The Old Man and the myth

2nd December 2005 at 00:00
An arts project involving the evolution of an idea from one school to another and another could provide a model for further cluster work, writes Miranda Fettes

The tragic legend of Queen Catriona, her gallant lover the Storr and the greedy, scheming Quiraing, all of whom end up immortalised as huge rocks in the Trotternish Ridge on Skye, is one that could have been told for centuries. In fact, it has existed only for weeks.

The myth is a fruit of the imaginations of P5-P7 pupils in three schools on Skye, and is a fascinating example of how an idea can be passed from one class or school to another, forming the basis of a multimedia group project.

Pupils at Kilmuir Primary were taken on a day trip to the Old Man of Storr pinnacle and asked to pick out four features of the landscape. They chose rock formations, echoes, a heart-shaped ditch which they could see looking back down the hillside from the Storr and a path through a forest.

Children from Staffin Primary then undertook the same walk and were asked to make up a story incorporating each of the selected features.

Then Uig Primary children, having been told the myth but not about the features, made the journey to examine the same landscape and illustrate the story.

The pupils also took video footage and made sound recordings.

The project was the brainchild of local photographer and storyteller Cailean Maclean and was led by him, Kath MacLeod, the education officer at An Tuireann Arts Centre in Portree, and Kati Kozikowska, a drama worker from Eden Court Theatre in Inverness.

"I thought that it might be quite a nice idea to create modern myths or new stories which could become part of the folklore," Mr Maclean explains.

"The main features that the pupils identified were the Old Man of Storr himself and other standing pinnacles. They were also interested in echoes, voices echoing off rock walls and so on.

"One little girl stood on a rock and started singing and it echoed around the valley, so that's how it was suggested.

"They had to walk up through a wood, and when we were up at the Storr looking back down, one of the children thought one feature of the landscape looked like a love heart, so that's how they got love interest."

The Kilmuir Primary pupils also did a lot of drawing, capturing the air of mystery with mist hooding the dramatic pinnacles. Back in the classroom, their remit was to record the story that the Staffin pupils had written and add sound effects.

"It was quite an ingenious project, the way they involved the schools and passed different aspects of the project around," says Kilmuir Primary teacher Christine Nicolson.

"The walk was a challenge for some of the kids," says Mrs Nicolson. "They enjoyed the drama, the landscape, the rocks, the views.

"They dramatised and sound recorded the story. It's led into language work, writing, personal responses, accounts of what they were doing and poems. It sparked off a wave of creativity."

To start the project, Mr Maclean led a two-hour workshop at each school, where he talked to the pupils about myth and Ms Kozikowska dramatised the stories they heard. "One was a real myth and one Cailean made up to show them that, whether you believe them or not, myths are stories," explains Mrs MacLeod.

The Staffin Primary pupils really tried to get the atmosphere of the Storr, to build up what the story might be, she says. "They split into groups to think about how the features could be brought into a story, then they just hammered it out. They didn't need much prompting, except at the end to tie it all together.

"They split off and told it in their two languages. Even though it was the same story, the English one was very long and descriptive but the Gaelic one was really pared down and had a lovely rhythm to it. I think that reflects the differences in the languages."

After the day trips, Mrs MacLeod, Mr Maclean and Ms Kozikowska returned to the schools to do art work with the children and draw together all the elements of the project.

At Uig Primary, says Mrs MacLeod, "I gave them a huge roll of tracing paper and ink and brushes and got them to work quite quickly to keep the continuity and keep it big and real and flowing and simplified, so it didn't get bogged down in illustration."

Phil Dewar, the P5-P7s' temporary class teacher, says: "I think the children got a lot out of it. All the elements came together very effectively: storytelling, video work, drawing, photography, drama. It was quite an adventure."

The results were displayed at An Tuireann Arts Centre for five weeks.

"The tracing paper drawings were sandwiched between thick perspex and hung in the windows the whole length of the cafe," explains Mrs MacLeod.

"A final video was put together by Kati. All the schools took snippets of features, building up a library of images. The soundtrack of the story and the sound effects went with the video.

"All the schools came together to see the exhibition. The children were very impressed to see all their work coming together. It was lovely for them to see it all on screen."

Mr Maclean was overwhelmed by the children's response to the project. "They were very imaginative and enthusiastic. The first class provided the bones, the second class put flesh on the bones and the third were involved in developing that through drawing.

"Things develop in different ways; it depends who's interpreting them and who's telling them. It's really about the transmission of folklore and the way it evolves over time.

"The way the project unfolded echoed the way myths are created, with each school passing on to the next elements of the myth that developed and changed with each telling," she says. "It exceeded all of our expectations."

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