A year-long cultural beanfeast is taking Highland schoolchildren out of their comfort zones and involving them in activities such as ballet, bridge building, broadcasting and Gaelic song and literature
the last-minute cancellation of the Hogmanay hootenanny meant Edinburgh revellers lost out on more than just the Pet Shop Boys. A whole year of Highland culture was due to be launched that night with a bang.
"Our film was going to be shown on the big screens in Princes Street, just after the fireworks," says Fiona Hampton, director of Highland 2007.
But the year-long celebration of culture had already gained so much momentum that it was not slowed in the slightest by a brisk breeze and a dash of dampness on the first day. Extensive plans and preparations are now coming to fruition in schools across Highland.
"From the start, we wanted a strong focus on young people," says the director. "So every school cluster has pound;20,000 to spend on cultural activities chosen from a 'menu of opportunities'. The idea is that pupils should step out of their comfort zones and try something new."
One school cluster is working with the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, to create a Highland constellation in the night sky. A Gaelic project with published writers will culminate in The Book of Young Gaels. Pupils can build a bridge with civil engineers, create a fashion show from recycled materials, or design a dream home that is kind to the environment. They can sample new sports. They can try opera singing, ballet dancing, film making, theatre and circus skills.
A wide range of organisations, from Scottish Ballet to the Royal College of Surgeons, is working with Highland 2007 to deliver activities across six cultural strands - arts, heritage, environment, sport, science and language.
"We are offering 80 activities to schools," says Ms Hampton. "We are also collaborating with BBC Radio Scotland to provide equipment and training to groups of pupils in every cluster, who will then become reporters and reviewers of Highland 2007."
Radio Scotland has been working with pupils in schools for four years through a project called Sound Town, says senior producer Pennie Latin:
"Each year we adopt a community and build a studio in its school. The pupils learn all about broadcasting and get immersed in our work by taking part in a wide range of programmes that go out from their school.
"What we're doing this year across Highland springs from that experience of getting pupils involved in broadcasting."
For some schools, the training began even before the year did, says Chris Rzuchowska, sole teacher of music at Dornoch Academy: "Our pupils have been out and about, interviewing anything, basically, that stood still long enough. The training was great. Eight of our pupils right down to S1 got it - so that we don't lose all the skills when senior pupils leave. I was trained along with them.
"Every school receives a hard-disc recorder and a digital camera. As well as learning how to use these, we also learned how to carry out and edit interviews."
One memorable lesson was the impact skilful editing can have on the final product, says Ms Rzuchowska: "In normal speech there are lots of pauses, and people saying 'Um' and 'Ah'. We learned how to get from that to a really fluent interview that has much more impact. The kids picked up on it very quickly."
While the BBC will enlist trained schoolchildren across Highland for news programmes and features, Dornoch Academy has its own plans for their newly acquired skills - plans that will, says Ms Rzuchowska, hit most of the six cultural strands in Highland 2007.
"My main project is song-hunting, with the kids going out to find old songs about the local community. They've already turned up a song about herring-fishing in Embo, one of the last Gaelic-speaking enclaves on the east coast. There's a song written years ago about the local golf course.
There are old songs about distilling whisky way up in the hills," she says.
Pupils are trawling the memories of family members first. "But many of them know neighbours who go back a long way, or maybe an old crofter over the hill who brings his accordion to the New Year party."
Once the musical material has been gathered, the youngsters will go out, accompanied by the newly trained group, to record the music and take photographs of the area, its occupants, artefacts and activities.
"If there is no song from a particular area, the pupils will find a story from its history, and write their own song," says Ms Rzuchowska. "By August the kids will have learned all these songs, and we will put on a big concert in Dornoch Cathedral, with a video backdrop of the photographs they have taken."
At the end of the year, a compact disc of the songs and a book produced by Dornoch pupils will be launched at the local history museum.
"It is an ambitious project," admits Ms Rzuchowska. "But it's only one aspect of our involvement with Highland 2007."
There will also be a concert of as many Gaelic singers as can be persuaded to take part, and a continental market will be graced by Dornoch pupils demonstrating Scottish country dancing.
"We have a large bird survey under way, with pupils observing birds over the year using binoculars and books from Scottish Natural Heritage. At the end of it, they will produce a leaflet for visitors to the town."
The impact of Highland 2007 on Dornoch schools will be sustained beyond the year itself, Ms Rzuchowska believes. Song-hunting has already sparked interest in community history and heritage, and could lead to future work with national museums.
Bird-watching has wide appeal and will lead to further projects: "We are on a major flight path for migrating birds into Scotland. We can look out our classroom window and see the geese arriving in autumn and leaving in spring. It's a glorious sight.
"Our associated primaries are getting involved in projects, and the whole thing fits nicely with the new 3-18 approach to the curriculum. Big projects that run for a year are ideal for encouraging people to work together across subjects and age groups. They are a wonderful way to break down barriers."