and a simplified version of the school pillars. The School Motto, Prestante Domino ("With God as Guide") was chosen by Mr Bain from an old manuscript of Lindores.