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WorkSkills at Sgoil Lìonacleit

Neil MacPherson’s croft at Liniclate on Benbecula is very like any Hebridean croft in many ways. Like other crofters Neil raises sheep. But unlike a lot of crofters he uses a big shed to keep them indoors for some of the year – to protect them from the worst weather. But when the summer comes the new lambs like to get out into the sun.

But what makes Neil’s croft special is the opportunity he gives to young people to learn about crofting. Every week a group of teenagers from the local school come with their teacher, Steve Carter, to get practical experience of how to work a croft.

As Neil explains to the boys what work they’re going to be doing, Steve collects a sample of sandy machair soil for analysis back at the school. Neil and Steve work together on this crofting course to provide a mixture of croft-based and classroom-based learning.

The practical task today is to clear a drain. Neil starts the boys off. In the meantime Steve takes a contrasting sample of black soil from the croft.

Under Neil’s direction the boys take over the work on the drain themselves, while Steve notes the contrast between the two different soils on the same croft.

“Machair soil is very granular. Um this is, this is a completely different texture and there’s just so much more water in that.”

By the end of the morning the boys have made great progress on the drain.

Meanwhile, at the old schoolhouse in Grimsay a different group of pupils from the same school at Liniclate are learning a different set of skills – how to build boats. Each year, Ronald John Maclean, who carries on a long tradition of boatbuilding on the island, guides a small group of pupils through the construction of a boat. This course was set up after discussions between the school and the Grimsay Boatshed Trust.

Today the boys are making oars. There’s plenty of equipment in the workshop, which means it’s quite a noisy environment.

The boys have a finished oar to use as their model. Even if they don’t choose to become boatbuilders themselves, this is a great opportunity for them to get a feel for life in a working environment.

Back at the school Steve leads the crofting pupils through the practical analysis of the two different soil samples collected on Neil’s croft.

“What we’re then going to do is we’re going to actually burn off the organic content of the soil, right? This will make the room smell, right? I’ll tell you now. It actually smells quite bad when you burn it off, OK? What we’ll call that is ‘c plus f burned’. You’re then going to weigh it again in a minute, having dried it out.

The machair soil, you can see it’s slightly lighter, across the back, the three samples in the same order that they are up there. So, John Alec and Calum, that one’s yours.”

The students are calculating the organic content of the soils. Steve has also done another test on the soils.

“You can just add Universal Indicator and you can see that the colours are significantly different. So, this one, which is the black soil, has gone slightly sort of yellowy – yeah? - which means that it’s acidic. It’s not strongly acidic. If it was strongly acidic it would be red. OK, so it’s not red. So it’s round about, um, sixish, five point five, sixish as a pH, OK?

This one is slightly bluey green, rather than the green that they actually started off with. So that is probably about seven point five. No more than that, if that. It might be slightly less than that, so, so it’s slight, slightly alkaline. And to be honest I’m surprised it’s not more alkaline than that.”

A final task at the end of the day is to water the plants in the school’s greenhouse to ensure their healthy growth. There is every sign that the school takes the healthy growth of its pupils equally seriously, giving them the widest possible range of options and experiences in the surrounding community.

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