MOST days in Shirley and Alan Firth’s home, the peace and quiet of lockdown is gently broken by the soothing sounds of a French horn.

If it’s not his music, it’s 16-year-old Chinese student Evan Ren chatting online to his friends or parents 5,000 miles away in Beijing, talking to teachers at his Edinburgh boarding school about lessons or playing a game on his laptop.

They’re the sounds of a teenager busying himself as best he can. And for the retired couple who have unexpectedly opened their home to him for what could be the best part of an entire year, they have made lockdown a little bit more bearable.

At a time when some parents may be struggling with pent up angst-ridden teens during lockdown, Shirley and Alanthe Firths, and other host families who have stepped in to help as international boarding school students faced uncertainty, have found surprising benefits to looking after someone else’s child.

“I think we’ve got the best end of the deal,” says Mrs Firth. “We have had company and having a young person in the house makes you think about doing different things, whereas we might just have sat in front of the television.”

Both in their early 70s, with their own five children who are now adults and all but one living hundreds of miles away, the retired couple might have faced a quiet and possibly boring few months of lockdown at home.

Instead, as the crisis evolved and a hectic dash began to figure out how to either repatriate hundreds of international students studying at Scottish boarding schools or find them somewhere to stay, the pair offered help.

Now, with Evan living in their home in Tranent, near Edinburgh, and quarantine restrictions making it pointless for him to even consider travelling home to China for summer, the couple face looking after their international visitor until at least September when Merchiston Castle School is expected to reopen – and possibly until Christmas.

It may sound daunting to suddenly find yourself looking after someone else’s teenager when you’re in your twilight years, but, the couple insist it could not have worked out better.

“Evan walks the dog either with me or my husband once a day to get exercise and fresh air, we sit in the garden, we’ve had a barbecue and we play games,” says Mrs Firth.

“Evan plays the French horn very well. We watch television and we’ve been learning about China. He’s interesting, his English is excellent and he’s travelled a lot.”

And, she adds, there has been another unanticipated benefit.

“One of my sons organises an online quiz that we do on Zoom on Sunday evening,” says Shirley. “Evan has been a real help when questions come up to do with music or things that we don’t know the answer to – he usually does.”

The couple have opened their home to international students at weekends and half-term holidays when boarding school accommodation closes down for the past three years.

Normally, however, they would host children for only a few weeks at a time.

However, as the pandemic emerged and boarding schools prepared to close, an urgent rush began to find routes home for about 1,000 international pupils in Scottish schools.

Edinburgh-based Academic Families, an international guardian organisation that organises the boarding and care of children who come to Scotland’s most exclusive schools from other countries, helped almost 300 pupils return home.

In some cases, pupils – some just 10 years old – faced daunting journeys of thousands of miles, wearing PPE on flights and often involving several stops to reach their final destination. 

In all, Academic Families returned children to 29 different countries.  Other similar guardian organisations also faced a rush to organise international transport for hundreds of students, while some parents paid eye-watering bills for last-minute flights.

“Families have been absolute troopers,” says Lorna Clayton, of Academic Families. “They have stepped into the breech, they didn’t know what was going to happen, how long things were going to continue.”

HeraldScotland: Yoko Nakano, 17, a student at Fettes College in Edinburgh, also opted to stay in Scotland rather than travel home to Tokyo. She is now staying with Margaret and Brian Dickson in Dollar, Clackmannanshire.Yoko Nakano, 17, a student at Fettes College in Edinburgh, also opted to stay in Scotland rather than travel home to Tokyo. She is now staying with Margaret and Brian Dickson in Dollar, Clackmannanshire.

Yoko Nakano, 17, a student at Fettes College in Edinburgh, opted to stay in Scotland rather than travel home to Tokyo. She is now staying with Margaret and Brian Dickson in their home in Dollar, Clackmannanshire.

“Having her here during this time has enhance our lives and given dimension to our days,” says Margaret, 67.

“She is very quick to laugh, she is funny and smiles a lot. "She is a delight to be with.

“Having her here has been good for me, it’s made me think about catering more than I would normally do and has given me more structure at a time when normal things that I would do aren’t happening.”

Yoko, one of a group of eight students from Japan studying at Fettes as part of a two-year scholarship aimed at paving their route to elite universities opted to remain in Scotland in order to improve her English and learn more about the UK.

She will spend summer with the couple before returning to school in Edinburgh in September.

“I thought I might have to go back, so I am happy now,” she says. “I like it here, the air is fresh, it’s quiet and peaceful. It’s different from Tokyo.  

“I feel like I’m part of their family.”

“Having her here during has enhanced our lives and given dimension to our days,” says Mrs Dickson, 67.

“She is very quick to laugh, is funny and smiles a lot. She is a delight to be with. Having her here has been good for me, it’s made me think about catering more than I would normally.”

Yoko, one of a group of eight students from Japan studying at Fettes as part of a two-year scholarship aimed at paving their route to elite universities opted to remain in Scotland to improve her English and learn more about the UK.

She will spend summer with the couple before returning to school in Edinburgh in September.