Monarchs of the glen

Shooting, fishing, hillwalking . an idyllic life for some Highland pupils. Jean McLeish hunts them down

Shooting, fishing, hillwalking . an idyllic life for some Highland pupils. Jean McLeish hunts them down

They astonish their teachers with their knowledge of wildlife - they know the names of the wild flowers and can age a stag from its teeth or tell you where you'll see a golden eagle.

All six pupils at Dalwhinnie Primary are the sons and daughters of gamekeepers on surrounding Highland estates, where wealthy visitors come to fish the lochs and shoot stags in the hills.

This is Monarch of the Glen country, where busloads of tourists come to ogle Glenbogle, the fictional name for Ardverikie Estate where the popular BBC series was made. It featured stunning mountain and lochside locations throughout Badenoch, and Dalwhinnie's class teacher Moira Webster's own children were extras.

Today, her pupils live the dream, roaming the vast heathery hillsides in their Wellington boots, soaking up the skills and traditions from anyone who'll take time to share their knowledge.

Their teachers live the dream too - Moira Webster and headteacher Karen Craig moved here from the central belt more than 30 years ago to raise their families and enjoy the outdoor lifestyle. Mrs Webster qualified as a PE teacher and taught outdoor education for almost 20 years, then later did a primary conversion course. Her passion for Gaelic led to a degree in Gaelic language and culture in 2004 and she now speaks Gaelic with her pupils at some point every day.

"I always loved the sound of it and wanted to learn it. If the children want to go to the toilet, they have to ask in Gaelic - otherwise they don't get out," she jokes.

Karen Craig is a keen skier and golfer who is cluster head for this, the highest school in the Highlands, and Newtonmore Primary. She comes here two days a week and teaches the children French. There is a classroom assistant and a nursery class for Harry and Charlie and their teacher Hayley Munro in the adjoining schoolhouse.

This has been a good year for Dalwhinnie - up on the wall headlines from a newspaper highlight its recent glowing HMIE report, and its newly acquired Eco-school flag is flying high in the playground.

One of Mrs Craig's first jobs the day she arrived 10 years ago, was to close the school when snowy conditions deteriorated. "I used to get an emergency food parcel to keep in school, in case we got marooned and couldn't get home," she says.

The changing climate has brought milder winters, but occasional blizzards can still force closure two or three times each winter.

Dalwhinnie Primary was built in 1878 but there was a school here even earlier, further along the village, which has a population of around 80. The school roll went up to 30 or 40 in the past, when workers from the nearby distillery sent their children here. The distillery is still thriving and is a generous supporter of the school activities, but the production processes are automated, which has meant dwindling pupil numbers over the years.

Records of the old days line the school walls - wonderful old black and white school photographs with scenes of children sledging in the school playground or standing barefoot in tousle-haired groups, as if they've just stepped out of a Joan Eardley painting.

When you meet today's pupils, though, the boys' names sound like a list of characters from Sunset Song or The Silver Darlings - Lachlan and Lauchlan and Fraser and Hamish - names that suit the landscape. This is no place for Wayne or Kylie.

The girls, Erin and Rebecca, are as knowledgeable as the boys about rural life and the wildlife around them and they move just as quickly across the hillsides. Rebecca Dakers, 11, lives on Ben Alder Estate with her family. "I go with the dogs to the shoots with my dad and I pick up all the dead birds at the end of the drive.

"Once the visitors have shot the stags, we take them to the larder, where they are gutted and cut up."

Rebecca is keen on horse riding and fishing and wants to work with animals when she's older: "I'd either be a vet or something like that, helping animals if they are hurt."

Her friend Erin McKeracher, 10, lives at Cuaich Estate with her parents and two older brothers. "I help Dad out on the hill and I go beating. I go to gun club with Lauchlan and Fraser. I've got my own gun and dogs and I help Dad clean out their kennels," she says.

Some of the children live more than 10 miles from the nearest tarred road, up winding tracks that can become impassable in blizzards. Even today in pleasant sunshine, there are patches of snow on the distant Cairngorm mountains. But in winter, the snow has its benefits and the school takes pupils to Cairngorm Ski Resort for snowboarding and ski lessons.

This is the last week of term, so mid-morning the pupils head for the hills with Lauchlan and Fraser's dad Iain MacDonald, the headkeeper at Dalwhinnie and Strathmashie Estate, part of Ben Alder Estate. This is one place where 4x4s are good for more than supermarket runs.

One of Donna MacDonald's 11-year-old son Fraser's jobs is to help his dad feed the pheasants. He also goes out in an all-terrain vehicle to help on shoots. "We take the stags off the hill because the guests shoot them. Then we take them down to the larder to get cut up. The guests usually like to keep the heads," Fraser explains.

He likes to fish for brown trout in the lochs near his home and says he'd never fancy swapping all this for city life: "It's quiet and there's no traffic or people shouting."

One of his dad's jobs is to organise shoots and stalking for the laird and any guests - he shows us into the bothy so the children can eat packed lunches. This must be the poshest bothy in Scotland, with elaborate candelabra crafted from antlers, holding real candles.

The TESS masquerades momentarily as Hello! magazine and spears for the low-down on the guests who arrive here by helicopter for a Highland break, but Iain's keeping it buttoned. No wonder the rich and famous love it here; the locals guard their privacy like members of an underground resistance movement.

Nine-year-old Lachlan Grant is a game farmer's son and a keen fisherman. Today he's covered from head to toe in a camouflage suit and matching rucksack - you'd have a real struggle spotting him on a hillside. "I go beating from September to January. School's fun because I've got lots of friends and I like the trips," he says, itching to escape back to his mates.

Once a week on Thursday evenings, Iain MacDonald's sons and some of the other children go to Badenoch Gun Club where he says they're taught how to shoot clays by a Scottish Internationalist.

"It's all clay pigeons now; they're a bit young for wandering about with a gun themselves. They get told the rights and wrongs and the safety side of things there. The younger you get them started, the quicker they learn about safety and learn that guns are dangerous things and not to be meddled with," Mr MacDonald explains.

He says the children are all well informed about all aspects of wildlife: "They don't even realise they're learning; they're seeing it every day and it's just part of their life." But are they picky eaters like some of their young city counterparts and will they eat deer? "Of course they eat venison, it's the best meat in the world and it's very low in fat and it's very good for you," he replies.

"We look after the wild deer herd, we've got grouse, pheasants, partridges, roe deer - we've got everything you could think of here. We don't let anything out at all; it's all personal use for the laird and his friends. It's mainly just for the sporting side of it."

Mrs Webster talks with pride about her pupils and their knowledge of their environment. She also notices they have a more mature understanding of life and death than other children of their age because of their experience of nature.

"I've not been fortunate enough to see a golden eagle here, so the children will say, `You will, if you go down by so and so.' They spot things like adders, just basking in the light.

"Even though I've hillwalked for years, I had never seen an adder until we were out on a PE walk near Fraser and Lauchlan's house and they said `There's one there.' They knew it was an adder and they knew not to go near it."

Back at school, the children clear up their artwork and bits and pieces to take home before the summer break. Everyone's excited about the long holidays ahead - especially Mrs Craig who's going to work for two weeks in a school in Uganda, as part of a school improvement project run by Link and Learning and Teaching Scotland.

It will be a change to go from schools like this with six pupils to a school for 500 children: "When you look at these old school photos with the kids with bare feet, that's what I am going to. No electricity, no running water and children walk miles to get to school," she says thoughtfully.

Mrs Webster is checking the children have their jackets and bags. "You don't have anyone here saying they don't want to go outside because it's raining. They'd rather be outside than inside.

"I learn from them," she says, "I am learning from them all the time."

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