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School envoys have Georgiaon their mind

PUPILS at Kinlochbervie High in the farthest north-west corner of the mainland could soon be emulating their forefathers of 260 years ago by heading for a new life in the Americas - if only for a term or session.

In 1736, before the Clearances, 177 Highlanders from Durness in Sutherland sailed the Atlantic to colonise a community on the Georgian coast, originally called New Inverness. They renamed it Darien after the infamous and doomed Darien enterprise in Panama in 1698.

The 10,000-strong town feels as Scottish as its Gaelic ancestors, as three pupils and a teacher from Kinlochbervie discovered last month - a visit which happily clashed with the annual Scottish festival. The trip took 30 hours as opposed to the settlers' 32 days.

Michael Thornton, who teaches English, said: "This was the culmination of a one-year link with McIntosh County Middle School. My S1 class has exchanged e mails and profiles. But we took three S2 pupils, two of whom play the pipes."

Two other adults, one a parent, made up the party.

Mr Thornton said the visit was to cement links with Darien's three schools and discuss sending staff and pupils in both directions. A further aim was to contribute, musically, to the town's Scottish Heritage weekend.

"Some other Scottish secondares have sent senior pupils abroad for a term as a kind of gap year once they have gained their qualifications, but we would like to try something different. We are looking at sending pupils, not necessarily in their final year, for a term or session," he said.

The exchanges, perhaps with funding from America, could take two years to organise, Mr Thornton said.

A media consultant estimated that the Scots' message, which sparked five radio and three television interviews and made the front pages of five newspapers, reached 2.5 million people.

The mayor of Darien and a church party of 26 plan to sample Highland hospitality in July as the exchange develops.

Highlights of the pioneering Scots trip were canoeing in alligator-infested swamps and playing the pipes to native Americans Jim Sawgrass and Bear Heart of the Alabama Creek Nation, who are related to the early Highlanders through intermarriage.

Mr Thornton said: "In return, Jim Sawgrass sang an Indian love song and gave Isla MacLeod a piece of carved deer bone. She was amazed to discover that she had become betrothed to Sawgrass along with 16 others.

"Having no other pupils left to trade that day, we left the camp at Fort George wondering if we should have just brought blankets and beads."

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