Homes burn, locals flee, the High Court passes judgment ..

5th March 2010 at 00:00
Drama workshops bring history lessons to life for East Lothian pupils

At Dirleton Primary, East Lothian, it is the year 1814 and Patrick Sellar, a factor employed by the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland, is busy overseeing orders to evict 15,000 crofters from the land to make way for 200,000 sheep.

His men are burning houses and Sellar shows no mercy when the people plead with him to spare the home of a bedridden woman who is nearly 100. "She has lived too long, let her burn," the tenants hear him say, before he personally sets fire to her thatched roof.

Meanwhile, in London, the Duke of Sutherland is ordering "the finest wine" to accompany his exquisite dinner.

Teacher Helen Gordon's composite class of 13 P6s and seven P7s are learning about the Highland Clearances through drama. Spirits are running high, and the children do not hold back in telling Sellar and the five men paid to burn the homes how they feel.

Leading the session, Shonagh Davidson, one of two drama teachers employed by East Lothian Council arts service, is in role as Sellar.

The arts service, based in Brunton Theatre in Musselburgh, offers schools a range of drama workshops that complement the curriculum.

The Highland Clearances workshops - two 90-minute sessions - focus on the story of Strathnaver, giving pupils an opportunity to connect with Scotland's past, and bring history to life. The Highland clearances are generally covered in P5-6, with relevance to social studies and history.

Sellar and his men carried out some of the most brutal evictions, and Sellar was tried for murder.

Back to the action and many crofters have walked 50 miles to give their evidence at the High Court in Inverness, in front of a judge and jury handpicked by the Duke of Sutherland - landowners, dukes and duchesses. One after another, witnesses step forward to give their impassioned testimony. Despite all the evidence mounted against him, Sellar walks free.

Again in her role as Sellar, Ms Davidson invites the crofters to explain how they feel.

"I hate you. You burned our houses down," says one. "You make me sick," says another. "I can't even look at you," says a third. And an incensed boy pipes up: "This fist is going into this face."

Luckily for Ms Davidson, he doesn't carry out the threat. She asks pupils how they knew what to say, since they had no script.

"You just said what came into your head," replies one girl. "It's like you're actually one of those people."

"They're a lively bunch," says Ms Davidson. "You can see they're just so angry. Drama's often used as a stimulus. This sort of drama brings out the introverted child also, not just the vociferous ones. They're responding to me in-role. You're in the story.

"This morning, one said: `How dare you call yourself a Christian?' They said, `You pretended you were nice but you've got a cold heart.'"

There is clear consensus among the pupils: drama makes learning more fun; they can move about and connect with the people they're learning about; it is much more interesting and memorable than reading about the same events in a book.

"Acting it out, I felt really sad for the people," says P6 pupil Chloe Doris.

"I think it makes it easier to remember the facts," says Lilly McPake, also P6.

Ms Gordon observes the session with interest. "What the kids say, says it all," the class teacher adds. "Teaching through drama hits everything at once: they're learning, they're active, they're engaging, they remember it. They're able to find within the drama something they're comfortable with. Nobody was forced to do anything. I would use drama for any curricular area."

Marjory Sweeney, the other drama teacher employed by the council, explains: "The drama is an exploration of what happened, trying to get the children to question the different attitudes and roles people had at the time. We take on a part to get the children to challenge us, to try to get to the bottom of what happened and why, to deepen understanding and raise questions.

"It's using drama to explore history and bring it to life. We ask the children how they feel about a statue to the Duke of Sutherland, saying what a wonderful man he was. We then explore what happens to the people, looking at emigration and where they ended up. It is very emotive."

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