Words for Waterloo: A Collaborative Poem by New Abbey Pupils

Pupils from New Abbey Primary School at the Waterloo Celebration event

What better way to celebrate a historical landmark than to write a poem? In this Live Literature-supported project, poet Hugh Bryden pitched in to help New Abbey Primary School pupils compose a poem to celebrate the Waterloo Monument. Anna Johnson, who organised the five-week project, tells us more in this blog.


The Waterloo Monument
The Waterloo Monument stands on a hill overlooking New Abbey in South West Scotland and is a key landmark in the Nith Estuary National Scenic Area (NSA). The bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo in June 2015 was a wonderful opportunity for all 38 pupils in the school to find out more about the tower and share their new knowledge with others through poetry.

Dumfries and Galloway Council works with local communities in the three NSA’s in the region to help people get to know and enjoy these designated landscapes. Building on previous projects undertaken in the NSAs, we enlisted poet Hugh Bryden to help pupils develop their historical research and experience of visiting the monument into creative writing.

The project was building towards something very special. We knew that Prussian and Belgian soldiers fought alongside the British at Waterloo, including men from Gifhorn, a German town that is twinned with Dumfries. A delegation from Gifhorn was visiting New Abbey in early June to lay a wreath at the Monument, and they planned to visit the school. We decided to make this visit a focus of the project and were excited to be performing individual and class work for the delegation!

During an afternoon with Hugh, the pupils were introduced to artists’ books and pamphlets produced by his Roncadora Press. Each pupil was asked to keep a short sensory diary during their visit to the Monument, to touch, smell and listen as well as look and record the details and write how they felt to be at the Monument.

On a wet, muddy May morning the whole school made its way up the steep, stepped path to the top of the hill. Quite a challenge for some of the younger pupils - but perfect ground conditions for remembering the Battle of Waterloo!

The older and younger pupils' drawings and monotype images
On his next visit, Hugh worked separately with the junior and senior class, discussing the information they had gathered on site and the historical research undertaken about the battle. The class sessions were divided into two tasks, with pupils involved in creating some printing and individual writing. The younger pupils produced textural monotypes of a stone so that they could build them into a collage of the monument. The older pupils created monotype prints of the tower using drawings and photographs.

The young ones were then asked to refer to their diaries and write three lines about being at the Monument and how they felt. The older ones were asked to use their research about the battle and write three lines that told us something about the place and the feelings of a soldier.

The collaborative poem was created by stitching all three-line stanzas together. The contemporary and historical writing was used alternately in the poem to create an echo/contrast in time.

All the pupils’ draft stanzas were later emailed to Hugh, giving him time to assess the content and organise a running order, and on his final visit he worked with both classes, editing lines and working with particular pupils to fill in gaps in the poem. Agreement was also reached following discussion on the layout of the pamphlet and the illustrations for the cover.

If there had been more time we would have loved to introduce a repeat couplet or chorus (perhaps in French or German) to introduce more rhythm to the poem!

The project took place over five weeks and included four half-day sessions with the poet/illustrator, one of which was studio-based to prepare and assemble the booklets. Two of the half-day sessions were supported by Live Literature.

Pupils with visitors from the Gifhorn delegation
The culmination of the project was the Waterloo Celebrations for the Gifhorn delegation and other invited guests. The pupils proudly showed the visitors their work and what they had learned about the Battle of Waterloo. A wonderful concert followed in which the pupils recited their poems; sang songs in German, French and Scottish; and tested their guests’ knowledge in a special edition of ‘Who wants to be a Millionaire - The Battle of Waterloo Edition’!

The poetry pamphlet was given to the visitors as a memento, and extra copies were requested to take back to Germany for the ‘Dumfries Friends’ group.

When the children were asked at the end of the summer term what had gone well in the school and what needed improvement all the children unanimously and enthusiastically agreed the Waterloo celebrations were their favourite event of the year!


For more information on applying for Live Literature support for events, click here.

Credit for Waterloo Monument image: Walter Baxter on Geograph under Creative Commons 2.0

Anna Johnson

Anna Johnson is a National Scenic Area Officer with Dumfries and Galloway Council.