Drawing from the traditions of the land it is built on, an innovative eco education centre in the Highlands is working to teach young people rural skills so they can build the resilience to face an uncertain future.

The Shieling Project at Struy near Beauly was founded by Dr Sam Harrison, who has a background in working with at-risk young people and developing environmental learning programmes for schools.

In the Highlands and Western Isles women and children would migrate to higher land with the cattle for summer grazing. There they would live in simple huts, shielings, making butter and cheese, with the younger generation learning about themselves and their heritage from the elders.


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It is exactly that spirit of community and transmission of customs that Dr Harrison and partner Karen Marshall, who runs the project’s outdoor nursery, are working so hard to maintain.

The Shieling Project was dreamed up 12 years ago when Dr Harrison, who at the time was a nomadic educator, travelling from school to school, was helping children paint a “picture of the richness of where they lived”.

He dreamed of having a permanent site where he could rear livestock and teach people the value of working with, and for, nature. It was during the study of his PhD in Place Based Education that the idea began to crystallise.

He said: “I was thinking about the shieling as a way of educating kids because that’s how they learned about the wider natural landscape. In the old days, they went up to the shieling, they found about all the place names and all the plants and animals out there.

“I loved the idea of kids being in the outdoors, running around the hills, learning about them, looking after the cows, fending off the wolves, singing all the songs around the fireplace.

“Eventually, I just kind got to a stage where I had no choice but to start.”

Six years on and the project now has 10 employees who welcome school and private groups to pitch in while learning lost skills.

The project represents the value of how communities used to live. Dr Harrison said: “It’s a reminder that we managed to live for a very long time in a sustainable way. There were more people living off the land who were self sufficient.”

Careful not to romanticise what would have been a hard life, Dr Harrison believes modern societies would only benefit from reconnecting with the wild.

He said: “I think nowadays when we think about environmental issues, we just think humans are bad but the Shieling is giving children a story that people aren’t inherently bad but were part of a healthy eco-system.

“The Shieling is a little tradition that has got a big message about what we’re struggling with today about sustainable communities.”

Children, young people and adults come to the project to learn how to tend to animals, grow food, cook and turn off their devices to collaboratively create a culture for themselves through songs, storytelling and film.

Guests help construct low carbon buildings and monitor the energy they are using while on site.


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Dr Harrison said: “Typically environmental education has been disaster education. How rubbish everything is, attempting to motivate change by guilt and shame. Here, and especially for children, we think that a stronger motivation is love, enjoyment, care for a place.

“Here we let people experience a bit of off grid living and be outside for long periods of time. All this adds up to skills for a sustainable future, but it also adds up to fun, to a sense of mental and physical well-being.”

Dr Harrison hopes that visitors might then see any changes they need to make to adapt to and mitigate climate change as positive.

He said: “In terms of educating children like this, the idea is that we try and use practical experiences so we’re getting people’s bodies and minds engaged, because most of schooling is either sitting being told stuff or is virtual and it’s not engaging people’s bodies and hearts, as well as their minds.”

It is during the practical experiences of making a basket or digging up peat or feeding calves where young people can think through the ideas they are being taught and “live through” some of the big questions being asked.

Dr Harrison said: “You can’t ask a child what a stable future looks like and expect an answer in a minute. They need weeks or years or lives to think about that. And they also need to experience it, rather than just have it as an abstract thing, because that’s the problem with all these big things like climate change, sustainability, and biodiversity, they’re so huge. How do you get hold of it? How do you understand it? How do you make it real in a way that you can hold on to and do something about it?

“Otherwise, it’s just like, ‘oh, I’m scared about that’, because it’s just an idea.”

The untraditional gender politics of the historical shielings is another teaching arm of Dr Harrison’s programme. While the men remained in the low lands with the burgeoning crops, the women took the cattle, and therefore all the wealth, up to graze.

He said: “That alone was fairly unusual in some of these traditional cultures where the men tend to be fairly entrenched in their power positions.”

Children are “wonderfully resilient, and flexible and open to new ideas” but are not able to make the choices about how they live and what they do.

Dr Harrison said: “What we’re trying to do is show that sustainability is a way of being happier and healthier and having fun.

“We want them to see that we can build up build some of our buildings, we can grow some of our food, we can take our entertainment, art, and cultural experience back into our own control and do it ourselves. We can actually have a feeling that we’re involved in our landscape and our community.”

The beauty of the project is that it looks both backwards and forwards to inform its teachings.

Dr Harrison said: “We’re asking what the future is going to look like, and what does that mean to you.”