Wildlife watching……us.

I have known this island since I was a small child but I will never take it for granted.  Today we took a trip to the north of the island knowing that this is a great time of year to spot wildlife.  The relationship between humans and wildlife on Arran is really interesting.  The island has a relatively large population at approximately 5,000 people and yet we are also blessed with a wonderful range of wild species.  The consequence of this dynamic is an unusually tolerant relationship from our wild friends.

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Today was possibly my best seal spotting day to date.  A whole collection were just hanging out on the rocks and the shore.  They were just as interested in us as we were in them.  I loved the ones that popped their heads out of the water to see what they were missing out on.    They have faces that tell stories so we stood and paid close attention.

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We laughed when we reach Lochranza because we had just spent time spotting hinds and stags on the hillsides in the distance and then there was a little unit right in the centre of the village!   A very proud looking stag was surrounded by his hinds as he waits patiently for them to come into season.  There is such a short matting window and he is always fearful of a challenge from another stag.  None of them were bothered as car stopped, doors slammed and camera shutters clicked all around them.  They had seen it all before.  Even the rabbits jumping around did so with a sense of calmness.

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On the return route we spotted a very dark red squirrel and a very young Heron.  Seabirds galore right along the coast and even a couple of Oyster Catchers that are my absolute favourite.  Molly was with us and pointing out and naming them all.  We saw a hovering bird of prey but failed to identify it as it was too far away.

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So as we headed back to our home we felt blessed that we had been allowed to share space with such wonderful creatures.  My theory is that they watch us watching them and I am sure that makes this place unique…..

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Home education beyond 16

Max, Harry, Molly & George.
Max, Harry, Molly & George.

We began home educating our four children over ten years ago and this is where the story rests at this point….

We are still home educating ten years down the line but patterns have changed and our eldest has just finished university. We have four children and the next in line, Harry, is working part time while studying for his fitness qualifications via distance learning.  Number three in the brood, George, is just beginning his A level equivalent vocational course options, again via distance learning.  Our last child, Max (14), is still in full-time home education with us.

Of course, progress to this stage in their educations has taken time and in the intervening years we have created more wonderful memories than we could ever have imagined. Learning as a family has given us time to get to know each of the children as individuals as well as understanding how best our little family operates.  It has allowed each child to share their personality as it has developed and it has also taught us so much about how to make family time special time.

valentine 2 001Now at a time when the children are on their individual learning paths we can reflect on how they got there. Molly is the easiest to map as her love of animals has defined her since she was very small.  A learning career that focused on animals was a natural path for her and she has just completed her BSc in Conservation Biology with a particular focus on animals.  She is now contemplating her postgraduate studies as she carves out a future in animal conservation research.  We knew that Molly was heading for university from about the age of 14 so her learning journey had to prepare her for that.  Consequently she took six GCSEs followed by three A levels plus an additional AS level.  She studied for all of these through the National Extension College which proved to be an excellent route.

There has been a complete explosion in distance learning providers over the past few years but they are not all of the same quality and I would always advise parents to do their homework. We chose the National Extension College because we were impressed with the syllabuses offered, the range of subjects available and the tutor support.  Once enrolled, all you have to think about is supporting your child as you would if they were at school and, additionally, finding an exam centre for them to sit their exams in.  Molly was able to choose subjects she was interested in and had a natural aptitude for.  A huge benefit was that she was able to spread the weight of studies over two years; sitting three GCSEs aged 15 and then the second three at 16.  This enabled her to get excellent grades and it also limited the pressure she was under.  Molly then chose her A levels and this included Environmental Science which was a brand new subject for A level and not offered by many schools or colleges.  Once again she got excellent grades and this enabled her to get offers from all the universities she applied to.  She began studying at the University of Lincoln with considerable experience of independent study already under her belt.  This, of course, proved invaluable.  From when they were ready, we had encouraged all the children to learn to study more independently as we knew this would prepare them well for distance learning study.

The boys are different to their sister. To date, none of them have shown any interest in university, although there is always a chance that will change.  They are far more vocationally orientated and have been able to capitalise on the growth in distance learning vocational courses.  It is now possible to study GCSE equivalents via distance learning in Maths and English and that was always our bottom line.  Beyond those two qualifications we have left it to the boys to select subjects that interest them.  However, it quickly became apparent that they did not need to study any more level 2 (GCSE equivalent) qualifications as they were capable of entering directly into level 3 (A level equivalent).   Harry had begun to show an interest in fitness some years earlier and so has taken two fitness qualifications at level 3 and is currently contemplating a third.  He studies hard but he is still able to combine his studies with a part time job, so he is building up a good work record which I think is important for young people going down a vocational route.

George is beginning his level 3 qualifications in animal care and dog psychology.    The beauty of distance learning at level 3 is that they can decide their subjects as they go along.  In the main, the boys have studied through Stonebridge College which has a huge list of distance learning courses.  The boys don’t have to decide on a set number to start at the same time.  With three level 3 qualifications the boys are eligible to apply to university should they change their minds in the future. This way, we have kept that door open as we believe that learning is life long and our approach reflects that.

When considering qualifications in a home education context the most important thing to become familiar with is the National Qualifications Framework (NQF). This dictates the levels of the qualifications and all formally assessed qualifications are evaluated against these levels.  Level 2 refers to GCSEs or equivalent.  Level 3 denotes A levels or equivalent and level 4 takes you into higher education.  Full guidance can be found on their website.

Distance learning providers are required to state what level (if any) their qualifications are accredited at. Of course, some qualifications are not accredited against the NQF but they might be registered with a relevant professional body.  When Harry was considering fitness qualifications we researched the leading professional body and ensured we found courses registered with them as well as accredited on the NQF. It is worth noting that there is no funding from the government if you choose this route to qualifications.  Courses start at around £100 for a level 2 but are nearer £300 for a level 3 and that is per subject.  So this is not a cheap option.  But, if you know this expense is on the horizon, you can budget in advance.

Max remains in home school and is working towards his level 2 (GCSE equivalents) while maintaining a broad education. This breadth allows the children to make informed decisions about what qualifications to pursue.  It is very different when just having one child in full time home education but I can see how Max is making the most of this opportunity.  He loves online learning and as a writer and editor I have been able to involve him in my world; more lovely memories in the making.

Beyond qualifications, we have been busy involving the children in a range of voluntary experiences that we see as every bit as vital as qualifications. Molly has now completed four residential placements with the RSPB and the Scottish Wildlife Trust.  This included a month as assistant warden on the Isle of Eigg which was a life-shaping experience.  Residential volunteering asks lots of questions of young people looking to enter the adult world.  Living semi-independently for a couple of weeks with other people they have not previously met is a challenge but builds important new skills.  The ‘Do It’ volunteering website lists lots of opportunities to volunteer.

All four children have been engaged with charity work since they were small but George and Max have really grasped this opportunity and worked with charities from all over the world raising awareness and much needed funds. One of our favourite projects was working with the Butterfly Tree charity based in Zambia who work through health and education agendas to improve the lives of the communities in that country.  We made tulle butterflies to sell and hosted a tea party to raise funds to purchase malaria nets.  Each net costs £5.00 but can save the lives of several people.  Campaigns like this serve to remind our family how fortunate we are.  We are incredibly proud of all their charity work and can clearly see how their view of the world has been influenced by these experiences.

George and Max are also working towards their Bronze award with the Duke of Edinburgh scheme.  This is a scheme that we can’t recommend high enough.  It is packed full of useful life skills as well as being a great social opportunity  for the youngsters.

Harry jumped into paid work very easily and has been working in the horticulture and building trades for the past three years. We have a new community shop on the island and George and Max volunteered there and this also provided useful experience in a workplace environment.

So, as the children all begin to make their own way it will soon be time for them all to fly the nest and create their own lives. We began our home education journey initially as a trial to see how we all took to it.  We can honestly say we have never looked back and consider ourselves truly blessed to have walked alongside our children as they discover the complete joy that is learning.

scottish island mum

STV’s RBS Finding Scotland’s Real Heroes & Scottish island mum

On arrival it became clear very quickly that this was going to be a very special night. I am a big fan of ‘shiny moments’ as the little lights in our lives that make us smile.  I knew, instinctively, that this was going to be an evening of shiny moments thanks to STV’s RBS – Finding Scotland’s Real Heroes awards.  My first footsteps on a red carpet did, however, feel less than shiny as I skipped across it as fast as possible.  One couldn’t help thinking that that was no place for Scottish island mum.  With lovely smiling faces to meet and greet the shining had begun as I was led upstairs to a champagne reception.  A little group of fellow bloggers were already there ready to capture every moment in words to share with their readers.  I like bloggers as they are always interesting people.  Bloggers make the world their personal study and you can see that in their eyes.


Researching for this assignment had really thrown up some delights. I was covering two categories – Community Champion and Environmental Project.  If it had been up to me I would have made them all winners and I very much suspected that would be the emerging theme for the evening.  I was right.

Sitting in the auditorium waiting for Carol Smillie to arrive a quick glance captured lots of shiny moments. The atmosphere was charged with expectation and when Carol walked out (in a particularly shiny dress) we were ready to go.  There was lots of clapping from the off and as the first category was Community Champion it was time to focus.  The three nominees had something in common as they were all incredibly determined souls.  Whether individually or as part of a team these community champions had clearly invented the word ‘giving.’  Each of them gave so much of themselves in making sure others had the support they needed and it was the start of a series of deeply moving stories.

First up was Margaret Gibb who responded to a community need almost 40 years ago and is still going strong today. Finding a positive place for children to spend time was uppermost in her ambitions as a housing estate grew up and young children tumbled out of the doors.  Margaret was on it and set up a play scheme where these children could come together and have lots of fun.  As with all good ideas this first scheme expanded into groups and holiday clubs and so a whole network of children’s provision was established.  The people of Bellshill have Margaret to thank for this and the applause must have told her that we were all very impressed.  I am not, however sure Margaret would care whether we were impressed or not.  She doesn’t do what she does to impress others.  She does it for the children and their families and that was a particular shiny moment that shone very brightly for me.

Next up was the very adorable Street Pastors of Bathgate. The ‘granny squad,’ as they are sometimes referred to, walk the streets late into the night offering support to anyone who needs it.  Not put off by drunken behaviour they are there for a chat, cup of tea or even a pair of flip flops to aid sore feet.  This was the moment when I thought ‘I couldn’t do that’ and you instantly understand why these people are special.

Last in the nominees was another lady who knows how to give – Jackie McIntosh. Jackie took over the running of the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) Therapy Centre four years ago and, in that time, has established it as a living life-line for all who use it.  Not fazed by her own diagnosis of MS she set about making the centre a place for support, therapy and, above all, laughter.  I was not surprised that Jackie was nominated as I had managed a quick chat with her before the ceremony got underway.  There are some people who are put on this planet to become drivers and Jackie is one of these people.  I don’t imagine Jackie accepts failure and I don’t expect there are any limits on what Jackie can achieve.  If she has to throw herself off a great height using a zipline to help raise the £140,000 a year (that is needed to run the centre) that is what she will do.

As the winner was announced the cheers and tears began as Margaret Gibb took her place on the stage. She was an incredibly worthy winner and I will be blogging about Margaret in much more detail in a subsequent post.  This woman is truly one in a million and her story will touch your hearts.

Margaret in the middle of the shot.

My second category was Environment Project and this was very dear to my heart and I know many of you reading this. Treading lightly on the planet we all call home is a bit of a personal motto so I was delighted to be shedding my own light on these remarkable projects and the people behind them.

First up was the Killi Can Cycle project that trades tin can waste in for parts to refurbish bikes to then sell in the community for affordable prices. I loved this idea the minute I connected with it.  It is the type of project that all communities should have as it ticks so many boxes.  It recycles, reuses and upcycles while making a positive impact on both the environment and people’s health.  Quite a list of accolades and very worthy nominees.  Once again it is the people that make a project like this work and this group are not short of ideas, skills and wonderful community spirit.  You just want to bottle the entire project and pass it round so we can all have an enriching sip.

Second up were two gentlemen that I have quite decided to carry around in my heart forever and one of my favourite shiny moments of the entire evening. Bob Brown and Sandy Adams wanted to help Mother Nature reclaim some old industrial land and they wanted to build a woodland path that could be enjoyed by all.  Sounds simple doesn’t it?  I doubt very much whether it was and what I am absolutely sure about is that it took a huge amount of time and physical effort.  Slowly, but very surely, Saltburn Woodland Walk began to emerge and with every metre built more and more possibilities were being opened up for Mother Nature to reclaim.  The gents gave her a helping hand by asking the local community to bring plants to plant at edges of the footpath and they did just that.  I am not sure personal legacy gets much better than that and I felt blessed to have met them and chatted with them about their project.


Next was a community environmental scheme to reclaim from landfill sites and make a place where people could bring unwanted but perfectly useful things. From kitchen sinks, to wooden pallets and flooring just about anything that is useful to others has been saved.  With an army of volunteers this Yooze Recycling and Reuse project has grown from strength to strength.  It fills a need and it helps to reduce landfill so it is right up there in the best ideas category.


When the winner was announced I shed the first tear of the night. The two gents won and I will take enormous pleasure from blogging about them in much more detail in a future post.



After a while the evening became a blur of shiny moments but each one seemed to understand its place in the scheme of things. Heroes is a difficult word but one that we all use and recognise.  There was no doubt that everyone that stepped on that stage was a hero and I felt incredibly privileged to be part of their shiny moment.  They all understood the importance of thinking beyond their own needs and that bound them together and set them apart both at the same time.  In a world that is increasingly complex and impersonal these people had found a way to simplify and personalise and they are all champions at their craft.


Ultimately the ceremony recognised one winner above them all as the RBS Hero of the Year. Unsurprisingly this was awarded to Margaret Gibb in recognition of her decades in the service of others.  With her now established cheeky charm she took to the stage once more as applause lingered and lingered.  More on that part of the story to follow.


Celebrities are used to shiny moments but I loved the way they stepped aside recognising that the person standing next to them was outshining them. It was a great community evening and Scottish island mum was truly blessed to be invited.  There is nothing better than a good story and these good stories starred some very good people.  Trust me, in the detail that is to come we all have much to gain as we come together to delve under the surface of what it really means to be a hero.


scottish island mum