Droving past gives pupils a richer perspective

2nd July 2010 at 01:00
When Crieff High moved to a new site, they looked back to the area's drovers to inspire a whole-school celebration of their heritage - as well as a new future

"Oh the joys of Curriculum for Excellence," says Christine Ross with a smile, as a couple of ramblers enjoying the sun on the single-track road look blank and shake their heads. We drive on, deeper into the Perthshire countryside, higher into the hills.

We are on a journey that explores the lives and times of the cattle drovers in Crieff and Strathearn. Mrs Ross, the headteacher, is taking me to see her young hikers and artists on the hillside, participants in an imaginative whole-school project to celebrate Crieff High's move to Strathearn Community Campus last November.

"Coming to a new campus, we were all looking to the future. But it was important, we felt, to bring our past along too," she explains.

"The droving history of Crieff is special to us. So we made it a whole- school experience. Everyone in every area of the curriculum has pulled together for this week and looked at everything through that theme. People tell me, though, that they didn't just add things on. They adapted what they were doing."

We start with the hikers. A party of final-year students and teachers, they look fit, tanned, and a little frayed at the edges - which isn't surprising since they've been walking for 12 days along the old drovers' road from Skye.

"Drovers from Skye used to bring their cattle to the market here in Crieff, explains Rachael Wilson. "That's a distance of over 160 miles."

In testament to the gruelling journey, Olivia Steele hitches up her trousers to reveal flip-flops and huge plasters on her feet. "Luckily we had a podiatrist with us," she says, "Some of us couldn't have done it without her."

Footcare was only one piece of the outside help which staff and students needed for the project, says Mrs Ross. "We've had loads of support - interest, goods, even money - from the community. We hadn't done anything like this before and didn't know if it could be done.

Getting pupils out and about in "classrooms without walls" featured strongly.

"We went on a geology walk and to a sheepdog demonstration. We looked at the drove roads around Loch Lomond.

"We have a group of cyclists still heading back from Skye. There's the painting class out now at a lovely site above the drovers' road. And our playgroup is out on campus now doing a walk."

While the wee ones have hands to hold around the school, the hikers had similar support all the way from Skye.

"It was hard," admits Euan O'Neill. "But we've all done Duke of Edinburgh, which helped. If anything, this was a bit easier because of the support team."

Not only did this small group of friends, brothers and volunteer teachers take much of the camping equipment off hikers' backs, they also prepared the campsite each evening, says technology teacher Michael O'Kane. "At one point they were putting up nine tents and a gazebo, then preparing the food."

Despite his rugged-looking kilt, boots and beard, technology teacher John McGarry admits his limitations: "I'm not a hill-walker and I'm 59, so I wouldn't have lasted two days with a tent and food for a fortnight on my back. I didn't know if I could do the walk, but I wanted to try. It was a wonderful opportunity. And I did bring something useful - my wife Geraldine, the podiatrist."

While the whole experience was memorable, the walkers say, there were high points that were hard to forget.

The variety of Scotland is one, says Ptolemy McKinnon. "You go from shore to ruggedness to mountains, then moors and pastureland and back to civilisation. It's so beautiful."

And the reception back at school left Alasdair Bendall with a lump in his throat, he says. "They had the whole school out and a pipe band and parents with champagne to greet us. It was tremendous to see how much people cared."

There was another special moment one night at the foot of a mountain by the side of a loch. "When they reached Ben Lawers, a team of their classmates had been trained to row them across Loch Tay," says Mrs Ross. "Our own pipe band was waiting for them at the other side.

"Then the Ardeonaig Hotel kindly hosted our music and drama students performing a show they'd created - a romantic tale of drovers in verse and music - starting at the lochside, then moving up to the hotel gardens, with the audience following. It was a beautiful evening, with parents and the community bringing hampers and sitting on the grass. There must have been 300 people."

The S4 students responsible for the script and performance say it was vital to learn a few facts before starting to write droving fiction.

"We looked up drovers in books and on the internet in music and drama," says Katie Stewart. "We were finding out what they did, how they lived. Then we wrote our play about a school trip to Skye, linking the past and the present."

They created a love story, says Louise Ruff. "We came up with the ideas about where we'd go and what would happen, and wrote our own scripts. Then the teacher put them together. We also had to write monologues."

With a little prompting from head of music David Griffiths, Louise gives a taste of a teenage girl, talking about a boy: "I hate him. He annoys me. He's arrogant, he's pompous and he's a jerk. I hate the way his eyes stare right into you and his hair flicks from side to side in the wind."

Like all good works of the imagination, the show gave glimpses into other lives and other times - especially for those who put it together, says pupil Angus Cramb.

"We learnt what the drovers' lives were like - how hard they worked to drive their cattle all that distance, down roads, across rivers," he says.

The performance itself, after all the preparation, was special, says Lottie van Grieken.

"The walkers canoed over Loch Tay to where we started our play. The amphitheatre was made of grassy banks with people sitting up on them. It was a different setting, a lovely atmosphere."

Getting every member of two separate classes to contribute to writing, production or performance took some organising, says Mr Griffiths. "But we value creativity here - and kids are all creative. Some might have more trouble in writing a song perhaps. But they'll all have a go."

Eventually it's time to set out and take a look at the painters, who have spent all morning in Glen Lednock. Finding them proves difficult at first but - like the new curriculum - it turns out to be just a matter of keeping going until the big picture emerges.

Above the dam at the head of the glen, a teacher and two outreach officers from the National Galleries of Scotland keep a watchful eye on the young artists dotted around the rocky hillside, looking across the valley to the drovers' road that runs beside the river.

"An important part of the new curriculum is bringing in experts whenever we can," says Mrs Ross. "This is our second time working with the National Galleries. It opens up whole new possibilities for staff and pupils."

The task today is for the young painters to capture what they see in the context of what they know, says senior outreach officer Robin Baillie. "We got them looking at modern and historical landscapes and asking questions: why did they choose that viewpoint; what are they saying about it; is it nature they're looking for; is it wilderness; is it fantasy or reality?

"Then they bring all that to their own painting: What do they see here? How does the dam fit with the idea of wilderness? There is a bit of a clash here, a bit of a contradiction - which is valuable for a painter."

You have to pick a feature and take a point of view, says Suzanne Issa. "We've not done much landscape painting before. So I did a base for it, then started putting in detail and shadows to make it three- dimensional."

While others have gone for the loch and valley view, Levi Angus has taken an offbeat angle. "I felt sorry for that pointless post over there. So I'm painting it with the hills behind. It's been an interesting week learning about the drovers and doing new stuff.

"One thing that sticks in my mind is a lesson we had on children and childcare in the time of the drovers. They really had a completely different life from ours."



Enlisting staff expertise is a key part of putting together such an ambitious project. Crieff High was fortunate that French teacher Ed Deeley is a qualified blue badge guide with the Scottish Tour Guides Association. He shared his inside knowledge with pupils during a school trip to the droving countryside around Lochearnhead and Loch Lomond.

"Droving was initially about cattle," he explains. "But demand for mutton and wool grew from about 1790, so from then on they started droving sheep.

"The Highlands were being opened up by Wade and Caulfield who were building bridges. So you didn't have to ford rivers any more - which you could do with cattle but not with sheep.

The school trip went through Doune, which is famous for making sporrans and pistols, he says. "It's also where John Witherspoon - who was instrumental in drafting the American Declaration of Independence - was imprisoned after the `45 uprising.

"There are so many interesting things to talk about besides just the droving."

Monday 14th June

- A group of students supported by school staff has been walking the droving roads from the Isle of Skye to Crieff. A second group sets off from Skye to follow the same route by mountain bike.

Tuesday 15th

- Walkers cross Loch Tay by boat to be greeted by pupils, staff and members of the school community.

- A show, created by the school's music and drama department, is performed beside the loch.

Wednesday 16th

- S3 pupils follow "In the Footsteps of the Drovers" on Loch Lomond-side and Strathyre, which includes watching a sheepdog demonstration at Aberfoyle.

Thursday 17th

- S4-5 classes on geology-themed walk to Devil's Cauldron, with Angus Miller from Edinburgh University.

- Walkers arrive back in Crieff.

Friday 18th

- Pupils of all ages hear Tales of the Drovers from author and storyteller Jess Smith.

- National Galleries of Scotland workshops. Paintings will go on display in the new campus next term.

- Mountain bikers return to Crieff.

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