Castles are for learning too

18th August 2006 at 01:00
Apart from the trainers peeping below her flowing skirt, nine-year-old Caitlin Dow is every inch the sixteenth century Scottish servant, dark hair tucked away neatly under a white cotton bonnet.

"I'm supposed to be dressed up as Janet Wilkie, who was an important servant and had an important job looking after the household here," Caitlin tells us as our tour group begins assembling at the entrance of Claypotts Castle in Dundee.

The owners of the castle are in their finery at her side - Lord and Lady Strachan, known to their P5 classmates as nine-year-old Kassam Kassam and Rachael Lyall, with their daughter, Stevie Arnott.

"And I'm a princess," whispers nine-year-old Stevie, with a momentary disregard for historical accuracy.

Lopsided veils get a last-minute adjustment and Caitlin begins the tour:

"This castle was built in the late 1500s, over 400 years ago. The people who built the castle had to consider some things which were important to them.

"If you were building a castle for you and your family 400 years ago which two things would be most important to you?"

The group of a dozen parents and teachers listen attentively and offer hesitant suggestions.

Claypotts Castle sits improbably on the edge of a modern Dundee housing development. And today's tour is a dress rehearsal for 24 pupils who have been training to act as junior guides for primary pupils visiting the castle.

The children belong to P5 and P6 at Claypotts Castle primary, a school formed recently from the merger of two local primaries. Children and parents chose to rename the new school after this castle near their school, so it's fitting that they are becoming experts on their namesake.

Historic Scotland launched the junior guide initiative after piloting the idea at Linlithgow Palace, near Edinburgh, with pupils from Linlithgow primary. A third venture is to be launched at Doune Castle, near Stirling, with pupils from Doune primary.

"I would say their confidence has been given a great boost with this. And they have had to be responsible for their own learning for this because it's been done in a short space of time," Sally Byers, Claypotts Castle primary's P4-P7 depute head, says.

The children were supported and trained for their new roles by Karen Kyle McKenzie of Illuminate UK, which uses actors and heritage experts to bring history to life in education and tourism. "We did drama workshops with the children to help them know how to present themselves, as well as learning about their heritage at the same time. It's a real crossover between drama and history for them," she says.

Today's costumes are on loan from Historic Scotland and similar clothing will be organised for the children when they start tours after the summer holidays.

During the tour, we learn how the Strachan family hid their salt from the servants in a hole in the fireplace (salt was very expensive circa 1600), and how they entertained themselves without The X Factor or The Simpsons (lute playing and card games).

Douglas Wilson, Historic Scotland's district visitor services manager, is delighted with his young recruits and presents their certificates during a ceremony in the castle's Great Hall. "I think this definitely gives them an impression of what is on their doorstep. Ideally we would like to do this throughout Scotland," Mr Wilson says afterwards.

And the time travellers pack up their flowing robes and velvet suits and veils and get back into the T-shirts, trousers and trainers of 2006, until the next time.

Schools interested in the tour should contact Sally Byers on 01382 436956.

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