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The Story of Pictou Academy

Pictou Academy will be one hundred years old, March 26, 1916. It is one of the best known and probably, the most famous academy of learning in Canada. Over it was fought the battle of the nineteenth century against unconstitutional government and religious intolerance. It was largely over the rights and wrongs of the Academy, more than any other question, that the fight was waged and won for responsible government in Nova Scotia. It was a great educator in our provincial politics. Under it and through this great conflict our ablest statesmen were educated. The life of the Presbyterian Church hung upon it, for if it was to be perpetuated and extended, it must have a school to educate and train a native ministry. From the walls of the Academy has gone forth a constant stream of strong men and women into all parts of the world, who have graced almost every profession and walk in life. Its founders of rugged Presbyterian stock, esteemed education of next importance to the Bible, and quickly planted a school, on the lines of Edinburgh University, in their eyes, the ideal of what a college should be. It was to attract students from every clime and send them forth to every land.

The history of the Academy divides itself conveniently into five periods

The College Period, 1816 to 1831

The Grammar School Period, 1832 to 1844

The Union Academy Period, 1845 to 1864

The Special Academy Period, 1864 to 1884

The County Academy Period, 1885

The College Period

The institution had its origin in the brain of its founder and first President, the Rev. Thomas McCulloch, D. D., Nova Scotia's greatest pioneer educationist, and the father of higher education in the Atlantic Provinces.

Born in Scotland in 1766, educated at Glasgow University, where he took a course in Medicine, as well as in Arts, studied theology at Whitburn, ordained as minister in Ayrshire, offered his services as Missionary to the Colonies, arrived in Pictou, N. S., 1803, and inducted in charge of Prince St. Church June 6, 1804 these are the main facts in his life. But it is as the champion of liberal and religious education in Nova Scotia that his fame chiefly rests. In the old Academy he laid deep and strong, in a life of great courage and unremitting toil, the foundation of higher education in Nova Scotia. The country is still reaping the fruits of his intellectual activity and zealous labors.

Dr. McCulloch was a man of a rare type. He was possessed of fine natural ability, a strong personality, a mind finely disciplined and of extensive literary attainments as his writings show.

He wielded the pen with ease and felicity, and when needs be, with pungency. He was a born fighter. He lived in a stormy time, and to accomplish his purposes for church and school, he needed to be to some extent a man of war. But amid prejudice and opposition his fearless courage and self sacrifice shone forth in the higher interests of the people and country. In 1805, two years after his arrival in Pictou, we find him projecting an institution to give promising young men a collegiate education. One day when musing sadly over the ignorance he found among the young, he said to himself, "Why not attempt to train the youth of the Province for better things, and perhaps for the Ministry." It was a difficult task, on account of the condition of the country and small means at hand, and it required the faith and force of a Livingstone or a Lincoln to attempt it. Though unable to carry out the idea for a time, he never relinquished it, and in due time, it resulted in the establishment of Pictou Academy.

His idea was to establish a college for higher education open to all classes and creeds alike. For this purpose a society was formed in Pictou and subscriptions collected amounting to a thousand pounds Dr. McCulloch Dr. McGregor and Mr. Ross each giving fifty pounds. He opened a school in a log .building near his own house, but it was soon destroyed by the hand of an incendiary. Another was soon erected in its place.

In 1811 on the passing of the "Grammar School Act" Dr. McCulloch received the grant allotted to the Pictou district amounting to a hundred pounds a year. This School attracted students from all over the Province some coining as far as the West Indies. Dr. Patterson tells us that Messrs. McGregor and Ross tutored boys in. Latin and Greek with the idea of matriculating in the contemplated College. Thus the leavening power of Dr. McCulloch's ambitious ideals were producing fruit, and preparing the people throughout the province for the carrying out of his early formed and favorite plans. The time seemed now favorable. Edward Mortimer represented the District of Pictou in the legislature, and Sherbrooke was Governor a man more liberal minded than Wentworth, who occupied the position in. 1805. An Act of Incorporation was sought and obtained March 26, 1816.

In the autumn of 1817, the first class comprising 23 students met in a private house, with Dr. McCulloch as Principal. Rev. John McKinlay assisted in teaching classics and mathematics, the rest of the Academic work was done by the Principal. It was not until 1818 that the Academy building was ready to be occupied. The Trustees finding that the thousand pounds subscribed was not enough to build the Academy, petitioned Governor Dalhousie for a grant. This was at first refused, but afterwards he granted the sum of five hundred pounds.

Pictou Academy has had a very eventful and checkered career. It had to fight its way to recognition and aid. Early in its history it had to contend with opposition and prejudice; notably, the opposition of the "Council of Twelve," and the unfriendly rivalry of King's College, Windsor, founded in 1790. This college was receiving a grant of nearly $2.000 a year from the provincial treasury and $5,000 a year from the British Government. But its doors were barred to all but Episcopalians. Dissenters, as all other Protestants were called and who formed four-fifths of the population of the Province, were destitute of all means for an advanced education. Naturally, the trustees of the Academy applied to the Council for aid. They were refused, for the "Council of Twelve" appointed by the Imperial Government were composed entirely of adherents of the Church of England, with the Bishop as one of its most influential members. They considered money spent on the education of Dissenters as worse than wasted. They could not tolerate the Pictou idea of a non-sectarian College. The House of Assembly, elected by the people, and representing their wishes, was always in hearty sympathy with the Academy, while the Council was deadly opposed hence the long and bitter struggle.

In 1819 an application was made to Lord Dalhousie to have Pictou Academy changed into a college, with power to confer degrees, and also asking for the establishment of a professorship of Divinity. These requests were both flatly refused. For the next four years the council granted about $800 a year on application by the trustees. In 1824, application was made for a permanent grant of $2,000 a year, which was passed by the assembly but rejected by the council. Thus year after year the struggle went on. Bill after Bill providing grants for the academy were passed by the House of Assembly but negative by the council. In this matter the council vetoed the voice of the assembly no less than fifteen times.

This continued opposition of the council to the will of the people so roused the energy and righteous indignation of such men as Joseph Howe and Jotham Blanchard, who waged such a vigorous contest, that the agitation finally ended in the demolition of the council and in the establishment of Responsible Government in Nova Scotia. The academy greatly suffered from their rivalries. Unfortunately at this time a section of the Presbyterian Church joined forces with the opponents of the Academy. The trustees became discouraged for lack of funds to carry on the work. In 1830 it was on. the brink of ruin.

Finally, in. 1831 Jotham Blanchard was sent to England, as the agent of the trustees to lay the whole case before the British Government. His mission to England was successful. Virtually all the claims of the academy were sustained by the Colonial Office.

Pictonians at Home and Abroad, 1914


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