Keeping up with the Picts
THINK MUSEUMS and Pictish stones and the words "solemnity" and "silence" spring to mind.
Substitute Montrose museum and add a group of P3 pupils from Lochside Primary -and listen to the shattering of preconceptions. The dignified inner spaces of the compact neo-classical building resound as never before with the voices and laughter of around 40 excited children, as they come face-to-face with Fergus the Pict.
Daubed with blue woad (dye) and sporting a stifling wool tunic and matching flowerpot hat, Fergus "looks funny", as one little girl shouts out. But the living history actor brings such pride and passion to his subject that the children soon settle and listen to the captivating details of his day-to-day existence.
The tall, bearded Billy Connolly lookalike talks about his clothes, food, tools and household implements, explaining how they differ from today's equivalents. His spoons and drinking tumblers are made from bone and horn, and not plastic, as one child suggests. His horse-skin slippers provoke indignant cries, but his explanation that the horse was old and no part of it was wasted, is accepted.
"We recycle absolutely everything," Fergus explains. "I believe people are starting to recycle things again - it's good that you've finally caught up with the Picts."
Fergus is Jock Ferguson, one of a growing band of historical role-players.
His strong interest in all things Pict makes him a valuable addition to any schools project. (He also does Romans, Robert the Bruce and the Jacobites.) Pauline Meikleham, Angus Council's education officer (expressive arts), explains: "Jock is unique in that he brings the total package with him. He has the personality to engage young children and we liked his ideas about how to bring out the aspects of the Picts that are important at the P3 stage, that is, who they were, where they lived and how they lived, together with references to our present-day culture."
Among Jock's personal collection of artefacts are clothes, accessories, musical instruments, tallow candles, stones and carving implements, and a mini-arsenal including longbow and arrows, axe, knives and swords.
"I've spent a fortune on genuine artefacts and decent copies and I usually end up giving half of them away," he laughs. "I created Fergus as the antidote to misconceptions about hate and death and war. He is simply an 8th-century farmer with the usual family concerns, rather than some warrior without an army. Hopefully, these eight-year-olds now know more about the Picts than I did at 30."
Back in storytelling mode, Fergus picks two "Picts" to help re-enact the story of Dev and Tal, who oust unwelcome Roman occupiers by hiding at night and simulating with a hunting horn the mournful howls of the legendary Pictish beast.
The epic tale engages the children with real-life local references, such as the White Caterthun Hill Fort, and their sense of place is reinforced by Fergus's concluding words: "You are from the people who made these stones and lived and worked on this land; find out more about the Picts, ask questions and come back to look at the exhibition in more detail."
School visits cost pound;75. Contact Jock Ferguson: 01337 870233; email@example.com LOCHSIDE FEEDBACK:
"He knows his stuff and delivers it at the children's level. The props are fantastic. We did a project on the Picts last term and we've also been to Pictavia, at Brechin, so today is a lovely, practical way of finishing it off," says Jane Mitchell, P3 class teacher.
"I enjoyed it. It was interesting," says Blair Collier, 8.
"He was really good at telling the story. I enjoyed hearing about the Picts. I like them and their stones and animals," says Beth Wheat, 7.
"I liked his face paint and all the weapons he had. The story was good," says Logan Sword, 7.
"The Picts are cool. They get to feed animals and carve stones. I think the Pictish beast is a slobbery, yucky monster," says Ebony Leith, 8.