Northern manoeuvres

7th May 2010 at 01:00
Pupils in Scotland's far north are enjoying a unique opportunity to experience nature, history - and life in the armed forces

Cape Wrath is remote, even in Scottish terms. Although part of the mainland, it takes some getting to: a hike of several miles or an invariably wind-buffeted trip on a "ferry" - rather a grand description for a little boat that scoots back and forth across the Kyle of Durness.

Its isolation has to do with more than geography. Some 25,000 acres are off limits to hikers and day-trippers at certain times of year, as they provide the setting for one of Europe's most important military training ranges. This north-west tip of Scotland is the only place on the continent where army, air and naval forces can practise manoeuvres simultaneously.

An ongoing project is building a bridge of understanding between Ministry of Defence personnel and the tiny, scattered school communities that inhabit the other side of the kyle. Pupils are learning about a hidden world on their doorstep; soldiers are being confronted with a pink armoured vehicle and gentle reminders not to fire at little pieces of history.

The project began after the Cape Wrath Training Centre - known locally as Capeside - was surveyed by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in August 2008. It recorded traces of a Norse farm building, the remains of a hunting lodge and defences dating from the Second World War and the Cold War.

The subsequent Defending the Past project - funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Defence Training Estate, which runs MoD training areas - will have run for about nine months by the time it finishes with a celebratory event in September. While local schools have worked with the MoD in the past, it has never been on such a sustained and regular basis.

This project has allowed P4-7 pupils from Durness Primary and S1-2s from Kinlochbervie High to see inside the MoD range - used by Nato troops and their allies, as well as the United Nations - and come up with ideas for how its heritage should be preserved. They are also helping members of the local community to put together information for visitors to the area.

During a three-day trip in February, Kinlochbervie pupils measured, photographed and made drawings of archaeological remains and MoD buildings, giving them information which they would later add to Google Earth. They designed "anti-targets" - symbols such as Viking helmets and stars painted on to wooden boards - to remind soldiers and other military personnel to avoid shooting at the artefacts.

The pupils are also creating artworks with environmental artist Ruth Macdougall, including makeovers for abandoned armoured vehicles. One will be covered in pink paint, others in balloons, tin foil and bubble wrap. These will not last forever, but long enough to confuse runners in this month's Cape Wrath Challenge races.

They will also leave a more permanent reminder of the project. Milestones count down the journey to the Cape Wrath lighthouse, but the eight-mile marker - thought to have been erected in the 1830s - was found to be missing during the 2008 RCAHMS survey. Kinlochbervie pupils were asked to design a replacement and S1 pupil Jennifer Ross impressed with a lino-cut image of a puffin. She and her schoolmates will install the new milestone on a camping trip this month.

Children from the 22-pupil Durness Primary will also visit this month. They "just loved" their previous experience of Cape Wrath, says teacher Kirsty Luke, especially the chance to meet soldiers and see bombs being set off. They asked if they could experience what it was like to be a soldier for a day, and will get their wish by taking part in military exercises and eating from genuine ration packs.

As part of the project the pupils designed their ideal ration packs, coming up with outlandish creations - one shaped like a Toblerone bar - which included treats such as Kit Kats and Coco Pops. When they visit, they will learn what it is like to lunch on the cold contents of a real ration pack: "oatmeal blocks" and cold syrup pudding are standard fare.

Major David Halpin, commandant for the training centre, says military personnel get a kick out of meeting their young visitors and doing something different from their usual work.

A "spin-off" is that pupils see what the military is like away from what he feels is often a one-sided portrayal from the media and politicians. Major Halpin hopes that some pupils will consider a military career as a result.

"In many ways, it's quite a challenging project," says Ian Smith, the headteacher of Kinlochbervie High, pointing to its length and complaints made by some pupils about trekking through miserable winter weather during the February trip.

Once there, Laura Guttierez, the project manager for Defending the Past at RCHAMS, was struck by pupils' ability to relate to distant events in Afghanistan after chatting with Black Watch soldiers.

Building the 66-pupil school's relationship with the MoD will prove invaluable in responding to Curriculum for Excellence, believes Dr Smith. The project has, he says, "broken down artificial subject boundaries" between art, science, history and geography.

Kinlochbervie pupils will visit RCAHMS in Edinburgh next week (May 11), and get a taste of the endless learning opportunities the capital affords. In contrast, they go to school in an area which has only about 1,200 people living within a 40-mile radius.

It would be foolish, Dr Smith insists, not to take advantage of the military's presence just across the water.

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