Barra pupils get taste of bygone days

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Age-old building skills have been brought back to life at Barra’s Kisimul Castle with the creation of a traditional lime kiln to recreate the techniques used over the centuries.

The activity is part of a community and outreach event being organised by Historic Scotland, in partnership with chief of the Clan Macneil, whose seat is the iconic Kisimul Castle, which is managed by the agency.

Barra people now have the chance to learn about the traditional skills and techniques which were once prevalent on the island and gives local school children an idea of what life was like living in Kisimul Castle over the centuries.

Historic Scotland staff constructed a lime kiln on the Barra shoreline at Castlebay, which would have been a popular method for making mortar as recently as the 1930s.

The kiln was lit by Chris McGregor, Head of Estates and Major Projects at Historic Scotland, and was kept burning over two days, to facilitate demonstrations of the mortar making process to children from Castlebay and Eoligarry Schools.

The kiln will remain as permanent feature of the heritage trail for the Herring industry.

At the Kisimul Castle, school pupils were given tours of the building and had the opportunity to dress in period costume to explore the castle through the eyes of fictional historical characters.

A Gaelic language officer also delivered lessons in Gaelic and English, and pupils had the chance to learn about the people who lived in the castle and handle some medieval artefacts.

Other activities will focus on teaching pupils about the properties of stone and the importance of using suitable materials in buildings of traditional construction. The school children will have the opportunity to take part in hands-on activities including re-creating ‘lime mortar’ by mixing melted chocolate and rice.

These interactive sessions aim to highlight the importance of traditional materials and techniques to the conservation of traditional buildings.

Elsewhere on the island there are digital media literacy classes taking place as part of a Scotland-wide project. The Digital Commonwealth Project aims to use the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games as an opportunity to empower communities to tell their stories on digital platforms.

The Barra school children will be interviewing members of the local community on their tales of traditional building techniques on the island and recording them for posterity. The interviews will then be compiled into a video, which will be presented to the local historical society (Comunn Eachdraidh).

Historic Scotland’s District Architect Jamie MacPherson said: “These activities are the culmination of three years’ work with the Barra community which has allowed us to bring the island’s traditional skills back to life.

“The creation of the kiln overlooking Kisimul is significant as it has really brought this centuries old technique for creating mortar to a new generation and is leading to a greater understanding of how the castle and many buildings on Barra were constructed.

“The enthusiasm of the young people to learn more of their heritage has been encouraging and we hope they will continue to find out more about the historic environment that surrounds them.”

Head Teacher of Castlebay Community School, Annag Maclean said: “Thanks to the strong traditions on the island, our community have always been closely bound to their cultural history and traditions.

“Events like this one help to make that bond stronger, as the activities of this week are Curriculum for Excellence in action and give the young learners a great opportunity for inter-disciplinary learning in a way that is fun and accessible. We are getting a great insight into how many of the old buildings we see around the island were built, and I’m sure we will all have a new-found appreciation of what life was like on the island for many of our ancestors.”

Pictured are Sean MacNeil from Castlebay Community School lighting a traditional lime kiln with Historic Scotland’s Chris McGregor, The project aims to educate school children about traditional building skills.