First Scottish student on prestigious scheme nails his credentials to the wall

12th June 2009 at 01:00

Having a 10-year-old son who is forever scattering nails around the garden could prove something of a pain. But when the same boy constructs a new garden gate, builds his sister a Wendy House and even fixes up his own skate-board ramp at the bottom of the garden, you would quickly realise a few stray nails was a small price to pay for his creative obsession with wood and joinery.

Now 24, John McRitchie is still obsessed with wood and joinery; and his creative skills have been recognised by his selection for the prestigious Prince of Wales's Building Apprenticeship programme. A student on the advanced craft course in the school of built environment at Carnegie College, Dunfermline, John is the first one from Scotland to be given a place on the scheme.

The eight-month vocational training programme, launched in October 2006, offers building craftspeople the opportunity to enhance and advance their design knowledge and experience in traditional and sustainable building crafts; in short, to become master craftspeople.

"John was the ideal candidate to put forward for the scheme," says Carnegie College tutor Fraser Walker. "He's just completing what is a specialist course here, as well as doing an HNC part-time at night school. Given his enthusiasm and commitment, he was the only and the obvious choice."

By his own admission, John "eats, sleeps and breathes construction". Leaving Dunfermline High with two Highers in craft and design and music - "the only subjects I was interested in" - he spent three years as an architect technician on the advice of a careers adviser who thought him "too good for mere joinery". Reverting to his first love, he became an apprentice with a local joiner before moving to a large house-construction firm which helped put him through college but did not satisfy his aesthetic needs.

"I took voluntary redundancy last December to pursue my craft. I've no interest in modern steel-framed buildings, all boxes and sheds, which lack character. I want to work at traditional carpentry and restore old buildings; and I want recognition for doing work meticulously. I take a lot of pride in it," he says.

During his eight months with the Prince's Trust, John will study planning and design in London and traditional carpentry techniques in Lincolnshire before working on "a small sheltered wooden structure" in Ellon Castle Gardens, in Aberdeenshire. After that, he will do a stint at Windsor Castle on an as yet unspecified project.

"I can't see anyone building castles again, except maybe an eccentric millionaire. So, we need to conserve our heritage. If I could spend my life working in old buildings like castles and churches, it would be a dream come true," he says.

Part of that dream would be to work on conserving the wooden interiors of Charles Rennie Mackintosh buildings. He describes himself as "a childhood enthusiast" of Mackintosh and has visited every Mackintosh building in the country. On completing the scheme, which will include business and entrepreneurship, John intends to start up his own business as a "timber conservation specialist".

"Both the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment and the Natural Heritage Training Group have identified a big shortage of skilled craftspeople in the construction industry, which poses a threat both to the heritage sector and to new building construction. So, I think there is a market for a specialist service like mine," he says.

Never one to let the grass grow under his feet, John also reads widely in his own time to keep up with technological developments and to teach himself as much as he can about eco-friendly construction. "I intend to build an eco-friendly wooden house, hopefully from Scottish Oak, to live in with my partner and our wee girl. I've been looking at plots of land and I have one in mind," he says.

This may seem a huge ambition for one so young, but John has already built a three-roomed log cabin with upstairs space.

"I built it for friends who wanted a log cabin in their garden. It did come in kit form but I adapted the design, putting in roof windows, for example. Fellow students and tutors came to see it and no one could believe I built it without the help even of a journeyman."

John's eco-friendly approach is certainly in keeping with the ethos of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, which is "to improve the quality of people's lives by teaching and practising timeless and ecological ways of planning, designing and building".

The apprenticeship scheme covers crafts ranging from stonemasonry and thatching to stained glass, carpentry and roofing and tiling.

"Everyone is delighted the first successful Scottish applicant for the scheme is a Carnegie student, particularly as only 11 places were available," says Dave Spence, assistant head of the school of built environment at Carnegie College.

"John will be the first student in Scotland to gain the new VQ Level 3 in heritage skills, which the scheme offers, and it's thanks to his commitment that he has been given this opportunity of a lifetime."

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