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Moving Times & Telling Tales

During this project we have explored the history of Hostel schooling, Side Schools and the positive contributions made by in-migration in this area. The research work ran from April 2012 for a year.

It was a dark and stormy night… a lively northerly rattled the slates on Armadale House. Located on the machair at Armadale Bay in north Sutherland, the house was built as ‘The Big Hoose’ for the Armadale Farm in 1854. Its glory had faded somewhat since then. The Mackay Country team had just spent three days delivering an exhibition and a set of events entitled ‘The Emigrants’ as part of Scotland’s first Year of Homecoming in the beautiful, wee wooden hall in Armadale.


A newly arrived Dutch lady was putting great energy into restoring Armadale House as an unusual sort of B&B. Family MacBough workers Calum Millar, Drumbeg, and David Shaw, Gualin, were in the kitchen, unwinding after the hectic events schedule. They unwound so much, with the help of Johnnie Walker, that when the author arose at a sensible hour in the morning, the gallant pair were stumbling over each other in their haste to explain all about their new idea for research in Mackay Country.


It was by these means that the idea of the ‘Hostel’ project came about – an oral history about the experiences of Hostel schooling, conceived by two of the last generation to receive their secondary education in this way. The Hostel system was a form of state boarding school used as a way of providing secondary education for pupils from the remoter parts of Sutherland once the school leaving age rose to 15 years old. At this point, a significant number of teenagers were entitled to secondary education at The County Council’s expense.


The Hostel system ceased to be used in Sutherland in the late 1990s but is still an essential part of schooling for children in certain parts of The Westerns Isles, The Inner Hebrides and remoter parts of the mainland in those catchment areas. Calum and David are in their mid-thirties and have seen at first hand the different kinds of educational experience encountered across the area. They very particularly felt that this was a great topic because it united all the age groups in exploring their own story about access to education – and because, already, they can see that those in school today have little inkling of how very different the possibilities were in their mothers’ and their grannies’ day.


The second theme to be included in this work is linked to the first through personal stories and the establishment of state responsibility for the provision of primary, or as it was then called, elementary education. Mackay Country Board members Janette Mackay, Strathy, and Sandra Munro, Bettyhill, proposed that it would be a good idea to investigate the history of the side schools in the area. During their sixty (plus!!) years living in Mackay Country, Sandra and Janette have put huge energy into the Community Councils in Bettyhill and Strathy, the establishment and running of Feis Air An Oir and myriad other local projects. They have been involved in Mackay Country voluntary work since its inception. Side schools were very small schools provided to make education accessible to children in the most remote straths and glens. They came and went according to shifts in population. In addition, many people have expressed a fascination for the fact that the built heritage, and its crumbling remains, clearly indicates that there were far more schools in Mackay Country in the recent past than is the case now. Why is that and what are these schools’ stories?


The third theme which we have tackled in this work looks, at first glance, to be a rather odd companion to the topics outlined above. It is the wish to make a celebratory study of the impacts and reasons for in-migration past and present. This topic emerged from a concern amongst the thirty to fifty-something activists involved in running the organisation – Mackay Country Community Trust Ltd (Mackay Country). They wished to make it clear that this organisation and its work was for and about everyone who lives in the place called Mackay Country, not just folk called Mackay.


From this concern, an interest in-migration in general developed since they realised that it was such a remarkably unifying theme – everyone either has folk who migrated inwards or migrated outwards and many individuals will have plenty of both in their family story. It was felt that the more dominant ways of doing Highland history treat movement as being the epitome of trauma and loss. Examples include emigration and Clearance. These dominant streams and themes have rather overshadowed the steady arrival, in each generation, of migrants moving into the area and making their mark by dwelling there. The history of education in this area is strongly related to generational histories of temporary and permanent out-migrations. Our third theme balances that flow with insights into inward migrations and, indeed, finds that changes in education policy and delivery had a direct impact upon both kinds of migration.


By considering the source of these three research themes, we can see that not only is Mackay Country setting research agendas of its own but also that different ages groups and genders are contributing to this in their own ways. The interest in and support of these kinds of approaches by Heritage Lottery and LEADER is absolutely pivotal in making this possible. These themes have proved so absorbing that work in a voluntary capacity will continue beyond the formal life of this project.

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