Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Shieling Project: Learning from the past in the Scottish Highlands

Recently, 40 pupils made the journey with me, their teachers and some parents up to the historic shieling site in the hills just above our office. The weather was windy and rainy, for many they had never been out for a day in such conditions, let alone walked such a long way in wild country.  Yet we were re-creating the journey children would have made for centuries every year: up with the cattle to the high ground, to the ‘shieling’ (├áirigh in Scottish Gaelic), to milk, explore and live for the summer.

As we walked we discussed the contrast between our modern lives and these traditional ones whose footsteps we were walking in. We all felt that contrast in our bodies – breathing, working hard, carrying our needs with us on our backs. We sung Gaelic songs, and created Gaelic place-names as we went. Finally we got to the shieling – and at first the young people could see nothing – just a grassy area in the hills. But then it turned out they were standing on the ruins of a hut – not used for 250 years, but still visible if you looked. Suddenly the place came alive, as they told shieling stories, drew pictures of what it would have looked like, and we put up our own shelter to stay for the day. And this experience isn’t a one off – the teachers have been working with the Shieling Project for ten months and the pupils were on their second visit, using that ten month interval to develop projects tailored to their interests back in their class. It is this experience that we want to expand and develop. We would like to be able to host groups for whole weeks, where they could really get to grips with the history of the shieling and the implications for the present: landuse, farming, workskills, sustainability, conservation. We have a vision of a modern shieling camp, with micro-dairy and learning centre, leading Scotland in sustainability and heritage education.

Learning from the past

The project is inspired by the heritage, landscapes and traditional culture of Highland Scotland, specifically the shieling.  The shieling was a traditional practice of moving up to the high ground with livestock to live there for the summer. Young people had a fundamental role at the shieling: they took on new responsibilities, learning about themselves and the landscape beyond their homes. The shieling has many resonances today and can help Scotland’s young people face a variety of challenges: increasing levels of unhealthiness; physically, mentally and in their local environments, lack of opportunity to go outdoors, lack of contact with heritage and traditions of their local area, and little understanding of food production or farming.

Learning for sustainability

Our accredited training programmes for teachers in Learning for Sustainability enable them to address the deprivation caused by indoor lives. We combine this training for teachers with experiences for young people exploring the shieling and its impact on health and well-being today. These two services, accessed in combination or separately, support young people to understand and experience the landscape not just during the visit to the project but back home in the school and community life.

Since 2013 we have negotiated and signed a 10 year lease with the Struy Estate for our outstanding project site in Glenstrathfarrar, near Inverness. Working with our landlords, we have renovated the cottage on site for staff accommodation and office space. All project activities are now delivered from this site. We became the first organisation to be accredited by the General Teaching Council for Scotland (GTCS) to deliver professional learning programme for teachers in Learning for Sustainability, and are currently recruiting our third cohort for this programme.

Our first cohort on the professional recognition programme involved mostly primary teachers and 137 young people, and has already received positive feedback from Education Scotland and the Scottish Government Learning Directorate. Our second programme (May 2015 – May 2016) is focused on secondary teachers, and our third will run from September 2015.

Transformative learning experiences

Young people and teachers report transformative learning experiences – with teachers having changed their approach, found new focus or inspiration, and young people reporting that coming to the Shieling Project was the “best day at school ever.”

Back in school after visiting the project, young people have been reflecting on what makes a community work; the values and skills needed, they have been designing small huts, creating artwork and videos, researching Gaelic work songs, and working together across classes and schools to continue these projects. They are captivated by the story of what young people did in the past, and excited to have so many opportunities to get outdoors. From a baseline at the start of their programme, they are expected to document and critique their learning journey. These journals also inform our understanding of the project’s impact.

Teachers are already reporting changes in their educational practice, the benefits of sustained reflection and discussion of outdoor learning, the opportunities to run new projects with their classes.  For example, Aboyne Academy teacher Jane Summers explained:

“I am taking part in the Shieling Project’s Professional Recognition Programme in Learning for Sustainability recognised by the General Teaching Council (Scotland). Learning for Sustainability means loads of different things to different people. To me, it’s about two things, building personal capacity in pupils and adults through engagement with their past and their environment and it’s about learning to live in and contribute effectively to their community.  The Shieling Project challenges us to do this through looking at how communities lived and worked in the past and how that can inform the way that we teach and live in our communities today. “

“I have completed my first weekend at the site in Glen Strathfarrar focusing on what I wanted to achieve in my year working with Sam and sharing experiences and insights with other colleagues. Sam works brilliantly to facilitate creative and strategic thinking, coaxing the most interesting ideas out of us through immersion in the landscape. The project is about the archaeology but it is about so much more than that too. To me, it’s about what the archaeology can inspire when used in different ways to connect young people with their landscape, culture and community today. I have had my own experiences using archaeology to develop inter-disciplinary learning in schools, and working with Sam I hope to take this further over the next 2 or 3 years, gathering valuable evidence of the importance of place-based learning to the development of young people and gaining professional recognition for my work in this area.”

A week of shieling Life

Arriving on the Monday the class will orientate itself around the shieling, learning the basics about the site, settling themselves in at the camp, looking at how water, waste and energy are managed here and how this contrasts with their everyday lives.

Camping in the comfort of simple wooden cabins, the days will follow a routine: starting in the morning with some of the class milking the cow, while the others prepare breakfast. The children will be responsible for cleaning up and making their lunches, then we will start an activity which will keep us outside for most of the day: going to the peat moss to cut and collect peats, going to the historic shieling site, mapping the area, surveying the wildlife, learning about useful plants, going to the dairy to help make and package cheese and butter. The choice of activities will be determined by the time of year, weather, and interests of the class, as well as the questions they have been working on through the project prior to the residential. The afternoon will contain some free time inside the project site and recording their experiences. The evenings will involve craft activities such as dying, weaving, felting, basketry, rope-making, story telling as well as making an evening meal. On the Friday after reviewing the week, packing and tidying, the class will depart in time to return to the school by the end of the school day.

Archaeology and experimental reconstructions

This autumn we will do an initial investigation of our historic shieling site which will involve local community, schools and university students. From this initial study we will create a fuller programme of digs in 2016 and 2017. We hope that some of the information we gather can lead to some experimental reconstructions of the shieling huts in situ.

Past Horizons. 2015. “The Shieling Project: Learning from the past in the Scottish Highlands”. Past Horizons. Posted: June 13, 2015. Available online:

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