John Dye's view of the
first hundred Expeditions :
At 9.15 in the morning of Thursday
6th August 1998, I was standing
in the pouring rain next to the Dorlin road wondering if I could
go back home and sit somewhere warm with a cup of tea. Outside
the car, the midges were putting on a corroboree and the wondrous
view across the channel to the Small Isles was screened by a
soaking wall of mist. Above me loomed the hill where, ten years
before, I had seen ravens gather from miles around, mill about
for a noisy half hour and suddenly disperse again over the horizon.
The Expedition Project is an inflated title for a simple plan
to introduce some local children, mostly of Primary School age,
and their parents, to aspects of the area they had never seen
or even thought about. I hoped they would become as interested
in local history, and the making of the local landscape as I
Long before, when I was on the local Community Council, we discussed
a request from some local parents for a Play Area in the village,
with swings and a slide, (incidentally, it got built and is
a great success). While the discussion went on, my own thoughts
ran back to a childhood spent in London, where Play Areas were
necessary because the place was a dump. I couldn't see a need
for them here: the country for miles around was the best and
safest Play Area in the world, was nobody aware of it? (Of course
they were: children everywhere are nomads at heart and they
all knew the ground within a few kilometres of their homes down
to the last blade of grass, but what they saw on TV were slides
and swings, and they felt deprived without them).
I was almost ready to give up and leave when a car drew up
and out climbed three of my old friends, well, two of them were
under 10 but I had known them since babies and I'd known their
mother since she was under 10 too. They were all dressed for
foul weather and ready for a challenge, so away we went, cloaked
in a no-fly-zone of midge-repellent.
My idea was to be simple: exploratory walks on Saturday mornings
- the Sabbath was not acceptable to all - each trip covering
a different area and examining everything from animal droppings
to local legends. At least one adult per five children and,
as far as possible, all children to be accompanied by a parent
or relative. This latter condition is not so difficult in a
Highland district where many of the children are related.
I would decide upon a route and walk it beforehand, and once
an expedition was announced, we would go, even if only one child
turned up. We've never cancelled because of bad weather, even
in the middle of winter, and only one expedition didn't get
any explorers at all. We always start at 9.30 a.m., having assembled
at 9.15, and we normally finish around 1 o'clock, although we
have been as early as noon and as late as 3.30 p.m. The pattern
of the expeditions, however, has continually changed since August
We climbed over the stile and crossed
the soggy field and had a look at the Sitka Spruce. Sitka have
had a bad press for all the wrong reasons: in commercial forests
they cover the hillsides in a dark mass because, like battery
hens, they are crowded unnaturally with an eye on the financial
return. Anyone who hates Sitka should go and have a look at
the tree on the Dorlin road, it has plenty of room, good soil,
a site close to a stream and shelter from the worst of the wind,
it is fantastic. The girls helped me put a measuring tape around
the trunk - 4.7 metres, not a British record but a fine tree
nevertheless. Nobody has taken a core from this tree but I assume
it was planted over a hundred years ago, when the estate belonged
to Mr Hope-Scott, nephew of Sir Walter and initiator of many
I have no children of my own and very little experience of looking
after them and I didn't have a clue what would happen. I had
only one firm rule: I was not going to put any child into real
danger, but I wanted them to find out things and at the same
time, to appreciate the dangers and learn how to be safe in
wild country. I wanted to make them confident but sensible;
to know how to find their way and how to avoid trouble, but
I didn't know how small children could manage on steep, slippery
paths, or whether they could hear me through the pouring rain.
All of us, the girls, their Mum and
I, were good friends of a local character, the late Hugh MacDonald,
universally known as the Gamie. A little up the hill from the
Sitka Spruce was an area of woodland consisting entirely of
alder trees. The Gamie once told me that he had been employed
on the estate as a lad and one of his first jobs was to plant
these alders, collecting the saplings from a nearby wood. I
think this was during the 1920s when the estate belonged to
Sir Alexander Macguire, who made a fortune with his match factories.
Alder wood is used for matchsticks and maybe Sir Alexander was
thinking in the long term, but he sold the estate a few years
The children turned out to be a lot tougher than I expected
- a few weeks later we went out in a full gale which almost
blew them off their feet, and the only one who fell was me.
That was a cold, rough day and we all got chilled and tired.
One of my helpers said we should go back to the tea room in
the village for a toastie and a drink to warm everyone up. Somehow
the act of getting around the tables with food and a hot drink
made a perfect end to the adventure - we were a team. This became
one of the major breakthroughs in the project and every expedition
since then has finished the same way. It's the equivalent of
climbers returning to the pub, it marks our survival and fixes
the outing in our memories.
We pushed on up the dripping valley, over
stones made treacherous by water, mud and algae. There was a
great growth of mosses and liverworts on the rocks and I tried,
the first of many attempts, to get the girls interested in these
plants. Running beside the path was a large iron pipe and this
at least gained their attention. It was installed many years
ago as part of a scheme to power a small turbine which provided
electricity for the Dorlin salmon cannery. Later on the cannery
closed and the power was used by the local houses until the
mains supply came around 1970. The pipe was then abandoned and
fractured because there was a hard frost and it hadn't been
drained. The girls looked at the long splits the ice had caused.
After a few trips it occurred to me that the best indication
of the effect of the expedition might be to get each of the
participants to draw what they remembered. So when we went back
to 'our room' in the Acharacle Centre, they all sat round a
table, took a sheet of paper, helped themselves to a pen from
the box and drew whatever came to mind.
I was amazed at the pictures: they showed a range of totally
different aspects, some concentrating on things they had been
shown, some greatly influenced by chance incidents and views
and some relating the whole trip only to themselves, their friends
or even their snacks. As with the lunch, the pictures became
an essential part of every expedition and I now have a collection
of hundreds of impressions of the expeditions, some of them
showing amazing skill. As one girl said: 'keep it, it'll be
worth a million dollars.'
The pattern became established: during the summer we returned
to the Tea Room for a lunch and in winter, when the Tea Room
is closed, we used the 'Resipol' room in the local Village Centre,
a Social Services building normally vacant at weekends. 'Resipol'
was our 'own' room with our pictures on the wall; after an exhausting
trip it was nice to see how the explorers settled themselves
down round the tables as if it was an expensive city club. We
usually had soup and rolls in the Centre when the weather was
cold and usually the explorers themselves prepared and served
it. Recently, however, the Tea Room has kept open at weekends
throughout the year and we all have the luxury of being served,
sometimes by former explorers.
We squelched on up the valley until
we reached the big rock over the river. It is a boulder fallen
from the cliff which formed a bridge across the stream and the
irregularity of weathering has caused a saddle to be formed
in the centre in which, with a bit of a struggle, one can sit
and look down the valley. The story is that the Chief of the
Moidart Clanranalds sat on this rock in 1715, a few days before
the Battle of Sherriffmuir, sadly watching as the smoke from
Castle Tioram drifted on the breeze. He had ordered the castle
burned in case it fell into the hands of the enemy while the
men were away. Alas, he died at Sherriffmuir and Castle Tioram
is a ruin still.
It was too wet and slippery for the girls to get up onto the
Chieftain's seat, but they both got there in later expeditions.
The first expedition had been so dark and wet that photography
was out of the question, but I took a camera next time and soon
after that we started taking disposable cameras which were handed
out to the children. I once read an article that said that children
go through a phase in their early teens when all they photograph
is each other, but the local children seem to be well ahead
of the pack in this. Very few landscapes and features appear,
but many of the shots are studies of the participants, myself
included. The main problem it is that the children expect far
too much from the cheap cameras, but among the out of focus
close-ups, black cave interiors and burned-out sunshine, there
have been some good pictures forming a fine collection to stand
alongside the drawings.
When we got back to the road we still
had time to go down the hill to the old turbine house, a fine
stone building with some of the old wiring still on the walls.
But the rain never let up for a minute, everyone was cold and
wet and hungry and we hurried back to the cars. Even in the
rain, the girls thought it was a great trip. I fixed an early
date for the next one.
I'm not sure if it is a result of good upbringing, inherent
good sense or fine schooling, but there has been very little
misbehaviour on any of the expeditions. The most worrying was
number 25, when a small group somehow got completely away in
front of the main party and we didn't know where they were.
As it happened, everything was fine and the oldest member of
the breakaway group acted very responsibly, but the implications
worried me terribly. Since everyone is a volunteer, there are
few sanctions I can apply. My solution was to make membership
cards, which were greatly prized by the explorers. I explained
that I could call the card in if anyone broke the rules and,
amazingly, I never had any trouble again.
Expedition No. 25 was particularly worrying because it ended
on a dangerous road (coincidentally the same place that No.1
started). There is always a risk if some of the group run on
ahead and get on the road, or lead the younger ones, so now
I try to organise all expeditions to start and finish at a quiet
place. Nowhere in the hills is as dangerous as the public road.
Four days after the first expedition,
I went out again, this time in the sunshine, and we got five
children, two adults and a dog. Incidentally, dogs have attended
most of the expeditions since. This time we climbed through
the woods and out onto the open hills. The smallest explorer
found it too much and became one of only three children to drop
out halfway through a trip (she has since become a stalwart
supporter). The rest of us followed a route through the hills
looking at the tree struck by lightning, an unusual bridge and
a deserted village. When we got to the top of the hill, everyone
was very tired and we stopped for the first of the, now traditional,
stops for Tunnock's wafers. (The Tunnock's wafer features frequently
in the expedition drawings!) On this expedition I made an amazing
discovery: not one of these country children knew you could
drink water from a stream. Once they got the idea it was hard
to stop them and I still find myself pronouncing on the suitability
of boggy pools and sluggish ditches along the route, but the
more experienced members now head instinctively for the fast
flowing streams and waterfalls.
As a biologist, I have always been interested in the old 'nature
versus nurture' debate - is our behaviour the result of our
upbringing or our experiences? My inclination towards natural
justice always led me to favour the influence of experience
over inherited behaviour, but observations made on the expeditions
have given me cause to reconsider. I have noticed that small
girls left in groups, will almost invariably talk and end up
giggling; small boys, on the other hand, will endeavour to find
sticks to wave around and, if not actively discouraged, will
end up fighting with them. I admit that some of the girls will
use sticks in self defence and the boys can giggle with the
best, but the general behaviour seems to follow a pattern which
appears to be inherent and therefore probably of genetic origin.
Although the district is almost surrounded
by sea, it seems that many of the children don't visit the shore
very often. Expeditions that have included a visit to a beach
have been very popular, and even when the weather seems far
too cold for swimming, many of the explorers still seem to get
very wet. Fortunately all of the beach situations are fairly
remote so they have usually had time to dry out on the long
walk back to the car.
I have always admired teachers. They mould the way we see the
world and we all owe so much to them. However, before the ink
was dry on my new 'teaching' degree, I found myself talking
to a young lady working in a London secondary school and I saw
her frustration at the restrictions of the curriculum, the exam
system, the bureaucracy - and she'd only been teaching a few
months! I decided there and then that if I couldn't teach juniors
(for which I needed more qualifications), I wouldn't teach at
all, and I went into research. Strangely, I did end up lecturing
to teenagers and mature students and even got involved with
two universities, but I'm sure I would never have made it as
a secondary school teacher. With the Expedition Project, I have
had the best of all possible worlds - my pupils are all volunteers:
if they get fed up, they don't have to come again. I'm amazed
that so many of them have, through foul weather and winter darkness,
turned up prepared to find something new.
When the Expeditions started, there was hardly any weekend activity
for young children in the district. As the years have passed,
more and more alternative attractions have appeared, some of
my ex-explorers went to golf lessons, some to music classes,
but that doesn't matter: it's good that they have these opportunities.
The parents have also become busier, many of them work at weekends
and it has became impossible to keep to my original plan of
having every explorer accompanied by a relative, although the
youngest normally have a parent with them.
The seventh expedition was to the Torr
Mor, a lookout which Anne and I discovered many years ago and
which we thought everyone knew about, but apparently not. The
climb up through the oak wood was exciting because we all saw
a deer hind right below us. At the top is a marvellous exposure
of glacial striae (scratches made by rocks trapped in the edge
of a glacier) but the real challenge was getting into the lookout.
It is formed from a cave in a jumble of boulders high up against
a small cliff and the only way in is to edge along under an
overhang and drop through a crack in the covering stone. It
turned out to be a real scramble, but everyone who wanted to
get there managed it and they were able to sit in the hidden
lookout with a view out across the moss. On one side of the
cave is an ancient wall which gives protection against the north
wind, the structure dated from times when danger threatened
from the sea, possibly a thousand years ago. One of the girls
was so impressed she brought her parents up the following week
and her father almost got stuck in the crack.
By the time we went to the Torr Mor, I had already started taking
the first aid kit: this was a fairly basic collection of emergency
materials in a plastic box carried in my father's old WWII gas
mask case. Normally one of the children carries it and at one
stage two of the girls made up their minds to be expedition
nurses and took the job on with great enthusiasm. After a while
they became so keen that the participants felt the outing was
not complete without a bandage or a piece of sticking plaster
and the return to the village took on the appearance of a military
retreat. I should add that I was a volunteer fireman for seventeen
years and had a few first aid courses behind me, and we normally
have someone on the team with fairly advanced skills: my helpers
have included four doctors, two fireman (who are also professional
divers) and a vet. In September 2003, just over five years since
we started, I attended a First Aid Course held in 'our' room
at the Centre. I was pleased to find three of my young explorers
had also enrolled - they took it very seriously and I really
think their answers were better than mine. Anyway we all got
our certificates and now I have three explorers who at least
consider themselves 'qualified' to carry the first aid kit.
In addition to the first aid kit, there are a few other items
which are always taken: an old World War II police whistle (which
is a general 'recall' signal for anyone who wanders off), a
powerful hand lens for small finds, a Swiss army knife, a torch
and a compass. I normally take a map of the area we will cover,
or at least a blown-up section of a map, laminated to keep off
the rain, which they all see before each expedition to get an
idea of where we're going. I have no real plan to teach map
reading as such, just to familiarise them with the technique.
One of the privileges of going out with
the children is the chance to participate in some of their conversations.
I can remember an occasion when there had been considerable
comment in the news about the separation of a pair of conjoined
twin babies. The children were very concerned about this and
had clearly discussed it amongst themselves. They were particularly
upset by the bald statement that one on the babies had no chance
of survival. I explained that there was only one heart available
but they couldn't see why the hospital should give up. 'They
should do a heart transplant,' was the opinion of one lad. I
explained that the babies were very small, 'that's ridiculous,
there are always sick babies dying.' I was amazed that they
had thought so deeply about the problems, I don't believe they
discussed it with any adults apart from me.
Although I eventually stopped using the cards, another technique
evolved in a quiet way and has assumed great importance: I keep
all the records of attendance on a spreadsheet, which is now
printed out after each trip as a 'league table'. Pretty well
the first thing everyone does on a Saturday morning is to carefully
go down the list and see how they are doing, who they are catching
up with and who is catching them up. After the expedition I
would use the same list to mark the names of the attenders.
It took ages before one of my clever helpers pointed out that
they could tick their own names on this list before they started
and save me the trouble.
Several expeditions, mostly in poorish weather, took place in
Acharacle Church Yard. As I mentioned, many of the children
are from old local families and we were very fortunate in getting
John (Gorten) Cameron to explain the graves and the relationships
between the families. At one stage I really thought the kids
were not taking in the information but John Cameron just kept
on quietly talking until we got round the section. After he
left I asked the children if they thought it had been worthwhile
and they immediately started running around the graves pointing
out their relatives. John Cameron is, alas, no longer with us;
one of his last trips out of doors was to show the children
round the last section of the churchyard.
Incidentally, the closest we ever got to disaster was in that
churchyard. I took some of the children to look at the gravestones
while we were waiting to start an expedition and, two days later,
one of the largest headstones, possibly weighing half a ton,
suddenly fell exactly where we had all been standing.
The retentive memories of the children I saw in the churchyard
has been repeated dozens of times: they hardly ever listen and
one is tempted to feel it's not worth telling them anything.
However, once in a while I have had the unsettling experience
of arriving somewhere and making a statement and having the
whole lot of them stop their conversation and turn on me saying:
'that's not what you said last time we were here!' I blame television.
| Since we use the cars of the volunteers, and since nobody
pays to come on the expeditions, the finances are very simple.
The only money I need is to cover a bit of secretarial work
(paper, ink, laminates etc), pay for the photographs and drawing
materials and cover the cost of the lunches. The project operates
under the aegis of Acharacle Community Council who made formal
grant applications which have secured several Community Project
Grants (many of the council members have been expedition parents
and participants). Scottish Natural Heritage gave us a grant
to purchase a splendid microscope, which we have used during
the winter to examine lichens, mosses and insects. I have also
had many generous donations from supporters.
However, the project has always been a one-man show, I have
no committee and no meetings apart from the expeditions. In
spite of all my efforts, the local children, and even many of
their parents, have always referred to 'John Dye Walks'.
Only three months after the first expedition,
I decided to make an attempt to reach the Three Old Maids -
a group of prominent rocks high on the cliffs above Kinlochmoidart.
We had nine children this time, and only one adult, but the
weather was good and the children were a very responsible bunch.
The climb is exhausting since the Three Old Maids are 600 feet
above the floor of the glen. They look like three rocks but
only the outer two are natural outcrops, the centre one is a
perched boulder between them so that the appearance from even
a few yards away is of three equal pointed rocks. The interesting
thing is that this is another lookout - under the central boulder
is a small chamber with a window-like opening looking out towards
the sea and everyone took turns climbing into it and gazing
out, as people must have done many hundreds of years ago. After
a spell exploring the top they all turned to me for instructions
and I pointed over the edge of the cliff and said 'down there'.
They were delighted, but of course when they got to the edge
it wasn't a cliff at all and we went down a zigzag path through
the woods. At one point they couldn't see the path and looked
back for instructions. I told them to head for the rock like
a pyramid and off they went. When I caught up with them, they
had clearly been discussing an idea: 'John,' they said, 'could
you take us to Egypt?'
I have toyed with the idea of going further, but time and expense
is against me; but if I won the lottery, one of the first things
I would do is take them all to see Hadrian's Wall.
The area around Acharacle is one of the last places in Britain
to be thoroughly surveyed archaeologically, you are quite likely
to find a significant but unrecorded feature every time you
spend a day on the hills. The expeditions have detected a great
many of these features, some of the children have developed
a keen eye for ancient walls, platforms and houses. On one memorable
occasion, one of them did a drawing of workers in the woods,
using 200-year-old charcoal he had found himself on an old platform.
Another explorer discovered a piece of Dutch tile on a beach
and others have found ancient seashells in rock shelters well
above the present shore. Probably the most impressive was a
young lad who stopped me as we were traversing a wood saying:
'do you realise you just walked over an ancient house,' and
he was right. Every outing is indeed an expedition, we almost
always make a discovery of some sort.
Our most ambitious expedition was a
boat trip on Loch Shiel. It was also the occasion of one of
the real panics to which expedition leaders are prone. We had
twenty young explorers and on a boat with lots of sections and
areas, I found myself scanning the rails and counting children
more or less non-stop. After we reached the Green Isle, I did
one more count, and got twenty-on! I scanned them all diligently
and sure enough, down on the rear deck, dancing around with
the others, was a little girl I never saw in my life before!
There turned out to be a simple explanation: the skipper knew
we wanted to land on the shore and the boat was too big to get
on the beach, so he got Charlie to bring his boat to act as
a tender. Charlie's daughter, Abbie, sneaked aboard from her
dad's boat when I wasn't looking. Needless to say, although
it rained most of the day, we all had a terrific time and I
often get requests for another boat trip.
Now we have got to 100 expeditions, it is time to examine some
the total attendance of children has been 741, each of which
represents a child attending for half a day, an average of over
seven children per trip, and I have been assisted by 258 adult
attendances, averaging over two per trip. The total participation
has involved 87 children and 64 adults, twelve of the children
have done more than 20 expeditions and five of the adults have
done more than 15 expeditions. Overall the ratio (including
me) has been better than one adult for every three children.
Funding for the project since 1998 has been as follows: I have
had £1696.32 from Community Project Grants (13.10.98;
9.11.99; 9.5.02), submitted by Acharacle Community Council,
the SNH grant for the microscope (18.10.01) was £496.50
and £348.80 was contributed by supporters. Of this £2541.62,
there is £60.49 left.
Of this expenditure, about half has gone on the post-expedition
refreshments (£1250), followed by the microscope (£662),
the Loch Shiel Cruise (£320) and finally photography,
kit and general expenses (£309).
There was some local publicity for the centenary expedition
and as a result we were recently (28.9.04) presented with a
£200 digital camera from the local Royal Mail workers.
Of course, a lot of extra costs have been absorbed by the participants
- each expedition has involved at least two and up to six, cars,
with a combined mileage of 20 to 100 miles, and this doesn't
count the mileage involved in carrying out preliminary surveys
and checking routes. Probably a average of 100 car miles for
every expedition, 10,000 miles in all. At 30p per mile, the
value of this free transport exceeds all of the official income.
Strangely, we had a lot of the same problems on the hundredth
expedition as we had on the 25th: the occasion brought out several
new explorers and adults and made a large group with many inexperienced
members. This left the line rather long and unmanageable and
the older ones at the front eventually broke away and got out
of touch. As before, they acted quite responsibly and there
was no emergency, but it was very difficult to manage the situation
with so many 'new' people in the group. Before the next expedition
I gave all the older lads a reminder about listening for the
whistle and they have since behaved impeccably.
So now we have embarked upon our second hundred. Many of my
original explorers have grown into young men and women, maybe
it won't be long before I am contemplating a second generation.
With the approach of the 100th outing there was an increase
in local enthusiasm and the numbers attending rose markedly.
There was another major milestone on the 121st expedition on
2nd October 2004, when Allan Nairn became the thousandth explorer
(his own 38th attendance). As new families have joined in, we
have benefited from a different set of adult helpers; the changeover
is gradual and everyone fits in easily. Many of the younger
explorers just starting seem to feel themselves to be part of
a long and hallowed tradition; they look forward to visiting
the ground their older brothers and sisters covered years ago.
Without exception they have all been keen, sociable and good-humoured,
I feel honoured to have enjoyed their company.