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Robert McClements was 33 years of age and married when he received his call up papers. He had been Headmaster of Keiss School in Caithness for six years, held influential posts in the village, was respected by the villagers and well liked by his pupils. However, unlike most men in the area, he refused to go to war. Appearing before the Military Service Tribunal and claiming exemption on conscientious grounds he was granted exemption, but, only from combat service. At present we know nothing about his time in the Non Combatant Corp although, we do know some of what happened to him shortly after the war as a consequence of his decision.

The Keiss School Board appeared to have no problem with Robert’s conscientious stand. Indeed, they granted him £40 per annum whilst in the army’s non combatant corp. Such grants were common practice by School Boards throughout the county.

Of the 70 men that went to war from the Keiss area 36 were killed in the war. In early 1919 when Robert returned to Keiss to take up his post some local people asked the School Board to dismiss him. They did not want a conscientious objector teaching their children. The Board however felt honour bound to adhere to it’s original agreement that Robert could return and take up his post as soon as his temporary replacement had worked out his notice.

Opposition to this decision developed and, in addition to the personal feelings of those who lost sons or husbands, some less creditable forces were also at play.

Keiss calls photo

A meeting of parents, School Board members and some villagers opened with the reading of a postcard from the Rev. Lauchlan MacLean Watt, a minister from Edinburgh, well known as a writer of religious tracts which soldiers often carried. “Well done Keiss!” the card read, “None but the brave deserve to teach the children of the brave and faithful. They cannot understand the alphabet of sacrifice.” This message seemed to be in tune with the mood of the meeting and a resolution was immediately formulated. “We the parents and guardians of children of the quoad sacra parish of Keiss resolve that Mr McClements shall not be again allowed to teach in Keiss Public School as he is a conscientious objector.”

Members of the School Board present regretted that Mr McClements was not prepared to do the “honourable” thing and resign and approvingly quoted Commander in Chief Sir Douglas Haig “about backs to the wall” and “fighting to the bitter end”. A petition to dismiss Robert McClements was produced and widely circulated by a returning soldier.

As this was playing out in Keiss the 1918 Education (Scotland) Act replaced School Boards with county wide education authority.

And so it was that on 7th June 1919 in Wick Town Hall the Caithness Education Authority heard the evidence against Robert McClements. School Board members reported that three quarters of the Keiss parents were against McClements and that no pressure had been used to force 100 people to sign the petition. One former Board member spoke in support of McClements and said he himself had received anonymous letters threatening to both shoot him and burn his home and crops. Another board member thought McClements should be reinstated.

Robert had circulated a document explaining his position. He felt that the opposition to his reinstatement was largely due to the present interim Headmaster, Mr Pert, and the assistant master, Mr Reid, being prospective candidates for his job. He also presented his war record which showed that he had served two and a half years in a non combatant corps and (unlike most COs) had still retained his right to vote.

Dr. Kennedy, whose son had been killed on the Western Front asked Robert whether he would have been prepared to join the Royal Army Medical Corps. He replied that he would have. “Would you have gone into the firing line to take back a wounded man if it had been necessary?” asked Dr. Kennedy. “Certainly” said Robert.

Mr Reid, the assistant master at Keiss had risen to the rank of Captain during the war and lost two brothers on the Western Front. He was asked whether there would be any friction between himself and McClements should the latter be reinstated. There would be no friction, said Reid because he would simply refuse to work under McClements. A number of other witnesses spoke in favour of Robert McClements and the Authority decided to postpose a decision in the hope that he himself would decide to resign. He did not.

At the end of July the Caithness Education Authority presented a motion to dismiss Robert “That Robert A. McClements M.A., Schoolhouse Keiss, be dismissed as from this date, from his office as Headmaster of Keiss Public School and from the service of Caithness Education Authority.” The Rev. Matheson proposed that McClements be reinstated and was supported by the Rev. Gilfillan. Eleven members voted for the original dismissal motion and five members abstained. Under the 1918 Education Act a two-thirds majority of the authority was required to dismiss any teacher and consequently the motion failed and Robert was again the Headteacher of Keiss School.

However, things did not go well. The school opened after the summer holidays and an angry crowd waited for Robert who arrived escorted by two policemen. ‘Conchie’ and ‘CO’ had been daubed in tar on the schoolhouse door. Only five children arrived and the class was quickly dismissed. A police report noted broken windows. The scene was repeated the following day. The school opened the following week with David Sutherland, better known as Captain Sutherland and who had both an impeccable war record and a Military Cross, as the interim Head.

Robert was suspended and a further motion for his dismissal was again proposed. He was offered, and took up, a less attractive position (suitable for an untrained teacher) in Altnabreac. After six weeks he resigned and took up a position as Headmaster of Lairg Higher Grade School in Sutherlandshire. Local resentment to a conscientious objector forced Sutherland Education Authority to offer Robert nine weeks pay in lieu of dismissal and he left to continue his teaching career in the south.

Here we lose sight of Robert McClements.



Headmaster Robert with some of the children
from his school

  Do you have more information or photos of ROBERT A. McCLEMENTS? Let us know


Born: 1883
Address: School House, Keiss, near Wick, Scotland
HO Scheme: [1]
CO Work: NCC
Occupation: Headmaster, Keiss School, Caithness



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