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An archaeology project that pupils really dig

Children at Aboyne Academy are writing bothy ballads and mapping out the ruins of sheilings built for farm labourers hundreds of years ago as part of a cross-curricular project

Children at Aboyne Academy are writing bothy ballads and mapping out the ruins of sheilings built for farm labourers hundreds of years ago as part of a cross-curricular project

In the distance Lochnagar is shrouded in mist and a couple of miles away the Royal Family is enjoying its annual holiday at Balmoral.

Up here, on this remote hillside, there are scenes of intense activity as the pupils of Aboyne Academy embark on an archaeological investigation in the heart of Royal Deeside.

The ruins of two small townships are scattered across the hill, the tumbled-down walls of old abandoned cottages almost submerged in the grassy landscape.

About 130 first-year pupils are researching the history of these former settlements of Auchtavan and Loin on the Invercauld Estate near Braemar. The venture is part of their enterprise course and it began with a workshop in their last term of primary school, easing their transition to secondary.

The ruined shells of these homes hold clues to the life stories of people who lived here hundreds of years ago - big families who shared their smoke-blackened cottages with their cattle. The Aboyne Academy pupils will illuminate their past, salvaging stories of ordinary people for historical records.

The project is being part-financed by the Scottish Government, the European Community (Cairngorms Local Action Group) Leader 2007-13 Programme and the Catherine Mackichan Trust, which funds historical and archaeological projects.

The idea came from Jane Summers, a modern studies teacher with a passion for the past.

"It happened because I started volunteering with Scotland's Rural Past, which is a Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments project," she says.

"The project trains up volunteers throughout Scotland to do exactly this - to record the communities that are disappearing - because there has been very little done up until now about the history and culture of the ordinary folk."

Mrs Summers is captivated by the beauty of this landscape and has spent time working in the estate's archives, doing preparatory groundwork.

"The buildings are beautiful. There is a strange, eerie wonderfulness about the way some of them are put together," she says, scanning the hillside and distant mountains.

Mrs Summers has also established some of the basics before the pupils do further online research into parish records: "From 1694, through the 1800s and into the 20th century, we know that there have been people here."

There is a lime outcrop on one of the estate maps and they've discovered two massive lime kilns which would have been used to improve the soil and make mortar for building. In science, the children will investigate the properties of lime and why it was so important to these communities.

They will also search for a chapel which is recorded on maps but has never been found. "There is a missing chapel in the area, which we are hoping to use as a project for the archaeology club we hope to get off the ground," says Mrs Summers.

"It's really difficult for kids of this age to get anywhere near primary research and this is primary research," she adds.

Archaeology Scotland and Scotland's Rural Past are supporting the work, and the children's survey records, drawings and descriptions will be submitted to the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland.

Along with Michael Foy, the school's principal teacher of humanities, Mrs Summers developed this project for the new first years who have joined the academy from 10 feeder primaries.

There is no excavation, but as well as using field archaeology techniques and research to record the history of Auchtavan and Loin, the work has a cross-curricular approach involving subjects such as science, geography, technology, music, drama and art.

"From my point of view, the most important thing about this is that there are opportunities for the children to succeed at doing stuff, because there are so many outcomes here," says Mr Foy, who is helping a group of boys to take soil samples.

"Some of the kids will do well in drama and some are great at doing the drawing, so hopefully there is something for everyone to do well at."

The hillside is an illustration of Curriculum for Excellence in action: some children are sketching and taking photographs while others learn about geology. Elsewhere, they are using the ancient technique of plane tabling, a mapping device to measure the old buildings and create a permanent record.

Children from the school's special needs base are involved too. One pupil, who sometimes needs a wheelchair, has been brought to the remote location by four-wheel drive and is managing to walk round some of the locations.

Aboyne Academy's headteacher, Raymond Jowett, is full of enthusiasm for the venture, which seems to have grabbed the attention of teachers across the school.

"Apart from the technical aspect about skills and outcomes, this covers the other side of CfE: the community dimension, involving people and being part of something," he says.

"All that is huge: capacities, responsible citizens doing something for the community, effective learners and contributors. You name it, it's all there," he says with pride.

On the hill behind him, 12-year-old Zoe Paul and her group are filming the activity with help from Aberdeenshire Council's media unit.

"There are four of us doing the filming, and I've been helping to film people and doing interviews. I was asking people if they wanted to be interviewed and using the microphone," says Zoe.

"It's so cool to see houses that were here 200 years ago and are still here now," she says. "We are going to be finding out how they lived and where they lived and what sort of houses they lived in."

As Mr Foy supervises the soil sampling, he explains: "In terms of the Scotland's Rural Past project, a lot of the big archaeological buildings - the rich people's buildings, the castles and the big houses - have all been archaeologically surveyed in huge detail over the years. But there are also the ordinary people's houses in Scotland - the sheilings in all the glens - that's what the project is all about. So that's these kinds of buildings that are around about us."

One of the cottages has been restored at this site and the children explore its dark interior with great excitement. Beside it is a cottage the Queen Mother used to visit for picnics to enjoy the amazing views.

"Braemar Castle would have been an important place for the people who lived here, so what we are going to do is create a permanent exhibition about the settlement as you go into Braemar Castle," Mr Foy says.

All week, groups of first-year classes have taken it in turns to spend the day working here.

"Over the next eight months, the pupils are going to take the surveys they have done and put them in 3D in technology, we are going to write bothy ballads in English classes, we are going to look at the fiddle music of the time - this is bringing everything together," says Mr Foy. "We are also going to do short dramas about the people who lived here."

Some of the boys are measuring soil depth, while others count the different plant species to build up a picture of this section of the hill.

"There's good evidence to suggest this has been a kaleyard and we are looking for the evidence to back this up," he explains. "The boys are using GPS to mark the position and we will mark all this information down when we get back and make nice diagrams."

He tells the boys: "This is what we call an old kaleyard. Just look around - that's somewhere they used to grow their vegetables. And yes, there is a dead sheep there - so look, but don't touch," he warns.

Eleven-year-old Ryan Mitchell describes what they're doing. "We're finding the depth of the soil to see if this was farmed - because if it's only that deep, you can't really farm it," he says, showing the soil auger they're using to check the depth.

Ryan McGibbon, 11, lives on this estate, where his dad works as a joiner. "I get to do quite a lot of things. I was brought up with shooting grouse, deer and partridge," he says.

Further up the hill, art and design teacher Rona Jamieson is with a group who are sketching and taking photographs of some of the remaining cottage walls.

The early autumn breeze is turning cool, but the children are wrapped up well, a rainbow of multi-coloured waterproofs standing out against the hill.

"We are hoping to create some mood boards of the area about the people that lived here at the time. It might be historical images of the clothing they used to wear and possibly some maps," says Miss Jamieson.

The school's depute head, Malcolm MacIntyre, is another link in the chain which has brought this project to life. He is a volunteer with Braemar Community Ltd, the community group restoring and running Braemar Castle, where the pupils' work will be exhibited.

"We did things like dig out the dungeons in Braemar Castle, looking for old bones and stuff like that. There's a lot of really practical things we have done and I think this is history. Kids are having fun but learning a lot as well," he says.

"To me, if you can do that, you can make those links and make it a bit better. That's what all these changes in CfE are about - it's making learning a bit more fun, bringing it to life and taking it outside."

The community group also restored one of the cottages here at Auchtavan, and the pupils are astonished when they see the quarters families shared with livestock.

Up the hill, Mrs Summers is helping the children to take measurements. She says their work will give the people of Auchtavan and Loin their place in history.

"Eventually this will disappear and what you see now will be completely covered in grass - nobody will ever know that it was here," she says. "So the idea of recording it is to keep it permanently on the database. Then people will know how many people were up here and the different uses of their buildings."

Jean McLeish


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