“The train slowly ground to a halt as it arrived at the station. Through the gloom a large sign read Galston, a name I had never heard of. What will this strange place far from home be like? We climbed down from the train, I was surprised the platform was crowded, why are all these people here? A large cheer filled the air…”
What do you think? That’s a pupil’s creative-writing diary entry about arriving in Galston as a refugee escaping from Belgium during the First World War.
News stories often relay harrowing accounts of refugees fleeing conflict, yet the story of the community of Galston uniting to accommodate refugees from Belgium has largely been forgotten by the town’s people. One hundred years on, the tale of a steam train long ago pulling into a small Scottish town may seem unlikely to resonate with young people bombarded by the breakneck demands of the information superhighway.
Galston Town Trail is an education resource in East Ayrshire that helps schools forge links with their community through exploring and sharing local history, bringing to life stories from the past. Pupils explore historic sites for experiential learning across all curricular areas. Remember drab symmetry lessons at primary school, where the class would be given half the letter A or X and asked to complete the other half? Pupils now visit a historic span bridge, presented with photo of half the bridge and challenged to use their symmetry skills to draw the other half.
Trips to the town centre are dwindling rapidly for young people, replaced by bland visits to bleak out-of-town malls or multiplex cinemas. Exploring a trail through the historic part of their town challenges pupils to understand how the place they live in has evolved and – crucially – that they have a role in ensuring that its fascinating tales continue to be shared. Pupils develop a connection with their community and a sense of pride.
In Kilmarnock, there has been a reduction in vandalism as a result. Local history trails become outdoor classrooms – with the added benefit of fresh air and a walk.
As collective memories fade, young people can often feel little or no connection with their community. Here’s something to consider, if asked by pupils why learning about local history is important: think of an Ayrshire village built on coal, mined for generations by local families, the industry a source of culture that seeped into every pore of the community.
Sadly, the mines have long closed and the community has struggled to recover. And memories fade fast. One historian visits the local primary school and begins a discussion on coal mining. A hand shoots up. “Hey mister, whit’s coal?”
Graham Boyd is a heritage education development officer in East Ayrshire