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Have young people lost out because of fear?

On the beach, Colonsay
When I was twelve I had one of the best holidays of my life. It was a school trip, or more accurately an inter-school trip arranged by an unlikely body called the Schools Hebridean Society. For two weeks, I joined a bunch of other boys and various leader types in a camp on a beach on the remote-ish island of Colonsay.

It was absolutely fantastic. First there was the opportunity to experience life in a community that was probably 50 years behind the mainland. Though this wasn't in any sense a religious trip, we attended church each week (once each in the two island churches), because that's what people on the island did. Once a week we attended a caley in the island's hall - Scottish dancing compulsory, but still somehow fun.

As I've discovered on other islands, you couldn't walk down a road without the next passing car stopping and offering you a lift. Most exciting (if terrifying) was getting a lift with the island's doctor. He generally drove his landrover off road, and twice I witnessed him driving with one hand while using a shotgun to take potshots at rabbits with the other. (And they say mobile phones are dangerous.)

It was remarkable. I'm generally not a great fan of the bagpipes, but one evening, as we were sitting on the white sand beach, a bagpipe was heard faintly in the distance - the piper came over the dunes and passed by us: quite magical.

Mist rising as we emerge from the cave
One last example of the experience. We all were expected to bivouac somewhere away from camp in groups of three or four sometime during the fortnight. Some caves had recently been rediscovered on the island (they were known in Victorian times, but had somehow been mislaid), and we'd had a visit to them.

Our team of three decided to bivouac in one of the caves that was reputed to be haunted. (Well, sort of. A Victorian dog had allegedly gone through a small aperture in the back of the cave. It re-emerged yelping about an hour later with its tail singed after an encounter with Old Nick.) I have to confess we went to sleep with the Tilley lamp alight - but it was an experience I wouldn't have missed for anything.

Now, first of all, they probably wouldn't allow 12 year-olds to go off on an all-male camp. They certainly wouldn't let us do the kind of activities we did. And as for three of us camping overnight in a cave... I understand why people are so protective of children, but there are times when a tiny risk could be repaid by a huge adventure.


  1. Good blog. My childhood was full of adventures that were fairly usual for country kids like me but that are now often the subject of anxious articles in the Sunday supplements. We all had and used guns, bows and arrows (real ones, not the suckered variety), sheath knives etc. We swam and canoed in the river, rode bikes helmetless, chased around the countryside on horseback etc. And that was the 1970s and 80s - not so very long ago, though increasingly it feels like another era.

  2. Hurray. Elf and Safety Gone Mad, etc.

  3. 'A huge adventure' that teaches teamwork, encourages initiative plus responsibility = resounding 'yes'! Wonder, though, how much age has to do with it: 12 ok; but once adolescence begins, so does any inherent anarchy/rebellion with most of the young. So I'd guess the dangers themselves increase until/unless experience is gained and responsibility inculcated.
    I feel sorry for today's children. My childhood was positively intrepid by comparison.

  4. I to whent on one of these trip, they were fantastic, I went in 1969 or it might of been 1970. I will never forget it was great, as was getting there from London. I would love to go back one day.

  5. I'd certainly love to go to Colonsay again some time. I think it's one of those 'when the kids leave home' things...

  6. austin (saddleworth)22 April 2011 at 22:05

    I was just one of about 7 or 8 young lads from our school that went with schools Hebridean society.
    I went two years running,the first year (1977) i went to North Uist and in the following year i went to Jura.
    We had fantastic times sailing,canoeing,climbing,fishing and just living outdoors for 3 weeks.
    we also attended the annual conference somewhere near st Albans at christmas 1977.
    Fantastic memories.

  7. I was on the Colonsay expedition in 1969 I think, so probably the year after you. The experience was just the same though - awesome, as today's children would say. I also went to North Uist the following year where we had the society's big yellow rowing boat known as the Yellow Submarine because it was built from a wood that doesn't float....!

    Was introduced to the SHS by my geography master at Manchester Grammar School, John Abbott, who is now president of an educational trust.

  8. Thanks for your comments. I also went from MGS, Peter, though I can't remember who introduced me to the society.

  9. Pleased to se the SHS being talked about here! I have just written the "full" story of the Society and this is being published in two issues of a magazine called Scottish Islands Explorer (one out now, the next in late August). These articles include several old photos,sketches, etc. You can order the magazine from its website. I, too, went to Colonsay with the Society - three times, and have been back a few times since. It's changed quite a bit over the last decade or so - a flood of new houses, a tarmac airstrip, and many more vistors. Also went to North Uist, Jura, etc with the SHS.

  10. John Abbott came to my prep school to talk about the SHS and I went that summer of 1965 to Morvern. Then from Rossall to Jura in 66 followed by North Uist and finally Harris. I later spent years on Baffin Island and I think the SHS experience had a lot to do with it.

  11. Lovely piece of writing, and great to hear how influenced you were by the SHS. My dad, John Abbott, passed away last month, but what he started with the SHS was never far from his heart. He would have been buoyed to hear your story.

    1. Thanks, Tom. I'm sorry to hear about your dad - his achievements deserve more acknowledgement.


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