Growing in the Open Air

‘Now I see the secret of making the best persons, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.’ Walt Whitman

‘Here’s a question,’ the Geography teacher leading our group said. ‘How many words can we think of for the sound a burn makes?’

We now had something to focus on as 14 teenagers and four adults picked our way silently up a steep section of the burn from the shore of Loch an Daimh (Glen Lyon) towards the corrie where we’d eventually find Lochan na Cat reflecting a bright disc of blue, May sky.

And it was a good question. After five minutes we had captured some of the burn’s many moods and nuances in words:


and so on.

Perhaps this characterised the approach we were taking; an atypical ascent of Stuchd an Lochain with a circuit of the lochan before climbing the corrie’s north-westerly wall to follow the full arc of the rim and then descend back to the outflow of the burn where we were camped. Although it included one, this was not a Munro-bagging ‘tick’, nor about speed; we were opening ourselves to the discovery of a special place.

As the ground levelled by the lochan, our lungs recovered and chat resumed. It ranged over the idea of the corrie as a ‘cauldron’ from the Gaelic, to the history of developing hydro-power in the 1940s and 50s which brought a great influx of war-displaced people to these lonely glens, to the process of glaciation and hanging valleys explained to me by one of the pupils who was taking Geography.

We paused at the far side of Lochan na Cat, looking across it to where the harboured shelf dropped back into the valley. A boy, staring at the water said excitedly: ‘Look. The sun’s making a web on the sand under the water’. It was an astute observation of the lovely effect when wind frisks the surface of very clear and shallow water and sunlight projects the ripple crests onto pale ground below. It was noticed, perhaps, as a result of the earlier encouragement to observe.

This was typical of the fluid range of experiences I witnessed while joining three groups of 14 to 15-year-olds on what is known at George Watson’s College as ‘Projects’ (George Watson’s is a co-educational independent day school in Edinburgh). ‘Projects’ are 12-day outdoor experiences away from school in remote locations where activities might include walking, climbing, kayaking, as well as undertaking conservation efforts locally to their base that contribute to John Muir Awards (JMA).

The previous evening, at our wild camp on the shore of Loch an Daimh, the sky had cleared and the temperature dropped as a cool wind drove through the glen from the east. I watched with one or two of the teachers as, having got her tent up, a girl was unpacking her rucksack and found her large, orange survival bag inflating into a luminous wind-sock. Instead of packing it up again, she played with it, raising it to sail in a kind of dance of sun and wind. It created a startling visual effect, prompting a teacher to say: ‘She’s doing exactly what the John Muir Award encourages – discovering a wild place and now exploring what the wind can do.’

Having celebrated on the summit of Stuchd an Lochan with a ‘hokey-cokey’, spirits were high as we circuited the corrie. Although I’ve been in and out of the school over the session as writer-in residence, I knew few of these pupils or teachers in advance. Walking in evolving groups and pairs gave time for shoulder-to-shoulder chat. They asked me about being a writer and talked quite naturally about their own passions and ambitions, and about previous adventures. Later in the week, each new group wanted to know which of their pals I’d met in other groups and how they were getting on. With no mobile phones or gadgets in their luggage, (and I didn’t hear a single complaint about this; postcards were sent home rather than texts) I was their bush-telegraph.

On the final top (888m) we rested; heard a ptarmigan rattle and then saw it, still transitioning between its winter and summer costume. One girl who had struggled up the hills admitted she was glad to have achieved the end of the climb but ‘never wanted to do it again’. There was something in her rapidly recovering spirits which made me wonder if this would remain true.

Dave Pyper, who’s been involved in ‘Projects’ since 1986, speaks of this as a watershed moment in the pupils’ development when they are mature enough to be away from home for 12 days and to rise to the challenges. The length is important; having more than a week allows time to experience a low point but also time to recover from it. In doing so, pupils may recognise their own resilience — a quality which might be transferable to other challenges they face in education and beyond. He also noted that the strong and more informal relationships developed between staff and pupils on these expeditions often last throughout the remaining course of school life.

The ‘Projects’ scheme is now in its sixth decade after it was established by former Head, Sir Roger Young (1958-1985), who died earlier this year and believed that pupils needed far more than academic success. Inspired by the trekking he did in his own secondary education, and aiming to introduce pupils to the wilder parts of Scotland, a variety of situations and challenges have been designed to include living and working closely with a new group of people to achieve common goals. Pupils apparently highlight S3 Projects as a ‘life-changing’ event and one of the memories of Watson’s that stay with them for a very long time.

It’s perhaps the longevity of the scheme and years of investment in ‘Projects’ – including equipment, staff Mountain Leader training etc (built on an active Duke of Edinburgh take-up) — which makes this fortnight an unquestioned element of the third-year curriculum, and a rite of passage anticipated and enjoyed by staff of all disciplines as well as pupils. It’s clear that, as 14 groups of 14 to 15 pupils set off to all corners of the Highlands and Islands and with established friendship groups juggled, a revolution in school norms and expectations is possible. The more conventionally ‘sporty’ pupils won’t necessarily be the ones to stay cheerful during long-distance walking or excel at rock-climbing. The less academic might demonstrate their intelligence in team work or offering the best jokes or even poems.

I met my second group for an overnight wild camp near Kilmalieu in Ardgour. In the previous few days they’d been white-water rafting, ice climbing at Kinlochleven and had summitted Ben Nevis. Their second week would be spent surfing in Lewis. Perhaps it sounds like leisure, and it certainly is a privilege, but it seemed to me that learning happened not just through the physical challenges they faced but in every micro-decision of the day and in the way the small community behaved and interacted.

The leader of this group, James Burt (teacher of Religion & Philosophy) organised the group as we left the minibus, identifying for the pupils our destination on the map. Leaders were then assigned to get us there, first being advised to work out where exactly we were starting from and then to visualise from the (orientated) map what features they would see, in what order and over what time and distance, as the most reliable defence against going astray. We carried everything in, over rough ground, avoiding bogs where possible. Skylarks serenaded from overhead without ever drawing breath, it seemed, and the sparkle of Loch Linnhe guided us down to our campsite on a grassy plateau backed by an amphitheatre of small cliffs where a cuckoo called throughout daylight hours.

We established camp and settled for an afternoon of exploring the place in words. Warm breezes coasted down from Ballachulish and scudded occasional yachts south-west. It was a magical respite before the evening air stilled and began to clamour blackly with midges. Then drizzle accelerated into a hammering on the tents. Fortunately, there was a bothy we could retreat into for our evening activities after cooking in groups had been successfully negotiated. Back in our tents, the human chatter was silent before the cuckoo was.

As well as learning specific outdoor skills, the crafts of wild camping including the ethics of toileting, carrying everything out, and leaving no trace of our stay were well embedded in this experience. And so was how to behave as a community: making everyone feel included, sharing tasks and helping each other even when they were out of the comfort of usual friendship groups. In one group, each individual was randomly assigned another person to look out for and offer encouragement or kindness when needed. There was a great sociability and humour in all the groups but I was impressed that there was also freedom for individual expression of character; for solitary observation and inward reflection, to take photographs or stop to look closely at something. As a writer, I recognise the need for this in some individuals only too well.

Before leaving we recorded our responses to our overnight home by contributing words to a mosaic of pebbles, revealing a sensitive response by the group to its peaceful embrace. ‘Tranquil’, ‘quiet’, ‘green’: words repeated more than once around a monster-pebble for ‘SPACIOUS’. I found it heartening that these young people found a quieter engagement with place amidst their more adrenaline-fuelled activities.

The final group I joined, led by chemistry teacher John Coull who has taken groups regularly to Durness, had planned an ambitious expedition that hadn’t been tried before: a walk from Mainmore to Durness via Sandwood Bay, Cape Wrath, and with an overnight at Kearvaig bothy. It was a total distance of about 45 km and with most of the first day on rough, boggy un-pathed land which also happened to be washed by low cloud that day. If my job as a writer was to encourage ‘noticing’ (as far as I’m concerned this is a pre-requisite to generating words on a page – see my last WH piece) this was hardest where the fields of orchids we stumbled through or the golden plovers calling out of the mist or the precisely printed deer hooves in sheets of pristine black peat were mostly lost to concentrating on negotiating peat hags, river crossings and clambering over military-installed fences. There were fast walkers and slow walkers and someone with an injury, so sometimes the challenge was keeping the group together. But spirits rose simultaneously with the cloud (briefly) as we neared the lighthouse and blocks of cliff architecture emerged at our left shoulders. After seven hours’ walking, the lighthouse’s Ozone Cafe cheerfully produced soup and sandwiches for all of us. This was a personal high for me — my first visit to Cape Wrath and another Stevenson lighthouse.

Some were surprised by the further one-and-a-half-hour track-yomp needed to reach Kearvaig bothy – a well-maintained white cottage set on a grassy apron enclosed by cliffs and a beach; sea stacks shrouded in mist and cackled over by colonies of sea birds. A further surprise awaited — there were five people and a dog already established in residence, and it was time for all to learn the art of bothy-sharing. We were tired, achey, boot-soggy, but the group organised sleeping space and food and before bed all the bothy-ers congregated around a fire with candles and head torches to sing songs. We ended with ‘Hey Jude’. Much later, from my tent outside, I heard choruses of ‘nah nah nah nah nah nah nah etc,’ still rising into the long, light night (and it wasn’t one of the kids).

After some observational and riddle-writing activities the following morning, we departed. I was always impressed by the ‘no fuss’ way the Watson’s groups got themselves organised and kept largely to time, more efficiently and with less complaint than many adult groups I’ve witnessed. With mist clearing, we walked into an emerging heatwave which welcomed us to the Kyle of Durness with coconut-gorse and sea-shimmer and low-tide strands between turquoise pools. We had more time than necessary and everyone was ready for long, supine rests as we waited for the ferry and enjoyed the dramatic change in the weather as the heat built around us. ‘That Orange was so good,’ I heard one girl says as she feasted on its sweet juices, senses heightened as if she’d been away from fresh food for months. I hope she recorded that sensation in her journal!

One teacher described ‘Projects’ to me as ‘what we do best’. It makes great sense to me now having witnessed the scheme in action — this opportunity for holistic learning, encouraging respect for natural landscapes and for each other during activities offered by our expansive places. A friend who undertook Projects as a Watson’s pupil in the late 80’s still speaks of it as an empowering experience which introduced her to the idea of multi-day journeys (in her case by bicycle) and opened her eyes to Scotland’s wilder places. As an adult, she’s cycled the length of Africa, worked in the promotion of cycling, responsible tourism and now with the Duke of Edinburgh Awards. As well as cultivating an outdoor lifestyle for her own family, she makes a point of encouraging her children to adventure independently.

I feel sad that such opportunities have been eroded in the state-school sector by factors such as excessive paperwork, safety concerns, and greater demands on teachers as well as questions of cost and thus equity of opportunity between individuals. Nevertheless, there are stalwart examples of schools or authorities in Scotland who manage to prioritise outdoor learning. I know that experiences of this kind when I was at school and with teachers who showed a similar joy and commitment to this form of learning, gave me the confidence later to take up outdoor pursuits and opportunities to explore as an adult.

At the other side of the Kyle our rucksacks were carried back to the hostel in a van. We walked towards Durness liberated, the pupils singing as they went, silhouetted behind us against luminous green fields and a backdrop of northern hills pitching and tossing across the skyline. Ice-cream was anticipated from the Spar shop ahead. The talk was of home where they would be again within 24 hours: the first meal they would have, the first thing they would watch, and so on.

There was a buoyant and reflective mood, the youngsters tired but revelling in the achievement of a journey made, having all been stretched in some way by it. One boy told me he’d been apprehensive about coming away because he didn’t know anyone in the group, but now he’d found all these new friends. And he spoke of a moment climbing some hill or other where he thought he couldn’t go on, then found he could. ‘And the teachers are almost like equals,’ he said. These seemed worthwhile learning points that might serve him well into the future.

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