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Broadening horizons at Kisimul Castle


Have you ever taken a look at the education resources we have at Historic Scotland? As well as publications and handling boxes we run many diverse events with schools. This week we caught up with Learning Development Officer Sylvie Clarke to find out a little more about one of her projects.

Sitting on the boat watching Kisimul Castle coming closer and closer, it’s hard not to be impressed. Accessible only by boat and located on a rock in the bay of Castlebay, Barra, it is a fascinating site with a long history and a beautiful setting. The castle is particularly interesting – after its heyday as a dramatic medieval stronghold it fell into ruin, but was rebuilt as the official seat of the Macneils of Barra by the 20th century clan chief.

The breathtaking Kisimul Castle

The breathtaking Kisimul Castle

Both Barra and Kisimul Castle (or Barraigh and Caisteal Chiosamuil as they are known in Gaelic), are a wonderful holiday destination and one I am lucky enough to ‘have’ to visit for work!

When my colleague from the Conservation Directorate, Jamie MacPherson, first approached me about doing outreach work with schools at Barra I had only been in my post for a few months. I jumped at the opportunity to work at such a beautiful and historically rich site, and to work closely with the local schools to help engage their pupils in their rich local history.

Jamie was about to embark on the ambitious project of creating a traditional lime kiln to burn shell mortar (the same type of mortar which was used to build the castle in the 15th century). I was to create activities at the castle to tie in with Jamie’s project.

The project quickly grew, with my colleagues from the Technical Outreach and Education team and the Gaelic Language and Policy Officer getting involved so that soon we were able to offer three separate activities to local schools.  All the activities were tied in to the themes of ‘who built the castle?’, ‘why did they build the castle?’ and ‘what did they use to build it?’

Development session to create educational activities

The education activities start to take shape

The months between my first visit to the castle in April and the lighting of the kiln on the 17 June passed by in a blur!  My time was spent collecting information about the castle and coming up with ideas of activities to engage the young people of Barra. This involved, of course, getting into character and thinking about what it would have been like to live in the castle when it was first built.  Mandatory trying on of costumes accompanied this phase – purely for research purposes of course!

I listened excitedly as I heard about the progress of the kiln being built. My mouth watered as the Technical Education and Outreach team spoke of melted chocolate and digestive biscuits used to demonstrate the properties of stone and lime mortar. We worked with pupils ranging from P1 to S6 from Castlebay Community School and Eoligarry School. One group worked with Jamie at the lime kiln, learning about and helping with the process of making lime mortar using cockles from the Barra beaches.  The rest of the pupils visited the kiln and took part in activities in the castle where they used team work and investigative skills to explore the castle in role as different Medieval characters.

Education activities on Barra

Sylvie tries out the costume (l) and right mouth-watering demonstrations (r)

It was a busy but highly rewarding week and great to work closely with my colleagues across Historic Scotland. Hopefully the pupils involved have a renewed sense of pride in the skills of their ancestors in building the castle as well as gaining a real sense of empathy and understanding as to what it would have been like to have lived and worked in Kisimul Castle during Medieval times.

The support of the local community, in particular of the teachers at Castlebay Community School who hosted two of the activities, was overwhelming and we couldn’t have felt more welcome. If you haven’t visited Barra yet – do so – and take a moment to travel back in time with a visit to Kisimul Castle.


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