In the early 1970s, the Edinburgh Academy were given a bequest. With a vision and drive which has become legendary, the headmaster, Bertie Mills, bought one-and-a-half farm cottages and an attached Forestry Commission lodge in Glen Doll, beyond the end of the road, high in the mountains of Angus.
They named it Blair House after the donor, and the teachers fitted it out as a field centre. My Dad was one of a new generation of teachers for whom the new Blair House was the most exciting part of their induction to the school. Adventurous year-group trips for juniors, camping, climbing, bouldering, wide-games; biology, geography and botany field trips for seniors; music, art and drama trips for the quiet aesthetes. My introduction to Blair House was the Easter holiday revision trips led by Dad and his colleagues for Higher students: studying in the morning, and walking up Driesh or Jock’s Road in the afternoon. For the children of the staff, it was all holiday: it was all our lives.
Blair House was less suitable as a twenty-first century outdoor centre. It is too small for a whole year-group. It is inconveniently remote from specialist instructors, and has no opportunity for watersports. Its design did not envisage that the Academy would become co-educational. It required a great deal of staff and curriculum time. It needs major work to meet new fire safety standards and this eventually closed Blair House at the beginning of last year. To the sorrow of the biologists and geographers, staff and their families, and of generations of alumni, the school decided to sell the beloved Blair House and develop a more diverse outdoor education programme.
And I decided to buy it, and make it the educational field centre Blair House again.
I knew people would be delighted, but I hadn’t expected the torrent of support from the wider Blair House diaspora, and the excitement amongst all my acquaintances. I felt as if I’ve gained an enormous extended family, and it made me dare to think that, even though I could only just pay the purchase price and couldn’t get a mortgage for the refurbishment, and even though I have no experience of running a business or managing a refurbishment, that it might really be possible. A crowd-sourced funding scheme and viable business plan looked possible.
I want Blair House to have the educational use for which it was designed, but no longer restricted to the privileged Edinburgh Academy. Why shouldn’t it be available to all children taking Higher Geography or Biology? Glen Doll is within easy reach of all the Scottish Universities: why can’t I invite all the students to botanise in the globally-important Corrie Fee, or bag their first Munro on the Cairngorm Plateau before lunch, as I’ve invited my friends over the years?
The eyes of my printmaker friend lit up as she said, ‘Residential art courses!’ My sister, whose church Destiny has a youthful and culturally diverse urban congregation, said, ‘congregational retreats!’ My friend at the Botanics said ‘it’s time we revived the student botanical surveys in Angus: it would be the perfect base’. I hadn’t even started advertising.
People always came back from Blair House changed for the better: generations of tiny children explored woods for the first time, teenagers fallen in love for the first time, students saw real mountains for the first time, shy people made lasting friendships, hesitant people discovered their creativity, city people discovered the mighty scale and intimate intricacy of the natural world. My friend and I, in late night bunk-bed discussions, used to call it ‘the spirit of Glen Doll’. It’s time the spirit of Glen Doll was revived.
My ‘grand designs’ adventure began on Thursday when I got the keys. This was already the culmination of three years’ planning, negotiation and uncertainty, ever since the future of Blair House came in doubt. There’s a great deal of work to be done before Blair House can open again, all of it new and challenging for me, but I’m beyond excited. This is all my first and best dreams come true.
Update! The plans are now in place and a timetable for the refurbishment to be completed by the summer, but I will need to find around £200,000 funding to achieve this. I’ve launched a crowdfunding site with more information about the plans and exciting rewards. Please have a look.