The National Trust for Scotland is giving education a higher priority at its historic properties, writes Deedee Cuddihy
The National Trust for Scotland's four travelling regional education officers lead a varied working life and Sandra Morrison, who covers the Trust's north-east area with 15 properties ranging from castles to grain mills, reckons they have the best jobs in the organisation.
"Recently I'd set aside a day to tackle my admin work, but shortly after arriving in the office, I got an emergency phone call from a colleague at our Leith Hall property. One of the people who usually dressed up in period costume there for school visits was off ill and they wondered if I could fill in. I'd done it in the past, so I couldn't very well refuse!" On other days, Sandra might have appointments at local primary schools to hold workshops or briefings on an NTS property they hope to visit. Later that week she was going to talk to a group of second-year college students who were planning to become history teachers, explaining why NTS properties are such marvellous educational resources, then they were going to visit one and use it as the basis for a children's history lesson.
Given the distances that the regional education officers have to cover, the variety of places they visit and the amount of study boxes, objects, leaflets, teachers' packs and so on that needs to be brought along, reliable transport is important for Sandra and her colleagues. Until recently, they used their own cars but now they each have a new, liveried van.
"A vehicle is essential," Sandra says, "especially in the winter. Most of our outreach work takes place then." In fact, much of the work involved in the north-east region's ambitious joint education project "Kings and Covenanters" was done last winter.
The projectinvolved four castles and four Aberdeenshire primary schools, approximately 120 pupils and many teachers.
"We began thinking about it well over a year ago and contacted the education authority last April," says Sandra. "They were great and agreed to allocate specialist teachers' time for home economics, music, drama and art and design, because the project incorporated songs, short plays, costume and food. We got college research students working on it as well.
"As an essential part of the project, the children visited the NTS castle nearest their school. The staff at these properties - including the rangers - were brilliant. Their knowledge, ingenuity and enthusiasm is quite remarkable."
Part of the project involved boiling up beetroot and onions to make authentic dyes and all the work culminated in a 17th-century banquet in a large marquee at the end of last month.
The value of education has always been recognised within the NTS but it is now being given a higher priority, with greater efforts being made to provide a more child-friendly environment at historic properties, says Colin MacConnachie, the Trust's head of education.
"We've come a long way from the stereotype of a school trip to an NTS property - kids visiting castles clutching clipboards," says Mr MacConnachie, who was an art and design teacher for 25 years before taking up his job 18 months ago. "The opportunities are much more exciting, varied and relevant to the curriculum these days, so the cliched image is gradually fading from people's minds.
"And we're designing an education website, which will eventually offer virtual reality tours of properties and a wealth of information about Scotland's heritage."
For information about the National Trust for Scotland's education programme, tel 0131 243 9313