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Journey back to local history

An old jewel in the crown of the British Empire has lost its sheen but can still inspire pupils to shine, reports James Allen

An air of calm pervades Monklands Canal in Glasgow. Birds sing in the trees, tufted ducks paddle on the water and traffic is just a hum in the distance.

But it is not an idyllic scene: the canal is a dirty ditch with all the detritus of modern living scattered about it. Metal beer kegs, old tyres and crisp bags float in the water; tin cans, plastic bottles and bin liners lie on the verges. It might make a fascinating environmental study but is hardly likely to inspire a vibrant arts project.

Last month, however, Mari Lowery, a cultural co-ordinator for Glasgow City Council, with the Scottish Ensemble, ran a multimedia arts project about the canal which tapped into the waterway's illustrious past. Journey involved about 200 P4-P7 pupils from eight schools in the Easterhouse area and embraced creative writing, photography, musical composition and drama.

"When you think of the history of Easterhouse you tend to think of gangs, poor housing, violence and all the negative issues," says Miss Lowery. "I really wanted to highlight all the positive aspects of Easterhouse and I latched on to the idea of Monklands Canal.

"It was the most financially successful canal at one time. It was finished in the late 1700s at a time when Glasgow had a very important position in the Empire."

Some sense of its heyday can be found a few miles away at Summerlee Heritage Park in Coatbridge, where a manicured branch of the canal is preserved along with relics from its industrial past.

Each school involved in the Journey project latched on to a particular aspect of local history, such as the weaving and bleaching of linen, mining iron ore and coal and dairy production, and expressed it in a chosen art form.

Before any creativity took place, the project was kick started by a professional storyteller. He visited all eight primaries, told stories about bygone days and inspired the children to create their own tales about the life of the people on the water, in the factories and down the mines.

Each group of children then used those stories in different ways.

At Bishoploch Primary, Paul Rissmann, the Scottish Ensemble's education director, worked with members of the renowned string ensemble and the school's instrumentalists to create a composition to be played at the project's finale. He encouraged the children to arrange and rearrange the musical jigsaw pieces they had composed - rippling melodies on flute to represent water, hand chime rhythms that rang out like distant industrial machinery - until they were pleased with the effect created.

In other schools, choirs learnt Victorian songs under tutelage from the National Youth Choir of Scotland and drama groups translated their stories into movement.

A more modern perspective of journeys was undertaken in the visual art classes, where children created montage maps on cellophane to represent their routes to school. Alongside shocking pink cottages were drawings of crisp bags and green motorways, representing the canal in modern times, which is now channelled for a long stretch under the M8.

Journey was the latest in a series of events that the Scottish Ensemble has devised over the past few years to share the stage with children. All the separate elements of the project were brought together in an end-of-project show, in which music provided the driving force and binding for the other arts.

As well as being able to showcase pupils' work, the project had another important purpose.

"A lot of the project is about identity," says Mr Rissmann. "With a lot of demolition of the old housing, Easterhouse is being broken up into separate camps. So the idea of taking primary schools that all feed into the same secondary (Lochend Commmunity High) and doing something about where the pupils all live is really important." Scottish Ensemble's next project, Carnival, based on Saint-Sa ns's work, tours to Perth, Dumfries and Galloway, Ullapool and Aboyne in late May; tel 0141 332 4747 for details

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