Exclusive article to the Braehead News web site
(so far unprinted) by Hamish Brown
At School in the Black Wood
Hamish Brown recalls days with Braehead School parties in Rannoch forty years ago.
Back in the Sixties our school had a bothy (just a wooden hut) in the Black Wood of Rannoch, one room crowed with bunk beds and the other both living room and kitchen. Most of the fittings came from the ship breaking yard at Inverkeithing. For the kids from the coastal-towns of Fife it must have been a revelationary change of habitat, but they took to it like stuffing to a duck.
The Black Wood is big and our part of the forest was a genuine remnant of the old wood of Caledon that once filled the glens as far north as Loch Maree, mature trees towering from a tangle of moss, berry, water and rock. On the first evening we would have an energetic paper chase - one way of ensuring they went to sleep - but mainly to introduce them unselfconsciously to the wild wood. When a capercaillie rose like an exploding turkey at their feet it certainly felt wild. But even going astray did not need to cause panic.
South of the range rose 3000 foot hills (Munros) with all the drainage flowing north into Loch Rannoch. Anyone becoming 'mislaid' simply had to follow water down to reach the lockside road, and so home. This elementary navigational knowledge gave them the freedom of the Dark Wood. They couldn't be lost.
Our part of the wood was demarcated on the east by the big Dall Burn, beyond which lay the parkland landscape of Rannoch School while, west, the wood rolled on for more miles than would ever be explored. A minor road ran along the lochside, with an old ice house and some huts belonging to the navy between road and water. This landscape gave a great variety of bird life and many youngsters became enthusiastic bird watchers.
I've a memory of returning to the bothy and wondering at the odd sight of faces crowding a window - until a treecreeper worked round the Scots pine a yard away from the bothy. They sometimes thought there was a bit of magic in my ability to conjure up birds. On a walk I'd tell them they'd see wren, dipper, oystercatcher and goldcrest and, on each forecast, the bird duly appearing. I knew the habitats of course but there was the evening when one of them rushed in to say he'd seen a cormorant flying along Loch Rannoch. As Loch Rannoch is about as far from the sea as you could be this seemed unlikely but it was true and proved not unusual. And why not? The sea cuts well inland from Loch Etive towards Rannoch Moor, with its lochs draining to Lochs Rannoch and Tummel and so to the Tay and the sea at Perth, a much easier commuters' route than round the north of Scotland.
The Cappercaillie has become rare since those days. For a couple of seasons the wood had a cock bird that attacked humans, which made life a bit exciting. On another occasion some boys were having a dip at the mouth of the burn when there was a crashing of glass from the navy huts just above. We rushed up at once but found nobody, nor was there a missile among the shattered glass on the ground outside. We then noticed the window opposite had been smashed as well and the glass from it lay inside. Something had gone right through the building. Capercaillie. In case the boys were blamed they went and reported the matter to the local police in Kinloch Rannoch.
Some of the keen ornithologists were invited to do a radio programme about birds and the discussion drifted onto birds' names. One lad explained the nonsense of the name Wheatear. This was a misleading Victorian euphemism for the accurate Anglo Saxon white arse. Auntie cut that bit of the broadcast.
The varied bird life was simply a reflection of the range of habitats. Scots pine never dominates but shares space with birch, rowan, oak, holly, alder and so on. The mix of ferns, mosses, blaeberry (bilberry to sassenachs) made for a diverse ground cover - and plenty of bugs, beetles, butterflies and moths with the most exciting emement the wood ants with their domed nests among the hummocks. The road took its toll of wildlife, birds mostly but roe deer occasionally and once some girls found a dead weasel.
It if was necessary to tire them out on the first night, to ensure some sleep, there was no problem thereafter. With the soft Highland air and so much to see and do sleep was instant. On the drive up from Fife they were as chatty asa chimps, guzzling crisps and pop and, by the hill road over Schiehallion, mostly bringing everything up again; on the journey home they were usually fast asleep before passing Shiehallion. If not in Gillead, there was certainly balm in the Black Wood of Rannoch.
Schiehallion was the area's dominant peak. The fairy hill of the Caledonians, 3547 ft/1083m., famed and photographed for its Fuji Yama gracefulness. This symmetry led to the eighteenth century scientist and Astronomer Royal, Maskeleyne using Schiehallion to try and work out the mass and hight of the world and, in so doing, invented countours.
For some hundereds of youngsters Schiehallion was their first Munro and on its winter slopes skills were learnt that would be applied on Mont Blanc. On this additional habitat of hills and heather and peat above the wooded valleys the youngsters saw snipe drumming and golder eagles soaring.
The day Braehead School closed for good (1970) we set off for the Alps as usual and their steps would range from the Arctic to the Atlas - big doings from small cones in the Black Wood of Rannoch. The wood was one of the first ancient remnants to be regarded as a rare treasure and the Forestry Commission (to whom we paid £1 a year in rent for the bothy) have done impressive work to keep the wood growing younger year by year. An old Scots pine forest is one of nature's great spectacles but overgrazing and misuse has lost so much of it that seeing a forest regenerate is heart-warming.
One of our groups went up for a week simply to paint the bothy but this was done so quickly we were able to trek in to McCook's bothy by Loch Ericht and climb Ben Alder and Beinn Bheoil by moonlight. Leaving school at fifteen with a tally of fifty Munros was not unusual. They knew their Scotland. Sometimes, in May we had joint trips with schools like Eton or Marlborough. (I went along as interpreter) and, on a trek across Rannoch Moor, it was to the boys the visitors turned, not me, when they wanted to ask the Where? What? And Why? of puzzles that lay about them. A Braehead group were camped on Rannoch moor (searching for the elusive Rannoch rush) when a student friend joined us for the weekend. He had to produce a newspaper before we believed the news he brought: President Kennedy's assassination. We must have been among the last people in the world to have heard.
Very few children read much and none were read to by parents so bedtime strories soon became a tradition. Rikki-Tikki-Tavi, The Monkey's Paw, Leam O'Flaherty animal/bird stories, Saki, bits of Always a Little Further, all of The Prisoner of Zenda and the then new Narnia chronicles. We also kept a logbook and every day was written up by someone and they also reported back for the weekly school newspaper. Reading and writing can be fun.
The area was full of historic sites and traditions which they delved into. We found cup marked stones and explored old graveyards (one stone showed a whole family of twelve wiped out by consumption - TB). We did one big project at school based on the song The Road to the Isles with its refrain, "Sure by Tummel and Loch Rannoch and Lochaber I will go ....." and doing this they learned about droving, the clan system, the Clearances and, to round it off, we trekked along the song's route to Skye. And we sang. On one trip we crossed the hills to Glen Lyon by an old drove road and had a two hour walk to reach Garth youth hostel. They sang the whole way, without repitition.
All parties at the bothy learned to camp and look after themselves. Cooking was done on paraffin primus stoves which required considerable discipline. The person who carried paraffin never carried food. Parraffin-flavoured tea was not appreciated. There was an odd spin-off from their having to learn to cook: the school produced more chefs and caterers than any other in Fife, one even working in Buckingham Palace.
The both had a gas cooker, gas lighting and running water besides an old Carron range with a "swee" - an arm for suspending a kettle over a fire. There was one desperately misused boy who came up on several occasions to enjoy "respite from pressure" in headmaster R. F. Mackenzie's phrase. One day we headed off for the Rannoch hills, leaving him behind to enjoy a peacful day. When we returned the kettle was simmering on the swee, a soup had been made, a pot of potatoes peeled and a pile of firewood laid in.
Kinloch Rannoch was four miles away but they would think nothing of walking there and back just to buy sweets. We ate well always: a proper soup, meat and plenty of vegetable, tempting sweets (trifles, bread and butter pudding, spiced rice and raisin pudding). There was always a curry night, always a pancakes night, sometimes we baked biscuits. Cooking could be fun. We allowed six shillings (60p) per person per day.
There were often boys and girls in the parties who couldn't even afford that cost and the pupils would hold disco nights to raise funds to send the less fortunate to Rannoch. There were the odd horrors of course but how effective was the challenge of Rannoch, and the whole sweep of Mackenzie's vision in Buckhaven, was seen in there being no pupils on probation when the school closed. At slide shows today I am constantly accosted afterwards by former pupils who say how grateful they are for the comfort and challenge of their school days.
In those years gave me grey hairs there was often a certain amount humour to ambush me. We were shopping in Kinloch Rannoch once when I spotted a boy quietly stealing postcards one by one from a stand and slipping them into his donkey jacket pocket. He caught me eye so I gave a shake of the head and he immediatly went into reverse, one by one replacing them, with great care, into the correct slots.
Groups on arrival were also warned that over night they would be sent out, alone, with their sleeping bags, so they's better find suitable shelter beforehand. On one visit there was a stack of concrete culvert pipes and when I wandered out to check some of the usual places they used I found several boys lying inside the pipes, like grubs insude a honeycomb. They came in for breakfast after those nights walking ten foot tall.
Another place often discovered, and used, was the ice house, unless it was occupied by a wandering tramp, Hairy Dan. (This ice house was an arched brick structure sunk almost underground, used a century ago for storing food into summer, after being filled with ice during winter - a sort of pre-electricity freezer). If the weather was dry the wise, or lazy, simply lay in the open and how many kids today have had a chance to do that? Now you have to fill in a risk assessment form to walk on the beach. Theirs the good fortune then to have tasted the benison of the Black Wood. I'll end by translating a few of their breakfast time comments.
"A squirrel ran over my sleeping bag."
"I thought there was some monster int he woods but it was just Shug snoring."
"A wren family played tig all round me."
"Hamish, the stars move!"