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  • Tom Reid

Old Stone-built Schools of Kirkcaldy

The 1863 book, ‘Historical Sketches of Pathhead and Vicinity’ by Robert Brodie, contains what may be one of the earliest documented references to the building of schools in Kirkcaldy. It occurs around the time that the Old Statistical Account of Scotland 1790-93 was being compiled when:-

‘The flourishing and populous town of Pathhead, finding their town greatly increase, both in its inhabitants and sources of trade. . .'

'Therefore, that the inhabitants of this flourishing place might have the satisfaction of having their children instructed in every useful branch of education, without being obliged to send them to distant schools, they met at large, and agreed that a school-house was not only necessary to be had among them, but agreed that one should be built as soon as possible, and that the expense should be raised by a general subscription among the inhabitants, and any donations wherewith they might be favoured.’

So they decided that they ought to have a proper school. There had been a number of Dame Schools where a lady would teach boys and girls to read and girls to knit and sew. If the boys could read the Bible reasonably fluently and could write a little they were considered well educated. These schools were set up by individuals who rented a house for the purpose, and one such person was notable for attracting pupils even from Kirkcaldy! Not only that but he was the first teacher in the neighbourhood to set his face against the general custom of pupils bringing cockerels in at the end of terms for cock fighting - with the teacher adding to his diet - and emoluments - by retaining the dead birds. Mr Brodie then lists a number of the locations of previous schools including one which was later used as a slaughter-house, another later used as a weaver’s shop and dwelling house, another in Flesh Wynd, later a grocer’s cellar, and another in an upper flat.

The minutes of the first public meeting began as follows:-

'Pathhead Meeting-House, Jan. 28, 1794. - In consequence of an advertisement, per the town officer, a number of the subscribers for the laudable purpose of building a school-house being met, time and place as above, made choice of James Bogie for preses (sic); then proceeded to make choice of a committee of their number to conduct the business. . '

They raised the necessary funds - but with considerable difficulty since many of the promised subscribers failed to stump up. and built the school-room, measuring 27 feet by 18 (8.23m x 5.49m) internally, and with a dwelling-house for the teacher on the floor above - In fact, Mr Brodie goes so far as to say that “Never, I believe, was a committee more harassed and worried in prosecuting their labours than the committee of the first subscription school in Pathhead.” Despite their continuing financial difficulties the school was built and, although having roughly the same footprint as a modern spec house this was a relatively spacious building - the previous Pathhead and Sinclairtown Subscription School in Flesh Wynd was in a room sixteen ft (4.88m) square - about the size of a large living room.

The new building lasted, as a school for forty-seven years but required a great deal of money to keep it in repair, and so was eventually replaced by the Philp's Institution at Nether Street which opened on 6 February 1832. (See below) This in turn was sold in 1849 to make available funds to build a new school and in 1858 a new Pathhead Primary School opened in 'a very healthy position at the back of the railway' according to Robert Brodie writing in 1863. It was situated on the southern corner of the junction of Factory Road and Smeaton Road. This school was certainly no aesthetic masterpiece with its extremely plain and severe appearance and scarcity of windows. Mind you it was at least a considerable improvement on the monumental eyesore which is Thomas Muir’s tumbledown corrugated iron scrapyard building now occupying the site.

On January the 29th 1915 the headmaster of the School, Mr John Christie, walked all the pupils, staff, and equipment from the old school to their new Pathhead school in Cairns Street, and thus saving on removal expenses. Probably blackboards will have been the heaviest items to be shifted. A nearby street was named Christie Place in his memory. This new school was designed by the Kirkcaldy architect William Williamson (1871 - 1952) - who also designed Dysart Primary School among others - see below. His design was chosen from a local competition which received eleven entries, including two by him - which came first and second. The school cost £10,000 and held 1050 pupils and was in a very elongated and austere English baroque style. Williamson’s Cairns Street school was no aesthetic masterpiece either but it certainly made up for the lack of windows in the old school, with windows running along virtually the entire length of the frontage. A central cupola was almost the only concession to ornamentation.

It was then a junior secondary school before becoming one of the biggest primary schools in Kirkcaldy, but unfortunately it burnt down in 1990 within just a few hours. When it was rebuilt a year later the janitors house had been spared and the new school was built in red brick and harl in the then fashionable open plan system. In 2014 a number of artworks appeared around the vicinity of the school, based on drawings and designs by the pupils which were then scaled up appropriately.

As far as the Philp Schools are concerned, on the 15th of May 1820 Robert Philp, a merchant, of Edenshead, wrote his will in which he executed a deed, conveying to trustees . . . his whole property, heritable and moveable, (with the exception of a few legacies) for the purpose of affording education "to that class of children who, from the poverty of their parents, were most likely to be deprived of that blessing - the most needy to have the first claim." He was a wealthy bachelor who could have left his money - around £70,000 - to a

distant cousin, Dr John Philip (who to Robert Philp’s annoyance had changed his surname), and was a famous missionary in South Africa, but decided against this on the grounds that: "if ma name isnae guid enough fa them then neither is ma siller." And so he split his money amongst Kirkcaldy; Pathhead, St Clairtown, and Hawkleymuir; as well as providing for Linktown, Newtown of Abbotshall, Inverteil and Kinghorn; a total of four schools where 'all pupils at all the schools should be taught to read English, writing, and arithmetic, and should be furnished from the funds with books, paper, pens, ink, and slates; and that, moreover, their religious education should be attended to, as being of the greatest importance to reasonable creatures.'

He also directed that coal, candle, books, &c. be furnished for the schools from the funds, and if the funds could afford it, ‘I appoint the sum of one pound ten shillings to be laid out in purchasing clothes etc.’ and when they leave school, they should receive a sum of money. The grants for clothing were still being allocated as recently as the early 1970s. What he did not do however was to allocate any money for the building of schools, but by 1830 the Trustees had realised that his wishes could not really be carried out in the existing establishments, and so decided to set up three schools in Kirkcaldy, at Nether Street, Pathhead, one at Thistle Street (subsequently Oscars nightclub, later Caesars, then Bentley's, now Society), and at Links Street, like the one already built at Kinghorn. The Nether Street School at Pathhead was replaced with a school on the southern corner of the junction between Factory Road and Smeaton Road which served until 29th Jan 1915 - see below.

He had an extensive spinning mill at the West Bridge, Kirkcaldy, which he acquired in 1815, and also had his own dyeworks and manufacturing department, and a bleachfield, and, at a time when every home had a loom, he would go around Kirkcaldy and buy the linen and sell it on in Dundee and Perth. He may also have have profited greatly by the slave trade. He died at his country mansion, Pitlochie House near Edenshead (now Gateside) eight years later on 14 April 1828, and his lofty tombstone in Kirkcaldy Auld

Kirkyard described him as a ‘Linen Manufacturer.’

The first of his schools, at Nether Street, Pathhead, opened on 6 February 1832 on the seaward side of the street where it soon became dwarfed by the massive 40 foot-high floorcloth factory - ‘Nairn’s Folly.’ The school was quite an elegant structure with a lofty Italianate tower and belfry, and was perched on the edge of the steep slope down to the sea. It closed in 1891 and the pupils were transferred to the subscription school. The attractive little Kinghorn School was designed by no less a figure then the Edinburgh architect Thomas Hamilton (1784-1858) who built the Royal High School at Calton Hill in Edinburgh. Like the other schools it closed around 1890 and later became the library and Community Centre.

The Linktown Philp School was certainly a distinct improvement on the previous one which was just:-

“Ae storie, ruifed wi’ reddish tile,

Some shutterered windows an’ a door.

The inside juist as plain in style ----

The Maister’s desk an’ three legg’d stule,

A press, a kist, a big blackboard,

A clock, some shelves whaur slates were stored.”

The new one was again compact and classical with a portico flanked by entrance gates and surmounted by a statue of Philp himself, ornate carvings, and symbolic figures, and it closed when Abbotshall School opened.

The Kirkcaldy Philp School in Thistle Street also had distinct architectural ambitions and fortunately still survives having served as a nightclub under various names for many years. It has a classical portico with some very widely spaced columns and a rather paltry central pediment, but still has distinct presence. The Trustees certainly chose their architects well, and it is a pity that, apart from Thomas Hamilton, we don’t know at present who they were.

A new Kirkcaldy Burgh School opened in 1843 in what is now known as St Brycedale

Avenue but was then called Loan Wells Green. It stood directly across from the future St Brycedale’s church and was built at a cost of £1,500 in a dignified Doric style with an advanced central pedimented portico - rather like a mini version of William Playfair’s Dollar Academy of 1818. When first built the Burgh School was in competition with fifteen different private schools of various sizes and educational values.

By 1895 Sir Michael Barker Nairn, then the chairman of the school board, provided funding of nearly £10,000 to enable a significant enlargement to the premises. This was effected by apparently rebuilding the old school on top of the new one! The portico and elements of the facade were dismantled and reconstructed at first floor level - not entirely convincingly, and resulting in a significant diminution to the stately appearance of the columns.

In 1929 a new attached Technical School was opened and it was eventually all replaced when the present High School was built in Dunnikier Way in 1958.

The Education Act (Scotland) of 1872 ushered in a welcome new era of School building and so the School Board of Kirkcaldy met for the first time on 7th May 1873. The Scottish Education Department had been established in 1872 and set up locally-elected Boards, thus taking away control of education from the church, and also abolishing tuition charges. The Act also stipulated that attendance was compulsory for every child between the ages of five and thirteen.

The Board decided to build two completely new schools; the West Primary School in Milton Road, and the East Primary School of 1876 in Glebe Park - now the Glebe Park Centre, and these were covered in our previous article. They were followed by Abbotshall School in 1889-91 built by Kirkcaldy architect Robert Little (1835 - 1901), the designer of the exuberant B-Listed Whytehouse Mansions (1895-8) on the corner of Whytescauseway and the High Street. Little’s school was an irregular T-plan form single-storey school with numerous skew-slabbed gothic gables and was built of grey sandstone for 600 pupils in Ramsay Road, Linktown. It cost £6000; is now C-Listed, and was opened by Sir Michael Barker Nairn with around 130 pupils, many of whom came from the Links Philp School which then closed. This school of 1890-1 in Ramsay Road and the adjoining Infant building of 1898 by William Williamson were for a time converted to offices but have now been closed and empty for a number of years.

Little also built a new school for infants at Burntisland as well as a £1460 school for the lost village of Binnend at Burntisland in 1891. He was the son of an architect, William Little of Cowan Street, Kirkcaldy who in turn was the son of a wright who practised in the town from around 1804.

Williamson’s Abbotshall Infant School is square on plan and, as Gifford says, is, ‘blocky English baroque with a confident cupola.’ The cupola is similar to his one at Dysart school and equally assertive, and a lower level flat-roofed porch with a stylised battlemented parapet is tacked on to the front of the school almost as an afterthought.

Dunnikier Primary School in Balsusney Road, was built in 1894 by another Edinburgh architect RM Cameron: the North Primary School by David Forbes Smith opened in 1907; and Viewforth School in Loughborough Road, by the same architect, opened a year later. One result of the Act was that it removed the necessity for aiding poor children by means of charities like the Philps Trust and so those schools gradually faded away. In 1873 the schools in Kirkcaldy and Dysart contained just over 3000 scholars. This number was more than doubled by 1901 in a total of thirteen schools, compared to the fifteen private schools which had competed with the Burgh School in 1845.

Dunnikier Primary School in Balsusney Road, was built in 1894 by another Edinburgh architect RM Cameron: the North Primary School by David Forbes Smith opened in 1907; and Viewforth School in Loughborough Road, by the same architect, opened a year later. One result of the Act was that it removed the necessity for aiding poor children by means of charities like the Philps Trust and so those schools gradually faded away. In 1873 the schools in Kirkcaldy and Dysart contained just over 3000 scholars. This number was more than doubled by 1901 in a total of thirteen schools, compared to the fifteen private schools which had competed with the Burgh School in 1845.

The Edinburgh architect, Robert MacFarlane Cameron (1860 - 1920) was articled to David Bryce, the architect of Fettes College, and remained with him as an assistant until 1871. For a spell during the severe financial depression in the early 1880s he became a furniture designer with the excellent and sadly missed Mackintosh Victoria Furniture Works in Kirkcaldy. This work continued from 1882 until October 1885 when he set up practice in Edinburgh. There he was responsible for Public Schools at Dunbar and Lasswade in East Lothian, His ornate 16ft high 1888 Donald Fountain, made of Peterhead granite, in Dunfermline Public Park was subsequently re-located when the new dual-carriageway was driven through the park, and ended up alongside his C-Listed bandstand. He also worked on some fine public houses in Edinburgh including the excellent Guildford Arms in Rose Street and the Golf Tavern by the Meadows.

Having designed another couple of schools, one at Loanhead and another at Alloa, in 1894 he built Dunnikier Primary School in Balsusney Road. It became known as the 'Red School' as it is built of red sandstone quarried in the west of Scotland. Although a competent enough building, apart from the red stone it has no particular architectural distinction, and unlike the earlier West, North, Gallatown, and Glebe Park schools it is not Listed.

Viewforth High School opened in Loughborough Road on the 21st of September 1908 for 240 boys and girls, carefully segregated and with separate entrances. It was a long low single-storey Wrennaissance style building with carved stonework.

It was one of the first schools in Scotland specifically designed and equipped for vocational courses with the long-term purpose of providing supplementary and continuing education, and was praised in the Third Statistical Account of 1952 as being ‘what is perhaps the county’s most truly distinctive educational feature. This is the development of the nonacademic or junior secondary type of course.’ Commercial, woodworking, cookery, mothercraft, and other classes increasingly found their way into the curriculum.

In the boys' side of the school was a manual room and chemical and physics laboratories, and on the girls' side were cookery and laundry rooms. There was also an art studio, and the school was designed by the Kirkcaldy architect David Forbes Smith (1865 - 1923), who had previously won the limited local competition to design the compact Boreland School in

1902, and also designed the considerably more substantial North Primary School in Kirkcaldy in the same year. The cost of Viewforth was £11,000 and it was one of the biggest schools in the country at the time.

It became a good deal larger when a huge extension doubled the size of the school in 1929, but then a fire during the Christmas holidays of 1937 destroyed a large part of the east of the extension and caused damage estimated at £20,000. By the time of the centenary of the school there were 350 pupils and 45 teaching staff.

Smith had been apprenticed to a carpenter in 1879 at the age fourteen and remained with him until 1885 whilst also attending science and art classes locally before becoming articled as an architect to John Murray in Kirkcaldy between 1885 and 1888 and then joined the new Glasgow firm of Honeyman and Keppie as an assistant around the same time, or a little before Charles Rennie Mackintosh joined as a draughtsman. He did not stay long but moved to Paisley and then to Salisbury then Maidstone then back to Salisbury where he passed his qualifying exam in 1883 and was admitted ARIBA in 1894. He spent a lot of his spare time visiting and measuring Medieval cathedrals and abbeys, but left his post as chief assistant c 1897 and returned to Kirkcaldy to set up his own practice at 210 High Street, and soon got plenty of business with co-operative societies. He also began to get work making additions to schools in Pathhead and Sinclairtown and this led to Boreland School then on to Rosslyn School at Gallatown, Gallatown School, and to North Primary School. This was started in 1902 and completed in 1908 though dated 1906. Gallatown School, although not entirely his, and now a nursery school, has a nice cottagy feel to it, while Rosslyn School, behind it, was originally a very simple rectangular building which has been added to on virtually all sides.

However, his North School is an impressive, chunky two-storey building with considerable

presence, occupying an entire block within Matthew Street to the east, Nile Street to the south, Prime Gilt Box Street to the west and Patterson Street to the north. The east and west elevations are particularly fine with Baroque touches, and the whole school is an assured and accomplished work.

As well as his schools and Co-op work he also built tenements in Balfour Street for the

Kirkcaldy District Lodge of Free Gardeners and other tenements in Harriet Street and also Strathearn Villa for the mill-owner James Wishart — now the Strathearn Hotel - and described in The Builder in November 1901 as:- ‘A villa residence with stabling, coachman’s house etc.’ They added;- ‘The villa is the first to be erected on land belonging to Mr M B Nairn just being opened up for building purposes.’

Smith built only one church, the Pathhead Baptist Church of 1908/9, tucked away in Anderson Street. This quietly impressive church is Gothic in style with Art Nouveau details and was built alongside the original church of 1900 which was then used as a hall.

In 1836 there had been fourteen schools in the parish of Dysart; 4 each at Dysart and Pathhead; 3 at Gallatown; 2 at Sinclairtown and 1 at Boreland. Only the Burgh School at Dysart was supported by the burgh funds and the rest were supported by school fees apart from Pathhead which was endowed and Boreland. The number of children attending was said to vary between 700 and 800.

Dysart North Public School opened on the 24th of November 1873 at the east end of Dysart High Street - with four rooms, a Headteacher, who earned £210, and two staff. This was as a result of the 1872 Education Act which transferred responsibility from the church to local school boards and also stipulated that attendance was compulsory. Within the first two weeks there was a half-holiday on the occasion of the launch of a ship at the Dysart shipbuilding yard, and a boy was punished and cautioned for smoking. From the start the classrooms were 'a little overcrowded,' and by the following June the Chairman of the School Board visited and 'made some arrangements to ameliorate effects of overcrowding.' These proved to be the erection of an awning at the back of the school a week later, and then the building of a new wing in September.

In December 1880 with the amalgamation of Dysart South School it became Dysart Burgh Infants School, and almost exactly a year later Dysart Burgh Public School, and by the end of 1882 there were 306 children on the roll. In December 1908 the Inspectors reported that 'The basement room in the Infants school is of a size for 60 pupils but has a class of 100 on Roll including 2 babies under three taught by a single teacher.’

On August 25th 1916 a new school, Blair Hill School in Normand Road - later to be known as Dysart Primary, opened, containing eleven classes instead of nine, and five rather than four infant classes. This impressive red sandstone school was designed by William Williamson who had already built Abbotshall Infant School in Ramsay Road in 1898 and made alterations to West Infant School (see previous article) in 1912, and then built Pathhead School in Cairns Street in 1913. However, within a year the numbers on the Dysart school roll had fallen steadily due to families leaving the district to find better paid work elsewhere. All those children whose fathers were either serving in the armed forces, or had served, or had been killed; 230 from a total of 781; were photographed in five groups for the Peoples Journal.

During the Second World War a large part of the school was commandeered by the ARP (Air Raid Precautions) authority as a First Aid Post for use in air raids, and many of the staff volunteered for ARP duty.

This impressive school was to be one of the best of his schools and is situated prominently on the crest of the rise in Normand Road and diagonally across from the equally impressive block by JD Swanston which was covered in the article about him. Together they mark the entry to Dysart from the east in fine style. The school is built of rock-faced rubble sandstone with red sandstone dressings and is a long, narrow, and surprisingly symmetrical, 17-bay building with a steep fall to the rear, and a handsome central cupola. Williamson designed a number of schools both in and also around Kirkcaldy including the attractive C-Listed free-style Auchterderran School of 1902 (now a Staff and Resources Centre) and a competition-winning school at Anstruther Easter in 1901 as an annex to Waid Academy. He also prepared plans for Technical and Elementary Schools in 1904 to be built alongside the Burgh School in St Brycedale Avenue. Although the Elementary school was built his designs for the technical school were not used and it was built much later - in 1926, to a design by another Kirkcaldy/Dysart architect, Walter Alison (1887 - 1950) who had won both first and second prizes in a new design competition. This Technical School, diagonally across from the police station, is of two floors and a sub basement, and is steel-framed with a stone cladding. It is described tersely in Buildings of Scotland, Fife, as ‘fag-end Beaux Arts classical.’

Walter Alison was born in Kirkcaldy in 1887, the son of a Dysart master joiner of a wellknown Dysart family and was articled to the Kirkcaldy architect William Birrell for his apprenticeship and then worked and studied in the west of Scotland until being called up to join the Highland Light Infantry in 1915. After the war he returned to work in Hamilton where he worked mainly on hospitals and schools before opening his own practice in Kirkcaldy and winning the competition for the Technical school in 1920 and living at The Croft, Dysart. He became architect for the Cameron Bridge Hospital at Windygates. He also build housing schemes in Dysart, worked on Dysart House and the gasworks there and built an extension to accommodate 100 patients and 16 nurses, as well as a mortuary for the Fife and Kinross District Asylum at Springfield, Cupar - another competition win. From 1950 he was in partnership with Robert Forbes Hutchison whom he had originally taken on as an apprentice between 1925 and 1930. Hutchison had then worked as an assistant architect to Fife County Council; and at Dundee City Architects Department; Nottingham Corporation Architects Department as senior assistant; and Deputy City Architect to the City of Stoke on Trent. He returned to Scotland in 1948 as chief architect to the Regional Hospital Boards of Scotland, and commenced practice as an independent architect in Edinburgh and Kirkcaldy where he acquired the practice of his former boss on his death in 1950. The practice of Alison and Hutchison - aka Ally Hutch - became one of the foremost in Edinburgh during the 1970s with numerous schools and hospital works to their credit. In Kirkcaldy the practice made additions including a new canteen to Michael Nairn & Co’s office block (now Braehead House) in 1951.

Alison’s 1926 Technical School was to be the last of Kirkcaldy’s stone-built - though it was perhaps more a stone-clad school; as brick or block and harling, and then a new era of lightweight construction swept all before it - particularly in school building.

By around 1930 it became evident that architectural standards had slumped alarmingly with the construction of Sinclairtown Primary School by George Sandilands (1883 - 1963).

This is described by John Gifford in his 1988 Buildings of Scotland, Fife, as

‘characteristically dreary.’ Around 1900 David Forbes Smith had added cookery and other classrooms to the little original pre 1875 red sandstone building, sympathetically using red sandstone again, before Sandilands came along in 1930 to add muckle great blocks in brick and harl.

He was Master of Works to Fife County Council having moved from being a Teacher of

Manual Training at Leith School board to a job with Fife and Kinross Secondary Education Committee in 1912. After service with the Royal Engineers in WWI he became responsible for the design of housing, schools, police stations etc. throughout Fife. It was all fairly pedestrian stuff, although, in fairness, his Thornton police station was pretty impressive. However most of his school building work tended to be additions and extensions (often mercifully round the back) of existing schools, and Sinclairtown School became simply a big ugly lumpy brute of a building. The only school for which he was wholly responsible was Strathmiglo Primary School - need we say more.

Sandilands was always heavily involved various sports and competed for Scotland at athletics, played for Hearts, and became a director of Raith Rovers - which led to him being reprimanded in 1918 for attending a match during work time - the rascal.


The online Dictionary of Scottish Architects

Various Civic Society booklets for old photos

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1 comentário

Bryce Phillips
Bryce Phillips
14 de dez. de 2023

This article says that Robert Philip "...may also have have profited greatly by the slave trade". Can you offer any proof that this was the case or explain why you would include such a comment.

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