Mortlach Story Walks

11 Aug 2011 in Heritage, Moray, Showcase, Writing

MARY BOURNE reports on an arts and place project in Dufftown

DUFFTOWN is a small town (population approximately 1500) on the eastern fringe of the Highlands.  Surrounded by beautiful countryside and home to the Glenfiddich Distillery, it is a popular stop on the whisky trail.

OVER the last year it has also been the location for Mortlach Story Walks, a project developed in partnership between Mortlach Primary School in Dufftown and Speyside Paths Network Group. This project has involved the production of arts-based countryside interpretation materials (public artworks and story based guide leaflets) for the footpaths around Dufftown.  These were researched and designed by children at the school working with experts in the locality and professional arts practitioners.

Native American Story Teller, Chuck Warren tells stories about the making of the world in Meg's Widd

Native American Story Teller, Chuck Warren tells stories about the making of the world in Meg's Widd

The project was conceived early in 2010.  I am an experienced artist and as a member of the Mortlach’s Parent Council wondered if I could work with the School to use my skills to support and extend the curriculum.  I had also been reading about the philosophy of Place Based Learning and felt that this approach involving deep, cross curricular learning through researching and responding to one’s own place could work well in Dufftown (for more information on Place Based Learning see “Growing kids who care – connecting School, Place and Planet”, Rebecca Boyd, Churchill Fellow 2010 – link below).

Discussions with the Head Teacher and potential funders helped to shape the project and pointed the way to the partnership with the local charity, Speyside Paths Network Group, which was looking to raise the profile of the Dufftown Path Network preparatory to developing and extending it.  This proved a successful partnership; although both organisations had distinct aims (in the school’s case principally educational, and in SPNG’s, principally promotional), they were compatible and complementary.

P4 at Balvenie Castle

P4 at Balvenie Castle

For the school, Story Walks not only represented an integrated cross-curricular project delivering on the four capacities of the Curriculum for Excellence, but also supported its roles as a health promoting school and eco school as well as tying in with its delivery of the John Muir Award and developing useful community contacts.  For SPNG, it promoted the network in a very immediate way to the local community; it was great to see kids who had learned something new as a part of Story Walks out again with their family later in the week showing them what they’d learned. It also provided attractive and imaginative materials to encourage Dufftown’s many visitors to use and enjoy the paths.

Raising funds proved the most stressful part of the project for me as volunteer Project Manager, but in the end we put together a package involving in kind contributions from local people and a local business and cash funding from Mortlach Parent Council, Moray LEADER, SNH and the Ernest Cook Trust, which promotes children learning directly from the land.  As the project progressed we were very fortunate to receive more in-kind contributions from local people and businesses and these enabled us to enlarge the scope of the project, responding to a number of unforeseen opportunities.

Structuring something involving such a large number of children (approximately 168) from the ages of 4 to 11 was a challenge.  Each class was given its own “commission” tied to one particular footpath and appropriate activities were developed for each class.

Primaries 1, 3 and 5 were asked to design artworks for public buildings within the town, where footpaths could be promoted to those who do not already use them regularly (the Medical Centre, Public Library and Tourist Information Centre). Primaries 2, 4 and 7 were asked to produce story-based guide leaflets for specific routes. Primary 6, which studies mapping, was asked initially to produce the overall guide leaflet for the Story Walks, but on the suggestion of the class teacher this was expanded to include an orienteering course.

P1 Artwork for the Medical Centre

P1 Artwork in acrylic for the Dufftown Medical Centre

The Pre-School Nursery worked with Hopeman-based volunteer artist, Vivien Hendry, to produce a batik for the school library as well as a concertina book, copies of which were presented to the school library and Public Library where it has been officially catalogued as part of the library’s collection.  In addition to this Primaries 1-7 worked on short poems that were sandblasted onto pieces of stone and placed along the footpaths.

The project fell into three distinct stages, with as much work as possible taking place out along paths at every stage.  The first stage, research, involved the children in working with a variety of local people and organisations to learn as much as possible about the area they were to interpret.

Many of these activities took place in the coldest months of the year (which are pretty cold in Dufftown), but children were wrapped up warmly and kept moving and we felt that proving that going out and about could be fun and interesting even in the darkest months was valuable in itself.  Some of the most memorable trips happened in the snow with little children running around the woods to catch snowflakes, and this too illustrates something we felt was very important: that we were teaching kids that it is fun to be outside in the countryside.

Of course, many knew this already, but equally many didn’t, had never set foot on a footpath, and initially found the longest two-mile route quite a challenge.  One child had never seen Dufftown from outside the town before and exclaimed in wonder, “Look there’s a whole city over there!” when he caught sight of it from a hillside path.

"Listen", embedded mesostic in Meg's Widd

"Listen", embedded mesostic in Meg's Widd

In phase two we recruited Janie Nicoll, a Glasgow-based artist, and Ken Cockburn, an Edinburgh-based poet, to work with the kids.  Both had strong track records of working effectively with children as well as being well respected for their own professional practice.  Members of the Pupil Council were actively involved in the selection process and their presence at the interviews was very revealing of candidates’ ability to relate to young people. Again Ken and Janie worked as much as possible out along the paths, and details from the kids’ own lives as well as history, folklore and environmental information were woven into both the visual and written elements of the project.

Finally the children were able to see the fruits of their labours as artworks were installed and leaflets distributed.  We had a wonderful end of project event at the school in June.  Every class had worked with volunteer exhibition designer, Jenny Trueman, to produce information boards about their commission and a number of people considered influential both for the future delivery of similar projects and for the future development of the footpath network were invited and had the chance to talk to the children who acted very professionally as “live guides”.  After school the exhibition was open to the general public and children brought their families to see what they had been doing.

Mortlach Story Walks has dominated my life for the last year.  It has been stressful, but the rewards have far, far outstripped the stress and I have felt privileged to be able to work constructively with so many local people.  My understanding of the hidden mechanisms that underlie a successful community has grown enormously, as has my respect for those people who quietly contribute so much to keeping alive the facilities and events that define us (the footpaths, the public buildings, the Pipe Band, the Games, etc).  For me, Mortlach Story Walks has put the arts where they belong – into every day life where they become a means of exploring the shared experiences that bind us together.

The Mortlach Story Walks Exhibition will be at the Moray Art Centre in Findhorn for a week from 30th August and later in the year at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in Aberdeenshire.

For further information and/or leaflet packs contact:

Mary Bourne 01340 821162

Mortlach Primary School 01340 820268

Leaflets are also available from Dufftown Tourist Information and Dufftown Library.

© Mary Bourne, 2011