Challenges for body and mind

2nd July 2004 at 01:00
Outward-bound activities help to build character as well as skills, but you can take them a step further by doing it all in Gaelic, Eleanor Caldwell reports

The flip chart diary at the Loch Eil outward-bound centre, seven miles from Fort William, could test your language skills. It reads: 0700 ag eirigh, 0800 bracaist.

For 11 pupils from Condorrat Primary and Greenfaulds High in Cumbernauld, a week of team building and strenuous activities in the Highlands is being run entirely in Gaelic.

Outdoor instructor and Gaelic speaker Donald Morris was inspired by seeing young Europeans using outward-bound courses to improve their English. He introduced Gaelic courses in 2002 and some of the children are returning for their second visit.

Nearly a third of the pupils at Condorrat Primary attend the school's Gaelic education unit and learn all their subjects in Gaelic. However, for the seven P7 pupils and four S1-S3 pupils, who are already fluent, the outward bound course introduces a new range of vocabulary, with newts and tadpoles to spot and harnesses and knots to secure.

Following an overnight expedition that culminated in a remote bothy with a traditional ceilidh of impromptu storytelling, singing and dancing, the group come together to learn raft-building skills, initially indoors.

As the youngsters work in small groups, building model rafts, their discussion is almost entirely in Gaelic. Mr Morris interjects with an occasional English phrase and one boy is a new Gaelic learner, so helpful English words are thrown in for his benefit, but he seems to have a confident grasp of the language and asks others for help in Gaelic.

Once the models are built and discussed, the groups head for the beach to make a real raft with plastic barrels, logs and ropes. The Greenfaulds High team is supervised by their Gaelic teacher, D...naidh Clelland, while Condorrat Primary's is watched by Mary MacMillan, who teaches the P4-P6 Gaelic stream. The Gaelic flows thick and fast.

Finally, both teams lift their rafts, count to three, in Gaelic of course, and stride waist-deep into the icy waters of Loch Eil. As a rescue boat putters around a little way off shore, Mr Morris explains the rules of their race. It will only be won when the teams have paddled out and circled a small dinghy, come back to shore and fully dismantled their rafts.

During 20 minutes of frenetic paddling, advice is shouted in Gaelic across an increasingly choppy loch. Only once does Mr Morris throw in a cautionary note in English to Miss MacMillan's group: "You'll all need to paddle harder. You're going backwards!"

When groups are at the Loch Eil centre, they become members of a clan for the week. The clan Cameron from Condorrat Primary and Greenfaulds High happily co-exists with a non-Gaelic speaking clan from Hutcheson's Grammar in Glasgow who are undertaking their own activities programme. The two come together in a daily clan gathering when plans for the day are discussed, in English.

The Gaelic speaking group also hosts an informal presentation to a group of Gaelic speakers from Fort William. "It gives the kids the chance to talk about what they've been doing," says Mr Morris.

The children fill in learning diaries each night, addressing questions such as "What is communication?" and recording their daily exploits. Some secondary pupils use the diaries for Standard grade folio work. Mr Clelland says the amount and quality of pupils' work in the diaries is excellent and might not have been achieved in the classroom.

The pupils enthuse about the character- and team-building activities and say that it makes no difference that it's all done in Gaelic. "I've been speaking it since I was in P1, so it's just normal for me," says one boy, who adds that speaking French is "much, much harder".

Mr Morris, who is employed by the development agency Comunn na G...idhlig, is keen to extend the Gaelic outward-bound courses. He sees scope for running expeditions for pupils to link the language to the land. More Gaelic-speaking instructors are required to add to his one-man team. But the time is right, he believes, to exploit the countryside and outdoor activities for the normalisation of Gaelic.

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