Creepy, unjust and lots of fun;Comment;Opinion

26th January 1996 at 00:00
If I had to define the ideal teaching pack, it would be both open-ended and open-begun. Focused without compromising on student-centredness, it would be clearly related to the curriculum. To have a lasting impression, it would also cover working outside the classroom, meeting new people, considering new ideas and challenging assumptions. In the middle of the metropolis we know as Cromarty, stands the restored Courthouse. Its centrepiece is a reconstruction of the trial of Ann Hossack, who was accused of stealing yarn from the local hemp factory.

The scene is played out by computer-controlled animated figures while visitors fill the public gallery to hear the tale unfold.

This simulation has proved enormously popular, and many classes of children have watched and used the associated activity sheets to explore the old methods of justice. The latest Courthouse development encourages classes to participate more and to reach their own conclusions based on the facts in a real case. It uses a workpack based on the trial of Christian Macdonald in 1841, produced by teachers and the Courthouse staff. Christian's husband's business was failing because local landowners were not paying their bills and Christian and Hugh could not settle their own debts. When their goods were auctioned to recover any assets, Christian is alleged to have thrown dirt and coals at one of the men removing her property. The case is well documented, but the outcome is not recorded, providing a perfect basis for children to make their own decisions.

It's often useful to have a trial run (no pun intended), and local pupils put it through its paces. The children had been briefed in school about the difference between a procurators fiscal and a sheriff clerk, and when I arrived they were being kitted out. The wealthy landowners had cravats while Joni, the Cromarty lass who played out the role of Christian Macdonald, donned a crumpled mutch and a long cotton skirt. The hardware merchant, instrumental in bringing the case, looked truly timeless, the jogging bottoms and trainers of everyday life contrasting with the velvet coat and top hat supplied by the Courthouse.

I sat in the public gallery, between teachers and Animatronix figures, displaced for the day, but contributing to the serious atmosphere in the court. While the case was enacted, the youthful jury were totally caught up in the proceedings, and I had great trust in their commitment to deliver a just verdict. They weren't the slightest bit fazed by the occasional "Whoops, I've gone to the wrong page" of a participant, and I'm sure most procurator fiscals do it regularly. The sequence that most affected the members of the jury, and those in the public gallery, was when Christian had to swear her oath and stated clearly that she could not read.

When all the evidence had been produced, and the witnesses had given their statements, the jury were asked to consider their verdict. Along the two benches, they clustered and whispered excitedly, while the public gallery spoke of the educational value. These children were weighing up the values of an old legal system that only allowed men on a jury, and only landowners at that. A woman in the dock against the full weight of an unjust judicial system; this is education indeed. How could they resist the temptation to declare her innocent?

But you know how children are. Their verdict came in no time at all, and on this occasion, Christian Macdonald was found guilty and sentenced to 18 months' imprisonment. As we filed out of the court, I couldn't resist the opportunity to ask the jury what their considerations had been in reaching the verdict. "Well, you see," came the reply, "we wanted to take her down to the cells, because it's creepy down there; so we had to find her guilty." Obvious really, and a telling comment on hidden judicial agendas, no doubt.

Any school interested in the workpack should telephone David Alston at Cromarty Courthouse (01381 600418).

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