Minstrels, banquets and days of chivalry

4th June 2004 at 01:00
Medieval manners, music and dress are just some of the lessons that have turned East Ayrshire pupils into knights and ladies, Deedee Cuddihy reports

East Ayrshire's cultural co-ordinator team has been stuck in a time warp that has taken them back to the Middle Ages. It started last year when composer Goff Richards was commissioned to write a work for East Ayrshire Schools' Brass Band and Choirs.

The work, "Minstrel in the Gallery", was inspired by the Dean Castle, outside Kilmarnock. Its mid 14th-century square keep features a great hall on the first floor, with a minstrels' gallery.

Building on the success of the commission, the team applied for Scottish Arts Council funding for an ambitious multimedia project for five- to 14-year-olds entitled Minstrel in the Gallery, which is now nearing completion. It has engaged hundreds of pupils in the authority's 46 primary and nine secondary schools in a range of cultural activities focused on the medieval era.

Heraldry resource packs which had previously been produced by East Ayrshire Council were used to support a series of When Knights Were Bold history workshops for more than 300 P7 pupils. The workshops, held at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock, were led by medieval knight Sir Hugo (aka Hugh Robertson), whose temporary quarters were furnished with stuffed animals, heraldic shields and the ancient flag from Dean Castle.

Sir Hugo, dressed in a chain mail vest, well-worn trousers and leather boots, has also been out touring schools, including Park special school in Kilmarnock, where last month a dozen 12- and 13-year-olds sat enthralled for more than an hour as he told of hunting, banquets and battles and other tales of life and chivalry in the Middle Ages.

When attending a banquet, he explained, a knight would always bow before asking a lady: "Dae youse fancy a dance?" Knights slurped soup straight from the bowl, burped out loud - "it wasn't considered rude at all" - and, because forks had yet to be invented, ate meat with their hands, throwing the bones into the fire, to the dogs in the hall or even at the servants if they didn't bring the wine fast enough.

As a follow up to the visit, the pupils will be making balsa wood models of trebuchets, the contraptions used in medieval siege warfare to launch stones or other missiles at the enemy. The pupils will be testing theirs with rubbers.

At Hillhead Primary in Kilmarnock, P6 pupils have been working with professional costume designer Veronica Rennie on a Mary, Queen of Scots theatre project (which stretches the medieval period). In three two-hour workshops, the pupils have found out what royalty wore in the 16th century, created models of their characters in costume and made masks to complement the costumes.

"The kids have worked really hard," says Ms Rennie. "This has given them an insight into what I do in real life and the results are great. Some have given Mary quite a funky look, a kind of Mary meets Christina Aguilera."

Headteacher Annette McKinlay is full of praise. "It's been great for the children having Veronica Rennie here," she says. "They've been working hard but it's also been fun and that's an essential element in learning."

A variety of teaching materials is being produced around the theme of medieval knights and ladies, using Dean Castle as the focus, which will enable children to learn more about social life in the Middle Ages.

John Wilson, the arts and education links officer for East Ayrshire and leader of the cultural co-ordinator team, says: "All the activities that have been taking place during the Minstrel in the Gallery project will generate sustainable resource materials to address and support the 5-14 expressive arts guidelines.

"As well as printed material such as scripts and lesson plans, particular emphasis is being placed on the development of visual and audio material on CD-Roms which will serve as a stimulus for creative writing, storytelling, art and design, drama, music and history.

"The arts are at the heart of the curriculum in East Ayrshire," he says "and that's a great way to engage kids in learning."

To bring the Minstrel in the Gallery project to a close, pupils will be using all they have learned to join in putting on a medieval-style banquet at Dean Castle next Friday. As to what the knights and ladies will be eating, Mr Wilson is not yet sure.

"I'm looking forward to telephoning the council's catering department and asking: 'What can you do for us in the way of a boar's head?' "

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