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Bucking the trend in stag country

In our continuing series on remote rural schools, Jean McLeish visits a primary

gearing up for a doubling of its roll to six pupils in the next school year

the journey along a single-track road to Altnaharra in Sutherland is like being on safari. The light is just beginning to fade and young stags with short, velvet antlers are coming down from the hillside.

Well camouflaged in the greens and browns of the glen, they seem to spring out of nowhere onto the road. Then, safely reaching the other side, they stand motionless in groups of 10 or 12, staring like a bar full of locals at a stranger.

This is wild Scotland, an hour north of Inverness, and a little eerie in shifting mists. Appealing to the more adventurous tourist even in summer, a wrong turn here in winter could cost you your life.

This is the route 31-year-old teacher Lesley Morrison takes to Altnaharra Primary every morning from her home 20 miles away in Lairg. The school has one primary and two nursery pupils. But, after summer, the roll will double, with three new children joining the nursery. They will be looked after by nursery assistant Lisa Thomson.

Isobel Gillies, headteacher, drives up once a week from her base at Lairg Primary and sometimes teaches if Miss Morrison is on a course. "Winters aren't as bad as they used to be, but it's still a bit desolate," says Ms Gillies, who lives in Brora, 45 miles away.

"You come up some days and it's pink, because of the rising sun. Another day it's covered with frost and just beautiful. Or wildlife will walk out in front of you. And even in the grey mist, like today, it's beautiful," she says.

Altnaharra is a tiny village with a population of 28 living in scattered crofts and houses overlooking Loch Naver with Ben Klibreck in the distance. There's a 10-room hotel and a BB. A heaven on earth for fishermen, it's popular for hunting, shooting and Munro-bagging. And cyclists favour this scenic route through the glens and moorland to John O'Groats.

The single-storey school was built in the 1960s with one primary and one nursery classroom. It is bright and welcoming, every wall festooned with the work of the three pupils. This morning, their three faces peer shyly out from the cloakroom six-year-old Tiegan Johnstone, her brother Ryan and Christina Bakker, both 4.

The children came here a few years ago the Johnstones moved up from the Borders and Christina's family is Dutch. She lives half a mile from school, but Tiegan and Ryan travel three miles, from the family's deer farm.

"We have hinds, stags, and calves. Dad's a gamekeeper and he's out fishing today. He's also a ghillie," says Tiegan.

"We don't play with the deer. Our stags are OK until the rut in October, when they fight. They roar then," says Ryan, with a roar that Miss Morrison confirms is authentic.

Christina's dad is the factor at Altnaharra Estate and she says he works with "the staggies" as well. "I've a wee brother, Scottie," she says, and Scott is joining the nursery after summer.

This school was mothballed in 2002, when the primary roll fell to one and there were no nursery pupils. But it re-opened in 2005 after a campaign by local parents.

The timetable was adjusted so Tiegan, the P2 pupil, could spend as much time as possible with the nursery children. And teachers adapt lessons to accommodate the age gap. "If they were doing magnets, for example, they would do the lesson with all the children, then Tiegan would do her writing up, while Ryan and Christina go and play," Ms Gillies says.

Tiegan is quick to point out the downside of being the only primary pupil. "It's very lonely at lunch because I'm the only one. The others go home at half eleven. I finish at half past two. My teacher sits with me at lunchtime," she says. She takes a short lunch break and takes most of her playtime in the morning with the other children.

The staff make considerable efforts to help Tiegan socialise with other children, taking all three for regular joint activities sports, outings and Christmas parties at neighbouring primaries.

The nearest are at Lairg or Bettyhill, also 20 miles away on winding single track roads. Apart from the hazards of winter, young children have a tendency to fare badly on challenging road trips.

"A lot of young children are travel sick. They grow out of it, but you can't give your child a travel sickness pill every morning," says Ms Gillies. She recalls a journey to swimming lessons with one child who told her all the strategies he had developed to stop himself throwing up on the way to school.

In January storms this year, high winds blew down so many trees across the road to Altnaharra, that teachers needed an escort with a power saw to get through.

Miss Thomson, 19, joined the staff as part-time nursery assistant when the school re-opened. Only just out of school herself, she embarked on a distance learning BA in child and youth studies with the University of the Highlands and Islands. An opportunity like this helps reverse the trend of depopulation and she loves it.

"It's excellent. You don't have to go away and get into debt. You can study from home and work at the same time," she says.

She is engaged to a local ghillie and commutes from home, more than 30 miles away. Occasionally she has had to abandon her journey to school in winter blizzards, and when the trees blocked the road it was several hours before she got home. But she takes it all in her stride and says there is good communication between teachers, parents and the roads department.

Sadly, unless new people move into the area, Altnaharra's nursery could close again, once the August intake moves up. But Miss Thomson is philosophical and plans to study for her postgraduate primary teaching qualification, once she has finished her degree.

Ms Gillies believes Altnaharra Primary is secure for the next 10 years, provided people stay in the area. But the cost of housing makes it difficult to recruit teachers.

"You have to have jobs for two people. A mortgage in most cases now needs two people to finance it, and if you can't give both partners a job, they're not going to come. In a rural area, it's very rare that two jobs to suit will come up at once," she says.

Ms Gillies has taught in Lairg for 18 years and before that in schools at Dornoch, Brora and Rogart. She studied at Jordanhill College in Glasgow in the 1970s and spent a few years teaching in Possilpark before returning to the Highlands.

Miss Morrison was one of her pupils at Lairg Primary and she also studied at Jordanhill. But after a few years' supply teaching in Glasgow, her career went international. In her early twenties, she spent three years teaching English to children in Opole, Poland, then moved to Brunei in Borneo.

"I saw so much of Borneo and you had great holidays because you could travel around. Where I worked, the children came from water villages, but they were trying to settle them in houses. The water villages are like an oriental Venice on stilts," Miss Morrison explains.

From Borneo, she moved to Perth in Western Australia to teach English to Japanese and Korean students before returning home.

She started teaching at Rosehall Primary, 45 minutes from Altnaharra, last November. Then at Easter moved to Altnaharra.

Miss Morrison has adapted well to life after international jet-setting. At weekends, she sometimes goes to Glasgow or Inverness to see friends, and during the week she takes photography classes and runs a drama group for young children in Lairg.

She understands the needs of children in remote communities because she experienced it herself. For Tiegan, she thinks, the main issue is getting the opportunity to mix with other children.

"Next year, when Christina and Ryan move up, it should get a lot better for her. I think it's at playtime she feels lonely. If it's a nice day, I go out and play with her, a ball game or something," she says.

This afternoon the children are heading off to Rosehall Primary to join the pupils there for school sports. But before that, they head outside for photographs and to investigate a family of ducklings plodding across the playground.

As they say "cheese" for the photographer, the children encounter the curse of this Highland idyll the midges. Leave a window open in Altnaharra on a day like today at your peril; the bites will have you clawing your skin for days.

But Ms Gillies has a requisition of "midgie jackets", so the children can play outside, free from torment. She describes them as being like beekeepers' hats attached to jackets, which should give the children decent protection.

In the car heading for the school sports, Ms Gillies talks about teaching in remote locations. "I love it here because I've really known nothing else. While I enjoyed my time in the city and I still go there on holiday, I love coming back. But, to some, the peace is a prison," she says.

People do come to the Highlands to escape or in pursuit of "the good life" away from the rat race. Some come to retire and manage to adapt. But others opt out after just a few years, she says.

Last year, she had a holiday in the Rockies and this summer she is planning to visit Anne of Green Gables territory Prince Edward Island. She is looking forward to the break, but will be happy to come home again.

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