James Wilson - a man for all seasons

30th October 2009 at 00:00
How the journal musings of a farmer in the late 19th century sowed the seeds of inspiration in one Aberdeenshire school

James Wilson had a huge impact on Fordyce Primary. For a term-and-a- half, he was involved in almost every piece of work done by older pupils in the small Aberdeenshire school. He spurred them to produce pop art, grow their own food and find their poetic muse. The impact on pupils low in confidence was "profound".

But James Wilson is not a teacher or an educational guru; he is not even alive. He was a farmer who kept detailed and often lyrical journals about life in the late 19th century. They remained with his descendants for decades afterwards, unknown to the wider world, until reaching the attention of a professor of history education.

His delight at this "unique" discovery led to the belated publication, in 2008, of Journal of My Life and Everyday Doings. Now it has become an inspiration for pupils living next to the land he toiled on more than a century ago.

The journal, from 1879-1892, was published by the Scottish History Society as part of a CD-Rom called Ruled by the Seasons. Far from being a dry trawl through history and agriculture, it made a "profound impact" during trials with Fordyce's P5-7 composite class, according to Sheila Smith, headteacher of the 20-pupil school. Boys, several of whom live on farms, had responded particularly well, and it helped engage looked-after children, who make up a third of the class.

The project aimed to improve knowledge of food production and farming, but extended way beyond that. It began with a questionnaire about sources of food, which was "an eye-opener", says Mrs Smith; "many of the children had no real conception of where food came from, other than from Asda or Tesco".

Pupils were fascinated to pore over Ordnance Survey maps and Google Earth, and realise that Wilson's farm, at Deskford in Banffshire, was part of the local landscape they knew so well.

The excitement grew when they were visited by Edith Lowrie, Fordyce Primary's headteacher from 1968-1982 and Wilson's granddaughter, now in her 90s. It was, recalls Mrs Smith, a "wonderful opportunity" to learn more about the old pictures of farm life they had seen on the CD-Rom and quiz Mrs Lowrie about her childhood.

Ruled by the Seasons was an ideal tool for bringing the cross-curricular aspirations of A Curriculum for Excellence to life, claim Mrs Smith and her colleague Lesley Mair.

Pupils improved language skills by musing in personal diaries, like Wilson. They wrote a class poem, having learned that Wilson wrote verse inspired by Banffshire's nature and landscape.

Religious and moral education was covered, since Wilson's faith influenced his writing. The local minister came to the school every week to talk about Christianity and took pupils to Fordyce Church, a totally new experience for them.

In art, the pupils produced Andy Warhol-style prints of farms and tractors, and clay tiles of farm cottages and horses.

In home economics, they made applique cushions depicting farm scenes. They baked bread and oatcakes, discovering the pleasure of food made with one's own hands. Outside, they built a greenhouse from recycled plastic bottles, and grew tomatoes, chillies, courgettes and mushrooms.

By learning about the area's past, through details from the 1881 census and vintage film of old farming practices included on the CD-Rom, pupils gained a powerful appreciation of how life had changed in an area largely given over to holiday homes.

Peter Hillis was the Strathclyde University professor who hit gold. While researching 19th-century church and people in the Fordyce and Portsoy parishes, he learned of the journal stored away by Wilson's granddaughter, Edith Lowrie.

"I think the appeal lies in Wilson's entries in his journal, many of which are beautifully written," says Professor Hillis. "Also, he describes the time-honoured practices of farming as ruled by the seasons, from ploughing through to harvest, and in many ways this takes the reader and pupil back to his or her roots.

"His journal is very unusual, if not unique: many farmers kept and keep a diary, but I have not come across any in either Scotland or the USA which include a journal, poetry, a short story and lectures."

The CD-Rom was also trialled at St Joseph's Primary in Helensburgh, and feedback was almost as good, despite the distance from Aberdeenshire, says Professor Hillis.

The range of media and focus on independent learning has universal appeal, but Wilson's astonishingly vivid accounts of a time long gone make it a one-off.

- Ruled by the Seasons is being sent free to every school in Scotland.

A RURAL IDYLL - Extract from James Wilson's journal, April 4, 1881

The sun had been set for half an hour behind the hill of Maud and the curtain of night was drawing its folds of darkness over the earth. Scarcely a breath of wind stirred the air and as I stood on the old dyke beside the peat stack and gazed around me, I beheld what to my eyes seemed a most beautiful picture, and listened to what my ears reckoned the sweetest music . Over the Clunehill could be seen the sea lying so calm and still like a glassy mirror . while far away in the distance the Sutherland hills could be dimly discerned their towering heads still capped with snow.

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