The SSFA's School of the Year proves that being remote is no bar to sporting success if people have the drive to go the distance, writes Roddy Mackenzie
If travel broadens the mind, then pupils at the Nicolson Institute in Stornoway who take part in competitive sport are well-rounded individuals. The Lewis school has not let the small matter of distance come between it and taking part in national sports competitions.
Alastair Dunlop, the school's head of physical education, has not calculated how many miles school teams travel in any given year but it would be thousands.
"There was a week last month when I was at Mintlaw Academy in Aberdeenshire with the under-14 football team on Monday and Tuesday and in Edinburgh with a basketball team on Thursday and Friday, while one of my colleagues was at Irvine Royal Academy with the senior girls' football team. We worked out that, between us, we travelled about 1,300 miles in one week alone," he says.
Last year, the senior boys' football team became the first non-mainland school to reach the final of the Bank of Scotland Scottish Schools'
Football Association Senior Shield. It was a feat that led to the school being voted the SSFA's school of the year for 2004, the first winners of the award.
"It's a remarkable achievement for a school from the Western Isles to reach the final of one of the national shields and its selection as the inaugural winner of this award was unanimous," says Rod Houston, the assistant general secretary of the SSFA.
The Nicolson Institute's senior boys' team has not lost a match over 90 minutes in four years but has, Mr Dunlop concedes, been beaten four times in penalty shoot-outs, including at last year's senior shield final.
(Johnstone High, in Renfrewshire, won 5-4 on penalties after a 2-2 draw.) Likewise, the senior girls' team has won the North of Scotland Cup for the past five years and, on that recent trip to Irvine Royal Academy, came back with a 9-1 victory.
There is a thriving youth football set-up on the island, with a development squad for Lewis and Harris training regularly. But while some boys have, in the past, joined Ross County's junior set-up in Dingwall, travel and costs have tended to act against such a route if the school is not involved.
It enters five boys' football teams and six basketball teams in national competitions but also has close links with the Stornoway Running and Athletics Club and the Stornoway Rugby Club.
The Nicolson Institute has no school sports co-ordinator at present but it has a sports model that many schools would envy. Three times a week coaches from the local athletics club come in and the rugby club holds after-school sessions with pupils. It is not only the PE department that takes the school football teams, but maths and science teachers too.
"There is great co-operation between the staff," Mr Dunlop says. "We are good at covering for each other, so there is minimal disruption. Colleagues in the PE department will cover for me if I'm off with a team and if they are taking a class of 20 out on the sports field, then it is not too difficult to make room for a class of 40, which would be difficult in classroom subjects."
The school boasts reasonable sports facilities. An all-weather sports pitch was installed about 10 years ago, which ensures matches are always played, and there is a running track. Some fixtures can be taken to different grass pitches on the island. The senior boys' football team sometimes plays at Carloway, over 20 miles away.
"Football is the main sport at the school," Mr Dunlop says. "but we have also been playing basketball for a number of years. We've won five Scottish schools' cups, albeit in the B competitions.
"I don't think we'll ever get to the stage where we're challenging the major basketball schools.
"It's not a sport I've played myself although I've seen thousands of games.
But it is really popular with the children and has its own social scene.
There is no senior club on the island but a lot of ex-pupils come back to play.
"It's like a lot of sports where they are quite happy to play the game but do not want to go to the trouble of organising a club and all the administration it entails."
All the competing comes at a cost and the school has been fortunate in having a local benefactor bequeath money to allow the pupils to pursue their "field trips".
Mr Dunlop, who himself still competes at a high level in athletics and is currently the world over-50 800m champion, estimates that it costs about Pounds 15,000 a year to finance pupils travelling to competitions. That figure does not include the cost of the ferry travel, which is a block booking.
"There are occasions when you get to Ullapool for the last ferry and you find it is not sailing due to bad weather. The 5.15pm sailing can be cancelled and you have to sleep on the ferry until it leaves at 7am the next day. You just have to find a space on the floor.
"It can be a bit tiring when you're with pupils 24 hours a day but because you know the children so well, there is an element of trust built up and they are less likely to misbehave."