St Columba blesses a composite class

Seven pupils at Iona primary are in the thick of celebrations for the 1,400th anniversary of the death of St Columba. The children have taken part in a BBC radio broadcast and helped the Royal Mail launch commemorative stamps depicting Columba and St Augustus. In the coming term, folklorist Margaret Bennett will teach them Gaelic songs and lore.

They have also written to children in Derry, where Columba sailed from in 563, and studied the life of the Celts. Elaine Hodgson, their teacher, says: "Doing a topic like this, the evidence is here and the children can examine it for themselves. They can visit the abbey and look at the Celtic stones, and it comes alive for them."

The availability of historical and living evidence, she believes, can also dismantle some of the complexities inherent in teaching a composite group.

The children examined the life of the early Celtic crofters, using the contemporary crofting community as a point of reference. This tapped into the children's own experiences and allowed for work on various levels, the younger children concentrating on farm life and livestock while the older ones discussed the construction of Celtic homes and the rudiments of self-sufficiency.

While the 5-14 programme has provided a helpful framework around which the children can study their heritage, the remoteness of island life presents its own problems. Many of these have been resolved through the use of video conferencing facilities that connect Iona to other schools in Argyll. Through this the school has linked up with Oban-based art specialist John McPhee, and has ambitions for further projects with specialist teachers.

For the time being, the children's sights are focused nearer home. Ms Hodgson will guide them through Columba's pilgrimage from Derry, his penitence and efforts to convert the pagan Scots to Christianity. The learning curve will be aided by an enviable programme of events.

The class will set sail, courtesy of the Tobermory Centre, on a voyage dramatising and charting the sea-going history of Argyll. They will visit the St Columba exhibition in Oban, and take part in a series of expressive arts programmes.

A visit to the abbey is high on the agenda, as is an island tour to sites of historical and religious importance including Columba Bay, the Marble Quarry, the Well of Eternal Youth and the Hill of the Dead where most of the Mac Alpin kings were buried up until, and including, Donald II Ban in 900.

Ms Hodgson said: "It has been very exciting planning material for a project within which the children can learn about their own heritage, go out see and feel it. Of all, it is the one they have most enjoyed."

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