Of all the prizes awarded to the Old Ardvreckians at Gleneagles on 9th August, perhaps the most coveted was the enormous decoy duck, awarded to the contender who had successfully managed to hit the fewest clays during the day. You might have thought, from the size of Alan Mickel (1944-48, Trojan Captain)’s wide smile that he was at the opposite end of the score sheet. The only problem, he lamented, was that his Grandchildren were now too old to enjoy the duck in their baths, “Oh”, piped up one of his contemporaries, “you don’t need Grandchildren to still have a rubber duck in the bath…”
At that point I sensed something of J.M. Barrie’s Lost Boys amongst the elders of this group. Here were boys who had managed to hold onto their playfulness, despite having spent the vast bulk of their lives as adults. All the current thinking on education points to “play” as being the “way”, as if it is some recently discovered concept. Anyone with offspring currently at Ardvreck will know that free-play outdoors is as fundamental to the curriculum as breathing. When I mentioned the name of their old Headmaster, David Smythe (1937-1960), the affection for this man across the seniors of the group was palpable. Smythe was Headmaster at Ardvreck School during the war years (1939-1945) when many boys didn’t see their Fathers for long periods of time, or worse. Some boys were safely tucked up at Ardvreck while their Fathers were in perilous situations abroad, some being held as captives. It is hard to begin to imagine just exactly how brave these youngsters were forced to be “In The Brave Northern Land”. My own Grandfather, a military man, had not long since left the school.
David Smythe’s approach to the hellish times was to introduce the boys to the majesty of life outdoors. He encouraged the pupils to immerse themselves in a world of fishing, and hill walking, and shooting. Smythe kept spaniels and led the boys into a world of outdoor freedom, animal loving, and camaraderie (all still very much in evidence). The school day might very well have involved bringing back a tiny trout found in one of the burns in your ‘bumble’ hat. John Gibb (1943-49, Greek) recounted an excellent story of Smythe gently overlooking the hi-jinks of the boys in sickbay who were supposed to be laid-low with chicken pox but were instead pinging glass marbles into the sickbay ceiling, “Oh, boys…” was all he had to remark about the incident. The Smythe influence was vast and paternal at a time when male role models were in short supply, and the happy band-of-brothers at the Gleneagles shoot quite clearly had a bond that had been forged in the gunfire of their youth.
The style of teaching that Smythe had 80 years ago, all drawn from instinct presumably, is now the very latest in cutting edge thinking about children’s wellbeing and education. We are only just starting to learn about the profound significance that outdoor play has on children’s health, development, and well-being. Academics are increasingly, and unanimously, joining this chorus, but it is no new phenomenon at Ardvreck. Smythe has been an enormous influence on the culture of the school over generations, far exceeding his actual years at the helm. There is indisputable proof of Smythe’s surviving legacies! The prizes for 1st, 2nd and 3rd for the day’s winners are empty shotgun cartridges. This tradition was started by him, and has been maintained, with great respect, by his pupils, now the veterans of the O.A community.
The facilities and staff at Gleneagles are second to none and hosted our party magnificently. We divided into small manageable groups, comprised of both Greek and Trojan to keep the repartee keen, and the enemy close. The day started with extremely warm words written by Patrick Thomson (1946-51) and read by James Provan (1943-1950, Trojan). Patrick, unable to be with us due to illness, was most definitely with us in spirit, even by those of us who are yet to meet him. At the conclusion of the day a toast was proposed by Nick Gibb (1983-89, Greek) taking in all the OA’s who couldn’t attend. It is very much hoped that the warm sentiments from our Barvick picnic in the Gleneagles garden ricocheted through the glens and valleys to reach them.
The stands, or butts, at Gleneagles shooting school are mainly named after game birds. There are stands such as, woodcock, grouse and snipe (although we re-named our stand ‘drunken snipe’). One of the most challenging stands of the day was the King’s Pheasant. Two clays fly in different directions simultaneously, and you are lucky if you manage to hit one of the slippery little flighted blighters. The shot of the tournament must surely go to the most senior member of the group, Nicky James (1940-46, Greek Captain) who – aged 88 – managed to powder two of them with one shot! It was a thing of complete beauty to behold.
Another hugely challenging stand was the Ptarmigan. The clays fly away from the guns, low and at high velocity. The clays are coloured white to reflect their winter plumage when it would be in season for the pot. To reach the stand you must climb up a set of rather steep steps (not quite 39, to ye of the Buchan persuasion). The shooting must be swift and accurate to swerve turning the Ptarmigan into a ‘Duck’ on the scoreboards. The height of the Ptarmigan stand affords the most glorious views across Strathearn, and quite astonishingly a few nesting birds raise their young quite happily in the no-man’s-land directly in front of these butts… little creatures managing to thrive, despite the turmoil of their surroundings. Sounds somewhat familiar.
On this occasion George Presslie (1945-50) had the excellent presence of mind to bring binoculars with him on the day. It might surprise some of you to know that the ‘eagles’ part of Gleneagles is actually something of a misnomer. In fact, the word comes from Eglise, the French for Church, and that we were really in the Glen of the Churches, as opposed to the Glen of eagles. Sheriff Presslie was fundamental to the success of the day. Aside from setting up the course, George did the bulk of the organisation and liaised with Gleneagles.
George Presslie did not need to take part in the competitive shooting element of the day for his steady hand to be noted and appreciated. With George’s powerful binoculars, and a steady gaze to match his steady hand, you can quite easily make out the church spires of Crieff. George also had the excellent presence of mind to bring a few bottles for the post-shoot toasts. Thank you so much for your encouragement and enthusiasm, George, it enabled the event to take place.
If you start your gaze from the top of the Ptarmigan stand, then continue past the shadowy stretches of heather in the foreground, and over the glen and valley, and ‘lift up your eyes unto the hills’ (as was my own Headmaster, John Streule’s favourite Psalm, 121) then lo and behold, if you can’t just see the very highest peak of the school that we love on the hill! It is only just visible atop the treeline, but most definitely there. The poetry of the moment was not lost on any of us, in fact, in honour of Sir Walter Scott himself, I ought to have written this report in cantos. The Headmistress was able to see her cherished school from a brand new, and unexpected, angle.
Isn’t that what Ali Kinge has been doing for several years now? Viewing the school afresh, looking at all aspects, checking for vantage points, and innovating? All whilst protecting the school’s ethos and place in the landscape with the ferocity of one of its most iconic inhabitants the Scottish Wildcat, or Highland Tiger. The Headmistress entreated us to an address, detailing some of her plans and visions for Ardvreck’s future, whilst also giving an account of the elegant and skilful way her leal* staff had risen to the challenges of online learning. Her team cannot be commended highly enough for the outstanding way with which they have handled the recent difficulties. One of the school’s most exciting projects will be the launch of the Scottish Adventure School, which will offer immersive outdoors experiences for any group of young children. The success of Ardvreck’s recently launched forest school nursery was also applauded. The warmth with which the youngest guns, Henry Lithgow (2007-12, Trojan) and Torquil Le Roy-Lewis (2003-12, Greek) conversed with Mrs Kinge spoke volumes, as they happily shared their lunch together. Both gentlemen are keen shots and Mr. Verlander’s name was mentioned several times throughout the day as indoor rifle shooting coach extraordinaire. In Nicky James’ return address, he paid Mrs Kinge the ultimate tribute when he said, “Ardvreck has never been in better hands”. What an outstanding accolade from a protégée of the beloved David Smythe.
In fact, the only aspect of the day that I have to take issue with is when I discovered from Mrs Kinge’s speech that us Old Ardvreckian Parents (in our 40’s) are known as O.A.Ps! I have subsequently discovered that I am the first lady Old Ardvreckian to have participated in this competition, and I’m slightly concerned that this makes me an Old Ardvreckian Female, or O.A.F.
Mrs Kinge wisely kept the balance of power on an even keel by shooting for the Greeks this year, as she had shot for the Trojans last time. This was very wise as the assembled company contained one Sherriff with a keen eye for justice. Also with their eye on fairness were the umpires, including David Reid (1945-1950) who kept the tally and kept the peace.
After Mrs Kinge’s address she kindly fielded questions like the professional cricket coach she is, “what are the names of the dorms now- does the gable still exist?”, was one such. And “what are your plans for improving the cricket green”, which I particularly enjoyed as it came from the winner of the mighty duck!
Amazingly, Charlie Bushby (1972-1977, Greek) had managed to find his old school cricket cap and bought that along to the day and there was some discussion about the origin of the cricketing term ‘duck’- some suggesting that it was in reference to the shape of a duck’s egg being a zero. I will be researching this, and possibly suggesting that Gleneagles introduce a ‘Duck’ stand at their prestigious facilities, where maximum points are scored for missing absolutely everything. Somebody, and I think that it may have been Ken Campbell (1954-1960, Trojan), remarked that Barvicks were vital to continue, and we learnt that there are more of them in the school calendar than ever.
Annie Le Roy-Lewis, the Alumni Co-Ordinator, does a power of work behind the scenes to facilitate these wonderful events, and must be thanked alongside Louise Presslie for scorekeeping so well, and taking some excellent photographs.
Sheriff Presslie approached me towards the close of the event to ask if I would mind writing up a report. I said that I would be delighted to do so, it had been so much fun, particularly ‘The Flush’ when the clays flew thick and fast. There were so many highlights. Without continuing “as langs my arm” (there you go Burns-ians!) I will end with the quote I started this report with, about courage. Courage, you see, has nothing to do with guns and everything to do with the way that you engage your persistence through times of difficulty. Children must be given the opportunity to develop and hone their resilience and persistence during their crucial early years. Mother Nature is a formidable ally in this regard, and Ardvreck couldn’t be better situated (either geographically or philosophically) to offer this.