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Never mind the midges

There's not much you can't do at Fairburn Activity Centre, writes Su Clark, which is why it is so popular with teachers and pupils alike

The storms that hit north Britain earlier this year had a devastating effect on the forests around Ross-shire, in the very north of Scotland.

After the calm returned, the debris from trees lay scattered across the area, including some on the 100-acre Fairburn estate, home to the Fairburn Activity Centre. A massive tree sliced across the popular ropes course; but rather than be disheartened, the team simply integrated the long, thick trunk into a revamped course.

Some of the pupils from Drakies primary school in Inverness, who are at Fairburn for a day trip, recognise the changes: they have been here before with other organisations or for birthday parties. They approve of the changes. "It is very popular in these parts," says P7 class teacher, Alison Martin-Hodgson. "My son was here for a birthday party and he said it was brilliant, so I checked it out and organised to bring our P7s before they leave for secondary school."

In early May, she phoned the centre on the off-chance there was a day still free. Luckily there was. "We are very busy," says centre manager, Ray Cameron, an ex-athlete who has been with the centre since it opened 10 years ago. "We have capacity for around 35 guests and another 50 or so on a day trip. We often have people in for conferences who use the meeting rooms in the daytime and the activities in the evening. It means we can still offer the facilities to schools during the day."

On the day Drakies attend, the final for the ICT Hot House Challenge, a competition held in the north of Scotland for secondary students, is being held in the meeting rooms.

Fairburn offers an enviable choice of activities, including archery, canoeing, climbing, abseiling, disc golf, hill walking, mountain biking, orienteering, paintball, raft building and racing, ropes, team challenges and treasure hunts. The centre has also recently installed an aerial runway, erected a flat-fronted climbing wall for team challenges and, for a limited time only, is offering mountain boarding. It is not surprising it is as popular with the corporate market as it is with schoolchildren.

But while schools have to compete with business for places, being a corporate provider does have its benefits, from which the students who attend residential courses benefit. The dorm-and-shared-shower approach was abandoned in favour of single and twin rooms. But even better, all have en suites with Jacuzzi baths, tea and coffee facilities, clean towels, and televisions. Catering, including packed lunches if needed, is provided by the centre's resident cook, who sources many of her ingredients from the large kitchen garden.

"This is brilliant," Jake Mackinzie, 11, yells from the rope course at his instructor, Scott Cameron, son of Ray, who is working at the centre for the summer. He is currently studying to become a PE teacher. Even 11-year-old Chloe Reid, who broke her arm the previous Saturday practising for a gymnastic competition the following day, is pelting round the course, determined not to miss out even though her arm is in plaster.

The most challenging activity is the 18m tree climb. The students have to haul themselves up past four targets and then abseil down. Scott Fraser makes it to the top target. "I didn't think I would be able to do it, or I thought I might be able to get the second target but I found I could go all the way when I got started," he says.

The only downside is the midges, a chronic problem across Scotland. The centre did invest pound;1,200 on a midge killer last year but it was stolen. "The midges are awful, especially when you are standing still doing archery. Even so, you can see that the children are absolutely loving it," says Richard Syred, the other P7 teacher.

There is not much Ray and his team can do about the midges, although they are well stocked with midge repellant favoured by mountaineers. But he and his team of qualified instructors have made every effort to ensure the activities are safe, challenging and fun.

Fairburn Activity Centre, contact Ray Cameron, tel: 01997 433397; email: Costs: pound;250 peak, pound;225 off peak for five-day residential trips, or pound;50 per day; pound;16 for day visits with a choice of four activities. One teacher goes free for every 10 pupils

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