In bed with the ghosts of Dalguise;Opinion;News and opinion

3rd December 1999 at 00:00
IT IS not generally known that our primary 7 pupils, Beatrix Potter and First World War convalescent soldiers have something in common. Although separated in time, all of them have been in residence at Dalguise House just off the A9, north of Dunkeld.

Dalguise is an outdoor centre owned by PGL Ltd providing a variety of courses for all ages. Our P7 pupils have recently returned from our 16th annual outdoor week of abseiling, assault coursing, quad biking and enough other activities to delight the heart of any 11-year-old.

Miss Potter was there a century before us and spent many summers at this 300-year-old baronial mansion when the house was the seat of the Earls of Dalguise. She based the character of Mr Macgregor on the Dalguise gardener whose modern successor still has many rabbits to plague him.

During the 20th century the house has been in the hands of various owners but its most noble calling must have been as a centre for First World War soldiers recovering from the injuries they received in the Flanders trenches. The oak-panelled Great Hall was set out with beds looking out to calming views of the green Perthshire hills beyond. A wall plaque in the hall reminding us of this finest moment hangs near the chasing children who regard it with uncomprehending eyes when it is drawn to their attention.

Our outdoor week is a long-standing tradition. We try to give children the physical activities the school does not have the resources to supply on-site and, at the same time, provide the experience of living with their classmates. Dalguise is everything we could wish. It is only 30 minutes from home but we could be in another world.

The outdoor activities are central to the week but other less significant events also contribute to children's development. Living in dormitories can be exciting but it can demand patience when your friends talk into the night and deprive you of sleep or someone opens the back of your camera to see if the film really has wound on. The responsibility of handling spending money can be too much for some who have to learn not to blow it all on pound;5 worth of Mars bars in one night.

Others find the greatest difficulty in coping without their mothers' cooking and consider any new eating experience to be akin to poisoning.

The occasion is also a learning experience for the accompanying adults. It is difficult to raise any enthusiasm when feet are pattering past your room at 5.30am and you are on to a loser in trying to encourage tidiness in the dormitory. Your idea of a tidy dormitory and theirs will not agree and that includes girls too. A dense cloud of pinkness may ooze from their rooms but it is only a cover for complete devastation.

Heart-stopping moments are in regular supply, as on the occasion when I checked a boys' dormitory at 2am. Having squelched across the wet towels lying behind the door my torch flashed through the darkness on four separate bunk beds, each one empty.

As my panic increased and I heard my stuttering explanation to their parents as to why their sons had run away, there was a sudden grunt from a far corner. On a fifth bunk were all four missing bodies, limbs entangled and all happily sound asleep - which is where I left them. Their telling of ghost stories had become so realistic that they had found extra security together.

It does not take much imagination to make contact with the ghosts of Dalguise. Anyone sitting in the original garden summer house soon loses touch with the 20th century. After a few moments you can hear the 17th-century gentry alighting from the Dunkeld stagecoach or look over the shoulder of the seated Miss Potter and admire the precision of her scientific drawings.

From the window of the Great Hall an injured soldier gazes out trying to purge his memories of the Western Front. The distant shouts and screams of the children nudge you back to the present.

One day those same voices will be added to the ghosts of Dalguise as a memory of happy times.

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