James Pillans (1778-1864)

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Early Life

James Pillans was born in Edinburgh in April 1778. He was educated at the Royal High School in Edinburgh and then he studied at the University of Edinburgh, graduating in January 1801 with degree of M.A. On graduation he acted as tutor to Thomas Francis Kennedy (1788-1879) at Dunure, Ayrshire, then to a family in Northumberland, before going to Eton as a private tutor.

Professional Career

In 1809 he submitted himself as a candidate for the post of Rector at the High School in Edinburgh. He was successful and took up the post in January 1810. At this time the school was sited in Infirmary Street, and as Rector he introduced the monitorial system, and developed the teaching of Greek, classical geography, and Latin verse composition.

In 1820, Pillans was elected to the Chair of Humanity. He was also President of the Watt Institution and School of Art (later to become the Heriot Watt College and then Heriot Watt University). Pillans acquainted himself with state of education across Scotland and embarked on tours of Germany, France, Switzerland and Ireland, looking at educational systems there. He was an advocate of compulsory education, and in 1834 he gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on education.


His publications include Letters on the principles of elementary teaching (1827), Outlines of geography (1847), The rationale of discipline (1852), and Contributions to the cause of education (1856).

Professor James Pillans resigned his Chair in 1863 and he died at his home in Inverleith Row on 27 March 1864.