Sciennes traditions

The Sciennes School Building outwardly looks very similar now to the way it looked in 1892 when it was first opened. However as maybe expected, it has altered significantly internally and to some extent externally over the century.

Originally the playground was divided down the middle by a railing to keep the sexes apart. Girls on the left and boys on the right. There were also several more trees as can be seen in the photograph. The toilets at this time were outside where the present ones are but not attached to the building. (The janitor’s office, new toilets and dining hall did not exist then.) One lady remembers they were simply open cubicles with no flushes, sinks or toilet paper: ‘They used to go along the row saying stinking, fresh, trying to choose one to use!’ Drinking water was provided from fountains in the back wall of the shelters, painted green with two iron mugs hanging from them on chains. Before the Second World War the children were summoned to school in the morning by the bell in the bell tower on the roof. The rope that rang it hung down into a recess in the stairwell. Final year pupils remember having the privilege of pulling it sometimes.

Sciennes was unusual for its time in having a swimming pool. In the early days the gym was in the basement beside the swimming pool. Many former pupils mentioned the pool with pride and even boast about it now – the school with the pool! It looks strange to us with its dark walls and odd equipment. The present gym was classrooms for the first part of the century, divided by huge sliding wooden partitions which were pushed aside for assemblies. The class rooms at the ends had desks in tiers which were in place for at least 60 years. This is why the windows are so far up the walls!

The first floor contained a lovely sunny sewing room. Only girls were taught to sew and knit with a reg- ular sewing teacher. Many letters from former pupils praised the teaching of such particular skills which they continue to use today. One lady however remembers making huge bloomers which she describes as large enough for barrage balloons! Some former pupils still have items they made at Sciennes. On the top floor were woodwork and cookery rooms complete with black-leaded stoves which the pupils

Maggie, together ran it as a dame-school until Jessie died in 1913, followed by Maggie in 1922.


had to polish. At least one former girl pupil remembers cookery lessons with loathing – no seasoning and lots of grease! Nowadays the top floor has P6 and P7 classrooms while the Learning Support Room and TV Room have been created on the first floor.

[As of 1992, the] most recent alteration to the school has been the creation of the infant library out of one of the ground floor cloakrooms.

As mentioned above, the dining hall did not exist until the sixties. Most children went home for lunch as few women worked then and the catchment area was more circular. Meals were eaten at one point in the huts erected in the back playground, served from huge cauldrons – not remembered with relish! These were used originally as classrooms and were remembered fondly by some with their wooden verandas. More recently they were used as stores but were removed a few years ago.


Almost without exception all former pupils who contacted us remember the tradition of marching into school and to their classrooms to music. When the bell was rung at the start of the day all the children would line up in pairs as today, but then they would march in to the sound of marches played on a piano situated on the first floor. In later years it was replaced by a record player. Many remember various teachers playing this piano and the strict discipline kept over marching in time, including having their legs belted for getting out of step!

Teaching methods

When the school first opened, classes were often 60 strong, often bare-foot, accommodated in the tier seating. Later this dropped to 40 and then to the present day 33 maximum. However teaching methods were needless to say very different! Learning was mainly done by rote, very boring in many former pupils’ memories! Class reading was particularly hated, with the whole class having to wait while everyone took their turn at reading. In the early days slow children were kept back to repeat a year and worst disgrace of all was the dunce’s cap.

Slates were the normal method of writing for many years. Each desk had a slot in the front to hold the slate while not in use and each child had to provide a box with a wet sponge for cleaning the slate. These often got smelly! The screeching in the infants’ class must have been horrendous. Later, older pupils graduated onto dip pens and ink wells.

Testing was commonplace. One former pupil remembers being moved up the tiers if you did well in spelling. Another remembers having mental arithmetic tests weekly and getting 6 old pennies if you were first (paid out of the teacher’s own pocket!). In the 40’s and 50’s the infant mistress used to test infants herself regularly on reading and tables. The final test for many was the ‘quali’ or qualifying exam at the end of primary seven. Doing well meant entrance to Boroughmuir senior secondary or James Clark for the more technically minded.

Rewards and Punishments

Discipline was strict and pupils were frequently belted, often for minor misdemeanours. One former pupil remembers being belted for breaking a ruler, another being spanked for playing with a toy car in class. One child remembers cooling the weals on her wrists on the tiled corridor wall, and being careful to hide the marks from her parents at home otherwise she would be punished again for ‘giving the teachers problems’.


Belting was also the norm for many years for being late for school with no excuses acceptable. One of the saddest stories about ‘first days at school’ that we were told concerned a small boy who started school in 1915. ‘My brother, six years older than me, took me to school. In those days everybody lined up in the bottom playground and marched in. A teacher stopped all latecomers at the foot of the stairs – my brother was late, but I was half an hour early for the Infant class. When Mr. Watt came into the hallway everybody held out their hands. So I held out mine and got belted with everybody else. It was a nice start to my schooldays.’ Changed days indeed!

However rewards were also common and the school used to have a Dux. Medals were also handed out for good attendance and merit certificates for good work. Several former pupils told us of books like Little Women and Bibles handed out as prizes.

Music and Sports

The school has always thought music important and violin has been taught to the musically able from P4 up for most of the century and is still very popular today.

The school has also had an orchestra for many years and any child having played for two years can join. Recorder has also been taught by the Sciennes School Association with about 60 learning in 1991. Singing too is remembered right through the century with pleasure.

Football has been an important part of Sciennes school life from its earliest days as can be seen in the early team photograph. We still have thriving teams today with several cups and shields to their name. In the last few years we have had a girl’s team too. The girls have had a successful netball team.

Gym in some form or another has been included in the school week right through the century, although in the early days it seemed to have been haphazard. Some mention swimming for the girls while the boys had gym and vice versa. Many former pupils mentioned swimming which in early days was unusual in a primary school. Some enjoyed it tremendously, others were less enthusiastic – wearing hand-knitted swimming costumes, freezing cold and having ‘shivery bites’ to stop your teeth chattering afterwards! It is still part of today’s curriculum but hopefully a less chilly experience!

Dancing was also taught to senior pupils leading up to the ‘qualifying dance’.


Information on uniform when the school first opened is vague. From class pictures we see most girls in large lace collars and pinafore overdresses while the boys wore suits with Eton collars. Footwear for boys and girls was button boots provided free to needy children by the police benevolent fund.

However no doubt normal dress was less fancy and many would have had bare feet. Later a traditional uniform as we understand it was introduced with a blue and white striped tie and a red blazer badge. More recently this has changed to a gold and navy striped tie with a gold blazer badge. Nowadays the most popular clothing at school is the less formal tracksuit uniform in navy and red.

Curious Traditions

To conclude this chapter there is one curious piece of information passed on to us from two different sources which we felt was worthy of mention – an unusual method of early child care. Seemingly in the early part of the century pupils sometimes were sent to school in the afternoon with a pre-school sibling if mother was busy. These small children were taken into class and sat beside their older brother or


sister. If the headmaster appeared they were stuffed under the desk where they remained silent until he left. One lady recalling this practise now realises the headmaster must have known about it and turned a blind eye. No doubt he realised it was a social necessity sometimes.

From the Sciennes School Centenary book – 1992. Published by and copyright of the Sciennes Pri- mary School Parent Teachers Association. Reproduced in 2003 by kind permission of Lindsey Robert- son, Headteacher of Sciennes.

(see The Sciennes attic ghost on the current page) (see Sciennes playground games on page 43) (see The Sciennes TV train on page 70)