Polmont borstal was once a leading private school educating Scotland’s elite

The Blairlodge Academy gymnastics team pictured in 1893
The Blairlodge Academy gymnastics team pictured in 1893

Back in the 1970s I used to go each week from Falkirk College to take classes in what was then Polmont Borstal Institution.

It was one of Scotland’s largest and most successful private schools – very much the equal of Fettes or Dollar Academy. Most of the buildings were relatively modern but there was an older one built of sandstone, a bit like a mansion house, which I was told had been part of Blairlodge Academy, a famous old school which had flourished in the 1800s.

The new teachers were mostly Oxford and Cambridge men, while the sporting activities mirrored great English schools like Eton

In 1841, Rev. Robert Cunningham, who had earlier founded Melville College in Edinburgh, acquired the mansion house of Blairlodge and opened a small private school for boys. Two years later, following the ‘Disruption’ in the Church of Scotland, Rev. Cunningham became Minister of the new Polmont Free Church and for some time the congregation met at Blairlodge.

It seems that the school was an immediate success and needed his full-time attention so in 1846 he gave up the pulpit and moved to the classroom.

From the outset the school attracted boarders from all over the country, though the numbers on the roll remained small, around 50, and the curriculum was a familiar mixture of Latin, English, mathematics and a healthy dose of Biblical Studies.

Music and foreign languages were also taught and the boys were encouraged to study the natural history of the surrounding area.

Mr Cunningham was succeeded by Robert Hislop in 1851 and in those early years discipline was very severe. One surviving account by a terrified pupil talks of bullying by masters and other pupils and during the 1860s there was a gradual decline in the numbers attending.

In 1874 a new headmaster, James Cooke Gray, arrived from Loretto School and he single-handedly transformed the institution attracting the sons of Scotland’s rich and famous. The new teachers were mostly Oxford and Cambridge men and the curriculum now included chemistry, physics and technical subjects, while the sporting activities mirrored the great English schools like Eton.

Quite a few Blairlodge boys achieved fame as rugby and cricket blues at Oxbridge and many went into the colonial service and the military. A week or so ago I wrote about the famous Scottish architect Sir John Burnett, who was a Blairlodge ‘old boy’.

Sports were a major part of school life with the 100-acre grounds providing for football, cricket and golf, an indoor swimming pool and gymnasium. At its height in the early 1890s there were over 300 pupils and the school had its own butchers, bakers and dairy.

After the headmaster’s death in 1902 the school experienced some financial difficulties and two years later an outbreak of an infectious disease, maybe measles, forced the staff to send the boys home.

It never reopened and in 1908 was acquired by the Prison Commissioners who opened it as Scotland’s first Borstal Institution for young offenders.

There is now no trace of the school and only the name of the drive, Blairlodge Avenue, remains to remind us of what once was.