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Living in the past

Have car, will travel - through time. Deedee Cuddihy meets a teacher who brings the Middle Ages to life

If Barbara Hamilton had been stopped by the police, she would have had some explaining to do. Why, for example, did she have a long and very heavy broadsword, a lethal-looking axe, one large sickle, a horse's jaw bone and numerous other strange and diverse objects packed into boxes and baskets in the back seat of her Renault?

In fact, Barbara was on her way to Arngask Primary, an 80-pupil school about 12 miles from Perth, where, in her capacity as principal education officer with Perth Museum and Art Gallery, she was due to give a set lesson on life in medieval times.

She spends up to four days a week visiting schools throughout the Perth and Kinross area, some as far away as 60 miles and with as few as half-a-dozen pupils. This part of the museum's free education service, whose menu of topics also includes the Second World War, the Romans and the Victorians, is extremely popular and Barbara is fully booked until the end of June 1998. Each topic requires a different set of props, ranging from period artefacts to costumes and art supplies needed for the special craft sessions that round off most of the visits.

Miraculously, Barbara never seems to forget anything and, minutes after arriving at Arngask, she has a small group of eager Primary 45s (it's a composite class) assembled and ready to help carry in the gear.

The pupils are in the middle of a six-week topic on medieval times, and the classroom walls are decorated with an impressive display of their art work, including paper castles, stained glass windows, shields and the odd wooden sword with, on the window sills, lots of books about the period and a number of pop-up models. Their teacher, Susan Jackson, will be taking all 20 of them on a walking tour of medieval Perth the following week, weather permitting, and the topic is due to be rounded off with a medieval banquet - minus the spit-roasted pig.

"Barbara has visited the school before,'' says Mrs Jackson, "and she really helps to enrich our own work, not least because the children get to handle so many of the objects she brings along. The classes are cross-curricular, covering mainly history and craft, but touching on a number of other subjects at the same time."

The lesson begins with a lively, half-hour slide show. The children have been told that they'll be quizzed about the show later on and 20 pairs of eyes remain fixed on the screen as they learn what life was like in Perth back in the Middle Ages.

"Anything about toilets or blood and gore usually catches their attention, '' Barbara observes later on and, sure enough, the kids are fascinated by her account of medieval folk stepping out with their portable wooden toilet seats to use the family midden pit. There's even a slide of a medieval Perthshire toilet seat from the museum's own collection.

After the show, Barbara swiftly sets out real and replica medieval artefacts, discussing them as she goes along and explaining to the children how the axe has to be handled carefully even though it's blunt, and why the piece of 12th-century chain mail found under Marks and Spencer in Perth is too fragile to be picked up and must be viewed through its plastic box.

At noon the children are asked to spend five minutes drawing some of the objects they've been examining, and then Barbara calls for volunteers to dress up, in extremely convincing costumes, as a lord of the manor and two of his peasants. The peasants have been caught stealing grain and must be punished.

Barbara rejects suggestions of hanging, "stretching'', quartering and having fingers cut off, explaining that, while such customs did exist in those days, some form of public humiliation would have been more appropriate for a first offence. She just happens to have a set of stocks with her - as well as a basket of foam rubber turnips - and the "peasants'' are enthusiastically pelted with them. A huge cheer goes up when the headteacher and Mrs Jackson also take - gentle - aim.

For details of the loan service and classes, contact Barbara Hamilton, tel: 01738 632488

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