Ancient bones and useful stones;People and places

24th September 1999 at 01:00
Because it has such a sparsely-populated landscape, Scotland has preserved a rich variety of our ancestors' remains - dwellings, sacred places, tombs and artefacts. They survive now in forms ranging from the virtually intact Skara Brae to barely detectable chips of stone from Mesolithic tool-making. In a more densely-populated country most of these would long since have been obliterated.

Few schools outside Scotland's city centres are far removed from these valuable resources, and some are fortunate enough to have them on their doorstep.

At Glentrool in Galloway, a short walk along a path through the wood behind the primary school leads to a clearing of grass and heather among the trees. It is dominated by a low structure built of rocks ranging from small stones to massive boulders and known as White Cairn. Until recently anyone wanting to know much more would have had to visit a good library and study 50-year-old archaeology journals.

But this year Solway Heritage formed a partnership with the village school which led to the creation of an evocative and informative panel that now stands on a plinth of grey granite beside the ancient cairn.

"Solway Heritage contacted us and asked if they could get the children involved," explains the headteacher, Andrea Kay, "and I was very keen. It's our local environment and the children should learn about it. We've always known it was there because it's part of our nature walk up through the woods, but I think most of them thought of it as just a cave where they played."

Glentrool is a small village near the southern edge of the vast Galloway Forest Park, where tourists often outnumber locals, and all the primary children are taught in one class by Mrs Kay. The older ones took part in the White Cairn project.

"I don't know why it's called White Cairn, because it's grey," says Cassie, aged nine. "Just a load of stones made into a little cave. But it looks like somebody built it and I think the people who did would have worn furry clothes and have long hair."

Emma, aged 10, says: "The cairn was used to bury bodies 5,000 years ago. They used to burn them in pots outside of it."

Ronan Toolis, an archaeological interpretation officer with Solway Heritage, says: "White Cairn tells us something about the first farming communities and their links with their ancestors. It's a special place that was sacred to the community. There's something tangible, and it's much easier for the kids to think about it when they're at the site rather than in the classroom.

"The children walked out to the cairn with me one morning and measured and recorded it as an archaeologist would. Then theylooked for the smallest stone and the largest one, to get an idea of the contribution of the children of the community, who would have lifted and carried the smaller stones. Then they drew a picture of how they thought the cairn might have looked, and we played a word game."

"We looked at the stones," says Paddy, aged 11, "and we got slates and we all wrote down a word that would describe White Cairn. And we made a poem."

Afterwards, when the panel had been erected, the children were invited back for a more formal event.

The panel includes a picture of the cairn painted by a local parent as it might have looked with Neolithic people performing a religious ritual. The children have written their impressions: "Mysterious Stone-age Farming Bones Useful Stones."

Douglas Blane

Solway Heritage, Campbell House, The Crichton, Bankend Road, Dumfries DG1 4ZB. Tel: 01387 247543. Solway Heritage has enhanced access to many sites of interest around Dumfries and Galloway

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