Until the early 19th century the area of Blairlodge in the parish of Polmont was known simply as Blairs of Redding, meaning open muirland and it is shown as such on Roy’s map of 1755.  The land slopes gently to the north.  Reid has pointed out that in this part of Scotland the term is usually associated with grazing and it is also to be seen as Meadowbank to the north-east (Reid 2009, 228).  Around 1790 Henry Johnston of Middlerig acquired three rigs of Blairs from Peter Learmonth.  He had been a wine cooper in Calcutta and a little earlier had purchased Meadowbank.  He is usually styled as “of Meadowbank” suggesting that this was the main holding.  When the Union canal was constructed in 1818-1820 the bridge carrying the public road from Brightons to Westquarter became known as Blairs Bridge.  The canal cut through the lands of Blairlodge and across the original drive which was from the north-east.  Upon the death of Henry Johnston in 1822 his eldest son, William, inherited Meadowbank and Middlerigg, and his younger son, John, got Blairs which was now known as Blairlodge.

Grassom on his map of 1818 does not show a country seat at this location at that time.  Indeed, for reasons now unknown, he has the place name “Mexico” here.  John Johnston invested a lot of money in improving the estate and opening up collieries.  In the 1840s he also replaced the existing plain dwelling with a substantial mansion which was described by the Ordnance Surveyors in the late 1850s as “A neat mansion in the Italian style, offices attached, all two stories, slated and in good repair.”

Illus 1: Blairlodge House looking south-west, 2005.

The new mansion was an elaborate affair constructed throughout in ashlar made from the local sandstone.  The windows were square headed and a plain low parapet wall extended above a bold moulded eaves course, hiding the low pitched slate roof.  A plain string course unified the various segments.  The main façade faced north towards the magnificent views across the Forth.  This frontage had two advanced pedimented bays containing large triple-light windows with consoled hooded heads.  That on the east also had a bracketed balcony with fretwork.  This fretwork was repeated on the square single storey sections inserted in the re-entrant angles of the two bays; above which were curved quadrants carrying tall segmented chimney stacks.  The east front of the house presented a more solid appearance with a stricter symmetry provided by two double advanced bays with plain horizontal wallheads.  It was Georgian Neo-classical rather than Italianate.  In the recessed centre was the main door in a small porch.  The solid theme continued around the south corner of this frontage with a broad symmetrical bay capped by a tall central double chimney.  Further west the building was set back and the quality declined.  The west end was occupied by a suite of offices placed around a courtyard.

Illus 2: Blairlodge House looking north-west, 2005, with later security fences in place.

The main curving tree-lined drive ran to the north-east, following the south bank of the Union Canal to Blairs Bridge.  Anyone approaching from this direction saw the rich architectural devices at the eastern end of the house to their full advantage.  A straight service drive led from the offices at the west end of the house southward to a lodge building on the Shieldhill road.  A formal garden lay to the south of the house.

Illus 3: 1860 Ordnance Survey Map (National Library of Scotland).

William Johnston died in April 1841 and Meadowbank estate was left to John.  However, the coalmining operations on both estates had proved unprofitable and both estates were sequestered.  John obtained a loan from the Commercial Bank to allow him to continue with the operations at Meadowbank.  Blairlodge was sold off to repay the creditors.

In the summer of 1841 Rev Robert Cunningham had decided to leave the Glasgow Normal seminary in order to set up his own boarding school and leased Polmont House due to its central location.  He was a leading light in Scottish education and wanted to apply his new principles to the school.  Polmont House was not available on a long term lease and was only capable of holding around twenty pupils and so when Blairlodge came on the market Cunningham bought it, moving there in 1843. 

Alexander Macfarlane of Thornhill had been appointed to look after the estate of John Johnston and as a result of the sale of Blairlodge was able to pay the first dividend to the creditors in March 1844.  In May 1844 some of the outlying mineral rights were also sold off.  These included parts of the Muir of Muiravonside formerly called Wainrigg, then Moss-side, and Weedings Moss extending to 8 acres. 

Alterations were made to Blairlodge House so that it could accommodate the scholars.  Cunningham was the instructor for the greater part of the subjects taught at his academy.  The increase in the size of the school meant that that September he advertised for another teacher:

“Wanted for Blairlodge Academy, Stirlingshire. A Classical teacher, thoroughly educated himself, and accustomed to the best modes of tuition, to conduct certain of the classes in the above establishment, and aid in the internal management.  Salary £60, with board.

Application, with references as to qualifications, temper, and, above all, decided piety, to be addressed to the Rev R. Cunningham, Blairlodge, Polmont, on or before 15th September inst.” (Witness (Edinburgh) 12 September 1843, 1).

(Witness (Edinburgh) 12 September 1843, 1)

That year the number of pupils rose to 48.  It was very successful and by Christmas 1844 the number of applicants exceeded the number of places available and so six extra were made available.  The staff had increased to four resident teachers for the main subjects and three for subjects such as gymnastics.  Cunningham was deliberately moving away from the study of Classics which was the focus of most private schools of the time, but it remained a prominent theme.  He had also realised that physical exercise was important to provide a balanced life.  The following advertisement from the Glasgow Herald of 27 December 1844 provides a good insight into the ethos of the school:

 “BLAIRLODGE ACADEMY, POLMONT, STIRLINGSHIRE… With a view to secure for his system of education a fair trial, he has, from the first, held forth inducements to the placing of Pupils with him at an early age.  He has now come to the resolution of receiving no Pupil above the age of 12.  Parents and Guardians are requested to bear this in mind in applying for the vacancies to be filled up on 1st March.

The Course of Instruction, which comprises a thorough preparation for the University, or the active business of life, is conducted by the following masters: Rev ROBERT CUNNINGHAM, Principal, who, besides his duties as Chaplain and Superintendent, devoted four hours daily to Classics and History, distributing his time so as to have each Pupil under his immediate care for at least an hour daily; Mr JOHN MITCHELL, Classics and Mathematics; Monsieur C Morlot, French and German languages; Mr J SEMPLE, English and Elocution; Mr JOHN FRATER, Writing and Arithmetic.  LESSONS are also given by separate Teachers in Drawing, Vocal Music, and Gymnastics.

Mr CUNNINGHAM is himself a Minister of the FREE Church.  Of the other Teachers two are members of the same body, one is a French Protestant, and another of the Secession; while the Pupils are the children of members of the Free Church, Established Church of Scotland, Secession, Episcopalian, Independent, and Baptist Churches.  In other words, the aim of the religious instruction is to make Bible Christians, without reference to denominational peculiarities.

Prospectuses, containing full particulars of the principles on which the School is conducted, may be obtained by applying to Mr Bryce, bookseller, Hanover Street, Edinburgh; or to Mr Cunningham, Blairlodge, by Polmont.

The Session commences 1st October, and ends 1st August, – the Half-Session Term being 1st March.

Pupils entering between 7 and 10 pay, for Board and Education, Fifty Guineas per Session; 10 and 12, Sixty Guineas; and each Pupil continues to pay at the rate at which he enters.

No extras except Vocal Music and Washing.”

Whilst the school was non-sectarian it was certainly Christian!  Cunningham himself was a staunch supporter of the Free Church and even though he had been advised that it would be bad for the future of his rising school he was very open about it.  At the Disruption on 18 May 1843 the minister of Polmont stayed with the establishment.  The dissenters amongst his congregation were without a leader and so Cunningham stepped in.  He was the first minister of the Free Church to be ordained by the Free Church Presbytery at Linlithgow and opened a schoolroom at Blairlodge on first Sunday after the Disruption.  On that occasion he preached to a congregation of just 16.  Within months it grew to 300.  Cunningham devoted much time and effort to establishing the Free Church within the parish.  His first kirk-session met on 6 July and consisted of five of the principal gardeners of the district, a blacksmith, and Mr Laurie, a quarry owner, as elders.  On Cunningham’s advice James Boyd was appointed as pastor in his place in 1845.  A church was built using stone donated by Laurie and opened in 1847.  In Falkirk Cunningham presided when Rev Lewis Hay Irving, late of Abercorn Parish Church, was inducted by the Free Presbytery of Linlithgow as minister of the congregation there in 1843.   Meanwhile the school continued to prosper and Cunningham returned his attention to it.

It had been an intense period for Cunningham.  Ellenor his eldest daughter was born in 1841 and died at 10 months old.  She was buried in the Necropolis at Glasgow in August 1842 to be followed two years later by her grandmother, Janet MacBride or Cunningham, who died in July 1844 at Blairlodge at the age of 67.  Elizabeth the middle daughter was born in 1844 and Agnes, the youngest daughter, in 1846.

Each July the pupils at the school were examined by a board of outside examiners in the presence of those of their parents and guardians who wanted to attend.  The board was made up of ministers, doctors, landed gentry and educationalists.  From the list of prize winners on these occasions we get a glimpse of the background of the pupils who attended.

Hugh Adair1846
James AitkenTorphichen1854
Russell AitkenDarroch, Falkirk1848
Alexander AinslieAinslieEast Indies1846
William AndersonLeith1848
Charles Bain1846
Henry BainJohn Bain1846
James BennetCapt Bennet RNMontrose1846, 1848
John S Bennet Capt Bennet RNMontrose1846
James BoydPolmont1848
Robert G BriggsAyr1854
James BuntenJames BuntenHolmhead, Glasgow1846
John BuntenJames BuntenHolmhead, Cathcart1848
William BuntenJames BuntenHolmhead, Cathcart1846
C J CampbellMrs CampbellHuskisson Street, Liverpool1846
D CampbellGlasgow1854
Matthew ClarkJohn ClarkCroftengea Cottage, Alexandria1846, 1848
Thomas CochraneGrangemouth1854
William CorbetWm CorbetBath Street, Glasgow1846
Andrew Cunningham1846
John George CunninghamRev R CunninghamBlairlodge1846, 1848
Francis CunninghamCarlton Terrace, Edinburgh1848
John CunninghamCarlton Terrace, Edinburgh1848
Edwin CunynghameEdinburgh1854
R J B CunynghameEdinburgh1854
Garden DuffHatton Castle1854
Henry DunlopHenry DunlopCraigton1846
John Rankine DunlopHenry Dunlop1846
James Eckford Lieut-Col Eckford H.E.I.C.S1846
Robert EckfordLieut-Col Eckford1846
James Fleminglate James FlemingClaremont1846
James FlemingSomerset Place, Glasgow1848
Patrick FlemingRobert FlemingIndia Street, Glasgow1846
William FlemingSomerset Place, Glasgow1848
John GriersonCurachee1854
Alfred Harcourtlate Dr HarcourtMadras1846, 1848
George Harcourtlate Dr Harcourt & grandson of General Sir George Pollock, H.E.I.C.S.Madras1846, 1848
D M HendersonFife1854
James HendersonPease Banks, Hamilton1848
John HendersonPease Banks, Hamilton1848
John HendersonLeith1848
Buchanan HinshawAthole Place, Glasgow1848
Stephen HislopNagpur1854
John HotsonJohn Hotson14 St George Road, Glasgow1846, 1848
John HudlestonLondon1854
John IrvingWoolwich1854
Robert KerRobert KerArgrennan, Kirkcudbright1846
Robert KerRobert KerThread Street, Paisley1846
Walter KingHouston1854
Alexander LaurieAlexander LaurieBrightons1846
John LongJohn LongClarence Place, Glasgow1846
W G McCraeEdinburgh1854
Donald MacdonaldIndia1848
John M’Donallnephew of General M’DonallPark House, Stranraer1846
James MacfarlaneJames MacfarlaneDunfermline1846
Alexander McLaganAberdeen1854
Bryce M’Master late Lieut-Colonel Bryce M’Master, H.E.I.C.S.Madras1846, 1848
Valentine McMasterMadras1848
James McNabGlenmavis, Bathgate1848
John MartinBathgate1848
R H MoncrieffPerth1854
Cunningham MonteathJames MonteathWindsor Place, Glasgow1846
George C MonteathJames Monteath1846
C P NicolsonCalcutta1854
William NobleInverness1854
William NormandJames NormandDysart1846
James Orrlate John OrrUnderwood, Paisley1846
Alexander Dunn PattisonDalmuir, Dumbartonshire1848
A PhillipsLaigh Park1854
George PooleCalcutta1854
Andrew Porteous
Francis Reid
James C Romanes
Walter A Romanes
Thomas RutherfordTrieste1848
Walter RutherfordTrieste1848
Andrew ScottDrummond Place, Edinburgh1846, 1848
Archibald ScottAthole Place, Glasgow1846, 1848
James ScottMrs Scott1846
Michael ScottMrs ScottAthole Place, Glasgow1846
A ShiellDundee1854
J ShiellDundee1854
Archibald Simson1846
Henry SimsonSimsonPatna, East Indies1846
William SmallDundee1854
John StewartPerth1848
William P StewartPerth1848
Ninian StewartR B StewartLynedoch Crescent, Glasgow1846
Robertson StewartR B Stewart1846
Alexander TaylorCarrickfergus1854
Archibald TaylorCarrickfergus1854
James ThomsonJames ThomsonKilmarnock1846
Suetonius TodMorningside, Edinburgh1848
Walter SymingtonJohn SymingtonMorris Place, Glasgow1846
John TurnbullJohn TurnbullBonhill, Dumbarton1846
George S VeitchBuccleuch Place, Edinburgh1848
William WalkerDr WalkerPolmont Bank1846
Robert WallaceLochryan House, Wigtonshire1848
Robert WatsonLynedoch Place, Glasgow1848
Thomas WatsonHawick1854
Alexander WilsonJohn WilsonHillpark, Bannockburn1846
Alexander WilsonBannockburn1846, 1848
Alexander WilsonWilliam WilsonHill Park1848

From this it can be seen that the majority were from Scotland, or from Scottish families serving abroad. It was common for brothers to be at the school at the same time and families proved to be quite loyal. The old boy network would also prove useful and in 1851 the first annual meeting of the “Cunningham Club” met in the Café Royal, Edinburgh, where they entertained Mr Cunningham to dinner. In 1885 this became the Blairlodgian Club.

In 1846 the subjects taught included classics ( Latin and Greek), modern languages (German and French), English grammar, English composition (the exam essay being “On the Evils of War”), history, geography, geometry, algebra, elements of natural philosophy, arithmetic, elocution, writing, drawing, military, vocal music and the best kept garden. The masters were Rev Robert Cunningham AM who took Religious Instruction, mathematics, and elements of natural philosophy, in addition to visiting and examining weekly each class taught by the other masters; Frederick Crombie AM for higher Latin and Greek; and Andrew Wilson – English language and literature, geography, and history; Duncan Maclean – writing and arithmetic. A drill sergeant was employed to supervise the exercises. In keeping with the school ethos, practical subjects like book-keeping, mechanical drawing and agricultural chemistry were added over the following seven years and fencing and broadsword became part of the physical exercises.

In the summer of 1851 Rev Robert Cunningham took Robert Hislop as a partner in Blairlodge Academy. Hislop had followed Cunningham as the rector of the Free Normal Seminary in Glasgow. On him devolved most of the duties hitherto discharged by Cunningham, who reduced his own responsibilities to those of the treasurership of the co-partnery, part of the correspondence, and such aid as he could render by occasional visits. Before long Cunningham moved to Edinburgh and the next step in his long and interesting career. By 1853 he was seldom present. The following year the boys at Blairlodge were amongst the first in Scotland to observe and draw the comet that appeared.

The influence of the school extended to the press and an occasional article was deliberately planted in the provincial newspapers. Here, for example, is an account of a visit to the Academy in 1857:

“On entering the class-rooms, the visitor could not fail to be struck by the healthy and cheerful appearance of the boys, whose looks bore testimony to the pure air of the district, as well as to the care bestowed on their domestic comfort and physical training, for the latter of which the neighbouring garden and grounds afford ample scope, whilst the surrounding country is most inviting, by its diversified beauties and historical associations for a holiday ramble. We found the boys busily employed in the laborious exercises of the day, which lasted from ten till near five o’clock. The classes exhibited the comprehensive nature of the system of education pursued in the Academy, in which the boys are prepared either for entering upon a university course, or for the active duties of commercial life. The upper classes exhibited satisfactory proficiency in the classics, reading and parsing with readiness and accuracy passages in the Greek and Latin authors prescribed for them by the visitors. Due attention is also paid to modern languages and literature. History is taught in an attractive manner in connection with geography; and in an examination conducted by Mr Hislop, the excellent head of the institution, the company must have been delighted with the accurate knowledge of the countries forming the seat of the war evinced by the boys, as well as of the most recent occurrences on the banks of the Danube. In mathematics and arithmetic the boys exhibited their progress; and some beautiful specimens of writing were displayed. Agricultural chemistry has been introduced, and facilities for the study of natural history are afforded to boys who exhibit a taste for these pursuits. Several good collections in entomology were shown in competition for a prize; and we may mention that this department of study is cultivated with peculiar advantage under so accomplished an entomologist as Mr Hislop. The specimens of architectural and mechanical drawing were highly meritorious, and several fair pencil sketches were produced. Vocal music is systematically studied, and the boys sung with great taste in parts. An examination by Mr Hislop in the gospel by John gave the visitors ample opportunity of judging of the sound basis of Scriptural knowledge upon which this solid educational superstructure is reared. We must not forget to notice the graceful and animated exhibition of fencing and gymnastics, under the superintendence of Mr Roland, jun, of Edinburgh. The whole was closed by the distribution of numerous prizes, by the Rev Mr Cochrane, who addressed to the pupils a few kindly words, expressive of the satisfaction felt by the company with the proceedings of the day, and, of good wishes and good hopes for the future. The boys, their friends, and visitors, then repaired to dinner in the spacious hall of Blairlodge; and in little more than an hour most of the young people were on their way home, with light hearts, by the trains to the east, west and north.”

The idyllic picture painted was far from the truth. The school was set close to industry with numerous coal pits to the west. Bullying amongst the boys was rampant and the use of the school belt far too common. In a vivid descriptive account of the school in 1854 from the viewpoint of a pupil Alexander Grant makes it sound more like a place of confinement than of learning. The full account can be found in Calatria volume 22.

The proximity to the coalfield was helpful in obtaining coal at a reasonable price to heat the buildings in the winter. Coal was also used to produce “town” gas in retorts in an outbuilding. It is mentioned in an unusual incident by Grant:

One evening the gas in the house and schoolroom went suddenly out and an alarm was spread of a terrible accident having occurred at the Gas House. We all rushed out and from the bright glare to be seen in the direction of the Gas House there was no doubt but that there was a fire going on there. In spite of the masters who tried to get us away from the source of danger nearly all the boys ran off to see what it was. On arriving there we found that the House had not, as we thought, caught fire but that a large pipe leading to the gasometer had during the manufacture of the gas become overheated and burst and that an immense volume of gas on fire was rushing out in close proximity to the gasometer itself and that there was a serious risk of an explosion taking place. Tom the gardener, who was the generally useful man about the place, was evidently in a great funk, and did not well know what to do to put out the flame which with a fierce roar was issuing from the pipe. He had raked out the fire in the furnace [retort] and had been throwing water on the metal to cool it, but there was still the fierce flame to subdue which seemed to defy all the attempts yet made… we began to move towards the school when to the surprise of everyone present, my friend Stewart, without saying a word, was seen coolly walking towards the point of danger. Taking off his coat and making it into a bundle, he quickly placed it against the orifice out of which came rushing the blazing gas and in a moment had stifled the flame [starving it of oxygen]…”

(Grant & Ronald 2005, 94).

The gardener produced many of the vegetables used at the school. There was also an orchard (from which the pupils occasionally stole the fruit) and a dairy. The school kept a number of milk cows which grazed on the surrounding fields. In the summer months, when the school was on holiday, the milk was sold locally and the number of cows might be reduced by selling the odd one. The outbuildings also contained a bakery. A well is shown on the 1860 map adjacent to the canal, but it appears that much of the water used in the school came from a culverted natural water course flowing through Blairlodge. The overflow led by a pipe to a culvert under the Union Canal.

The courses at Blairlodge Academy were constantly evolving. By 1858 they had been specially adapted to suit the requirements of those intending to seek careers in the Army, posts in Government offices, engineering, or commercial pursuits. In February 1858 the partnership between Robert Cunningham and Robert Hislop was dissolved and Hislop took over sole ownership. His purchase included the mansion house, schoolhouse and 20 acres of land and he immediately “engaged in effecting such improvements on the Premises as his increased experience has suggested.” Crops were grown on the land not directly used for the school. Hislop’s team consisted of Mr Paterson – classics; Mr Scott – mathematics, drawing and writing; Mr Stott – English and arithmetic; M. Wyenskie – French and German; Mr McClelland – music; and M. Roland – fencing. At this time Maurice Paterson seems to have had a financial interest in the school, but he left in February 1864 to take up the post as rector of the Free Church Normal Training Institute.

His departure may have had something to do with Hislop’s decision to close the school later that year. Hislop had built a small villa within the grounds of the school at the junction of the Redding and Shieldhill roads which he named Blair Bank and he retired there.

“Mr JAMES NEILSON begs to announce that he is instructed to Sell by Public Roup, at BLAIRLODGE ACADEMY, Polmont, on SATURDAY the 30th July, 1864, the Whole of the very extensive ACADEMY FITTINGS, as also HORSE, BOROUCHE, MILCH COWS, and other STOCK connected therewith, belonging to Robert Hislop Esq, who is retiring from the Academy, comprising 45 Fir Single French bedsteads, with Straw Palliasses; 45 hair Mattresses, 50 Hair and 50 Feather Pillows, 105 PAIRS OF ENGLISH BLANKETS. 90 Pairs of Fine Tweeled Cotton Sheets, 10 Dozen Pillow Cases to match, 90 White bedcovers, 7 large Fir Washing Stands, and numerous sets of Ware, a Mahogany Sideboard, a Writing Table, 2 Long Tables, 45 Bed Stools, Napery Press, a Set of Parlour Chairs, 6 Stuff-bottomed Dining Forms with Backs, 6 Long School Desks, and 6 Short Do, 18 Forms with Backs, & c, 3 Black Boards; 2 CASES OF JOHNSTON’S MAPS, ON ROLLERS, And several detached maps, on Rollers, ancient and modern, Mounted sets of Diagrams on Physical Geography and Astronomy, 1 Thirty-inch Terrestrial Globe, and Electrifying Machine, model of a Steam Engine, 2 handsome three-light Gasoliers, and 2 two-light do, and numerous Gas Pendants and Brackets, a Box Mangle and Laundry Table; also, Bakehouse utensils – viz, Baking Table, Dough Table, a Chest of baker’s Drawers, Quarter Loaf pans, Peels, & c, & c and a large quantity of Cooking Utensils; likewise, a VERY HANDSOME BOROUCHE WITH POLE AND SHAFTS, 1 Set of Silver-plated Single Harness, Riding Saddle and Bridle, 1 VERY FAMOUS SIX-YEAR-OLD BAY CLYDESDALE DRAUGHT HORSE, 2 HEAVY FAVOURITE AYRSHIRE MILCH COWS, 1 Close-bodied Cart with Wheels and axle, 1 Set of Cart and Plough Horse Harness, 1 Water Cart and barrel, 1 pair of small Wheels and Axle for Pony Cart, 1 iron Plough, 1 Scraping Ditto, 1 Wooden Land Roller, part of a Stack of old Hay, Stack of Wheat Straw, and a large variety of articles not herein described.”

(Falkirk Herald 16 July 1864, 2).

The sale did not include the building and just over a week after it the following notice appeared :

“BLAIR LODGE SCHOOL, POLMONT, STIRLINGSHIRE. This SCHOOL will be RE-OPENED on the 1st of OCTOBER by Mr J STENHOUSE SCOTT, of Larchfield Academy, Helensburgh, and no effort will be wanting on Mr SCOTT’S part to secure for Blair Lodge all the advantages of a High-Class School.
MR SCOTT will adhere to the system of Education hitherto pursued by him, and which has been on so many occasions fully tested in the Oxford and Cambridge Local Examinations. He will continue to have the assistance of thoroughly qualified Resident and Visiting Masters.
Blair Lodge is peculiarly suitable for an Educational Establishment, situated as it is midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and near the junction of the most important Railway lines. The healthfulness and beauty of the locality are undoubted. The Property extends to nearly thirty acres, and affords every convenience for healthful recreation. The House is large, and well adapted for the purposes of a Boarding School, and the extensive improvements now in progress will insure the comfort and efficient training of the pupils…”

Glasgow Herald (12 August 1864, 7)

However, the previous regime of punishment rather than encouragement had a long-term effect of diminishing the numbers and lack of investment in advertising meant that replacements had not come forward. Scott brought with him the forty or so boys from Larchfield and that academic year it had 61 pupils. This number rose slightly before railing back. During Scott’s rule physical exercise remained important and the school had a smartly drilled company which could perform the “infantry drill” and “bayonet exercise” of the period. They possessed smooth-bore muzzle loading muskets, which had seen service in the Crimea and whose percussion-cap nipples had been plugged so that they could not fire. Every week during the winter months, Sergeant-Major Early of the Edinburgh Rifle Volunteers went to Blairlodge and drilled the boys.

The school continued on until 1874 when the roll was lower than usual. It was not however, down to the seven pupils as stated in one source, nor yet the slightly higher figure of “under twenty” often quoted. These numbers appear to have been used to emphasise the incredible rise in the school’s fortune over the next two decades. In that year James Cooke Gray, an assistant master in Loretto School, took it over. Gray was only 27 years old and put his energies and enthusiasm into the project, setting himself the task of reorganising the school, infusing fresh blood into the teaching staff, and raising the moral tone. Two years later the examiners’ report for 1875-76, stated “that the most important feature in the work is the thorough accuracy with which it is done… The mathematical papers are far above anything we are accustomed to meet with in schools of a like kind in England or Scotland… The tone is that of cheerful earnestness, combined with sound moral and intellectual development… The instruction is extensive and thoroughly sound in character.” The cheerfulness was often achieved by small changes. The study rooms were painted a bright colour in place of the former dingy brown.

Gray was a bearded athletic figure of six feet four and eighteen stone, and often played for the Blairlodge cricket team – good for a hundred. At Loretto he had come under the influence of its headmaster, Dr Almond, who disagreed with the overuse of physical punishment, preferring encouragement and an honour system. Gray, like Almond, was a keen advocate of the sporting life. He was not a serious academic and had a tendency to treat classics as a minor subject at a time when it was still popular. What Gray did have was a flair for administration. Gray embraced change and innovation. Blairlodge was the first public school in Scotland to accept inspections by the Education Board for Scotland, which it did eagerly. In Charles Dewberry, Gray had a very competent second master with a Master of Arts from Cambridge University. At first Gray concentrated upon the traditional clientele who were hoping to attend military colleges such as Sandhurst or Woolwich and courses were successfully developed to ensure that they would pass the entrance examinations.

The Commercial Department was also developed as an extension of the modern side of the school to give a special training to pupils intended for commerce. The three year course included one year abroad at an establishment guaranteed by the headmaster and in 1888 a German branch of Blairlodge School was opened at Dusseldorf under the management of Mr H E Goldschmidt who had been foreign master at Fettes College, Edinburgh, for 18 years. This branch also received pupils from other schools. The following year another branch started at Elbeuf in Normandy. The Commercial Bureau, as it became known, was a distinctive feature of Blairlodge. The main study area of the course was counting-house practice and book-keeping, which, with shorthand, occupied 10½ hours weekly. Broadening out it acquainted the pupils with the language, manners, and wants of future customers when a merchant might have to go round the world seeking markets for his manufactures. The boys were taught modern languages and commercial geography. A sophisticated role play that was well in advance of most educational establishments was set up. Each boy represented the Blairlodge School Trading Company; goods were bought and sold, invoices prepared, checked, press copied, despatched, entered in a sales’ day book, and posted to a ledger account and stock book. Bills were drawn and accepted, the stamps being noted. Bank cheques were issued, cash books were balanced weekly; the accuracy of the ledger posting was tested; and there was an annual stock-taking and complete balance-sheet, with abstract, showing assets and liabilities. As part of the set up the school had its own bank notes printed which resembled those of the British Linen Bank. They were marked “Royal Commercial Bank, for circulation in Blairlodge only.” Despite this precaution a young female servant at the school stole a set of the notes and started to circulate them in Laurieston in December 1889. The police noted that the fakes were “Cleverly forged” but had little trouble in tracing the source!

The 1881 census was taken at a time when the school was on holiday and so only captured those students who were unable to return home, along with the Gray family and the household staff:

ForenamesSurnameRelationStatusAgeOccupationWhere Born
James JGRAYHeadW34SchoolmasterAuchtermuchty, Fife
Annie MGRAYSisterU28Kincardine, Perth
Ann PBROWNSister-in-LawU49England
Alislie A SANDERSONBoarderU19Lieutenant Highland Light InfantryAuchindane, Inverness
James GFAIRBoarderU16ScholarEngland
Robert RRENTONBoarderU18ScholarIndia
John LALEXANDERBoarderU18ScholarBanff
Henry WCAMPBELLBoarderU18ScholarRenfrew
William CDOUGLASBoarderU18ScholarEngland
Agnes CSYMServantU36Housekeeper Domestic ServantCupar, Fife
WilliaminaMCKAYServantU33Matron ServantStrathy, Sunderland, Durham
Margaret CWEIRServantU25Housemaid ServantAberdeen
MargaretBELLServantU23Tablemaid ServantDenny
MaryDICKSONServantU27Kitchenmaid ServantGask, Perth
JaneDUNBARServantU34Laundress ServantClarkston, Lanark
HelenMcNEILServantU25Laundress ServantMilton, Lanark
Jessie LCAMERONServantU25Housemaid ServantFalkirk
HelenUREServantU21Laundress ServantPolmont
CatherineGLANCYServantU18Tablemaid ServantIreland
MarionKINGServantU18Kitchenmaid ServantPolmont
ForenamesSurnameRelationStatusAgeOccupationWhere Born
JamesCAMPBELLHeadM27Domestic Servant CoachmanIreland
ThomasMORRISBoarderU26Cricket ProfessionalEngland
John DMAXWELLBoarderM57BakerPolmont
Blairlodge Gatehouse

Illus 4: Wooden Printing Block showing Blairlodge School c1880. (Falkirk Museum).

The fame of the able and competent staff of teachers with which Gray surrounded himself increased and steadily the numbers of new pupils increased every year. This also reflected the great increase in the numbers of wealthy middle class businessmen in the Central Belt. Gray realised that there was economy in scale and rather than turn pupils away he extended the facilities at Blairlodge. An additional accommodation block capable of housing 50 boys was constructed ready for the September term in 1879. This was located in the west side of the old mansion. This block was further extended in 1883 and was ready for occupation after the Christmas holidays. Behind the accommodation blocks a new chemistry laboratory was built.

Illus 5: Aerial photograph of Blairlodge, c1922.

Even these extensions did not keep up with demand and in 1887 Blairlodge was overcrowded. There were 152 names on the roll, and many parents who were anxious to have their children educated there had to be refused as the accommodating capacities were already taxed to their utmost. It was necessary either to restrict the number of boys in attendance or go boldly forward and make large additions to the buildings. Gray, ever the optimist, followed the latter course. A complete new complex was designed by him to the north of the existing buildings. By the end of the year 21 classrooms varying in size from 40ft by 40ft by 16ft, to 16ft by 16ft by 16ft, had been constructed “on the most modern principles, well ventilated and heated.”

Illus 6: No.8 Classroom.
Illus 7: Block Plan of Blairlodge Academy.

Illus 8: The Gymnasium.

The new classrooms occupied the ground floor around a covered quadrangle which formed the well-equipped gymnasium 70ft by 54ft and 30ft high, covered with a glass roof on an iron frame. It was the largest in Scotland, the one at Maryhill Barracks coming next. In the galleries, which ran along three sides, were the private studies for the boys, facing the quadrangle; and close at hand were amusement and reading rooms. On the first floor, above the classrooms, there were 40 bedrooms, separated from the studies by a corridor, and ventilated by Tobin’s tubes. The new bedrooms, fitted up for two boys, were 15ft by 10ft by 11ft, and the studies, also for two boys, were 10ft by 6ft by 11ft. On the same floor were lavatories, with hot and cold water at every basin.

Illus 9: The Gymnasium

The lofty dining-hall occupied the ground floor on the west side of the quadrangle and measured 80ft by 40ft.  The daily routine was porridge and milk at 6.45am; breakfast at 7.45am; light lunch at 11.15am; dinner at 1.50pm; tea at 5.15pm; and supper at 8pm.  Breakfast normally consisted of tea, coffee, cocoa or milk, with meat, eggs, fish or bacon, hot rolls or toast, bread and butter.  The light lunch was of rolls or biscuits.  Dinner meant soup or fish, meat and vegetables, pudding or tart.  Tea consisted of bread and butter, jam and so on.  Supper was a light pudding or porridge, or bread and cheese, or biscuits and milk.

Illus 10: Drawing of Blairlodge in 1888 with the old Mansion on the left.

The tables were of white marble which became worn with time, but did away with the need for tablecloths. The masters dined informally with the boys. To the west of the dining room were the extensive kitchens, bakery, dairy, and larders. At the end of the dining hall was a carving table, heated by steam, so that the roasts did not go cold when being cut. From this room communication could be had with the kitchen by means of a sliding window. The cooking in the kitchen was done entirely by steam and gas, under the supervision of a male cook.

Illus 11: Swimming Pool.

A large swimming bath, 60ft by 20ft, stood to the north of the kitchen complex.  Beside it was a range of hot baths, a shower bath or douche and a plunge bath.  The music room was on the north side of the main block and had a number of small practising rooms, and a semi-circular gallery for the school choir.  The music teacher could, if necessary, bring all the pianos to the floor, and teach the pupils simultaneously.  Adjacent to it was a well-lighted art room, also specially designed for its purpose.

It was probably at this time that a water wheel was used to raise water from the Polmont Burn to Blairlodge and Polmont House. A large reservoir was constructed behind the lodge on the Shieldhill Road and from there the water was gravity fed into the school. In 1896 it was suggested that the Brightons people could combine with Mr Gray to utilise the wheel, or a larger one, to force water up to their houses, but the county council wanted a larger scheme. The school was keen to join in such a project. With so many scholars in residence it was necessary to completely revamp the sanitary arrangements and there were now six additional lavatories and bathrooms. The principal lavatory was 56ft by 18ft and lay to the south of the dining room, connecting the new and old blocks. It had bedrooms above. The sewage of Blairlodge was led into a settling tank for retaining the solids, which were regularly removed for manurial purposes. There were occasional complaints from neighbouring residents about the smell coming off the fields after this operation. The sanitary arrangements were designed by the engineers of the Edinburgh Sanitary Protection Society, who were responsible for their maintenance.

Illus 13: Science Lecture Room.

The old chemistry laboratory was significantly enlarged and a new physics laboratory was constructed to its north – both were very well equipped.  Within a year a sketch appeared in “Balfour & Gee’s Elementary Text Book on Physics” as models for other schools to imitate.  This was the standard work of the period and high praise indeed!  Between the laboratories was a large lecture theatre for scientific lectures, with a balance room, preparation room, and store room adjoining.  Attached to these was a workshop and forge.  The workshop was fitted up with lathes and other machines, driven by steam power, to give practical instruction in applied mechanics. 

Pupils were encouraged to construct, under the guidance of two skilled workmen (one an engineer, the other a cabinetmaker), the apparatus they required for the illustration of their theoretical work.  Gas was introduced for the experiments in the laboratories.  Electricity was seen as a major advance and a future technology and so there were curious instruments for making electrical investigations.  The additions meant that Blairlodge now had state of the art facilities for its science and technology course and little time was lost in promoting them.  There were two science masters – one for chemistry, the other for physics.  A chemistry prize medal for 1885 issued by the school is now in the British Museum collection (Acc. No. 1966-403-410).

The total cost of the new work was £7,000 and Gray was now the largest rate payer in the parish. One of the most noteworthy features of the new buildings was that they were entirely lighted by electricity and so Blairlodge was well ahead of other schools. Tradition was maintained in the large dining hall where the names of past pupils were placed on the walls. These included Lieutenant W N Campbell who was head boy three years before. He had been mentioned in despatches by General Roberts as “a young officer of high powers, and who had earned mention by excellent and energetic leading.” Many others from the school, such as Lieutenant F L Duncan, 4th Hussars, were serving throughout the world. Also amongst the names was Major Walker Aitken of the Black Watch who had been at the school before Gray’s arrival. Walker Aitken exemplifies the military and Empire connections of the school. He was the youngest son of Mr Henry Aitken of Darroch, Falkirk. After Blairlodge he went to Sandhurst Military College, leaving the latter with the rank of ensign in the 42nd. He joined his regiment in India in 1862, where he remained for some time. After this he went to Malta. As Lieutenant Aitken he distinguished himself in the Ashantee War, in which he held for some time a commissariat appointment. He was present at the battles of Amoaful and Ordashu, and at the storming of Coomassie. He received a medal and clasp for services there, and was immediately afterwards raised to the rank of captain. Unfortunately a driving accident near London almost incapacitated him, but he still took command of a depot at Perth, where he was promoted to a majorship. On the call for British troops for Egypt, he served with his regiment at Tel-el-Kebir and received mention but was obliged shortly afterwards to return home invalided. He returned on the outbreak of hostilities in the Soudan, and was killed at the Battle of Tama-aish – a soldier’s death at the early age of forty-two. To celebrate its links to the old boy network the fourth annual dinner of the Blairlodgian Club was held in the new dining room in January 1888 and those attending stayed in the new accommodation.

Illus 15: Ordnance Survey Map of 1897 (National Library of Scotland).

The staff increased in line with the growth in the number of pupils. The average was to be one master to every seven boys. The small class sizes were emphasised and it was pointed out that in the Upper School this gave almost individual tuition.

1883 – 12 resident and 4 non-resident masters, in addition to a resident gymnastic instructor.
1888 – 18 masters (ten of whom were Oxford or Cambridge men).
1890 – 24 resident and 5 non-resident masters.
1893 – 30 masters.

These masters gave the school much of its character. An old boy at the school fondly remembered that:

“Gray went to England for his masters. For the first ten years GG Dewbury reigned as vice-principal; a small man and a precisian, his mathematical mind gave seriousness to the conduct of debates and concerts. His absent-minded coadjutor on the literary side, A A Elliot, is ever associated with the school songs at breaking-up suppers. Their lilt come across fifty years, and revives as nothing else the joy of approaching holidays, either when at Christmas “the nights were dark and chill” and negus flowed, or when the long twilight heralded the departure with hat boxes on a summer morning to some Elysium by sea or moor or loch. In the mid eighties came Washington Ray, vice-principal for fifteen years. More classical scholar and cultivated gentleman than expert in educational method, he held the balance in a school which was inclining to utility on education, with its chemical and physical laboratories, its workshop and commercial bureau, and to athleticism. With his henchman R W K Edwards, Wrangler, storywriter, and born actor, he enlivened every social institution, the debates, concerts, theatrical, and school magazine with wit and urbanity. How name the first-rate men in the long roll of masters; the stalwarts versed in the technicalities of Greek and Latin and trailing clouds of glory from College playing fields! “

Illus 16: Blairlodge School looking north-west with the old Mansion in the centre and the Gymnasium Block on the right.

Edmund Henry Lacon Watson was an assistant master at Blairlodge in the early 1890s. He was the author of several books, some of which have recently been reprinted, including “The Unconscious Humourist” (1896), “Verses, suggested and original” (1896) and “An Attic in Bohemia” (1897).

A list of those who passed through the school at this time shows that 82 came from Glasgow, 64 from Edinburgh, 163 from the rest of Scotland, and 73 from England and the Dominions. Boys from the Hebrides and Shetland associated with boys from Devon and Kent. In 1890 Blairlodge was the largest boarding school that there has ever been in Scotland with 307 boarders. It was a moment of personal triumph in which Gray could hardly surpass himself or be surpassed as a proprietary schoolmaster. It employed not just the teaching staff but also people in supportive roles. There were 2 secretaries and 60-70 servants constantly employed. The latter included a house-steward, butler, 10 waiters, 12 housemen, 2 chefs, 1 kitchen porter, 7 kitchen maids, 10 laundry maids, 2 bakers, 2 matrons. 3 assistant matrons, 2 nurses, 2 engineers, 2 stokers (heating was by circulating hot water), 2 labourers and 1 joiner. Many of these were old soldiers. Six meals were served every day and over 1,000 plates were used at dinner alone. The consumption of food was immense and in a typical week the bakery supplied 3,000 breakfast rolls, 2,000 lunch rolls, 3,000 dinner rolls and 300 4-pound loaves. The dairy contained 20 cows and supplied 300 gallons of milk per week and 36 gallons of cream. From the kitchen came 200 gallons of soup, 15cwt of beef, 4cwt of mutton, 2cwt of pork, 3cwt of fish, 40 lb of tea, 30 lb of coffee, 3cwt of sugar, 2cwt of butter, 1½ cwt of bacon, 10 hams, 1,300 eggs for cooking & c, 1,200 country eggs, 3 cwt of jam, 12 gallons of pickles, 1 ton of potatoes and ½ ton of mixed vegetables. The school was its own baker and butcher. The Edinburgh Café provided a steward, and dishes of name and fame passed out into history. So, too went the Blairlodge biscuit, memento of a time of grub-boxes and dormitory feasts, which raised probably the best crop of these esoteric school tales cherished by old boys. Labour-saving devices at Blairlodge were the rule and even dinner plates and the boots were cleaned by machinery.

The school had always had an ambulance or first aid room, and latterly a “sanatorium” for the confinement of those pupils or members of staff with infectious deceases. Such illnesses were a perennial problem for all boarding schools and at least two pupils died whilst at Blairlodge School (though the causes are uncertain). In May 1881 one of the staff, Christopher Robert Andrews, died at the school of rheumatic fever aged 23. He had only joined the staff of masters at Blairlodge on 26 September 1880 intending to stay a short time before moving on to become a minister. Sports matches against other schools were occasionally cancelled due to illness such as in November 1893 when there was an outbreak of influenza at Loretto. Similarly, a spell of scarlet fever at Blairlodge in 1894 stopped them travelling. In 1887 the opportunity was taken to construct a large brick sanatorium or hospital adjacent to Blair Bank. It was provided with a supply of electricity from the school and a few years later a telephone connection. Dr Fraser acted as the medical officer for the school, along with his assistant R Nairn who also taught first aid to the boys. A head nurse was appointed.

The grounds too were improved. Belts of trees sheltered them from the cold easterly winds. The fresh air blowing off the Redding Muir was bracing and considered to be “healthful to a marked degree.” The grounds now extended to 40 acres, and contained a large cricket field, lawn tennis courts, single and double covered and open fives courts and a football field. A stand had been erected by the boys next to the cricket pitch on the lawn in front of the house and this was now augmented by a large pavilion. With the addition of more land on the other side of the main road in 1890 a second cricket pitch was provided. An increase of older boys raised the level of intelligence as well as of nerve and skill in games. The school entered a golden era of success in sports. There was a time when the staff had four Rugby internationalists. The gymn master, Humphrey Jones, was the captain of the Welsh international football team as well as playing for East Stirlingshire.

Illus 17: The 1893 Championship Cricket Eleven.

Sport instilled a pride in the school, even for the less active students. As one old boy for Blairlodge recollected, the school

“colours dulled in daily use became dear and familiar when set by those prized by other schools. Friday nights in the winter, with the teams up on the board, were big with anticipation of tomorrow’s match with Merchiston forwards, Loretto backs, and the all-round heftiness of Fettes; and the presence at the gate of these admired opponents sent the word “They’ve come” round a keenly athletic school. In the cricket term, when in the early years masters and professionals and outstanding boy players fielded a strong club side,

Saturdays came with a glamour of bright skies and smooth turf until evening “prep” broke the spell, and masters great at the wicket hastily threw a gown over cricket flannels. In these days the eleven played the professionals of Scotland, and in the holidays went touring in Ireland.”

Illus 18: Championship Rugby Team with caps 1893.

Gray was constantly on the lookout for land for further sports development and in 1891 he secured a lease of the farm of Roughhaugh on Sunnyside Road about 500m to the south. Its seven fields of old pasture, covering a little over sixty acres, were considered eminently suitable for a golf course. Within a few weeks Tom Morris of St Andrews designed a 14-hole course. A scythe was used to remove some of the long grass, but by and large the existing sward was considered sufficient. The average length of the holes was nearly 250 yards, and the total length of the course about two miles. In 1893 Gray opened the course to local people who formed the Blair Golf Club and it was changed to 9 holes. Some grazing by animals was allowed in order to keep the grass short and to bring in a small income. By 1901 the course had begun to deteriorate and the club relocated to Gilston Farm, changing its name to Polmont Golf Club.

Illus 19: Layout Plan for the Golf Course, 1891.
Illus 20: Blairlodge School, c1895 looking north-east.

Illus 21: The School Coat of Arms and Motto – Nunquam non paratus – Never unprepared.

The uniform of the students was red and black, though it is not known when this was introduced.  The school motto had certainly been around for a number of decades and was known to all the pupils – Nunquam non paratus – Never unprepared.  The coat-of-arms was new in the 1880s and reflected the school’s main interests.  It had an arrow crossed with a quill in the first quarter; a cricket bat and ball over crossed swords in the second; an open book in the third; and chemistry and physics laboratory equipment in the fourth.  This was all designed to increase the pupils pride in the school – and in that it succeeded.

James Cooke Gray often compared Blairlodge Academy with the private schools in England and with his sports teams performing well the only remaining gap was the absence of a military corps. In 1891 he decided to form a cadet corps which was affiliated to the Black Watch and attached to the 5th Volunteer Battalion Highland Light Infantry. By February 1892 it had 96 privates, 5 lance corporals, 4 corporals, 8 sergeants, and 2 officers (Lts A M Darling and H Lower). Sergeant-Major T Quirk, late of Black Watch, acted as the drill instructor (1890-97). Their uniforms were similar to the Glasgow Highlanders Volunteer Battalion and they looked very smart when taking part in parades in Glasgow and elsewhere. Their appearance on the streets of Redding was noted with some curiosity. That year they were issued with rifles and used the range at Dorrator on the other side of Falkirk for practice. Before long they were taking part in shooting competitions at Bisley. Exercises were conducted in the area of the school, with one company forming a defensive force and the other an attacking one. The Blairlodge School Cadet Corps was disbanded in 1904.

Illus 22: Some of the Cadets at Blairlodge with Lieutenants AM Darling and H Lower, 1891.

Illus 23: Belt Buckle.

Gray acquired the house and estate of Meadowbank and in 1889 it opened as the Master’s House for the Preparatory Department in connection with Blairlodge School. The younger blazer-clad pupils, aged 7-12, started their school lives here. The bedrooms at the house were converted into small dormitories to sleep 6-8 boys each. The fee for them was 80 guineas per annum, as opposed to 90 guineas at the senior school. R W K Edwards MA late scholar of Jesus College, Canterbury, was appointed house master. This branch closed in 1894 so that the premises could be used for a girls’ school known as St Margaret’s.

Before 1889 the Episcopalian pupils went to Christ Church in Falkirk on Sundays and the Protestants had attended the normal Sunday services at Polmont Parish Church. By 1889 there were so many of them that Rev W Ross, the minister at Polmont, agreed to run an additional separate midday service for them. Gray was keen that it should cater for the pupils from all the different denominations, including those from England, and so the minister deviated from his normal practice to allow the Episcopalians to attend. Gray then had a school book of service printed called “A Book of Services and Prayers for use on Sundays and Week Days.” After a year or so elements of the local congregation of the church complained about the use of their facilities as the minister had not consulted them. Worse still, it was pointed out that the new service had Episcopalian overtones. The Presbytery was duty bound to consider the official complaint, though it and the General Assembly evidently thought that the matter should have been settled locally. The situation became abusive and divisive with many of the congregation supporting the minister for promoting a Christian ethos at the school. In the end Gray decided in June 1891 to erect a chapel of his own at Blairlodge rather than continue and exacerbate the already bitter dispute. Education had to do with the souls as well as the minds of men.

Rev W Ross was therefore asked to conduct the services at the school gymnasium – a hark back to the days of the Disruption in 1843 when the Free Church had first met in the classrooms there. Before long a small chapel was erected next to the Union Canal. It was surrounded on three sides by existing school buildings and was therefore nearly square, being about 65ft each way. It was designed by A & W Black, architects, in the Gothic style. To break up the wide span of the interior, a nave and aisles were adopted, with two rows of columns. It was lighted by roof lights in the aisles and by rows of clerestory windows along each side of the nave. There were also two pointed windows in the gable facing north. Carved ribs sprung from the circular pillars. There was a small gallery at one end of the building to accommodate visitors and like all of the school buildings it had electric lighting. Electricity was also used to blow a large pipe organ by means of an electric motor located 100yds from it. The chapel was capable of holding 630 people and from its first use in December 1892 was open to the public. However, it appears that the disagreeable members of the Polmont Church congregation still had objections and in September the following year the public had to be excluded. It re-opened when the minister from Laurieston stood in. A number of well-to-do families in the neighbourhood of Polmont had sittings in the chapel, among them Mr McKillop of Polmont Park, Mr Buchanan, Mr Mitchell of Millfield, and Sheriff Scott-Moncrieff of Weedingshall. Gray had two brass plates placed in the chapel to the memory of the two boys who had died at the school. (These were James Fleming, only child of Rev James Fleming of Kettins who died on 21 November 1885 two days after his fourteenth birthday; and George Hill, the second son of Captain Steuart of Westwood who died on 8 March 1887).

The public attitude to the Blairlodge School amongst the local community was mixed. Many saw the students as privileged rich boys with unfair advantages in life. Despite his successful record of running the school Gray failed to be elected when he stood as a county councillor. Most, however, welcomed the prosperity that it brought to the area. It was one of the largest employers in Polmont and the greatest contributor to the rates. Gray was a local benefactor and as well as contributing to good causes directly he encouraged his staff and pupils to do likewise. Throughout the late 1880s and 1890s they supported the Polmont Domestic Mission which helped the poor of the area. Bazaars were held at the school in which hundreds of pounds were raised. One unusual type of item on sale was the majolica ware plates bearing the Blairlodge badge which had presumably originally been produced as souvenirs for the old boys. The staff of the school were active in many of the local societies and often delivered lectures to literary or mutual improvement groups.

In 1894 Blairlodge was in a position to offer scholarships worth £80 a year. Entrance examinations for these were held in London and Blairlodge simultaneously to select the candidates. Initially there were three in Classics and three in mathematics, quickly followed by two choral scholarships worth about £100 a year. Choristers were expected to join the chapel choir.

During the 1890s the number of public performances given by the school increased. Mr Senior, the music master, was keen to show off the vocal and instrumental talents of his pupils and the shows helped to raise money for the poor as well as the Episcopalian Church in Falkirk and the Free Church in Polmont. Concerts and theatricals became important functions, to which mothers and sisters, once rare visitants from the outside world, came as invited guests. George H Fox gave organ recitals in the chapel in front of large audiences. Annual gymnastic displays in the capacious gymnasium were very popular, particularly when combined with a military theme. They were called “Assaults-at-Arms” and featured such activities as a running maze with musical accompaniment; boxing; fencing with bayonets, swords and sticks; Indian clubs; vaulting somersaults; physical drill with musical accompaniment; dumb bell exercises to music; exercises on parallel and horizontal bars; and a parade of the cadet corps in review order headed by the school’s pipe band. The pipe band was taught by J M Simpson, late of the 74th Highlanders. The debating society had a large and eager membership. The school magazine grew bulkier.

Illus 24: 1893 Gymnastics Team.

Always intent on keeping up to date Gray had the National Telephone Co Ltd connect Blairlodge with the telephone exchange system early in 1892. A special phone was provided for use of the pupils whereby they could keep in touch with their parents. The new sanatorium was also connected. A phone connected Mr Gray’s study with the various departments. There were already about 21 microphones fitted in the class-rooms connected to his room, where by turning a switch he could hear what is going on. These caused no controversy at the time and were often shown off to visiting groups. Thomas Lawrie & Co, electricians, Falkirk, were the contractors.

Improvements continued to the grounds and in August 1892 Gray asked for permission to re-align the public road from Blairs Bridge to the entrance to Blairlodge in order to remove the awkward bend. He had purchased a piece of ground from Mr Mitchell of Millfield to allow this. Councillor H A Salvesen who then lived at Blairbank suggested that it should be run straight from the bridge as far as the junction with the Shieldhill road and this was done. Whilst Thomas Laurie & Co were at Blairlodge they upgraded the electric supply so that the church could be included and at the same time a line was fed into Blairbank for Salvesen. They were back the following year to install lighting along the avenue leading westward from the public road. The incandescent lamps were enclosed in glass globes mounted on light iron standards and the current for them was tapped from the cable to the hospital and Blairbank. The lamps were turned on by a switch at the entrance door. By 1894 there were well over 800 electric lights at the school, hospital, masters’ houses, and avenues of Blairlodge – considerably more than in the towns of Falkirk, Denny, Grangemouth and Bo’ness put together

Illus 25: Blairlodge, c1908, looking west.

In May 1899 Frank H Matthews, the headmaster of Bolton Grammar School, was appointed as the vice-principal of Blairlodge. This was part of a plan to secure the continuity of the school and at the very beginning of 1901 Blairlodge School was formed into a Limited Liability Company with Matthews as the headmaster. Gray remained in residence at Blairlodge as chairman and resident governor of the company. The capital was set at £16,000 in 16,000 shares of £1 each. The subscribers were J Cooke Gray, schoolmaster; A Buchanan, provision merchant, Parkhill; Stephanie E Gray, Blairlodge School; F H Matthews, schoolmaster. Blairlodge; Thomas Boyd Laurie, managing clerk, Eilabank, Polmont Station; Alexander Clark, house steward, Blairlodge School; Robert Naisbeck, sergeant-instructor, Blairlodge School; and David Mitchell, distiller, Millfield.

By then the Boer War was in full flow and at least twelve old Blairlodgians served in that theatre of war. These included Lt Ian Forbes of the Gordon Highlanders and W Orrr Paterson of the Canadian Volunteers, as well as Lieutenant ND Gray, son of J Cooke Gray. As a consequence the school received detailed news of the progress of the war from these correspondents and this was passed on to the local newspaper. Lt Gray said that he would send a Boer rifle which he had personally captured for the museum at Blairlodge. The Blairlodge magazine from 1899 noted that: “On the Boer side we know that the four Fichtards are in the ranks of the Orange Free State… We hope that all, on whichever side they are, may come scatheless through the struggle.”

Illus 26: James Cooke Gray.

After 28 years at the helm of Blairlodge, Cooke Gray died in 1902. He had had a gift for organisation and management, a fine presence, great ambition and a way of life somewhat in the grand manner for a schoolmaster. With an ease a little disconcerting to the academic masters, but compelling admiration, he had brought his school to great prosperity and served it well for a quarter of a century.

His fine Gothic gravestone stands on the inside of the east gable wall of the old church at Polmont and reads:


In July 1903 Blairlodge was bedevilled by the outbreak of an infectious disease and several of the sports matches against Merchiston, Loretto and Lasswade, had to be cancelled. Then on 25th of that month Alastair McGregor, elder son Alexander McGregor of the Great Western Hotel in Oban, died at the school. The infection, however, seems to have been effectively contained and the school’s shooting team continued to complete as usual at Bisley. The school broke up for the summer holidays and the autumn term started as usual. The various sporting teams did well over the 1903-4 season and were well positioned in their leagues with the summer holidays coming around again. The school buildings and grounds were humming with activity. It came as a great shock to all concerned when the newspapers published a report on 23 July that Blairlodge was to cease trading! With a heavy heart the board of the public liability company had passed a resolution to go into voluntary liquidation. On 29 July the term came to an end as usual and to the pupils, parents and staff, nothing seemed different from previous years.

The school roll had been falling since 1892 and the reason given was the lack of the necessary support to maintain such a sizeable institution. Later on the outbreak of disease and the aftermath of the Boer War which had reduced the number of pupils from South Africa were blamed, though these were in reality minor difficulties. In fact the seeds for the school’s failure had been sown in the late 1890s when Gray had dabbled in the business markets and lost most of his money. Gray had been successful in almost every venture and innovation that he had introduced at the school and this resulted in over confidence in his own abilities. His financial investments had proved disastrous and had been one of the main reasons for establishing the limited company in 1900. Matthews had been brought in to help to take the school forward and it had struggled along for a few years before the situation had become untenable. One consequence of Gray’s disaster was his own failing health. He became thin and bent and was only 53 years old when he died. After a quarter of a century during which he had turned a middling private school into one of the great boarding schools of Scotland to rival the public schools of England, by an aberration of judgement, he had accepted advice in private speculations, and eventually brought down the school that had engaged his heart.

The masters soon got jobs at other schools. Alexander Clark, the house steward, lost a lot of his investment. He was a native of Airdrie and had started as a page-boy at Blairlodge School before progressing to house steward, a position that he occupied for the last eight years of the school. He eventually got the post of caretaker at the Edinburgh Sheriff Court buildings and after over 20 years there he retired in 1937 at 72 years of age.

The school property had been valued at £27,000 and in October was put on the private market for substantially less. The contents were sold off. That month the Furnishing Committee for the new poorhouse in Falkirk bought the necessary beds, bedding and other furnishings that it needed from Blairlodge at almost half what they would have paid for new. Captain W P MacKendrick of the Blairlodge School Cadet Corps had been granted the honorary rank of Major in June 1902 and he now resigned the post. The Blairlodge Cadet Corps was disbanded, but October 1904 also saw a visit from the Duke of Connaught and an official party to investigate the possibility of using it as a central location for training cadets – nothing came of it. It was also considered as a new home for the Scottish Queen Victoria Memorial School, but Dunblane was preferred.

Thomas Laurie, the school secretary was appointed as the liquidator and after a year it was evident that the buildings were unlikely ever to function again as a school. Further contents were auctioned off:
“At BLAIRLODGE, POLMONT, On THURSDAY and FRIDAY, 12th and 12th October, At Half-past Ten o’clock Each Day (By instructions of the Liquidator). EXTENSIVE DEPLENISHING SALE OF HOUSEHOLD AND SCHOOL FURNITURE, Chiefly supplied by Cumming and Smith, Glasgow; RICH-TONED CHAPEL ORGAN, by Brindley and Foster, Sheffield, Double Manual, with Electric Motor; cost £900.

(Falkirk Herald 4 October 1905, 4).

This advertisement produced an immediate response from Albert E Bingham. He wanted his electro-plated silver Challenge Shield back, having lodged it at the school in 1893 for gymnastic competition. The contents having been disposed of the buildings were put on the open market and advertised:

‘STIRLINGSHIRE- BLAIRLODGE. To be Sold by Public Roup, within DOWELL’S ROOMS, No. 18 George Street, Edinburgh, on WEDNESDAY, 7th February, 1906, at 2 p.m.
THAT DESIRABLE PROPERTY known as BLAIRLODGE, pleasantly situated within One Mile of Polmont Station, Stirlingshire. The Buildings comprise Large and Commodious Premises which were until lately occupied by the well-known Boarding School for Boys, Blairlodge School; there are Extensive Outbuildings, including Workshop, Stabling, Byres, and Offices; also, Engine and Boiler Houses, with Engines, Boilers, etc. Within the Grounds there is a large and substantial Brick Building, formerly used as an Hospital, but easily convertible for Hall or other purposes. The Subjects of Sale further include a Handsome Villa containing Eight Roomy Apartments, Bathroom, etc., the Rent of which for the current year is £40.
The Grounds, which are skilfully laid out, extend to about 30 Acres. The Southern Boundary is formed by a main road, the frontage to which could be Feued without affecting the amenity of Blairlodge. Feu-Duties Nominal.
UPSET PRICE, £11,000.”

(Falkirk Herald 23 December 1905, 8).

No offerer came forward and the property remained unsold for years, slowly deteriorating. The once well-groomed grounds became overgrown and the drives disappeared under rank vegetation. Rubbish accumulated outside the buildings. In 1909 the Westquarter Cricket Club was given permission to use the old cricket ground in front of the school and slowly brought its turf back to a good state – emphasising the contrast. The pavilion, however, was closely shuttered and in disrepair.

In March 1911 Blairlodge was purchased by HM Prison Commissioners for Scotland, with the support of the Treasury, for use as a Borstal where young offenders were to be detained and trained. Borstals had been introduced into England immediately following the Prevention of Crime Act, 1908, and had proved very successful. Using the English model, which combined a reward-based training system with individualised security, the Commissioners saw Blairlodge with its ample accommodation, large grounds and workshops as ideal. Barlinnie at Glasgow had been considered but the idea was to move away from the prison tradition. It was essentially to be a supplementary reformatory school. The locals did not see it in quite that light and there were slight rumblings. The old boys of Blairlodge School were shocked and immediately petitioned for the name “Blairlodge” to be excluded from the borstal’s new name. They need not have worried. The 1908 Act had already made provision for borstals in Scotland to be called “institutions” and early on it was decided to name it the Polmont Institution – the first in Scotland.

The Polmont Institution was intended to accommodate about 100 boys aged between 16 and 21 and give them a sound physical and moral training, education and to teach them trades. In July twelve convicts were transferred from Glasgow to help with the necessary alterations. These were tradesmen and worked alongside other prisoners under supervision. Before long every window of the main block was furnished with iron bars. Internally the buildings were gutted and the large wall safe removed. The sky blue tints and gilt edging of the dining room was replaced in a much plainer style – white paint. There was no place for decoration under the new regime. The ground floor of the old mansion was refurbished as the governor’s residence and the upper floor for the warders or keepers. Some of the buildings on the west side of the school complex, such as the science laboratories, were demolished.

The first party of 19 boys was transferred to the Polmont Institution from Barlinne on 18 December 1911 and within a year the number present rose to 101 inmates. This increased to 153 by the end of the following year. For the first nine months new inmates wore red shirts and were categorised as second class. By good conduct they were able to graduate to first class and changed to a blue shirt with greater freedom of association and extra material comforts. As they progressed they were allotted trades – masons, bricklayers, plumbers, joiners, cooks, bakers, painters, blacksmiths, plasterers, tailors, shoemakers and slaters. For those who did not progress, but preferred idleness and misconduct, there was a penal class. They were deprived of association and the chance to earn any additional comforts.

Illus 27: Borstal staff in 1912.

Lads who had been promoted were allowed to sleep in dormitories containing about a dozen beds; the others occupied single rooms. First class boys had such privileges as newspapers every day, and games and Saturday football. The especially trustworthy lads were allowed often to work unattended.

At the end of nine months they received a three months’ special badge, which represented a monetary value of 2 shillings, and every three months of good conduct thereafter meant another 3s. This money could be sent home, though generally it was used in buying table delicacies such as jam, treacle or butter. They were also entitled to wear a stripe on their jackets. After a period at the institution the particularly well-behaved boy might be released on license.

Illus 28: Aerial Photograph of Blairlodge c1920.

This is something like the daily routine – at 5.30am the warders took duty. At 6am a select group of boys turned out for an hour in the gymnasium. Other boys meantime were placed in the kitchen to prepare breakfast which was served at 7.30am, or engaged in cleaning up dormitories. At 8am work began in the various trades. In the forenoon there were other relays for both physical exercise and the school classes. School classes were taken for an hour at a time, the education imparted rising to the first year of the higher grade curriculum. Dinner was served at midday and manual labour proceeded until 4.15pm. Building construction took place under a practical builder. Tea, the last meal of the day, was served at 5pm when manual work ceased for the day. The prisoners retired at 8pm. The fare was considered to be much better than the ordinary prison diet. For breakfast porridge, tea and bread. At dinner each lad was served with a pint of soup, a pound of potatoes, and 6 ounces of butcher meat, and bread. For tea there was an unlimited allowance of bread and margarine.

As the boys worked in the kitchen, grew some of the food on the grounds, and looked after the bedding and clothes, the institution was almost self-supporting. This ethos even extended to the enlargement of the borstal complex. The erection of a large three-storey brick building as a dormitory for the 100 boys with a common hall was begun in March 1913 and the brickwork was finished that year. The materials for it were brought to the site by canal and unloaded by the lads. They also did the joinery work on the building. This block became Douglas House.

The 40 acres of land attached to the institution was used for growing field and garden crops. Small allotments were awarded for good behaviour and the boys cultivated them unattended. On an inspection of the facility in 1913 groups of lads were seen potato-gathering, ploughing, tree-felling, and so on. The farm carried a pair of horses, several cows, pigs, hens and so on. A farm cart was made entirely by the joinery and blacksmith trainees. The joinery also made all the furniture for the institution and for Greenock Prison. The smithy made iron casements for Perth prison.

Illus 29: 1916 Ordnance Survey Map (National Library of Scotland).

Blairlodge chapel was used by the borstal for first time in February 1913 as part of the Burns’ Night celebrations. Thereafter it was regularly used as a chapel with services for all denominations. Many of the borstal boys were released on license under the supervision of the armed forces to fight in the First World War and the present institution still has a book with their names in it. John Hart was one of them and served with the Royal Artillery. He was returned to Polmont in 1915 for 208 days for having gone Absent Without Leave, but then rejoined the army. The old boys of Blairlodge School were very prominent in the ranks of the officers at the Front and many were killed and many gained honours. After the war the Polmont Institute continued to evolve to meet the demands of the day. A second accommodation block known as Wallace House was built to the west, this time perpendicular to the canal, and was complete by 1922.

Illus 30: The 1921 Accommodation Block with “GV R” under a crown in the gable.

In 1922 a matron, trained in nursing, was appointed to the Polmont Institution. Kenneth McKenzie moved to Polmont as a boot maker in 1921 and taught the young offenders to make shoes by hand. He later became a prison officer and gave up some of his own time, as did many of the staff, to train the boys. During the 1930s he was able to persuade the head of the Prison Service to give him a budget of £5 so that he could start a shoe-making and leatherwork class in his own time in the evenings. Until then almost all of the inmates had been locked up from tea time until breakfast. Exhibitions and shows brought in just enough money to keep the class going. The other trades continued during the daytime and kept up with the times. In 1938, for example, instruction was given in acetylene welding. As late as the 1970s the lads from Polmont did much of the work of construction on Cornton Vale near Stirling.

Illus 31: Interior Views of the old Accommodation Blocks.

A local builder had acquired a small plot of land on the sports field opposite to the entrance of the old school from the limited company and in 1909 erected a villa there for Dr Charles Lawrence, which the new owner called “Harlow Grange” after his wife’s family home. The Westquarter Cricket Club continued to use the fields in front of the borstal until 1922, by which time the pitch had deteriorated. In May that year they opened a new pitch to the south of Harlow Grange. This had been the school’s second pitch and it survived into the early 1990s.

Illus 32: Prison Staff c1925 with the Matron in the front row.

During the Second World War, in 1940, four underground air raid shelters were constructed in the grounds of the Institution by the voluntary labour of the staff. One of Polmont’s inmates from 1921 gained fame in the war under the name of “Gentleman Johnny.” He was a safe-breaker and earned the epithet because he always returned such things as pension books that he came across in the safes to their owners by post. Whenever caught he also alerted the authorities to any unused gelignite so that it could be safely disposed of. Whilst in Peterhead Prison in 1941 he volunteered to use his skills against the Nazis, promising to stay on the straight and narrow as long as he was in uniform.

In 1959 the cadet force was revived at the Polmont Borstal Institution. It was run on the same lines as most cadet forces whose instruction included map reading and the dismantling of automatic weapons! The training and discipline was considered to be of value to selected boys. In 1966/7 the number in the cadet force was put at 40. The total number of inmates at Polmont Borstal was 290 with a staff of 135 and at Polmont Remand Institution 57 and 25. The army cadet force was discontinued in 1970. Another link with the past was the construction of a dual purpose hall to serve as a cinema and a chapel, followed by an indoor swimming pool. In 1977 a fitness suite harked back to the gym of Blairlodge School. A Prison Officers’ Training College was erected on the site of Blairbank and the school hospital.

In the 1970s Charles Hills, the governor, exposed suitable long-term prisoners to work experiences in a variety of community settings and in 1970 they helped the locals to clear the towpath of the Union Canal. Subsequently an abandoned barge in the canal was pumped out and renovated for use. This led to a link with the Edinburgh Canal Centre and the Seagull Trust.

In 1982 borstals were abolished and the centre at Polmont became the Polmont Young Offenders Institution. Increasing numbers of youths were now passing through the Scottish courts and in 1985 prisoners on remand were held at Polmont and for a short time this element became an annexe of Edinburgh Prison.

Illus 33: Polmont YOI looking east in 2005.

In 2005 the large-scale reconstruction of the buildings and infrastructure at Polmont began. Two new blocks, Iona and Monro Halls, were constructed on the higher ground. The original mansion house on the site survived until its demolition in 2010 when Polmont became the national facility for young men aged between 16 and 21 who had been committed to custody on remand as well as those who had been convicted.

Illus 34: The new Entrance to HMP & YOI Polmont looking north, 2020.

Sentences ranged from six months to life, with an average length of 2-4 years. This massive multimillion pound rebuild included the demolition of the two accommodation blocks from 1913 and 1920. A third accommodation block called Blair House was added. The new blocks were designed for a total of 650-830 occupants with facilities en suite, though the institution usually operates well below that number. It also required an upgrade in the security arrangements which included a more substantial perimeter barrier and was completed in 2012. Trades now learned include the construction trades, industrial cleaning, engineering, gardening, forklift and road safety. In 2016 Blair House was given over to girls.

Sites and Monuments Records

Blairlodge SchoolSMR 1210NS 9195 7807
Polmont Young Offenders’ InstitutionSMR 1676NS 9194 7809


Anon1888Stirling, Falkirk and District Illustrated Review, descriptive of industries, trades, etc.
Grant, A.I. & Ronald, A.2005‘My first school, Blair Lodge Academy, Polmont, 1854,’ Calatria 22, 71-100.
Reid, J. 2009The Place Names of Falkirk and East Stirlingshire.
Scott, I. 1993‘The Disruption of the Church in 1843 and the parishes of East Stirlingshire,’ Calatria 5, 79-104.

NB.  This article was written during the Covid Lockdown of 2020 and so access to the archives in Falkirk Museum which contain school magazines was not possible.

G.B. Bailey (2020)