Poor Johnny of Seann Cathair

by Derek Morrison

Tawse exhibit
A ‘tawse’ exhibit in the Abbot House, Dunfermline (CC-BY-3.0 Attribution: Kim Traynor)

The classroom door burst open
He came in, thick tawse in hand
Where’s Johnny McKenna?
Teacher said; Johnny stand!
Her face suddenly neutral
She knew what was to come
He was to set such an example
For what little Johnny had done
Now come to the front!
Headmaster Moore commands
As all child eyes became transfixed
On the pain tool in his hands
For such instruments were graded
To reflect the bearer’s power
And he, grand Headmaster Moore
Could make the toughest cower
No mere teacher’s lighter tawse
Could now be applied
Johnny’s offence must be great
And so such vengeance not denied
Johnny had no mum and dad
So with his Gran he stayed
We never did see much of him
Though at the school we played
Not one of the tough lads
He never caused others pain
So Johnny at the front of class
We never could explain
Hold out your right hand! 
Headmaster Moore instructs
But Johnny is too frightened
Arms behind his back he tucks
Hold out your right hand!
Headmaster Moore now shouts
The child audience stays silent
The teacher’s face shows doubts
But Johnny is determined
That no hands will he expose
For a heavy headmaster’s tawse
Can inflict ferocious blows 
I’ll give you one more chance!
Headmaster Moore declared
For in this challenge to his position
Johnny could not the tawse be spared
But Johnny remained frozen in terror
So now came the lower legs blow
Then working ever upwards
Headmaster Moore would show
That such resistance was futile
There could be absolutely no escape
Avoiding prescribed punishments
Meant they take another shape
So the body flogging continued
Avoiding only Johnny’s head
Johnny’s cries were truly shocking
Throughout the school they spread
Until the example was sufficient
And Headmaster Moore then left
His demonstration to the multitude
Showing the power of his heft
Johnny from the room was ushered
His stripes they were clear to see
A lesson we had all been delivered
With iron discipline as the key
What was Johnny’s heinous act? 
What had merited such a sin?
We were never told this secret
Causing weals on Johnny’s skin 
Headmaster Moore was of his time
And now he has long since gone
He believed he delivered justice
But these memories did he spawn
A child of eight without a dad
Needed someone by their side
Instead Johnny got the monster
Who took such beatings in his stride.

[To listen to this verse select below]

Commentary

Poetic licence? No. Hyperbole? No. True? Yes. Witnessed? Yes.

Def: Tawse
A ‘taw’ is a Scottish term for a thong or a whip. The plural form ‘tawse’ took the form of a leather strip with one end split into a number of tails. Tawse could be made by a local saddle maker but, as the illustration (note the price list) at the top of the verse shows, a major supplier to Scottish schools was John J Dick (still trading today) who offered a range of said products.    

The primary purpose of the tawse was as an instrument of corporal punishment particularly in Scottish schools (but also some in northern England) until as late as the 1980s. A heavier duty version could also be employed as a method of judicial punishment in Scotland until 1948. There was different grades of what most Scottish children called ‘the belt’ with the heavier duty versions usually being wielded by the more senior teachers. The illustration at the top of the verse implies that the method employed by the teacher was intended to limit the blow struck on the recipient’s outstretched hand. This was not the case. To maximise energy transfer the teacher would usually take a fairly hefty swing. Receiving ‘the belt’ from a female teacher was much preferred since they usually wielded lighter instruments and lacked the muscle power to inflict serious pain. If such female teachers, however, were so minded, they would refer you to a beefier male colleague in another classroom who would then deliver the punishment in her classroom.  By either accident or design the blow could also strike the front of the wrist and this could be particularly painful and bruising. Being given ‘the belt ‘ by a school’s headmaster was usually reserved for the most serious perceived transgressions and usually took place at an appointed time in his study/offices. His ‘belt’ was usually the heaviest to reflect the gravity of the offence. A headmaster delivering the punishment in front of a class or even an assembled school was meant to deliver a wider message – although as Poor Johnny of Seann Cathair tries to illustrate, the intended message could be somewhat confusing.

The events above were witnessed in the mid 1950s. The primary (junior) school has long gone as will have most of the teachers and perhaps some of the pupils. Given the current focus on how institutions and some of the people who worked in them fell into patterns of what would now be construed as child abuse, it’s interesting to reflect on just how recently that state systems actually created the conditions for such abuse. The vast majority of the teachers of the time were certainly not monsters but even minor transgressions to behaviour codes, e.g. talking in class, were liable to result in ‘the belt’ and that was perceived as essential to maintaining good school discipline. Viewed from the perspective of the teachers working in Scottish rural or mining communities they were in tough neighbourhoods with tough children. Also, in the 1950s, male teachers in particular would probably have served in the military and so may well have imported those values and expectations to their ‘teaching’ practice. Ironically, it is doubtful if the tawse was ever a successful instrument for instilling discipline in the recalcitrant.  The ‘tough’ kids viewed receiving the tawse without breaking down in tears as a means of demonstrating their bravery and reinforcing their social position amongst their peers and the wider school. Deliberately provoking such a punishment was a sport and would reinforce this social position even more so. A particularly egregious consequence of this ‘sport’ was when a teacher perceived there had been whole class breakdown of discipline and so everyone was lined up for one or more strokes of ‘the belt’.  In this situation even the innocent were expected to take their punishment as a demonstration of their group membership. More sensitive recipients of ‘the belt’ could be construed as being subject to constant aversion therapy where the ‘learning’ environment became a place to be avoided if possible.

It is notable that the Scottish Technical Colleges of the time took a more enlightened attitude towards the adolescents and young adults coming to them from Scottish schools since they eschewed corporal punishment. This could be a welcome relief for young people with a learned wariness conditioned by the then more repressive culture of some primary and secondary education institutions.

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