Teaching in Nature

Teachers' Review - Salen Primary at Loch Ba, Isle of Mull

April 2010

[The school and the local Gaelic Unit] are going to do their first visit [on the island] together on Monday the 17th of May. [One teacher] wants her children to become familiar with the Gaelic names of the hills etc and their meanings so it makes sense for the Gaelic Unit to go along. It lets the children meet each other […] so that they get to know peers of the same age before they go to High School. […] [the teacher] is also going to contact a local historian who might be available to accompany us. […] I'm keen for my class to meet someone local with experiences that I've not been able to give them thus far.

We are aiming to make our way right to the head of the Glen where there is a ruined township abandoned at the time of the Clearances. We need to wade across a river to get there, so as May is usually the driest month of the year, this is our best chance to reach this township. If our historian is with us, the visit will probably focus on mapping and plotting the houses and imagining the landscape as a living settlement with livestock and crops around the houses. If he can't make it then we will likely have more time for the children to gather photos, ideas etc for work back in the class (art, IT etc.) […]

We have permission from the tenant farmer and landowner to take the minibuses half way up to the site (along a private road) and leave them at the bridge. The rest of the journey will be on foot. We will be out all day (9am to 3pm) and the children will have packed lunches and should have waterbottles too. There are no toilet facilities, so use will have to be made of the landscape (very flat and not a lot of trees or bushes) and any ruined walls!

26 April

[…] we're playing it by ear at the moment (apart from the necessary permissions in an area that has farming vehicles / livestock moving around, (lambing, calving; fish farm activities and shooting between July and August!!)

12 May

We've been in contact with the local museum and they have given us a GPS device to locate and record the position of each house and the graves we can spot in the desecrated graveyard. They also want us to look for a possible church/chapel site and to GPS it, measure the walls and locate the orientation, as a medieval chapel was recently excavated by Time Team near [town name], so they know the measurements of such buildings and the altar will be on the east wall of such a site. So the children's brief is now to locate all buildings with a GPS record, measure all walls, photograph and sketch each one if possible. We will be busy!! We don't know how much we will get done, so our 2nd visit might be to finish the task. If we do get this all done in one day then our second visit might focus on the lower part of the glen (which is actually well-recorded already but has a crannog site, standing stones and prehistoric burial mounds) or we might go back to [placename] again and do some activities such as butter-making, singing Gaelic milking songs, recreating the scene with traditional clothing etc depending on how the children want to develop the project and what they want to record for their multi-media presentation. It would be best to do the field work as soon as possible as the bracken is just beginning to grow (we can actually see the outlines of the ruined buildings just now but they will be lost in the undergrowth by the end of June – and the ferns will be taller than the children, […] plus the ticks will be [out]), the river is low enough to cross safely, there is less chance of rain making children hypothermic and midgies aren't in full flow yet! So basically our second visit is likely to be Monday 31st May, Wednesday 2nd June or Monday 7th June.

17 May

[We will need] time to collate the info we collect on the first visit and decide where we go from there. We might also fit in a visit to the archives at Mull museum before then. One of the volunteer workers, [name], has said that she is happy to come in and teach the children how to access the archives correctly and that we can spend the time looking for any info on our site. We would have time to brainstorm a list of things that we want to find out about the ruined village and the people who once lived there. Our gleanings from there will influence what the children would maybe want to do for their second visit. We will have plenty of time next autumn and winter to work on their actual multi-media presentation […] and to decide on the target audience (eg, a tourist information guided walk or to go on to the [island] holiday website, the museum's website or to the Gaelic historical website Am Baile). We have lots of options for the final outcome to go out to the wider public and actually be read and used by people around the world.

[…] You can see how the project evolves into something completely different from how I envisaged it in the beginning! The more you discuss the site with the children or local experts the more ideas go into the melting pot. We've also been given lots of old maps from the National Library of Scotland. We can see that the village is mentioned on maps from 1654 up to 1840 but by 1896 it has disappeared from the map altogether. Today only a hill is named, [name] and house sites are marked nearby as antiquities but the name of the village is gone. So it looks as though it was cleared between 1840 and 1896.[…]

18 May

[the first day out] … Weather was dry with a slight breeze - perfect for walking. We got the burial ground surveyed but ran out of time to do the houses. Going to see if I can fit in another trip before the 7th of June before the bracken covers the ruins.

28th May

Have completed our 2nd visit to the site. Got up to the old houses and kids have surveyed about 9 of them. We will look for others on our next visit (which we'll make longer than the school day. We'll ask for the minibus to pick us up at 4pm or 4:30pm instead of having to rush the surveying in order to get back to the pick up point at 2:30). Two children disturbed an adder as they surveyed one house - so we've called it Taigh an nathrach. Scott heard its warning hiss and looked down to see it curled up in a ball near his feet. He took a step away and watched it move off underneath the stones of the house site. Orla saw it too and they called down the hillside to tell me what they'd seen. By the time I got there with video (puffing and panting up the hillside!) it had long gone. They were able to describe it as very dark, almost black with a white patch. Everyone else is very jealous of them! I helped them measure the walls so that no-one got bitten. I think it was the highlight of their day. It was certainly the first thing they told everybody about on their return to school. Being out and about is certainly a lot of fun and it is giving the children brilliant practice at reading the map and using a compass. Much better than doing the same work in the school playground. The only draw back is that we've been pressed for time so I've marched the children up to the site and back and we've not had time to reflect about the way of life that people lived up there. The children also want more time to look for wild flowers and minibeasts etc and to photograph them. Hopefully a longer visit will give us more of an opportunity to do these things. Janet (Ruairidh's helper) has said that she thinks the old ruined farmhouse at Gortenbuie should be rebuilt as a hostel for Salen School for outdoor learning for the kids and as a retreat for the staff! I couldn't agree more.


Dave Sexton of the RSPB has just told us that they have ringed the sea eagle chick at the side of Loch Ba and once it has a name it will go onto the tracking site along with the others. We have been following Breagha and Mara for 2 years now and we will look forward to seeing this one move around too. Apparently Venus is suspected to be dead around the Lochgilphead area as she has not moved for a very long time. The tracking can be followed on www.rspb.org.uk/wildlife/tracking/mulleagles/index.asp so sorry we couldn't provide a sea eagle for you when you were here (or for Roseanna Cunningham). Dave also said that they saw a lot of baby adders while they were ringing the chick. They were all slithering into the grass and did look very dark in colour. We have written our thank you letters to the farmers, estate workers and museum staff. We have also started a folder of written work (reports and poetry). The snake story has been repeated in each genre!

C MacP (Teacher)