A dip into the wet and wonderful natural world

15th October 2010 at 01:00
While some children spent the day in boats - and falling out of them - others trekked on ponies as part of an outdoor learning scheme in the Cairngorms aimed at nurturing pupils and teachers on an inspirational journey

You can hear the boys as they paddle downstream almost before you see their canoes. They have embraced a pirate theme and every so often one of them breaks the drizzly stillness with a roaring "Ahrr".

There are no skulls and crossbones or eye patches visible, but their eyes narrow with convincing meanness as they shout for "Cap'n Pete", whose smile seems endlessly patient.

When he is not paddling down the River Spey with pirates, Cap'n Pete Moore is a warden on the RSPB's Insh Marshes National Nature Reserve. The boys are breathless with excitement, as they beach the boats at the riverside and spill out stories of high seas on the Spey.

This is one of 10 Journeys in Nature being made by nearly 100 Kingussie High second-year pupils on bikes and ponies, canoes and foot in the Cairngorm National Park today.

RSPB Scotland is running the journeys in partnership with SpeyGrian Educational Trust. They have support from Cairngorms Local Action Group, the Scottish Centre for Intergenerational Practice and Book Trust Scotland.

SpeyGrian was founded on this river 10 years ago and some of those who paddled on that inaugural journey are taking part today. They are writers and artists, poets, ecologists, naturalists and historians whose mission is to encourage outdoor learning.

"We wanted to come together so we would be able to work with teachers in a very interdisciplinary way. The idea was that we could create a network that we could draw on to run professional development courses for teachers," says founder Joyce Gilbert, head of education with RSPB Scotland.

Today SpeyGrian is renewing the commitment during this International Year of Biodiversity, travelling alongside children and teachers, sharing their knowledge and passion for the countryside. Local people are joining in and meeting them along the way - one or two are in their eighties, giving first-hand accounts of the culture and customs of this wonderful landscape.

The venture fulfils many objectives of Curriculum for Excellence and gives children a keener sense of place and their natural heritage. All these pupils completed their John Muir Award in S1 and this is a new stage in their outdoor learning.

Tomorrow, back at school, everyone will have a chance to reflect and respond to their individual journey - through art or writing, craftwork, photography or sound recordings. There is no pressure to come up with a work of art, but there are hopes for an exhibition later in the academic year.

Dr Gilbert is on an extended secondment from teaching and believes it is crucial this journey nurtures teachers, so they can create journeys like this under their own steam.

Organising almost 100 pupils and 10 teachers on 10 different journeys on one day might seem a frantic operation, but the emphasis today is on slowing down. The idea is to enjoy the rhythm of the paddle or the pony on the journey and reflect on what you're seeing.

"I've always thought it was about people finding out things they didn't even think they wanted to know," says Dr Gilbert. "By being out with teachers, writers, artists and ecologists, you are seeing the environment through all these different lenses."

Another aspect of this outing is the presence of researchers from Stirling University, who are looking at the inter-generational communication during the journeys.

As the canoes arrive at the riverbank, it is clear it has been quite a journey. SpeyGrian is Gaelic for Sunshine on Spey - the mood of this weather could be summed up with a stream of d-words - dreich, dingin' and drookit. But it is water off a duck's back to the boys.

"We've had two capsizes, including Gerry - he's totally soaked," says Cap'n Pete, as he and the boys clamber from their open canoes onto the riverside.

Gerry is the poet and nature photographer Gerry Cambridge, who finds poetic inspiration in nature and sometimes writes about teenage boys growing up. This journey is described as "Paddle with a Poet" and, if Gerry has been spared, the pirates may provide interesting raw material.

At first the pirate boys are struggling to get out of character: "I won't say anything about the stolen treasure," announces one, as they come ashore.

"It's been awesome," they enthuse. "The best part was either the journey with Pete or when we capsized, because that was really fun, even though we got soaking," says Scott Fryatt, a 13-year-old from Kingussie High in Inverness-shire.

"We hit a bank and the boat kind of flipped over and my lunch was soaked as well," says Scott. "But I'm not hungry. I've had two drinks - it's all good."

His pal James Finlayson, 12, is less jubilant about the brief swim: "It was great - except for the first bit when we capsized. I don't like the cold."

They have seen a heron and a dead otter on their journey and have enjoyed the company of Cap'n Pete, who came on board to help after their canoe capsized.

Maths teacher Bert Mark has come ashore too now, exhilarated by the journey: "The biggest problem wasn't the current; it was the wind right against us," he says.

He is enjoying seeing the Spey from the canoe: "It's very good because of all the facets of education you can stick onto the journey, as well as just the sheer enjoyment."

He reckons the experience is opening pupils' eyes to new opportunities: "I know they've got this fantastic countryside, but you would be amazed how many kids don't actively use it."

Gerry Cambridge is coming ashore now with teenagers Bank Sangkaie and Lewis Mackinnon. "It was a dark moment when we capsized, for me too," says Gerry, eyes smiling through spectacles dappled with rainspots.

Battling a Force 6 in a canoe is perhaps not the best time for poetic inspiration, but Gerry has been taking mental notes. An original member of the SpeyGrian team set up 10 years ago, he appears to be enjoying this Boys' Own adventure more than his shipmates. They are succinct in the post-match analysis: "too wet", "fell in".

"I have been jotting down some of the things they said, which I might make use of tomorrow," says Gerry.

A few miles away on the outskirts of Newtonmore, the Highland ponies are ambling down the hillside at the end of their journey through Glen Banchor. Riding centre boss Ruaridh Ormiston walks alongside his pony Blue, with his little dog Rosie perched on the saddle. He looks impressive, like John Brown leading the royal entourage back to Balmoral.

"This is Rosie Russell - the fastest dog in Scotland, according to the Daily Star," says Ruaridh. "She does terrier racing and we've trained her since she was six months old. She's very focused and there's no faster terrier that we've come across. I've clocked her at 30 miles an hour on the motorbike, which is fantastic when you think her legs are only three inches long,"

Fourteen schoolgirls on ponies, with their science teacher Jo Kinghorn, follow Ruaridh and the fastest dog in Scotland. "We've been looking at some of the townships and some of the history of the area and just experiencing the outdoors really. It's been great getting out and about despite the weather," says Dr Kinghorn.

Highland ponies like these would have been crofters' ponies, used for carrying grain and corn from townships to mills to be ground into flour and oatmeal. "We put up a tepee and we had packed lunches and we made a fire and cooked nettle tea," says 12-year-old Tabitha Brown. "It's been exciting, I really enjoyed it."

"I think it's a great way of putting people in touch with the countryside, to do this on horseback," says Ruaridh. "And it connects people to their past, because the horses were so much part of life then.

"My father met us at the top of the glen. He's 81 now and he was able to tell the children what the glen used to be like and about the people who used to live in it."

Good material for Greg Mannion, from the Scottish Centre for Intergenerational Practice at the University of Stirling, who is riding at the back of the group.

"We're inquiring into what we call place-based education and I have a particular interest today in inter-generational learning," says Greg, as the group dismounts back at the stables.

"The research is to be used to get schools to think differently about how they might connect to local places, their communities and their local people," he explains.

Writer Linda Cracknell was also with the first SpeyGrian journey 10 years ago and is with the group on horseback today. "A lot of my writing is inspired by place and by echoes of places," she says.

"Tomorrow we will be doing some making of maps and reflecting on this journey as they saw it, rather than as we saw it or want them to see it."

Back at Kingussie High, headteacher John Tracey welcomes home the cyclists, the walkers, the canoeists and the riders. There is an excited babble of conversation as they peel off waterproofs and swap stories of their adventures.

"The young people are going to thoroughly enjoy these days and get a lot of inspiration from it - but I'll be honest and say that more important than that, it's the teachers and what they're going to get out of it," says Mr Tracey.

"We have 10 teachers out there as well, who hopefully will be inspired to look at learning slightly differently. They'll be able to say `Well, I teach this subject, but here's an opportunity for me to maybe be that wee bit broader in my outlook."




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