It's not how long you've lived on the island, but how long you are home for

14th August 2009 at 01:00
South Uist, in the Outer Hebrides, has seen thousands of residents emigrate over the centuries. It was fitting, therefore, that one of its primaries should be the first winner of the Homecoming Award, created to mark the Year of Homecoming

The revelry of this year's Homecoming festival had a poignant undercurrent: it wouldn't have been necessary to invite the huge Scottish diaspora "home", had so many of their ancestors not been forced out during the Highland Clearances.

The people of South Uist feel the contrasting tug of emotions more keenly than most. Today's population of about 2,000 is several times smaller than its 19th-century peak, and finding ways to make a living remains a pressing issue to this day.

Iochdar Primary, then, was a fitting recipient of the Homecoming Scotland prize at this year's Scottish Education Awards. It had celebrated St Andrew's Day and the work of Robert Burns like so many other schools, but its overall approach was more nuanced than checking off a list of national icons.

P7 pupil Thomas Steele, 11, enjoyed studying "Tam O'Shanter", but another highlight for him was the census focusing on the depopulation of South Uist, as well as other parts of Scotland. "We didn't know how many people actually went away to Canada and America - I think it was over 3,000," he said. "I was quite surprised."

Far from wallowing in the travails of the past, children at the 65-pupil school were also shown how ingenuity and determination could overcome the present-day difficulties of living on a remote island.

They met people from thriving local businesses such as Salar Smokehouse - whose salmon ends up on the Queen's plate when she visits Scotland - and Hebridean Jewellery. "It taught children that a lot more goes on (on South Uist) than you think," said teacher Dorothy McVicar.

Pupils also worked with neighbouring schools and Learning and Teaching Scotland on a DVD to promote South Uist as a tourist destination. It's "making them think a bit", said Mrs McVicar: "What are they planning to do in the future? How are they going to promote themselves or the area? Are they going to come back?"

The sense of "home" is profound on South Uist, as she explained. She arrived on the island 15 years ago, but people don't ask how long she's lived there - they say, "How long are you home for?" "Cianalas" - or "longing" - is the subject of a local competition, through which the pupils have explored feelings of longing and homesickness through prose and poetry.

The school's Homecoming projects aroused strong feelings in P7's Kathryn MacAskill, who thinks it is hugely important to maintain links with distant relations abroad and learn about why they left. Even if she went to live elsewhere when she was older, she would make regular return visits and remain there in an emotional sense.

"You have to stay - it's part of you," said the 12-year-old.

Iochdar has made a broad canvas of Homecoming, from the international - the impact of Burns abroad - to the very local, when they learned traditional rhymes and how to make a famous cake particular to the island.

"The themes of Homecoming have not been added on or bolted on," said Mary MacInnes, the headteacher. "We've woven Scotland and our community together."

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