Farewell Collieston

Last summer the Scottish Book Trust told me that a tiny rural primary school near Collieston had chosen me to partner them in a residency. The teacher there, Conor Meehan, thought that the wild location of his school, coupled with the rumours that Bram Stoker had stayed there and been inspired by the ruins of Slains Castle on the clifftop, would go nicely with my interest in ghost stories.

Well, I’m the lucky one because the teacher was absolutely amazing, thoroughly enthusiastic and engaged with the whole project. I would travel up to Aberdeen, to the tiny coastal villages of Collieston and Cruden Bay, not knowing what to expect from his input every week. I would tell him my theme beforehand, and when I arrived he would have the classroom set up as a cave with dripping water and twinkling lights, a hall of mirrors, a place full of ticking clocks, and lastly a dead body washed up on the shore of the classroom, face down, while waves crashed on the computer screen and birds cried. Actually, the sea does spray the windows of the cottages in Collieston.

We wrote in the ruins of Slains Castle, while a storm threatened out at sea, and the wind roared through the empty buttresses. We gathered at the grave of famous sixteenth century smuggler Philip Kennedy, resident of Collieston, who died defending his brother (and the gin) from the excise men. We inspected the very bench where he lay dying, and spoke to his descendants. And finally, we gathered last night for a final celebratory bonfire, toasting marshmallows on the fire, and listening to the amazing stories, animations and narratives which the children had produced. They were a composite class, P5 to P7, as it is such a tiny school, and I was blown away in particular by the final entry, a narrated animation by Evie in P5. She retold the entire story of Philip Kennedy, beginning and concluding her animation with a haunting black and white shot of Collieston Bay, while she narrated the story, using a set of toys in animation, complete with improvised cliff, beach, boat, and bench where Philip Kennedy died. It was so well-written, and had such a strong sense of history and time passing and the magic of narrative that I have every confidence she is a writer or film-maker of the future.

I chatted with a pupil who can fix anything. He’s been taking his own boat out into the ocean to collect lobsters from his own pots for years already, and he’s only in primary school. His eyes light up when he talks about boats. He says he can sense when there are rocks beneath. His Dad doesn’t worry apparently, but his mum does – but he’s already found what makes his life worth living.

I felt very sad to be finishing the residency, but Conor Meehan has been the most excellent teacher to work with, and I’m quite certain those pupils will remember him long into the future, when their schooldays have become a distant memory.

The teacher was so impressed, he passed out.
at a smuggler’s grave, Philip Kennedy, resident of Collieston, died defending his brother and the gin!

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