Portree High School Crest

Welcome to Portree High School

History of Portree High School

Photo of the Old School

Four Centuries of Schooling in Portree and District
The earliest known school in Skye was the grammar school founded in 1651 at Duntulm by Sir James Mòr Macdonald. Later in the same century, the first school known to have existed in Portree was established in 1697 – one year after the Scottish Parliamentary Act of 1696, the “Act for Settling of Schools”. The school, at Kiltaraglen, was founded by Sir Donald Macdonald of Sleat, the grandson of Sir James Mòr, and its purpose was to educate boys of the upper classes only.

Indeed, the more comprehensive Reformation idea of a school in every parish was slow to develop: according to the Old Statistical Account of 1795, there were schools in only three of the Skye parishes – Portree, Sleat and Strath. This deficiency led to much voluntary and private effort in the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For example, by 1822 the Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge had six schools in Skye. For a long time these schools refused to use Gaelic as a medium of instruction, and consequently made little impact.

In 1763, a school for “higher education” – that is, to prepare pupils for university – was set up in Portree. It attracted pupils from throughout Skye and from the mainland, but was discontinued in 1825 because of the difficulty of finding a suitably qualified school master.

The first parish school in Portree, though, was established early in the nineteenth century. It was situated in the building which was then the westernmost house in Wentworth Street, on the site of what is now the Caledonian Hotel. The first schoolmaster of whom any record exists was Murdo Macdonald, a Ross-shire man, who became known as “The Old Schoolmaster”. Having attended university for two sessions, Murdo Macdonald taught for twenty-three years before his professional attainments, experience and skill were recognised on the 2nd of July 1848 in a diploma granted by the Educational Institute of Scotland.

In 1822, there were 36 schools in Skye, but by 1837 this number had dropped to 31, before rising again to 35 in 1840. By the mid-nineteenth century the population was increasing, with the introduction of vaccination resulting in a drop in infant mortality rates. The Skye population in 1841 was 23,074 – more than double the figure of 1755.

The Second Statistical Account of 1841 refers to four schools in the parish of Portree. Of these, two were Gaelic schools, and the other two parochial schools – one run by a society based in Glasgow. In the parochial schools, one of which would be in the village itself, the subjects taught were English, reading, writing, grammar, arithmetic, book-keeping, geography, Latin and elements of Greek. A Branch School of the Portree Parochial School was set up in Raasay, which taught only the elementary branches. Only the children living in the immediate vicinity of the schools would attend them.

One of the Gaelic schools would probably likewise be in the village, and one of them seems to have been financed and controlled by The Gaelic School Society, which had been founded in 1811 to promote Bible education in the Highlands. Between 1843 and 1846, this society came under the control of the Free Church. It may be safe to assume that the old Gaelic school, which must have existed from the early years of the nineteenth century, developed into the Free Church School in the single-storey thatched building on the Meall, to the east and adjoining the churchyard. (Later on, this building was occupied by John Macrae, a fisherman, and it was eventually demolished by order of the County Council.) The schoolmaster of the Free Church School for some time was a John Finlayson.

These various schools were superseded when the Scottish Education Act was passed in 1872. Then, Murdo Macdonald became Inspector of the Poor and Registrar of Portree Parish – posts which he held until his death. John Finlayson, on the other hand, became Minister of the Free Church in Coigach, but after suffering ill health, he emigrated to Australia, where he spent the rest of his life.

1933 Elgin Hostel

In the latter part of the nineteenth century, there were also two private schools in Portree, both of which catered for the children of the upper classes: Miss Martin, of the Glendale Martins, had a school in Beaumont Crescent, while Miss Maclean, of Mull, taught in a house on the site of what is now Safeways supermarket. Miss Martin eventually moved away to Maryburgh in Ross-shire, while Miss Maclean went back home, being mentioned in 1874 as living in Tobermory.

The construction of the Portree High School building began shortly after 1872. The original building was very small, containing only three rooms – those which many former pupils will remember as rooms 6, 7 and 8. While the school was being built, children were taught in the upper storey of the old courthouse (which included the jail!) on the Meall – the building which later became the tourist office.

The first headmaster of the new school was Mr James Dunbar, and he was succeeded in 1882 by Mr Andrew Gillanders, whose 42-year tenure of the post included teaching his subject - English. It was under Mr Gillanders that the school grew dramatically in importance as a central school providing secondary education for not only Portree, but most of Skye and the other Inverness-shire islands – particularly Harris, North Uist and the smaller isles in the Inner Hebrides. In 1905, it was raised to the status of Higher Grade School, and in 1906 recognised as a training centre for Junior Students. In a fifty-year period after the school opened, the staff complement increased from two to nineteen, while over 25 years the roll rose from under 30 to nearly 200 – including both primary and secondary pupils. Several additions to the school buildings were necessary, with a new building opened in 1913 and a west wing added in 1926. The accommodation problems posed by the fact that pupils from other islands attended were solved by the building of hostels. The Carnegie United Kingdom trust helped in this process, with the Margaret Carnegie Hostel for girls being opened in 1924, followed in 1933 by the Elgin Hostel for boys.

Mr Gillanders’s successor was Mr Alexander Tait, who served as head for 11 years, and then moved on in 1935 to be Rector of Stirling High School. In turn, his successor was Mr Ian Murray, who died in post in 1962, shortly before the date intended for his retiral. Mr Farquhar Macintosh, from Elgol, then served for five years, before becoming Rector of Oban High and thereafter of the Royal High, Edinburgh. He was also Chairman of the Scottish Examination Board, and continues his involvement in education to this day, having held the Chairmanship of the Board of Trustees of Sabhal Mòr Ostaig for a number of years now. Mr Alexander Macaskill took over as head in 1967, moving on in 1971 to be Rector of MacLaren High in Callander. He was replaced by the third-longest-serving head, Mr James Rodger, who retired in 1993. His successor, Mr David Meek, moved on in 1997 to be Rector of Queen Anne High, Dunfermline, being replaced in turn in May 1998 by the present incumbent.

Throughout the later years of the twentieth century, further extension to the accommodation became necessary. The Technical Block was opened in the early 1960s, and the new, present main building was under construction during session 1967-68. Both the old and the new buildings stood together for about a year before the former was demolished.

The Old School Again

Changes in local government caused changes to the school, as well. Of the present 680 or so secondary pupils, almost all come from Skye and Raasay, with very small numbers from Eigg and the mainland. Girls whose homes are in places that would make daily commuting impractical are accommodated in the Margaret Carnegie Hostel, while boys in such circumstances board in the Boys’ Hostel, built originally for girls in the same grounds in the sixties, but transferred to boys’ use in the late seventies, when the Elgin Hostel became part of the day-school accommodation: it currently houses the Art and Computing Departments, as well as having some Technology, Gaelic and Support for Learning rooms.

On the 7th of January 1991, Mrs Sheena Miller took up her appointment as Head of Portree Primary, and the primary and secondary parts of Portree High School were finally separated completely on the 25th of February that year when the new Portree Primary School opened in Blaven Road, with a roll of 271, including 31 being educated through the medium of Gaelic. In relation to the language in the High School, the wheel has turned, too, with a total of 157 pupils currently being taught in up to eight Gaelic-medium subjects.

Portree High School now has one modern computer for every five pupils. It has a dedicated staff of over 70, serving generally well-behaved and hardworking pupils, who come from homes where education is valued by supportive parents. Higher examination results in 2001 were amongst the best 10% in Scotland. With its rich history and its unique cultural heritage, the school is well-placed to face the challenges ahead in preparing the young people of our community for whatever life may bring them.

J G Howieson
Head Teacher, Portree High School
February 2002.

(My grateful thanks are due to Mr Alister Ross – former pupil, teacher and Depute Head of Portree High – for the historical information contained in this article.)

The Cuillins