Former school became Scotland’s first Borstal

This week I had the pleasure of taking part in a special Burns event in Polmont Young Offenders Institution.

Saturday, 8th February 2020, 10:56 am
Rev Robert Cunningham.

It was a very enjoyable afternoon and a credit to the young people and staff who organised everything.

Back in the 1970s I used to go there each week from Falkirk College to take classes and, while most of the buildings were modern, there was an older one of sandstone, a bit like a mansion house.

It was once part of Blairlodge Academy, a famous school which had flourished from the mid 1800s. It was one of Scotland’s largest and most successful private schools, very much the equal of Fettes or Dollar Academy.

In 1841 Rev. Robert Cunningham, who had earlier founded Melville College in Edinburgh, purchased Polmont House and, two years later, following the Disruption in the Church of Scotland, he became minister of the new Polmont Free Church in Brightons.

In the same year he acquired the mansion house and estate of Blairlodge on land which had once been known as “Mexico”. Here he opened a small private school for boys.

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

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

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

Rev Cunningham was succeeded in 1851 by Robert Hislop and in those early years discipline was 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 singlehandedly transformed the institution attracting the sons of the rich and famous from all over Scotland.

The new teachers were mostly Oxford and Cambridge men and the school curriculum now included chemistry, physics and technical subjects while the sporting activities mirrored the great English public schools like Eton and Harrow.

Quite a few Blairlodge boys achieved fame as rugby and cricket blues at Oxbridge and many went into the colonial service and the military.

The Scottish architect Sir John Burnett was a Blairlodge ‘‘old boy’’ as was the owner and editor of the Falkirk Herald, Fred Johnston. The school was equipped with fine laboratories and in the 1890s was lit by almost 900 electric light bulbs at a time when electricity was still seen as a novelty.

Sports were a major part of school life with the 100 acre grounds providing for football, cricket and golf along with 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 around 1910 was acquired by the Prison Commissioners who opened it as Scotland’s first borstal institution.

There is now no trace of the school other than the old bell which is on display within a new war memorial in the grounds and the name of the drive, Blairlodge Avenue.