During his recent visit to Orkney, education writer James McEnaney learned about a school history project with a difference.

It all sounds so simple on the face of it.

The Fereday Project is an annual, local history task for S2 students at Stromness Academy and Kirkwall Grammar Schools. It was established by Willie Thomson, a past rector at the latter institution, to commemorate and continue the work of the school’s former head of history, Ray Fereday.

Students select a local topic that interests them and then use research skills and a range of information sources to investigate. Findings can be submitted in various different formats including a traditional report, a poster, a video and more.

To help with the investigative, young people are encouraged to turn their topic into a question, for example: “Was St Ola football team’s success because of the dedication of its founder members?” or “How has the local fire service changed since 1930?”, although this is optional advice rather than a core requirement.

But another one of the optional criteria transforms all of this from a standard school project to something else entirely: students are told that if they “carry out original research on any aspect of Orkney history” then their project will also be considered for the Fereday Prize. This means that, rather than spending eternity in a forgotten filing cabinet at the back of a classroom, the student’s work would be added to the local public library’s official archives.

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As with everything else in education, it’s all entirely imperfect. A few of the people I spoke to were hugely enthusiastic about it, but others (notably a couple of parents of secondary school students) saw it mainly as a hassle. More than one person suggested that while the project itself is a great idea, there perhaps isn’t enough support for the students who don’t already know how to produce such documents or, perhaps more pressingly, don’t have parents able and willing to help them.

But for most Orcadians I asked, the general view of the Fereday Project was utterly neutral. It certainly didn’t seem to strike them as being anything special or noteworthy, and in fact I only learned about it at all because of a throwaway comment about a post on a local Facebook group.

There were more than a few rather incredulous looks when this outsider started asking about various strangers about it: why, I could see them wondering, did a journalist from Glasgow care about that second year history project everyone had to do at school?

Here’s why: the Fereday Project isn’t just an absolutely rock solid secondary school social science task, it is also generating a new, unique, and ongoing archive of Orcadian history and culture.

The Herald:



What’s more, by strongly encouraging the inclusion of original research in the form of interviews and surveys, and the use of personal documents like letters and diaries, the project drives the collection and collation of priceless information from sources that would, in many cases, be completely inaccessible to anyone else.

In 2013, Kiera Johnston was very highly commended for her project on Ethel Findlater, “who lived all her life at Breckan, Dounby, working indoors and out in the fields.” A keen but private singer, she “collected her songs in a ledger, writing the words she knew and the tunes in sol-fa notation”.

Her records ultimately became a “very valuable resources for scholars”, and recordings of her singing are available from sources such as Tobar an Dualchais (Kist o Riches), which seeks to use audio recordings as a means of protecting and promoting Scotland’s cultural heritage. Johnston’s project also includes a family tree showing that Ethel Findlater was her great-grandmother.

A couple of years earlier, Alasdair Gauld was recognised for a project exploring the campaign to prevent uranium mining in Orkney in the 1970s. The material was discovered in high concentrations in the south-western corner of mainland, but farmers – who had been asked for permission to drill on the land – alerted the local population, leading to “protests, petitions, BBC programmes and official intervention.”

Composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies’ “A Farewell to Stromness” was inspired by the campaign, which the author suggests may even have encouraged “the search for renewable sources of energy” that are now a key part of Orkney’s social and economic future. Appropriately, Gauld’s report also notes that a petition from the period, signed by the teachers at the island’s two secondary schools, “includes the name of R.P. Fereday.”

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Sam Beckwith-Wyman’s project, entitled “Journalism in Orkney During World War Two”, provides a fascinating record of the development of newspapers during that period. It charts the creation of publications including The Orkney Blast, which was founded by novelist Eric Linklater as a “service newspaper” for the forces stationed in the archipelago.

Writing in the first issue, Linklater argued: “We are civilised people, and to civilised people books and newspapers are necessary things. We cannot live without them.” The report includes copies of original front pages, biographical information about key individuals, and even original interviews.

But of the hundreds and hundreds of archived Fereday Projects, it was Orla Tait’s that caught my eye. Entitled “Why did horses leave the land?”, this report incorporates the poetry and ideas of two of Orkney’s greatest writers: George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir.

Tait provides a timeline of the development of mechanised farming in Orkney, from the delivery of the first tractor (to Mr J Irvine of Sanday) in 1916 to the effective end of horse-powered farming during the 1950s and 1960s. She has also included photographs showing pre-tractor farming, one of which, she points out, shows an area that has now “changed beyond all recognition” and “become Kirkwall’s Papdale housing scheme.”

In connecting all of this to poetry, she also touches on the deep connections between people and place that are still, even without the horses, very strong in Orkney, as well as the way in which they are formed and maintained by shared ideas and artistic expression.

The history of a place, and its people, is tied up in stories – it’s the places people went, the jobs the did, the dreams they had, the friends (and enemies) they made, the names they gave, the songs they sang, the ones they loved, and the loved ones they lost. Those are the things that shape communities, cultures, and our shared humanity. They make us who and what we are, and their value is beyond measure.

Whether the teenaged participants realise it or not, their submissions to the Fereday Project, and resulting contributions to their society, are anything but simple.