A group of rowdy school students in Fortrose – a small town in the Black Isle, on the Cromarty Firth – pounces on a box of handheld recorders, mics and headphones on the classroom desk in front of them.
Hardly before I know it, they are off, heading out around the school to interview teachers, members of sports teams, or even each other, their notebooks full of questions they’d prepared beforehand, thanks to a training session earlier in the week from a fellow journalist, Catherine Deveney.
Over the next half hour, I’m unpacking cables, a sound mixer, microphone stands and other bits to build a small DIY radio studio the students will be using as part of a literacy project now involving a number of schools across Highland Council – from Plockton on the northwest coast, to Kingussie on the edge of the Cairngorms and northwards across the River Spey to the Black Isle.
It is one of two inspiring pieces of work I’ve been involved with in the last week or so – the other took me to a community centre in the north of Edinburgh, where around 20 community activists had gathered to look into getting involved in a 2014 project which hopes to turn the focus of the journey of the Commonwealth Games ceremonial Queen’s Baton around from the baton itself onto the people communities it passs through on its 40-day relay around Scotland to the Glasgow stadium for the start of the games in July.
The project is designed to “change the narrative of the establishment version of the Games,” according to Jennifer Jones from the University of the West of Scotland, who is helping to organise the Digital Commonwealth initiative.
It is based on the success of the Citizen Relay reports from scores of towns and villages as the Olympic Torch caravan made its way through Scotland in 2012. Both projects attempt to make citizens and their voices the central subject, rather than the circus around the torch and baton. It is an attempt to allow the voices of Scotland’s communities to be heard above the cacophony of excited sports commentators or the politicians who will inevitably try to seize the credit for the success of the Games, and possibly even for any word records that get broken in the pool, the velodrome or on the track.
“If you can’t get your story heard by the media, why don’t you become the media yourself?” asked Jennifer, as she spoke to activists at the Royston Wardieburn centre.
“The narrative of the Commonwealth Games has been established by the mainstream media snce the very start,” she says.
“If you try to tell any alternative stories, they’ll just take you down. So our plan is to train people to report their own communities and to create a digital archive of people’s expereince during the Commonwealth Games, so that we have more than just the official account of the event.”
I have been working on the Highland schools Literacy Hub project in one way or another for most of 2013 and it has seen my working life come almost full circle, from adult literacy teacher just after I emerged out of university in the depths of Thatcher’s Britain in the 1980s, to a spell as a history teacher in southern Africa before entering journalism and now returning (for some of the time at least) to the classroom and training.
The project, which has taken me to schools across the region, including Invergordon, has opened my eyes not just to the lives of young people in these schools and communities, but to their eagerness – and the truly impressive scope of their ambition – to report on their lives around them when they are presented with the tools to do so.
A big part of my new job as Scottish Outreach Manager with the Media Trust is going to be geared towards getting these tools to people in these communities and helping them take their first steps towards reporting on their lives, their concerns and their hopes for themselves, in their own words.
I’m keen to make a start.