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 have become.
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 1998 .


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 constructive schemes.

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 later.

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, on e 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 statistics:

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.

John Dye


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