Net gains from the Cairngorms
From the moment the pupils cycle up the long driveway to the imposing Victorian hunting lodge, it's clear this will be no ordinary school trip. Set in the heart of the Cairngorms National Park, Mar Lodge offers guests the opportunity to live like a Highland laird, amid some of the finest scenery Scotland has to offer.
It once topped the "Best of Scotland" list of places for house parties. This week pupils from three Aberdeenshire schools are enjoying the freedom of the fine country house and the surrounding 72,000 acres of Mar Lodge Estate on Royal Deeside.
This inaugural Cairngorms outdoor adventure is a partnership project between the River Dee Trust, Cairngorms National Park, John Muir Trust, Aberdeenshire Council, sportscotland and the National Trust for Scotland, which owns Mar Lodge Estate.
They want children to have a better understanding of this wonderful resource on their doorstep - about the people who live and work in Cairngorms National Park and the organisations who manage it.
While working towards their John Muir Award, children from Banchory, Mearns and Mackie academies will also hear about recreational and employment opportunities within the park and about access, environmental and conservation issues.
So far they have been out on the hills for a demonstration of stalking and marksmanship organised by gamekeepers and they have had expert tuition on fly-fishing on the River Dee. It's the first time some of them have held a fishing rod or seen deer at such close quarters.
"The second day we went stalking deer - oh, it was brilliant," says 13- year-old Harry Souttar from Mearns Academy.
"We got to see the deer gutted . It was quite disgusting," he adds with boyish relish.
"Well I thought it was quite interesting," his friend Calum McGuigan chips in. "Because they were showing us the parts and how they actually get it ready for selling. And when we were out stalking, they were telling us about the gun and the techniques and what they do."
Now on day three, one group is defying a plague of midges to dismantle deer fencing and learning about careers and conservation work from the National Trust for Scotland. Another group is with the River Dee Trust, seeing how radio tracking gear works in the woods, searching for hidden tags using directional antennae with a portable software package.
They are learning how tags are used to monitor fish and about the range of employment rivers provide.
"Yesterday we were out and had them fishing just over here, talking about the life cycle of the salmon and caught some little fish to show them," says Adrian Hudson, a biologist for the River Dee Trust.
"We work actively on the river. The trust is involved in research and education, the fishery board is more involved in the enhancement and protection and development of the fishery," he says.
"There are also jobs as ghillies looking after anglers, there are jobs with SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency), looking after the broader picture - from the freshwater pearl mussels through to the vegetation on the river bank."
Teenagers like Sam Deddis, 14, from S3 at Banchory Academy want to be here because they enjoy being outside. "I liked the look of the whole trip," she says. This morning Sam has been braving the midges to take down deer fencing as part of the conservation work here.
"We've been doing a lot of fun activities like mountain biking and we're going to be biking and gorge walking. We've been taking down fencing and yesterday we did fly-fishing. I like the fly-fishing a lot - the fishing was good," she says.
This adventure is coordinated by project leader Susie McLarty, an Active Schools coordinator for Aberdeenshire, and an energetic fixer. She's making sure everything goes smoothly and that 28 pupils and their teachers are in the right place at the right time.
"Anything across the curriculum can be done in the national park," she says. "And I think children learn better because they're outside and they're probably taking in more information because they're enjoying themselves.
"This is about getting the kids into the outdoors and into the Cairngorms. They're doing the John Muir Award for the week - learning about the outdoors, about conservation, about employment in the outdoors. It's about which outdoor activities they can do and just having respect for the environment when they come out with their parents in the future."
Activities this week are geared to focus on the ethos of the John Muir Award, encouraging children to discover, explore, conserve and share their experiences of wild places.
"They're exploring, going out and about in the local area; discovering wildlife, fishing, gorge walking and mountain biking. They're discovering new things in fishing and stalking and sharing what they've learned in presentations on Friday when they present to the rest of the groups and their teachers," she adds.
Pupils are split into clans for competitive activities, like a Highland Games event last night, when kilted locals who run the Braemar Junior Games taught them how to toss the caber and ran a tug of war between pupils and teachers. They are also preparing blogs, videos and skits in the evenings to share their experiences and keep each other entertained.
Stuart Holley, 14, from Mackie Academy is looking forward to fishing. "This is my sort of thing. I'm quite outdoorsy and this is an outdoorsy sort of place. I haven't really been here much. When I normally come here, I'm just going through to go skiing."
The pupils are also meeting and seeing the work done by people who work in the Cairngorm National Park - like Alison Pitts, a ranger with the National Trust for Scotland, who is dismantling deer fences with them.
At this time of year heavily pregnant hinds are up in the hills, while younger males come lower down as far as the river. "We're taking some deer fencing down that's now superfluous, so it will enable the deer to go into the woodland for shelter," Ms Pitts explains.
She gave up a job in corporate marketing to move up from the south of England for this job. "I was in the office all the time or on the road quite a lot of the time in the car," she says. "I get less than half of what I used to get paid. It's definitely worth it - it's about the quality of life."
Down on the riverbank, S3 pupil Cameron Boyd from Mearns Academy describes what he has been doing. "I've enjoyed doing the fishing because I've never actually held a proper fishing rod. So I got to find out how to use a rod. I really like going out around Scotland and I am very excited we're going to be doing the gorge walking," says Cameron.
His twin Chloe is here too, sharing a room with her friend Rosie Charles, 15. The girls like staying in Mar Lodge despite the feeling they're under surveillance.
"Because it's a hunting lodge they've got mounts of the deer up our corridor and if we don't shut the door properly, the deer look in," says Rosie. "Yes and in my bed if you open the door - this morning I just saw the deer heads staring straight at me," says Chloe.
These girls love being outside: "I do a lot of outdoor activities with army cadets and so this just sounded like a good bit of fun to do gorge walking and that kind of thing," says Rosie.
Even on an overcast day like today with low-lying mist over the hills, this is a magical environment and the pupils' accommodation completes their experience. "It's quite modern for an old house - the showers and the plumbing," she says. "The showers are easier to work here than in Premier Inn - because I can't work them."
She is interested to find out about job opportunities: "I'd like working in an outdoor job because I don't think I could survive in an office - it's not for me. I like sports and physical activities, so I love being out of doors. It's been good fun. I don't know about everyone else, but I've had a good laugh."
Yes, deer - but it's not all fun and games
This is a new experience for teachers, too - and more upmarket than the usual dormitory-style arrangements on school trips.
They also see another side to children in a setting like this, says Kirsty Stevenson, who teaches PE at Mackie Academy. "I think this is amazing and it's just such a vast area, Mar Lodge Estate - and within it there are so many different landscapes.
"You've got the mountains and hills, you can see the snow on the high ones, then you have the low moorland next to the river and the forests - a bit of everything, all in this one area. And so many people don't know it's just on their doorstep."
It is a location with tremendous educational opportunities, which are being exploited across the range of activities this week.
"It's been a really good thing for them to do, because it's not all fun and games," says Lizzie Bush, a probationer PE teacher at Mearns Academy.
"They're learning a lot, too. It's getting them out of their own environment and they're having to mix with different kids they've never met before from other schools."
The living quarters are more rarefied than the usual school trip accommodation. Geography teacher Billy Bilsland has a room at the top of the main staircase with a Queen Anne four-poster bed and remarkable views out over the forest.
"I feel like I'm in a Charles Dickens novel," says Mr Bilsland, who teaches at Banchory Academy.
Tonight will be a bit more down to earth, though, with plans for a sleepout under the stars, after pupils build shelters in the woods and share stories round the campfire.
If it's raining, they may have to come inside. "And there are 2,345 deer heads in the ballroom," says 14-year-old Calum McGuigan from Mearns Academy. "It's full of skulls and we might be camping in there tonight - sleeping in the massive room of skulls," says his twin brother Sam.
Photo credit: Simon Price