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Lean, mean, fighting machines

When they arrive, they are typical teenagers who may struggle to get out of bed on time and are at less than peak physical fitness. But by the time former Sergeant Major Rab Boyd has finished with them, they will be fit enough to join the army.

For 18 weeks, this Army Preparation Course at Inverness College gives students an insight into military life. This morning, they're out learning map-reading skills on the hills above Loch Morlich.

The 25 students from the Highlands and Islands on the course are cocooned in waterproofs, marching uphill through driving rain. Kim Horrocks, 20, is a former Wick High pupil - she stands over 6 feet tall, with strawberry blonde hair. She is one of the oldest in the group. "I want to go for artillery. That's where you are working with the big guns and you can be in helicopters or you can be driving and you are supporting the infantry and the tanks when they're in the field," she says. "My fitness was awful before this course. but it has improved vastly."

These students know they could be casualties of war: "If you want to do it and you want to serve your country, you have to take it into consideration," Kim acknowledges.

Students will become fitter and leaner to reach the appropriate BMI and fitness to join the army - some former students have lost as much as two stone during the rigorous daily exercise and training regime.

Rab Boyd spent 22 years in the army. "Initially, I joined the Queen's Own Highlanders and my first posting was to Hong Kong, and from there I served all over the world," he says, counting paces as he trudges uphill between the pine trees.

The rain is easing off and as the mist clears, you can see the snow-covered Cairngorms on the opposite side of the loch. "I was in the Falklands and the first Gulf War. I did nearly six years in Northern Ireland and was awarded what's known as the Accumulated Campaign Service Medal. You must have done a minimum of three years on the streets in Northern Ireland - that was one of my toughest places. The Gulf was quite scary, especially when we thought it was going to involve chemical warfare," he says.

Mr Boyd is not as mean as the sergeant majors you see in the movies, but the students do move when he says jump. "He's understanding and he helps you. So if you are having trouble at home, he will understand what you are going through and talk to you. And he only shouts if you do something and you deserve to be shouted at," says Kim, one of 10 women on the programme.

This course is run twice a year as a partnership between Inverness College and the Army, and Mr Boyd has earned his academic stripes during six years in this job. He recently graduated with a BA in tertiary education from Stirling University: "My research unit was on disengaged and disaffected students," he says.

There's not much chance of being disengaged on this course, though. Mr Boyd and his army colleague Sergeant Derek Wilkie are looking for 100 per cent commitment.

Sergeant Wilkie has been seconded from 3 Scots Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Scotland to teach on the course. "I'm in my second year in this job and the course is brilliant," he says, as the students break to eat their sandwiches. "When they first arrive, they are a bit dazed, but after week eight or so, they toe the line. And by the end of the course, they don't want to leave."

The Army Preparation Course is taught at the college in the sports section and some elements are delivered at the Territorial Army Centre in Inverness. Curriculum manager for science and sport Elizabeth Barron is watching the students in action this morning. She says the mix of academic and physical training makes a huge difference to students' confidence. "It's a course that's designed to prepare students for the armed services. However, there are a lot who want to be in the police or the fire service. Anything that has a fitness test or a structured background - this course is suitable."

But it may also help them realise the soldier's life is not for them.

They don't need formal qualifications, so they work hard on basic skills here: "We develop their core skills so IT, comms and numeracy are part of the course as well," she says Ms Barron.

Seventeen-year old Katrina Gent was at Thurso High before starting this course and wants to join the Military Police. "We have been doing fitness, circuit training, hill walking, team building and learning how to read maps. It's quite fun, there's always something to do," she says.

"I hated school, but I am enjoying this. You are treated like an adult and you get respect. I am getting there. Mr Boyd takes it easy on us because he understands that some of us have different fitness levels. He does push you, but not too much. He pushes you to your limit, but it's a good limit - it helps."

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