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From post-war Scotland to a log schoolhouse in the BC wilderness,
teaching was in the blood

Morag Mhari McDougall was a born teacher. Her mother Annie McDougall was a teacher, and so was her grandmother Mary McGuire before her. Her husband John was a teacher, and her firstborn daughter Jenny was also a teacher.

Cuthbertson familyIn 1951, at 20 years of age, Morag met John Cuthbertson at a dance at Glasgow's Jordanhill Teacher Training College.

Hailing from a long line of Ayrshire farmers, John was the first member of his family ever to graduate from university. Morag and he had high hopes for their future together but were dismayed by the gloomy post-war atmosphere, the endless rationing, and the demoralized public education system.

“Britain was a disaster zone,” Morag recalls. “It was ghastly. I taught a class of 45 five-year olds. They were using the strap in primary school. I told them I had never seen a strap and had no intention of using one. I was ostracized in the staff room for staying after school doing my prep. Everybody was striking for cups of tea. John and I were terribly disappointed.”

In 1955, Morag and John decided to heed the call of adventure and emigrate to Canada. They took a deep breath and bought passage to the port of Montreal. Morag and many other passengers suffered hideous seasickness throughout the crossing while John was the only one unaffected. He became used to eating solo in the ship's dining hall.

Next they travelled from Montreal to Kamloops by rail: “A most extraordinary journey.... Close to Kamloops, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. There was no station, nothing. Reaching the edge of town I thought we'd walked onto a movie set, with cowboys and Indians and horses tethered in the street.”

Needing to earn their keep before the school year started, Morag and John worked picking apricots at a farm on the hill above Kalamalka Lake. Piling off the back of the big truck transporting workers, they encountered another first, the sight of a rattlesnake, dead but still writhing at the farm door.

BC mapJohn and Morag's first year teaching was in Lytton. The school district was so enormous Morag figured it was “equal to all of Scotland and half of England.”

She found that becoming a member of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation brought some welcome surprises. “I got equal pay with the men! That was in 1955. It was the first time I got really thrilled with the BCTF.”

Morag landed a split Grade 2-3 class. “They were literally climbing the walls,” she laughed to recall. “I worked my butt off with them and I adored those kids.” Of course the kids loved her back. They would constantly bring her treasures they found in the local hills: “endless arrowheads and natural things they knew I would love. These I left at the school, of course.”

At the end of the year, the school inspector came to observe her class and gave Morag a glowing report. Then he told the principal to inform her she had to give up her job because students might “think things” when they realized their teacher was pregnant.

Morag protested, challenging her principal with questions about what could possibly be seen as wrong when a young couple who have planned for and want children actually do get pregnant. “I said: 'Use me as your guinea pig to teach about healthy families.'” John offered to show their marriage certificate, to no avail. 

A young colleague expressed the community's view when she told Morag: “We think pregnant women shouldn't be seen in the streets.”

At home, Morag cried her eyes out. “To say I was upset doesn't nearly describe it.” For the first and only time, she regretted coming to Canada and just wanted to go back home to Scotland where pregnancy was not shamed and mothers were appreciated and respected.

“I looked in my contract and technically he couldn't make me leave but I compromised and left at the end of May.”

They decided to move to Vancouver Island and their daughter Jenny was duly born in Comox. Jenny later carried on her maternal lineage by going into primary teaching too, first in Vancouver, later in the Yukon, and eventually finishing her career in Calgary. Morag and John taught briefly in Cumberland on the East Coast of Vancouver Island, but the small community at that time was struggling, and it soon became time to move on again.

Dunster log schoolhouseIn the fall of 1957, the Cuthbertson family headed out to their next teaching post at a two-room log schoolhouse in Dunster, 545 km northeast of Lytton. As John drove hour after hour ever deeper into the forest, Morag began to feel increasingly nervous. “I wondered where in God's name he was taking us.”

Finally the landscape opened up into a gorgeous wide valley and they had arrived in their new home, a humble teacherage. (That's like a parsonage, but for teachers.) It had a kitchen, one bedroom, an outdoor privy, and neither power nor water. “Illumination was by gas and paraffin lamps, which provided a mellow light. To this day, I still get a thrill opening a tap or turning on a light!”

In those days Dunster consisted of a train whistle stop, the school and teacherage, and a house or two. One of the homes sold food essentials out of the front room. Morag taught Grades 1-4 and John taught Grades 5-10. They found their students to be “lovely kids,” part of a strong farming community that highly valued education. The children grew up doing chores and “knew how to pitch in, the big boys fetching water for the school while I did that for the home. This entailed traversing the little meadow surrounding the buildings, crossing the graded road, and clambering down to the river.”

By Christmas, Morag had also organized a Kindergarten class, based on her intense interest in early childhood learning. She developed a charting method to help her keep track of what she had covered with each student, since the range of abilities was so wide across the many grades in her classroom. It was a system that served her well throughout her career. “Professionally and personally it was an amazing experience.”

De facto schoolbusCome spring, the gumbo-like mud on the local roads was so deep that a friendly farmer from the pioneering McNaughton family had to hitch a sleigh to his tractor to transport neighbourhood kids to school. Indeed, on one of her missions to fetch water, Morag stepped off their doorstep and lost one of her deluxe Scottish suede winter boots forever in the thick mud of their garden.

Morag and John followed the teaching opportunities from Lytton to Cumberland to Dunster, then onto Bamfield and later Cranbrook. Their arrival in Bamfield was dramatically inauspicious as Morag, heavy with her second child, stepped off the school board chair's fishing boat onto the teacherage pier, and fell through the rotting wood with one leg! Over the years their family grew to embrace four daughters: Jenny, Karen, Moira, and Annie.

1965 Cranbrook teachers' agreement signingBoth Morag and John were “devoted members” of the BCTF, and he became more active in the Federation while in Cranbrook. When the 1964-65 round of local bargaining came around, he was the salary negotiating chair. As a math teacher, he was a real asset at the bargaining table.

“John is super-serious and his concentration is awesome,” Morag said. Despite his serious ways, people were often disarmed. They told me, “He'd smile, and it would be like the moon coming over the mountain.”

“He got us a 6% pay rise. It was a super contract-not just for teachers, but for everybody,” she said. “On those occasions I realized we had something special with the BCTF.”

For the final phase of their careers, they were teaching in West Vancouver. Morag had a heavy load. “I was keeping house for the six of us and teaching full time. I had a student teacher and a difficult superintendent. I was studying Spanish to travel with John, and trying to learn the cello for my own satisfaction.” Because of her extensive background in music, Morag was offered a job in a music school where she had the opportunity to develop programs and grow as a professional.

Morag and John Cuthbertson photo“From my first year in a Glasgow dockside school with 45 in my class, then to an Ayrshire mining village, followed by a move to remote locations in Canada, winding up in salubrious West Vancouver, eventually switching to teaching music and finally adults at the college level, it has been a great ride! Looking back, I can't believe how lucky I was. Teaching was the perfect job for me. I loved it passionately.”  

By Nancy Knickerbocker, BCTF Communications and Campaigns Director
Reprinted from Teacher magazine,Volume 29, Number 2, January/February 2017