A Dominie Loses His Bairns

By A.S. Neill

This is an extract from A.S Neill’s memoir A Dominie Dismissed published by McBride and Co in New York in 1917.

A Dominie Loses His Bairns


I HAVE packed all my belongings. My trunk and two big boxes of books stand in the middle of a floor littered with papers and straw. I had my typewriter carefully packed too, but I took it from out its wrappings, and I sit amidst the ruins of my room with my wee machine before me. It is one of those little folding ones weighing about six pounds.

The London train goes at seven, and it is half-past five now. It was just ten minutes ago that I suddenly resolved to keep a diary . . . only a dominie can keep a Iog, and I am a dominie no longer.

I hear Janet Brown’s voice outside. She is singing ” Keep the Home Fires Burning ” . . . and she was in tears this afternoon. The limmer ought to be at home weeping her dominie’s departure.

Yet . . . what is Janet doing at my window ? Her home is a good two miles along the road. I wonder if she has come to see me off. Yes, she has ; I hear her cry to Ellen Smith : ” He’s packit  Ellen, and Aw hear him addressin’ the labels on his type writer.” The besom !

Well, well, children have short memories. When Macdonald enters the room on Monday morning they will forget all about me.

I know Macdonald. He is a decent sort to meet in a house, but in school he is a stern one. His chief drawback is his lack of humour. I could swear that he will whack Jim Jackson for impudence before he is half an hour in the school.

I met Jim one night last week wheeling a box up from the station.

” I say, boy !’ I called with a pronounced Piccadilly Johnny accent, ” heah, boy ! Can you direct me to the er…  village post-office ? ‘

He scratched his head and looked round him dubiously. ” Blowed if Aw ken, ‘ he said at last. ” Aw’m a stranger here.”

Yes, Macdonald will whack him.

I sent Jim out yesterday to measure the rainfall (there had been a fortnight’s drought) and he went out to the playground. In ten minutes he returned looking puzzled. He came to my desk and lifted an Algebra book, then he went to his seat and seemed to sweat over some huge calculation. At length he came to me and announced that the rainfall was 0.357994 of an inch. I went out to the play ground … he had watered it with the watering-can.

“There are no flies on you, my lad,” I said.

” No, sir,” he smiled, ” the flies don’t come out in the rain.”

Yes, Macdonald is sure to whack him. I shall miss Jim. I shall miss them all . . . but Jim most of all. What about Janet ? And Gladys ? And Ellen ? And Jean ? . . . Well, then, I’ll miss Jim most of all the boys.

I tried to avoid being melodramatic to-day. It has been a queer day, an expectant day. They followed me with their eyes all day ; if an inspector had arrived I swear that he would have put me down as a good disciplinarian. I never got so much attention from my bairns in my life.

I blew the ” Fall in ! ” for the last time at the three o’clock interval. Janet and Ellen were late. When they arrived they carried a wee parcel each. They came forward to my desk and laid their parcels before me.

” A present from your scholars,” said Janet awkwardly. I slowly took off the tissue paper and held up a bonny pipe and a crocodile tobacco-pouch. I didn’t feel like speaking, so I took out my old pouch and emptied its contents into the new one ; then I filled the new pipe and placed it between my teeth. A wee lassie giggled, but the others looked on in painful silence.

I cleared my throat to speak, but the words refused to come … so I lit the pipe. “That’s better,” I said with forced cheerfulness, and I puffed away for a little.

‘Well, bairns,” I began, “I am… ”

Then Barbara Watson began to weep. I frowned at Barbara ; then I blew my nose. Confound Barbara !

“ Bairns,” I began again, ” I am going away now.” Janet’s eyes began to look dim,and I had to frown at her very hard ; then I had to turn my frown on Jean . . . and Janet, the besom, took advantage of my divided attention. I blew my nose again. Then I coughed just to show that I really did have a cold.

” I don’t suppose any of you understand why I am going away, but I’ll try to tell you. I have been dismissed by your fathers and mothers. I haven’t been a good teacher, they say.  I have allowed you too much freedom. I have taken you out sketching and fishing and playing ; I have let you read what you liked, let you do what you liked. I haven’t taught you enough. How many of you know the capital of Bolivia ? You see, not one of you knows.”

“Please, sir, what is it ? ” asked Jim Jackson.

” I don’t know myself, Jim.”

My pipe had gone out and I lit it again. “Bairns, I don’t want to leave you all.  You are mine, you know, and the school is ours. You and I made the gardens and rockeries ; we dug the pond and we caught the trout and minnows and planted the water- plants. We built the pigeon-loft and the rabbit-hutch. We fed our pets together. We.. “

I don’t know what happened after that. I took out my handkerchief, but not to blow my nose.

‘ The bugle,” I managed to say, and someone shoved it into my hand. Then I played ‘There’s No Parade To-day,” but I don’t think I played it very well. Only a few went outside ; most of them sat and looked at me.

” I must get Jim to save the situation,” I said to myself, and I shouted his name.

” P-please, sir,” lisped Maggie Clark, ” Jim’s standin’ oot in the porch.”

” Tell him to come in,” I commanded. Maggie went out ; then she returned slowly.

” P-please, sir, he’s standin’ greetin’ and he winna come.”

” Damnation ! ” I cried, and I bustled them from the room.

A quarter-past six ! It’s time Jim came for these boxes.


I am back in my old rooms in a small street off Hammersmith Broadway. My landlady, Mrs. Lewis, is a lady of delightful garrulity, and her comments on things to-day have served to cheer me up. She is intensely interested in the fact that I have come from Scotland, and anxious to give me all the news of events that have happened during my sojourn in the wilds.

” Did you ‘ear much abat the war in Scotland ? ” she said.

I looked my surprise.  “War ! What war ? ”

Then she explained that Britain and France and Russia and the Allies were fighting against Germany.

“Now that I come to think of it,” I said reflectively, ” I did see a lot of khaki about today.”

” Down’t you get the pypers in Scotland ? ” she asked.

“Thousands of them, Mrs. Lewis ; why, every Scot plays the pipes.”

“I mean the pypers, not the pypers,” she explained.

“Oh,. I see! We do get a few; English travellers leave them in the trains, you know.”

She thought for a little.

” It must be nice livin’ in a plyce w’ere everyone knows everyone else. My sister Sally’s married to a painter in Dundee, Peter MacNab ; do you know ‘im ? “

I explained that Peter and I were almost bosom friends. Then she asked me whether I knew what his wage was. I explained that I did not know. She then told me how much he gave Sally to keep house with, and I began to regret my temerity in claiming a close acquaintance with the erring Peter. Mrs. Lewis at once began to recount the family history of the MacNabs, and I blushed for the company I kept.

I decided to disown Peter. “Perhaps he’ll behave better now that he has gone to Glasgow,” I remarked.

” But he ain’t gone to Glasgow ! ” she exclaimed.

I looked thoughtful. ” Ah ! ” I cried, ” I’ve been thinking of the other Peter Macnab, the painter in Lochee.”

” Sally’s ‘usband lives in a plyce called Magdalen Green.”

” Ah ! I understand now, Mrs. Lewis. I’ve met that one too ; you’re quite right about his character.”

If I ever write a book of aphorisms I shall certainly include this one : Never claim an acquaintance with a lady’s relations by marriage.

I wandered along Fleet Street to-day, the most fascinating street in London . . . and the most disappointing. To understand Fleet Street you must walk along the Strand at midday. The Londoner is the most childish creature on earth. If a workman opens a drain cap the traffic is held up by the crowds who push forward to glimpse the pipes below. If a black man walks along the Strand half a hundred people will follow him on the off chance that he may be Jack Johnson. London is the most provincial place in Britain. I have eaten cookies in Princes Street in Edinburgh, and I have eaten buns in Piccadilly. The London audience was the greater. Audience ! the word derives from the Latin audio : I hear. That won’t do to describe my eating ; spectators is the word. I wandered about all day, and the interests of the streets kept my thoughts away from that little station in the north. Now it is evening, and my thoughts are free to wander.



A few of them would see Macdonald arrive to-day, and I think that in wondering at him they will have forgotten me. Children live for the hour ; their griefs are as ephemeral as their joys, and the ephemeralism of their emotion is as wonderful as its intensity. A boy will bury his brother in the afternoon, and scream at Charlie Chaplin in the evening. He will forget Charlie again, though, when he lies alone in the big double bed at night.

Jim and Janet and Jean and the rest have loved me well, but I have no illusions about their love. Children are painfully docile. In two weeks they will accept Macdonald’s iron rule without question, just as they accepted my absence of rule without question. Yet I wonder . . . ! Perhaps the love of freedom that I gave them will make them critical now.

I know that they gradually developed a keen sense of justice. It was just a fortnight ago that Peter Shaw was reported to me as a slayer of young birds. I formed a jury with Jim Jackson as foreman, and they called for witnesses.

” Gentlemen of the jury, your verdict ? ” I said.

Jim stood up. ” Accused is acquitted . . . only one witness ! “

I used to see them weigh my actions critically, and I had to be very particular not to show any sign of favouritism, a difficult task, for a dominie is bound to like some bairns better than others. Will they apply this method to Macdonald ? I rather think he will beat it out of them. He is the type of dominie that stands for Authority with the capital A. His whole bearing shouts : ” I am the Law. What I say is right and not to be questioned.”

My poor bairns !


Post Script

In consequence of the Dominie’s go-as- you-please methods of educating village children, the inevitable happens he is dismissed, giving place to an approved disciplinarian.

The unhappy Dominie, forced to leave his bairns, seeks to enlist as serving man in the Great War but the doctor discovers that his lungs are affected, and he is ordered an open-air life. He returns as a cattleman to the village where he has previously been a schoolmaster. Incidentally, he watches the effect of his successor’s teaching, the triumph of his own methods and the discomfiture of his rival at the hands of the children, in whom the Dominie cultivated personality and the rights of bairns.



John Molloy writes

I just cannot get my head around how much this piece has given me a lift. I had A.S. Neill slotted into a box along with some of the other serious thinkers of the last century as an inspiring and gifted man. After reading this I see him as a genius!  It was a great read!.


Please email your comments about this article to goodenoughcaring@icloud.com
Return to the Journal index  here.