Bog standard is excellent - and schools love it

16th October 2009 at 01:00
A 300-year-old Shetlander almost lost to his native soil is back on display to inspire pupils

When the person who became known as Gunnister Man drew his last breath near a peat bog in Shetland, he could never have imagined that, some 300 years hence, his remains would go on display in a museum. Now they are the focus of a major conference, a book and an exhibition being seen by hundreds of Shetland pupils and college students.

It was in May 1951 that two Shetlanders cutting peat in remote Gunnister, Northmavine, found what at first appeared to be a set of men's clothing and other artefacts. Closer examination showed that, although the outfit was remarkably well preserved, the body that had once inhabited it had been consumed by the peat - apart from a few fragments of bone, some hair inside his hat, and some fingernails and toenails in his gloves and socks.

Now the original remains, borrowed back from the National Museum of Scotland until November 1, are on show in Shetland for only the second time, beside a new reconstruction of his entire outfit.

Staff at Shetland Museum have been working on the Gunnister Man project for two-and-a-half years and have designed an education and events programme which has been inspiring everyone from P1s to Higher art pupils as well as Shetland College students, academics from around the UK and local knitters.

The response to the 90-minute schools' workshops, based on A Curriculum for Excellence and aimed at P4 to S2, has been "amazing", said the museum's lifelong learning officer, Kirsty Clark.

"Schools are loving it," she says. "We sent off the first mailshot in May, explaining that the workshops would focus on the mystery surrounding Gunnister Man. Although the clothing and coins found in his purse date his time of death to around 1700, we still don't know if he was a native Shetlander, what he did for a living and how he came to be buried in a peat bog rather than a church yard.

"We explained that children coming to the workshops would play the part of police detectives wanting to `close' a cold case that had puzzled them for years. They would get to examine the evidence the experts had looked at and come to their own conclusions about the mystery of Gunnister Man."

Museum staff made sure that, by the time schools returned after the summer holidays, an education pack was already there, featuring suggestions for pre-visit activities such as the Rubbish Bin Game and a DVD starring a real Shetland policeman explaining the background to "the case" from a mocked-up Gunnister Man incident room.

"Teachers have done all the prep work before a visit," says Ms Clark. "They have already divided their pupils into teams and chosen the detective inspector, the head of police records, the forensic scientist, official spokesperson and CID officer who all have particular jobs to do."

The evidence pupils get to look at includes not just the clothes Gunnister Man was wearing when he died (including knitted items that were definitely made in Shetland), but the foreign coins found in his purse, plus a horn ink well, a feather quill and a piece of silk ribbon which, among other items, were discovered in his pockets.

Could he have been a travelling salesman who died of hypothermia and was buried in the bog by passers-by? Or could he have been murdered? The pupils must decide.

Shetland schools have also been using the Gunnister Man workshops and exhibition, which opened last month, to complement existing projects.

Lynne Wilson, an S1 social studies teacher at Whalsay School, says: "We were already studying Denmark's famous Tolund Man bog body to illustrate the detective work and jigsaw puzzle aspects of history, and Gunnister Man is an excellent example of that - and a local one."

Pupils from an S2 English class at Scalloway School are using the Gunnister Man mystery as inspiration for a crime-writing project sparked off by a talk from Anne Cleeves, prize-winning author of a quartet of crime novels set in present-day Shetland.; T: 01595 695057.

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