Killyleagh Philosophy School (c.1696-c.1714)

The Killyleagh philosophy school was founded by James McAlpin, a minister of the Church of Scotland, in County Down, Ireland, probably in 1696, and certainly by 1697. An agreement dated 4 May 1697 between the local landowners and 'James McAlpin, professor of philosophy', 'for encouraging the philosophical school now taught at Killileagh', provided him with a house as well as turf and land for grazing, all free of charge as long as 'he continues his teaching philosophy in this place' (McCreery, Presbyterian Ministers of Killileagh, 110). McAlpin had travelled to the north of Ireland following his deposition from the church at Carnwath, Lanarkshire, in March 1695.
In September 1691 the General Synod of Ulster had agreed 'that none enter into the ministry without Laureation' (Records of the General Synod of Ulster, I, 6). This generally meant graduation from a Scottish university for most candidates for the ministry. Although this proved an effective way to train ministers and the geographical proximity and family links with Scotland made it convenient, it was costly, especially for the sons of ministers on limited stipends or the sons of farmers struggling to make ends meet. Partly to overcome the need to travel to Scotland, and to avoid 'the carrying of so much Mony out of the Kingdom and putting hardships on Loyal Subjects' as one of the Belfast ministers put it (Kirkpatrick, Historical Essay, 505), a number of attempts were made to set up academies in Ireland. They followed a similar model to that which developed in England from the 1660s. They were generally established through the efforts of a single minister, but seldom continued after his death or removal, despite usually having the backing of a local presbytery or sub-synod.
James McAlpin, who was educated at the University of Glasgow, seems to have established the Killyleagh philosophy school through his own initiative, although it received the wholehearted approval of the General Synod in June 1697 and immediate financial support from churches within the sub-Synod of Belfast, which included County Down, County Tyrone, and Belfast. McAlpin is the only known tutor at the academy and it closed at the end of 1713, or in March 1714, when he returned to the ministry.
As a Presbyterian institution the academy suffered harassment from the authorities. The bishop of Down and Connor declared that the academy had been set up in open violation of the law, and John McBride, one of the ministers of Belfast, was summoned to Dublin to account for a sermon delivered by him before the synod of 1698. At his trial he was interrogated about the Killyleagh school. He declared that it was no innovation since there had been such seminaries previously, which was certainly the case, and declared that in addition it did not teach divinity, which was also true, since it provided the equivalent of the arts degree course in Scotland. In any case McAlpin had had the foresight to obtain a licence from the chancellor of the diocese 'under the Seal of the Court and . . . taken the Oaths by Law required' in order to teach (Kirkpatrick, Historical Essay, 505). But even this did not stop further attacks. In 1705 a resolution was passed in the Irish House of Commons condemning the existence of any seminary educating youth in principles contrary to those of the established church. But still the academy survived, although it faced a verbal attack from William Tisdall, vicar of Belfast, in 1712, which was answered by John McBride and James Kirkpatrick.
The names of only four students are known for certain, of whom the most prominent is undoubtedly Francis Hutcheson, whose own father had kept a philosophy school at Newtownards, and who himself went on to be professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow University. The other three students are known only through their lecture notes. The notes of William Henderson and James Henderson were seen by Alexander McCreery in 1875 but are now lost, while the lecture notes of John King were seen by David Stewart in 1910 but have only recently re-emerged. No lecture notes for any other Irish dissenting academy between the 1660s and the early nineteenth century are known to have survived.
The bound volume of notes taken by King over his period of study comprises essentially four series of Latin notes filling a total of 474 pages, with various overlapping numbering systems running through much of the book. The first section covers logic, and is dated from November 1710 to May 1711. The second covers metaphysics and begins on 1 November 1711, finishing in February 1712, while over a similar period he also studied ethics between October 1711 and April 1712. Sandwiched between the metaphysics and ethics notes are notes on the existence of God and on liberty of the will. The final section of notes covers natural philosophy and is dated 12 January 1713, when King was at Glasgow. The volume contains a list of students, but they are the students in the five classes at Glasgow University as they were constituted in January 1713.
The notes show some knowledge of Greek. In logic the presentation is very scholastic throughout, proceeding by question and answer. There is an attempt to define every term, and to show the use and end of every item defined, starting with philosophy and the place of logic within it. McAlpin's course on metaphysics is a study in old-fashioned ontology, that is, a study of 'being' - of what kinds of things there are, and what it is for them to be what they are. His ethics is based on a Christianized Aristotelianism, in which morality is founded in a notion of the highest good (summum bonum), which humanity seeks to attain as its chief end. This is achieved by the practice of the cardinal virtues - justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude. That the ethics and metaphysics courses overlapped may indicate that McAlpin had the services of an assistant, but there is no other evidence for this. King took a course on natural philosophy at Glasgow. This may indicate that McAlpin did not teach natural philosophy, but it may also indicate the willingness of Irish Presbyterian students to complete their studies in Glasgow in order to qualify for a degree. There is also evidence, preserved from the nineteenth century, that the school at Killyleagh may have had some elementary apparatus. It is recorded that some of McAlpin's equipment had still existed in the mid-eighteenth century, when a revival of an academy in Killyleagh was under consideration.
A. D. G. Steers


There are no archives, although the academy is mentioned in contemporary minutes of the General Synod of Ulster. The only surviving document linked to the Killyleagh philosophy school is the volume of lecture notes of John King, 1710-1713, now held in Strong Room B/5, the Gamble Library, the Union Theological College, Belfast.

Published Sources

Kirkpatrick, James, An Historical Essay upon the Loyalty of Presbyterians in Great-Britain and Ireland from the Reformation to this Present Year 1713 (Belfast, 1713).
[McBride, John], A Sample of Jet-Black Pr---tic Calumny, In Answer to a Pamphlet called a Sample of True-Bleu Presbyterian Loyalty (Glasgow, 1713).
McCreery, Alexander, The Presbyterian Ministers of Killileagh (Belfast, 1875).
Records of the General Synod of Ulster from 1691 to 1820, 3 vols. (Belfast, 1890-98).
Stewart, David, 'Irish Presbyterian Seminaries', The Witness (Belfast), 18 March 1910.
Tisdall, William, The Conduct of the Dissenters in Ireland with Respect both to Church and State: in three parts (Dublin, 1712).

A. D. G. Steers, 'Killyleagh Philosophy School (c.1696-c.1714)', Dissenting Academies Online: Database and Encyclopedia, Dr Williams's Centre for Dissenting Studies, May 2012.