The family belong to the traditional Scottish working class. Men would leave school, often at the earliest opportunity, become apprentices to a trade (such as painting) and lead a practical life, working and providing for their families.
They were the head of the family and viewed this with a sense of pride. Alec is proud of his father’s trade as a sailmaker and sees it as superior to the job he is doing at the start of Act 1 – working as a tick man.
Moving from this to the middle classes was viewed with some scepticism, for example in Ian's scathing comments after Alec sits the entrance exam for a private school. Education is seen as the key to social mobility and the writer explores the idea of private versus state education. For Alec, private education leads to university, opportunities and risks, but for Ian, state education leads to a trade and a steady job.
Although Davie does nothing about his own employment situation, he is determined his son will have the opportunities that he did not and impresses upon him that education is the key to success in life.
Goin tae a good school. Go on tae the University. Decent job.
For Alec, this links to social class, and his private school education opens his eyes to a variety of subjects and philosophies.
By the end of the play, he knows that
lignum vitae is Latin for ‘wood of life’ and he has learned much about science, literature and the arts, albeit learning by rote rather than the modern approach of investigation and problem solving.
Structurally, it is interesting that the scene revealing Alec's new studies is followed immediately by Davie’s redundancy, thus highlighting the importance placed on education in the play. Alec is taking advantage of his education and opportunities whereas Davie did not.
He considered setting up a poultry farming business with Billy after the war, but, when Billy would not take the risk, Davie simply forgot about the idea rather than attempting to realise his ambition. This stage in his life would be another opportunity to take a risk. He is unemployed anyway and has nothing to lose but he does not take it.
Ian and Billy do not value education as a means to building a future. Ian hates school, cannot wait to leave and cannot understand why Alec is still there and not out working. Ian mocks the private school, insinuating that all the boys there are snobs and homosexuals, and that rugby and cricket are not suitable sports for boys.
Prior to this scene, Alec might have agreed to some extent when he admits to Davie he does not particularly like Norman, the Minister’s son, describing him as
a big snotter. Thinks he’s great.
This may be entirely down to Norman’s personality – he never appears in the play – but is more likely an uncharacteristic judgement of Alec's. It is interesting to note that the more middle class Norman does not have his name abbreviated, unlike Alec, Davie and Billy, who represent the working class.