Wallace Hall Academy (WHA), Thornhill, Dumfries, is a small rural secondary school serving Mid-Nithsdale. Earlier this year a group of eight pupils with the name Team GLIC won the UK final of a major technology competition which took them to the World Final in Detroit, USA. The team managed to attract enough sponsorship to finance the trip to Detroit. Amazingly, in competition with around 100 schools worldwide they won first prize in the Teamwork section. This first prize was a remarkable achievement for a group from a school of only around 550 pupils and of course reflects especially well on the eight pupils and their two Technology teachers. WHA has another claim to fame which, although historical in nature, might be of more interest to readers of The Scottish Farmer.

WHA, Closeburn and Thornhill, Dumfriesshire was one of the few secondary schools in Scotland to teach agriculture as a certificate subject to Ordinary and Higher leaving certificate grades for most of the 20th century. There were around six or seven other Scottish schools following the agriculture syllabus but WHA usually put forward the greatest number of candidates in any one year.

Some of the other schools were Bell Baxter, Balfron, Golspie, Invergordon and Waid. WHA is one of the oldest rural schools in Scotland having been founded in 1723 by an endowment left by John Wallace, a successful merchant in Glasgow, who was born in Closeburn parish. The school moved to Thornhill in 1973 on its 250th anniversary when it merged with Morton Academy to become the new WHA.

Dumfries County Council decided to introduce courses in agriculture in 1930. These were to be taught at WHA, Closeburn as the school was in a rural situation with a large garden area which would be useful for some practical tuition. The school building also included a large rectory building which in the past had housed boarders who were attending the school. The council wanted to provide boarding accommodation for pupils (boys and girls) from other areas of the county (Annan, Lockerbie, Moffat) who could not be expected to travel daily.

This boarding accommodation was at the council’s expense, parents did not contribute, so that no pupil from within Dumfriesshire was disadvantaged.

Occasionally pupils from outside of Dumfriesshire attended but they had to pay boarding fees. Initially there were six places but as the popularity of the agriculture courses grew more spaces were provided and by 1940 there were 20 boys (only one or two girls boarded in the early years) catered for in the rectory and this increased to 35 by 1950.

The school rector and his wife lived in the rectory and were paid a supplement for supervision of the boarders who after the Second World War were all boys. By 1948 it was decided that a live-in housemaster was also required and in 1952 this post was filled by Dennis Locke who was also the teacher of agriculture classes at the school.

Dennis told me that the boys were living a fairly spartan life in the rectory at that time of rationing, with each boy receiving one jar of jam to last a month. Nobody selected strawberry jam as once the strawberries were eaten the residue amounted to very little. Dennis and Rector Millar ran a small pig rearing enterprise in a shed adjoining the playing field selling the fattened pigs to Kirkpatricks Bacon Factory in Thornhill.

This was a purely cash business which the council knew nothing about and the proceeds went to a fund to provide extras for the rectory boys. Their first television in 1955 was bought with the pig money.

David Goldie of Longbridgemuir, who was a boarder, recounted that due to the concerns about tuberculosis at that time it was considered important to keep the windows open in communal dormitories, to the extent that in winter snow on the dorm floor was a common occurrence.

Some of the boarders worked on local farms at weekends allowing them to earn extra pocket money. Dennis Locke married in 1956 and was succeeded as housemaster by Bill Clement, a teacher of technical subjects. However, Bill became something of a legend across Scotland for his exploits as a teacher of piping and country dancing as extracurricular activities.

He also supervised many groups of pipers and dancers on overseas trips to various festivals and the backbone of these groups were usually some of the rectory boys. The rectory ceased to operate in 1970 in preparation for the relocation of WHA from Closeburn to Thornhill in 1973 and the last rectory boy was Colin Robb, from Lockerbie, who in his last two years at school boarded with a local family as the rectory was closed.

In the early years of teaching, agriculture practical classes were an integral part of the course. In those days the school had a gardening club, a poultry club and a rabbit club. The poultry club regularly hatched chicks from quite exotic breeds and sent them to the East of Scotland College.

Demonstrators also came from the West of Scotland College to teach butter making. However, by the 1950s most of this practical input had stopped to be replaced by visits to local farms, to the Highland Show and the Carnation Milk Factory in Dumfries. In the immediate post World War 2 period the Rector of WHA, Mr Pullen, was one of the driving forces behind the decision of Dumfries County Council to acquire and set up Barony Farm College at Parkgate, now part of SRUC.

Agriculture as a certificate subject continued to be taught until 1992 when it was discontinued across Scotland due to the low numbers of pupils registering for the course with only three schools including the subject in their syllabus. Part of the reason for the demise of agriculture as a school subject was that higher agriculture was not considered an appropriate qualification for university entrance unless a student was enrolling in an agriculture degree course.

Subsequent to this, WHA did include courses in rural skills via the Queensberry Initiative from 2008 which allowed pupils to experience at first hand many different rural workplaces. However, after eight years no further funding was made available and this ceased in 2017.

Many personalities of the farming and rural scene in Dumfriesshire and further afield passed through the doors of WHA with a large number also being boarders in the rectory. The list of former pupils below could be much longer if space was available. Many of these individuals are known internationally but as far as I know only Edward Martin could claim to be a world champion, like team GLIC, although his chosen talent was horse shoeing.

However, George Barbour, Jim Goldie, David Leggat and Robert Shearlaw all have a connection in that they attended WHA, perhaps a claim to fame in itself over and above their achievements in rural life. Beyond rural matters Andrew Coltart, the commentator and former Ryder Cup golfer is a former pupil as are two nationally known classical singers, Nick Spence and Claudia Wood.

The school moved to a new campus in Thornhill in 2010 which has a nursery, primary school and WHA all on the same site. WHA continues to perform well in the Scottish league tables and looks well set to continue into its fourth century in 2023. Current head teacher Barry Graham is determined to maintain good involvement of pupils in their rural background at both an academic and practical level so that rural skills will qualify for SQA vocational certificates.

Photo information:

The front cover of the book. The building at the top is the school built at Closeburn in 1795 which also housed the boarders in the 19th century. Then in 1911 a new school was built around 200 yards in front of this building which then continued to be used for boarding accommodation as well as the house for the Rector of the school and his family. This 1795 building is no longer owned by the Regional Council and is run privately as a specialist educational centre. The photo at bottom of the cover page is the new school in Thornhill occupied since 2010.

Also a photograph of the author outside this new school. He attended the school from 1954 to 1967.