Ronnie McGowan remembers the vital and life-changing role outdoor centres played in his life and the lives of his pupils, and says for the sake of future generations Labour must pledge in its 2021 manifesto to keep Blairvadach open.

Harold Wilson was gone, Jim Callaghan was steadying the ship and David Howell prayed for rain during the scorching summer of ’76 as the heatwave turned to drought. ABBA were on the Money, Money, Money.

By the middle of August a new dawn was breaking over Springfield Road in the east end of Glasgow, heralding the start of a teaching career for two young hopefuls. 

We started our first jobs on the same day; I was teaching maths in Room 3 which opened onto the playground, Wilma was teaching Drama in a hut alongside the banks of the river Clyde. The school’s name blended perfectly with the contours of the river, Riverside Secondary it was called and we threw ourselves into the work: school shows, football teams, Christmas raffles, we went on courses together and in between managed to get in some teaching.

A little over a year later we were volunteering together to take a group on a week-long excursion to Faskally outdoor centre, in a Perthshire beauty spot. The centre was part of Strathclyde Regional Council Education department.

The pupils were ‘hand-picked’ for us – third year pupils, mainly fourteen year olds. We knew them all, as Riverside was a small intimate school, and if you want to read ‘hand-picked’ as ‘somewhat challenging’ you wouldn’t be far off the mark.

The journey north was shared with a party from Govan High school and their biology teacher, who would be doing some field work. Our lot were there for the great outdoors experience, trekking, canoeing, map-reading, eating, sleeping (sort of) and learning to live together in perfect harmony.

Likewise, Wilma and I were learning about each other, when to intervene and when not to, about our strengths, weaknesses, decision making, looking after each other’s backs. Sometimes that’s called building trust, trust between two professionals followed by trust with and between pupils. A priceless commodity worth its weight in gold. Pupils will even trust a teacher to look after their camera while canoeing. That was a misplaced trust as I managed to capsize into the freezing loch.

The staff at the centre were highly qualified and professional and the head of centre didn’t baulk from telling us , on day one, that the pupils were too noisy. And here were the two novices thinking things were going swimmingly! So we had to work harder at being better, that’s called a ‘rapid learning curve’.

Over breakfast on the second morning there was a distinct change in our small-talk with the head of centre. A much more conciliatory tone was evident in his voice, for no apparent reason. The same racket to him, the same silence to us was emanating from the breakfast tables over our shoulders.

He then began telling us about a television programme he’d watched the previous evening. The programme was an exposé of life in Lilybank, an area just east of Parkhead Cross taking in streets of tenements all the way to London Road and part of the school’s catchment. There were children in our group who were from Lilybank. Neither of us had given that a second thought. They were just Rivvy kids to us, we worked on a shared belief of focussing on the child not the background.

The programme was controversial, highlighting the poverty in the area. No great revelations there. The controversy was in the production technique of the documentary. Kay Carmichael, the influential Labour adviser and reformer, had gone to live incognito in Lilybank for several months with the purpose of making the programme. The ethics of this were challenged but that was one for the chattering classes; our immediate concern was clearing of breakfast tables.

The impact the programme had on Faskally’s head was telling. He too was on a learning curve, and now with a different understanding of and context for the children who had arrived twenty-four hours earlier.

Everyone was learning, everyone was developing, everyone was changing. Everyone was getting better. Never give up.

There are ex-pupils, now well into middle age, who will gleefully remind me of the camera incident, a human link to the past, but relevant today. That’s important in life, and important to me and these ex- pupils. It’s important because my trusted friend, Wilma, died too young, a life too short, but those ex-pupils never forget her passion and dedication. She was instrumental in making the trip so memorable.

It was a terrible decision to close Faskally outdoor centre.

Fast forward forty-three years to the school I’m currently working in. It’s in Glasgow, it’s in Royston, locally known as the Garngad, ‘God’s Garden’.

There’s a new generation of teachers embarking on that self-discovery of taking a group of children to an outdoor centre, teachers who for that duration go the extra mile beyond that extra mile, and some. It’s cold, it’s January and they are taking a group of senior pupils on a study weekend to Blairvadich, in preparation for the exam diet in May. The pupils are excited, they told me so. They also warned me against telling the teachers, one a maths colleague, that they were smuggling an electric kettle to partake of midnight pot noodle. It’s life’s simple things. I did alert them though that the Faslane military police were expertly trained to detect such transgressions, so to watch out. One pupil went out of her way to come and ask me for some extra maths to take with her.

In these small exchanges were the essence of places like Blairvadach. Camaraderie, innocent enjoyment, doing something different, building friendships, learning about themselves, learning about others; all worth its weight in gold but priceless. These young people from God’s Garden returned home better people, and I guarantee they’ll remember that weekend for the rest of their lives. The teachers returned to school better teachers; they’ll remember it for the rest of their careers.

The decision to close Blairvadach is a very bad one. It doesn’t need saved, it’s those instructors in the outdoor centres who hand out the lifejackets after all, but it should remain open.

The Labour Party should pledge now, and put it into the 2021 Holyrood manifesto, that Blairvadach will remain open, funding it directly if necessary.

There was a great song in 1977 sung by David Soul with a line which chimes with the thinking behind the likes of Blairvadach, 

‘Don’t give up on us, I know,
We can still come through.’

Never was it so necessary than today for the Labour party to stand up and fight and fight and fight again for those children, families and communities who have over the decades benefitted from places like Blairvadach. 

Don’t give up on them, because I know they do come through.

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36 thoughts on “Blairvadach

  1. Thank you for this informative and very interesting article. I am shocked that the centre is to close. I hadn’t heard about the closure until I read this article and I have to say it is an absolute disgrace. We should be expanding the provision of such experiences to the nation’s children not removing them. I am disappointed in the SNP council administration for this decision and I hope that they may be made to change their minds over this. I would agree that Labour should put this in their manifesto but indeed it should not be necessary. The idea you put forward of direct funding is certainly one that needs exploration and could provide a more secure future for other outdoor learning centres across Scotland.

    1. Hi Wynn,

      Thank you for that comment.

      From the Evening Times 2nd March 2020,
      “However it has been revealed that the centre still needs millions of pounds worth of investment to bring it up to required standards.
      The decision to save it for the next year is to buy time to find an alternative operating model that will allow the investment to be found.”

      Nothing permanent there. I wonder what could possibly be meant by “investment to be found.”
      There would be no problem selling land for a housing development in that part of the world, Rhu.

      As far as the Labour party is concerned this is the very kind of ‘bread and butter’ issues it should be leading on, it’s a no brainer.
      I don’t understand why there has been no announcement from the leadership that centres like Blairvadich will be full funded, fully operational with control taken out of councils’ hands if they cannot operate the centres fully.
      This issue should be centre-stage in next year’s Holyrood manifesto.

      The term ‘alternative operating model’ sounds like a significant change of its function.

      1. I agree, terms such as ‘alternative operating model’ are always worrying. At least we have a year of breathing space. The issues surrounding the experiences offered to our nations children is one that should be depoliticised (if that is possible) and one that should be treated as a desirable, open social opportunity and funded appropriately. Some things are more than COSTS, childhood should be the best experience we can offer for once its gone, the opportunity and benefits are gone. My wife loved her experience at Faskally outdoor centre, we need more of these not less.

  2. Its on BBC red button Glasgow has reversed its decision to close Blairvadach after a petition to save it got over 10thousand signatures the Council now says it will focus on an alternative future model for the centre

  3. The reversal decision is also on the STV and BBC news websites for Monday March 2nd

    1. Thanks David – glad to hear they have done the right thing. We need to learn from this though, central funding is a better option for the future.

  4. The decision to reverse the closure was the result of extra funding being allocated to local government in the Scottish government’s budget as part of an agreement between the SNP and Green Party.

    1. Coincidentally the decision to close the centre was taken by SNP and Green councillors. It’s amazing how some folk only want to give half the story, isn’t it.

        1. My career is in educational IT, Davy. Your ignorance is showing.

          1. My career is in “movable rail machinery/equipment, communications and control structures”.

            It is classified as “safety critical” and carries with it a mass of restrictions engaging both mental, health and time needs. and with treble re-training requirements on a yearly basis.

            And yes Duncan ignorant or not, I am a “signaller” and member of the RMT.

            Stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

          2. What a bizarre response. Your ignorance was of me. I have never tried to make a career of any aspect of politics. You were wrong. The relevance of what you do for a living to that point escapes me.

    2. Jim,

      Thank you for that comment.

      It is very reassuring that Holyrood does indeed have the ‘economic levers’ at its disposal to reverse a decision made only days earlier.

      Now perhaps the Holyrood administration can turn its attention to the ‘attainment gap’ in education, it also has the ‘levers’ to do something about that.

  5. Fantastic news that the centre is remaining open just shows that the political parties listened and worked to find a solution to keep the centre open what a tremendous result.

  6. Analysis by the TUC and Unison at the end of 2019 show that central government funding of councils (now running at £7.8 billion a year LESS than 2010) in England since 2010 show a huge chasm between urban and rural areas.
    The 20 councils with the biggest cuts are Met authorities in London, and Northern England (18 Labour/ 1 Tory). The 20 councils with the least cuts are overwhelmingly Tory county councils (16 Tory. Two Labour) and some Tory councils are actually spending MORE (in real terms) than in 2010.
    97% of councils plan tax increases, but will still be cutting vital services to the bone.

    Labour itself is forecasting ” Labour facing one of the worst local elections in recent history in 2020″, according to a leak to the Guardian. Doesn’t seem as if Labour has complained loudly enough about these cuts down south—why not?

    Local government cannot function properly without guaranteed, predictable funding settlement.

    BUT……..

    Some councils have a history of bad management of money—punitive YEARLY tax increases/ludicrous spending splurges (just before elections) etc, or we could argue for greater devolution of tax and spend powers.
    Perhaps a ring-fenced allocation on a percentage basis could be entertained.

    I seem to recall Scottish Labour having an internal investigation on council taxation some years ago. Has any plan or policy ever been published?

    1. Yes Gavin,
      That’s an interesting and valid point.
      The problem of funding isn’t going to go away, so there has to be some way to attract inward investment,for example,which would impact positively on the local economy.
      Like you I get the impression that the Labour party hasn’t devoted enough divergent thought as how to generate the local economy.
      It may be simplistic but I am unaware of it having been proposed, something like a ‘Clean City Programme’. A programme with concrete visible benefits which might attract attention and hopefully economic development and a spirit of civic pride. Nebulous perhaps but it is worth exploring and I think the electorate would buy into something straightforward like a ‘Clean City Programme’.
      The funding of local services is complex and there is no way central government is going to ‘throw money’ at authorities to solve their problems, so it is imperative that Labour gets to grips with this, before what, May 2020? That’ll be a work in progress then.

  7. I think after this round of local authority budgets with the size of the council tax increases we are all going to think very carefully about how councils are funded

  8. Neil Findley is reported as denying he called Ian Murray a “c***” —-(a CONSERVATIVE?–don’t think so).

    Vitriol used to be so much more vicious (and entertaining) in the past. And politicians so thin skinned.
    I’ve been to political/union meetings where fights broke out because of utter trivia—old girl friends, dominoes, football etc. The C-word would be used before the REAL swearing got going.
    Thing is, this nonsense is Scottish Labours future.
    Baillie deputy to Leonard, and trying to lay down policy over his head?
    Gordon Brown lumbering about like a Frankenstein monster who wont stay dead.
    Get real and get united behind something, anything (Keir Hardie Home Rule?, a policy which seems to have eluded J.Baillie?)–because nobody votes for a split party.

  9. And Gavin I am wandering are the SNP heading there Cherry v Robertson and now someone has leaked Joanna Cherry and Mhairi Black had a row at an SNP group meeting

    1. Politics as entertainment, David. But two points–
      1-there is an obvious split in the SNP over timing of a referendum–I’m with Cherry on this—test the law–it isn’t illegal to hold a consultative plebiscite(Strathclyde over water), and Boris needs flushing out on the rights of self determination.

      2-Trans politics. Divides all parties and ideologies.
      I say live and let live, but…….”men” cannot dress as women and invade areas that should be private. Ditto sport.

      Here be Dragons!

  10. The Secretary of State for Scotland fancies a Scotland to Ireland tunnel .
    Bridges tunnels 40 new hospitals rail links etc we will see if Boris the big spender comes up with our cash for any of it .

    1. Con trick from a Conservative, David.
      The tunnel would have to be 350metres deep(a world record) through unknown geology–how would it be funded (the Channel Tunnel in today’s money is about £30billion)?
      It would link two low density populations, again throwing up value for money.
      There would need to be major road building to Portpatrick—say £250million.

      The Boris Bridge was so daft it could not be sustained. Now we have this utter tunnel pish thrown in our faces. Sadly there are people out there who believe this (some of them in the media) nonsense.

      There was a famous hustler in New York, whose con was to sell the Brooklyn Bridge. He died in jail.
      Now the Tories are trying to sell us their bridge/tunnel.They should be jailed as well! I wonder if “Union” Jack has shares in a tunnelling company?

  11. Didn’t Pastor Jack Glass go to Riverside?
    Never mind, here’s to St Roch’s beating Lanark Utd on Saturday.
    Didn’t a Tory MP in 1976 say he spent more on stamps in a day than Kay Carmichael lived on for a month?

  12. I lived in Cuthelton St and Dechmont St and spent many hours in the Swingpark in Glamis Road. That’s before Health and Safety went mad! Sad to hear any place which helps the community closing due to finances!

  13. Thanks for sharing. It brought back many memories for me of first year at Riverside preceded by London Rd Primary from where our P6 trip to Arran departed, led by Miss Smith and her boyfriend. A fabulous week that I will never forget. I dont think people realise how grim a tenement childhood was in terms of the grey landscape. Arran was a literal breath of fresh air and where i think my love of nature and countryside started. And the swingpark in Lilybank was ironically our nearest green space. We must do all we can to keep these outdoor centres open. I’ve just read that the water sports centre on Cumbrae will close in Sep. In the year of Coasts and Water! Local businesses have not been consulted.

    1. Hi Lynn,

      Good to hear from an ex-Riverside pupil.

      In the 70’s there was a ‘free school’ operating from London Road primary.
      Riverside itself had a ‘unit’ in Boden Street, catering in small numbers for pupils unable to cope with the rigours of school.
      At the time Riverside and Kingsridge in Drumchapel were the only two schools in Scotland working on this aspect of education.
      The 70’s will be regarded as a defining time in Scottish education, with the Pack Report on discipline and the Munn and Dunning reports on the curriculum and assessment.
      These reports and what they offered, along with outdoor centres, have fallen by the wayside, a quite shocking legacy of Holyrood in my opinion.
      What has replaced them is no better and probably much worse.
      Apparently the closure of Blairvadich is on the table each year at Glasgow council, this year they decided to run with it.
      Time will tell whether it continues to provide the experience generations of Glasgow school pupils have enjoyed.
      The response from the Labour party has been profoundly disappointing, I would have expected a greater commitment to its future.

  14. Thanks for your comments Gavin it got pointed out Friday the Tunnel would have to go under the same munitions the bridge would have to go over and Political Tourist I am a Rangers supporter so football is a sore point at the moment haha

  15. On Friday night BBC the Nine Professor June Andrews said with the virus now on us we need to send elderly people who no longer need to be in hospital home but we cant because back up and support is either non existent or not in place .
    Same programme the terrible events in Syria a hospital being bombed .A man frantically searching whats left of his house .Whole family dead except one child who only survived because his dad took him to the pharmacy 5 mins earlier .
    Then the fleeing refugees being forced back from the border .And when interviewed they blamed us for not making our Governments do anything to stop it are they wrong

  16. I was at Elderpark primary until I was 8 great teachers 8 to a desk we moved to Ayrshire John Galt primary great teachers individual desks .
    New class could not believe my 8 to a desk story new desk had an inkwell no ink.Maybe we had to bring our own haha

  17. Just to update you all regarding a transport link between Scotland and Ireland.

    It will of course be HS3 , this will be Hover-trains starting from Loch Ness on the hour every hour, with stops every time we feel like it.

    The stops in Ireland will be next to pubs , there removing the need for new stations, free pint with every ticket.

    So now you know the truth, honest !!! as much chance as a bridge/tunnel.

  18. Davy it will need to wait virus has seen to that hope everyone keeps well.

  19. With the virus in full flow everyone knows this is very serious the health minister gets the virus and what does our PM do he says he will not take the virus test .says he was not close enough to catch it .
    So its I am alright Jack how very responsible

  20. Can’t understand the Scottish government decision to announce large crowd sporting events are not allowed to have crowds of supporter’s as from Monday, there is a big crowd expected for a football match on Sunday Rangers v Celtic but doesn’t make sense to go ahead with a crowd of supporter’s surely it should be played behind closed doors without a crowd to minimise any affect of the spread of coronavirus.

  21. How about playing games behind closed doors and have say five supporter’s from each team in separate mobile sound studios watching and shouting and cheering their teams on and have the noise that they make magnified increased mixed and piped out through tannoys so the players can hear it and would sound like and have an atmosphere of thousands of supporter’s in the ground. ps it’s my great idea no copyright so any football bodies are welcome to use my idea enjoy.

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