The Miller Institution, later to become Miller Academy and latterly Miller Academy Primary School, is an educational establishment with a long and well-regarded history. It has served the people of Thurso for almost 140 years. The first clear signs of its establishment became apparent to the people of Thurso in June 1859 when the John O’ Groat Journal reported;
‘Academy – This building, so long in contemplation, is now in reality to be proceeded with. We understand that the job has fallen to the hands of Mr Duncan Donald, builder, whom we think well qualified to do the work. Its situation is to be the south-west termination of Sinclair Street, or quite near the church in course of erection for the Rev Mr Burns of the North Free. This act of munificence on the part of Mr Miller, will, we hope, be carried on and terminated in a workmanlike style.’
By the end of 1859 the ‘Groat’ was further reporting the progress of the new school;
‘A site has been laid off for the public school to be erected by Mr Miller for the town of Thurso, and the building will be immediately proceeded with according to plans prepared by Mr Scott, architect, Edinburgh. The expense will be from £1200 to £1500.’
In addition to being a skilled architect, Mr Scott was also an accomplished artist and completed in 1860 what was described as, ‘an elegant and accurate view of the town and suburbs.’ This view was from the high ground above Oldfield which has a commanding aspect over town, countryside and bay. The artist depicted vessels in the river estuary, ‘Mr Craig’s steam engine’, which was used for cutting Caithness flags at the pavement works and the grounds and castle of Thurso East. Detail in the work was appreciated and the press noted how even anglers on the river and small boats could be seen. Of relevance to the Miller Institution is the reference in the press report to this building;
‘To the left of the picture is seen Miller’s Institution (drawn of course from the plan, which was executed by Mr Scott himself) and the West Free Church, two beautiful and chaste-looking buildings which adorn and add considerably to the symmetry of this part of the town.’
As will be seen later, the foundation stone was duly laid and work begun in the early summer of 1860. Almost immediately, progress was being noted and this progress reported in the local press;
‘Academy – With the present fine weather the building of this institution is rapidly progressing.’
The original plans for the school did not include the dome or cupola which makes the structure so distinctive. The decision to add the dome came after building had started and, it has been suggested, was planned after it was realised that the project was within budget. The cost to add the dome was around £200 and this change too was reported in the John O’ Groat Journal;
‘Dome – It was rumoured some time ago that a dome was to be erected on our Academy, which we are happy to say is quite true. Such a thing will undoubtedly add greatly to the appearance of our town as well as to that of the handsome building on which it is to be placed. We believe that it will cost about £200 extra.’
The Original Trustees of the Miller Institution had the responsibility of ensuring that the Institution was properly set up, funded and made financially secure for the future.
The Trustees were:
Rev. John Stewart Miller Parish Church
Rev. Walter Ross Taylor First Free Church
Rev. James Sime Independent Church
Rev. Charles Stewart Findlay Secession Church
Dr James Mill The Chief Magistrate
John Henderson Agent Commercial Bank
David Fielding Agent National Bank
and their respective successors in their charges and offices.
Alexander Henderson of Stemster and, in the event of his death, such person as may be chosen by the other Trustees.
William Miller of Barrock Street and his heirs.
Amount of Endowment;- £1000 6% Preferential Stock in the Scottish North Eastern Railway Company.
£268 7s 3½% stock in the same Company.
The trustees were empowered to re-invest money and it would appear that such investment was successful. By the time the school was taken over by the School Board in 1887, the investments amounted to £1734 in Consolidated Stock and £1000 in Deferred Ordinary Stock of the Caledonian Railway Company.
Rev. Dr Walter Ross Taylor who was one of the trustees of the Miller Institution and who, after the 1872 Education Act, became the Chairman of the Thurso Schools Board and remained so for almost 20 years, preached the last sermon in the Old St Peter’s Church of Thurso on 30th December 1832 and the first sermon in the new St Peter’s Church on 6th January 1833.
The School Name – Miller Institution or Miller Academy?
The press report of 1859 opened with the word ‘Academy’ and, since there is often discussion as to when the Miller Institution ‘officially’ became the Miller Academy, this usage is noteworthy. While there is no doubt that the school became generally known as the Miller Academy Primary School in 1958 with the opening of the new high school, the date of the earlier change of name is not so clear cut. In the school log, the School Board and Education Committee minutes and the press, the school is variously named in the years to 1940. On occasions last century, the school is referred to as Miller or Miller’s Academy and, on postcards and in the local press at times as, Thurso or Thurso’s Academy. The latter term is to be found in many of the reports by the press of the Thurso Parish School Board meetings. Mr Ironside’s headed note-paper of the 1920s and 1930s had his name to the top left and a picture of the 1862 building to the top right with the words ‘Thurso Academy’ printed below. In the late 1920s and the 1930s, the school is referred to as Miller Academy in press reports of Education Minutes but in advertisements placed in the press the name Miller Institution is used.
A move was, in fact, made in 1920 to regularise the position and to name officially the school as Miller Academy rather than Miller Institution. This move did not receive enough support and it was decided that on all official communications it would continue to be known by its original designation. Thurso Academy was to be to be put in brackets while, unofficially, it would be known as Miller Academy. In the press report of the centenary of the school in 1962, it is stated that, as far as the Scottish Education Department is concerned, the name is still Miller Institution. To further complicate matters there are a number of references to the school as Miller Institute.
In her memories of the school in the period 1944 to 1951 Dr Norna MacKay ( MS Pottinger) indicates that they always called the school the Academy and didn’t use the word Institution. However, a certain degree of clarification does appear in the Education Committee minutes of January 1954 which refer to a meeting of the Education Committee held in 1935. At the 1954 meeting, the Director of Education reported that he had investigated the question of the name of the school and had found in the minutes of the meeting of the Education Committee held on 13th August 1935 a paragraph which stated, ‘ While the official name of the school cannot be altered in view of the provisions of the Deed of Foundation, the Education Committee would offer no objection to the school being unofficially known as Miller Academy.’ The Education Committee in 1954 resolved to adhere to this decision.