Place-based learning, industrial heritage and Scots language

Over the past few weeks, we have been taking our project into the primary schools of North Lanarkshire. From Abronhill and Stepps, to Plains and Motherwell, we have been running poetry workshops using materials from our project.

Pitched at P4-7, these have been noisy, active-learning affairs (perhaps to the chagrin of other classes in the open-plan schools).

Our workshops consist, broadly, of three elements. The first is an introduction to universities – what they are, what they do, and who goes there:

‘Do you know what a professor is?’

‘What is research? In what ways have you researched something yourself?’

With more and more emphasis within widening participation upon the earlier years of education, rather than just upon the traditional ‘transition’ years of S5-6, we’ve looked to normalise the university through our workshops and in doing so, even in a small way, encourage children to think about higher education as something relevant to them. This is of particular concern in areas of Scotland, like parts of North Lanarkshire, which have higher than average levels of deprivation and poverty.

The second element of our workshop focuses upon Victorian poets and poetry and the industrial workplace. We run through a list of North Lanarkshire poets, using flashcards handed out to willing volunteers who read out their name and occupation – miner, factory worker, maid etc. Immediately after this the whole class shout:


In doing so, this foregrounds the literary identity of each individual. Yes, they were defined by their labour. But they can also be defined by their engagement in literary cultures. In a subtle way, this cacophony of shouting 8-years-olds subverts hegemonic canonicity concerning who and what is deserving of the title ‘A POET’.

Other elements of our poetry readings include play-acting the job roles described in Coatbridge poet Janet Hamilton’s ‘Oor Location’: navvies digging, miners hauling, rollers rolling, and puddlers puddling. We also have an activity which aims to recreate the noises of the industrial workplace as portrayed in James Stewart’s ‘The Iron Village’ (published in Airdrie in 1886):

‘Its clatter, jingle, and clang’ – as pencils rattle against one another.

‘And the hammer’s thumping bang’ – fists and rulers descend upon the table.

Hamilton’s ‘Oor Location’ provides an opportunity to discuss Scots language: what is Scots? What Scots words do you know? Where have you heard these words before? What is the value of being able to write in both Scots and English?

‘More opportunity to rhyme!’ – replied one P5 in Stepps.

This then leads on to the third element of our workshop, where pupils create their own Scots language poetry inspired by Janet Hamilton. We ask them to write about their location: what sights and sounds do you associate with your town or village? The answers are varied and interesting. From the everyday common sights (although perhaps less common now in a climate of austerity) such as lollipop people, to more specific elements of place, such as the recently-unveiled Cardowan Colliery Mining Memorial in Stepps.

The focus upon place is woven into our workshops, from the choice of poets to the writing exercises. It inflects our discussion throughout the session. It is quite profound to hear how many memories of industrial heritage are held by children as young as 8, including family stories, knowledge of street names where they live, and knowledge of local disasters.

Janet Hamilton’s ‘Oor Location’, published in 1870, proclaimed the ‘hunner funnels bleezin’, reekin’/Coal an’ ironstone charrin’, smeekin’’. What our poetry workshops affirm is how much that past is still very much their location in the imaginations of children in North Lanarkshire.

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