Our Principal Adviser on Biodiversity, Des Thompson, recalls the outstanding work of a small organisation operating in the Hebrides, and the influences of one of its Honorary Advisers, the Dean of Windsor.
A Christmas round-robin from a former colleague, Jo Green, who left us to study for a Masters in Outdoor Environmental and Sustainability Education at the University of Edinburgh http://www.ed.ac.uk/education/institutes/etl/outdoor-education/programmes/academic-courses reminded me of the fantastic opportunities we have to learn in the field. ‘The Year of Fieldwork’, led by the Field Studies Council (FSC) and in partnership with the Geographical Association, the Royal Geographical Society and others http://www.field-studies-council.org/outdoorclassroom/yearoffieldwork/year-of-fieldwork-events-and-training.aspx, marks a concerted effort to raise the profile of learning in the field.
But Jo’s note to us included reference to some of her course work being done on The Isle of Rum NNR. And that got me thinking about my earliest experiences of the diamond isle and the role played by an exceptional organisation, the Schools Hebridean Society (SHS), in bringing youngsters to explore and study in the Hebrides. Formed in 1962 by the educationalist John Abbott, the SHS ran up to six expeditions annually, each lasting around three weeks during July-August: http://www.schools-hebridean-society.co.uk/. Operated mainly by teachers and postgraduates (mainly in the sciences), each expedition had a leader, camp administrator, a handful of ‘officers’, and 20-30 secondary school youngsters. Rum, Raasay, South Uist, North Uist and Colonsay were the destinations of expeditions I joined, but the SHS covered many more of the Isles, including Gometra (its first), Mingulay, Jura, Skye, Lewis and Harris. The SHS ran its last expedition in 1989, to North Uist, having by then lost out to competition from abroad for more affordable family holidays and the growing burden, even then, of Health and Safety requirements.
But in its heyday, the SHS offered exceptional opportunities for rock climbing, hill walking, sailing, canoeing, and archaeological, botanical and ornithological studies. Most importantly, living under canvas for several weeks and becoming familiar with the Hebridean climate, midges and local ways, students were brought into contact with wildly unfamiliar ways of living. Most of the students hailed from England (Manchester Grammar School was a particularly strong feeder school) and had not set foot in Scotland before! For several days, some groups would help crofters with the peats or hay stooking, and over many years expedition members joined up with Calum MacLeod as he built ‘Calum’s Road’ on north Raasay https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NZxzONNWjhg. Some of the older residents still talk about the antics and help given by members of the SHS, and many who returned as holiday makers to the Isles had their first taste as SHS members.
Each year the SHS produced an annual report, containing invaluable records of birds, plants and finds from digs http://www.schools-hebridean-society.co.uk/shs_reports.htm. For many students this was their first encounter with project work, and some of the work has had enduring value in providing snapshots of nature in remote places. Really though, something far deeper emerged from these expeditions. John Abbott touched on this when he reflected on his primer expedition with a couple of fellow students to Rum, in 1959, writing: “We discovered ourselves.” And that was the essence of the expeditions – making do with rations, building a base camp, entertaining oneself through reading, walking, sketching, observing and singing, and always learning, and thinking alone or in friendship. These were the more lasting legacies of the Hebridean expeditions.
For my own part, memorable experiences included being billeted as a 15-year old with new found friends in a tiny hut high on Hallival in a howling gale unable to sleep because of the nesting Manx shearwaters growling under the floorboards; exploring Neolithic remains in deep caves (some of which were documented for the first time by the SHS); and discovering a massive raven roost on the Uists.
One occasion was very special, when the Rt. Rev. Launcelot Fleming, for five years Dean of Windsor and Domestic Chaplain to the Queen, joined the party on Rum in 1976 for a few days and celebrated Holy Communion in the most primitive of settings (a camp by Salisbury’s Dam). He was an Honorary Adviser to the SHS, and the year before on Christmas Day in a televised service from Windsor watched by millions he remarked: “We are all different. People are always particular people with their own particular qualities, their own distinctive make-up; this is the great thing about humanity…” I remember that, but more vividly, I recall him lecturing us in a large marquee about his times in the Antarctic. In 1968, unusually for a Bishop, he had steered ‘The Antarctic Treaty’ through the House of Lords (his maiden speech was on cruelty to whales, and earlier he had been the Chairman of the Church of England’s Youth Council). But on a windy Hebridean island evening, as the tent canvases flapped boisterously and the Tilley lamps hissed, Lancelot recounted his times in the Antarctic. In 1934, as geologist and Chaplain to the British Graham Land Expedition, the first major Antarctic expedition to leave Britain since Scott’s Terra Nova expedition (1910-1913), Launcelot spent three years exploring and mapping one of the last uncharted areas of the world. In the space of an hour and a half he held us spellbound with tales of adventure, privation and discovery. Today, I find it poignant that the Fleming glacier, named after Launcelot, and located on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, is now thinning rapidly under the duress of climate change http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.178.5529&rep=rep1&type=pdf
I hope this gives a glimpse of how a small but inspired organisation, led by remarkably selfless and encouraging people, influenced young minds and spirits. Nowadays, such youthful and communal outdoor experiences can be had through courses with Stramash http://www.stramash.org.uk/ or the FSC http://www.field-studies-council.org/individuals-and-families.aspx. Neil Urquhart, who set up Stramash (and is the CEO), used the University of Edinburgh PG Diploma in Outdoor Education as a means of making his change of direction from being a vet in the north Highlands to an outdoor educator! Who knows what lies in store for Jo and her fellow students.
I am grateful to Sam Berry, Pete Higgins, and David Jardine, Nick Smith and Pat Thompson (SHS veterans) for supplying some background information.