Creative Writing at Abbotsford

Students Reading
Category: Writing

In early September this year, the Abbotsford Trust and teaching staff at Galashiels Academy began an exciting partnership project focusing on Sir Walter Scott and his home at Abbotsford near Melrose in the Scottish Borders. With generous support from the Live Literature Fund, Edinburgh-based poet Ken Cockburn was invited to participate in the project and lead writing workshops both on site at Abbotsford and back in the classroom.

Abbotsford was created by Sir Walter Scott in the early nineteenth century as a family home, work space and place for entertainment. He also designed the historic house to be a showcase for the quirky antiquarian collections he had amassed and somewhere to try out his architectural ideas. It is an inspirational place full of links to Scottish history and the Borders as well as one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

In 2011, the Abbotsford Trust began a major redevelopment project to save the historic house, collections and estate for the nation. The cost of the project is estimated at £14.68 million pounds and is funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Historic Scotland, the Scottish Government and Scottish Borders Council. As part of the project, Dr Sandra McNeil, the Trust’s Learning and Engagement Officer, has been developing outreach projects with the local community and links with local schools.

Ken works with students in the classroomMr Craig Aitchison and Dr Chris Nicol are based within the Department of English at Galashiels Academy. Following the Academy’s first ever trip to Abbotsford in 2011, everyone was keen to develop a fuller project and integrate the trip into the S2 curriculum even more. It was agreed that the involvement of a practicing poet could provide a useful creative focus to explore the Abbotsford site and to give pupils greater insight into the writing process. Helping pupils to maintain momentum and interest in their writing after the initial boost of the site visit was identified as a key priority by teaching staff and so a follow-up workshop with the poet 2-3 weeks after the site visit was built in. We also decided that a booklet featuring some of the work produced would help to incentivise the pupils and share their efforts with parents and the wider community. The booklet would also provide a useful resource for other schools considering a visit to Abbotsford in the future.

A challenge we faced this year was the fact that the historic house at Abbotsford would remain closed for renovation during the project. Despite this, we still had plenty of exciting resources to work with – specifically the beautiful formal gardens, and a new visitor centre, including an exhibition on the life and times of Sir Walter Scott, which opened in August 2012.

With these outcomes and challenges in mind, Ken came on board and brought useful advice and experience to the planning stages of the project, including the design of activities for the site visit and in the classroom. It was agreed that the school would bring two classes per day over three days (120 pupils in total), with each class visiting the new exhibition with the Learning Officer and then exploring the gardens with the poet. This format worked very well and gave the pupils the opportunity to gather facts and evidence within the exhibition space and then respond creatively and emotionally to the sights, smells, sounds and stories of the outdoor spaces.

Ken and studentsBack in the classroom, Ken ran an intense hour-long workshop that focused on what the pupils had experienced and learned in the morning and encouraged everyone to share their facts, ideas and impressions. The pupils were then taken through a decision-making process in order to build a historical and physical setting for their story or poem, create characters and design encounters between them. The pupils quickly produced an exciting array of stories and poems focusing on encounters with Scott, members of his family, ghostly servants, talking sculptures and time-travelling tourists!

The interim workshop took place three weeks after the initial site visits, and rather than working with the entire year group, Ken focused on working with a group of pupils from each class and techniques for editing and reviewing work in progress. Draft work from each participating pupil was sent to Ken beforehand, allowing him to focus on specific needs, achievements and common issues. The pupils shared their work with each other through group discussion and collectively at the end of the workshop. Each class had devoted time to reviewing the visit to Abbotsford and developing the texts further, resulting in a great variety of poems, haiku, short stories and dramatic scenes which will make for an interesting publication.


Sandra McNeil

Sandra McNeil is the Learning & Engagement Officer for The Abbotsford Trust