Most childhoods are looked back on fondly, with memories of endless exploration and curiosity.
Children can spend hours playing around outside, letting their imagination run riot and get the better of them, and return in time for supper bruised, battered and covered in mud, but nonetheless happy.
Ardvreck is a prep school in Crieff that does nothing but endorse and encourage the love and appreciation children have for the outdoors. I went to Ardvreck as a boarder at the age of nine and stayed until I moved onto senior school at 13. Those years I spent there were among the happiest I have experienced.
They were almost constantly filled with exciting adventures and activities, whilst both testing the bounds of our imagination and resilience of our characters.
Ardvreck seemed to have a sort of ‘rough, tough and tumble’ approach to life, filling most waking moments with various intrepid incidents. This aspect of the school made it a particularly unique place to grow up in, providing boarders with that all-important busy schedule that gave them very little time to feel home-sick.
With a great emphasis on learning through the outdoors, Ardvreck always had some sort of outdoor-pursuit activity on the go. Many of my fondest adventures took place through the school. Several times a term we would venture off on different expeditions called ‘Barvicks’.
These could be anything from a pleasant stroll along the Hermitage to mountain biking around the Knock or hiking up some nearby (or not so nearby) Munro. Sticking with the spirit of the school we would usually go swimming in any river or loch we could find on the way; and rock up back home soaking, smiling and shotgunning first shower.
We played sport every day except Sunday at school: hockey, netball, squash, rugby, rounders, cricket, riding, tennis, swimming…. You name it, we played it. I loved sport before going to Ardvreck, as most 8 year olds do, but playing it six days a week and to the level we did only nurtured and encouraged my eagerness.
It was only when I left Ardvreck and went out into the wider world that I realised it wasn’t common for schools to play sport every day. It turns out that most only play it two or three times a week. This showed me how lucky I was and made me appreciate the opportunities that Ardvreck provided in placing a great emphasis on the importance of, and fun involved in, sports and physical activity.
Ardvreck didn’t just stick to conventional sports. We were forever thinking up new and crazy games to play like hares and hounds or trying out less common sports like water polo. In the days the weather was too adverse to use the playing fields or hockey pitches (as it often was at the base of the Highlands), we would make the most of what was on offer and have snowball fights en masse, a snowman building competition or go for a good old hike up yet another Munro.
At break time we played what was called ‘dens and dams’. This comprised of over a hundred small children grabbing their wellies (that were pretty much always to hand) and charging outside to the wooded areas on the grounds and the streams that ran through them. It was a school tradition and there was always a pile of sticks dubiously claiming to be a ‘den’ or a heap of mud balancing precariously on a wall of stodgy sediment, a ‘dam’, to be seen at regular intervals around the school grounds. This ‘get your hands dirty’ ethos that characterised Ardvreck and its pupils was so crucial growing up.
The confidence and resilience I obtained and developed through the school has been, and will continue to be, invaluable to me throughout my life. It has been this resilience and strength that has helped me overcome struggles and get through times of adversity in ways I doubt I otherwise would have managed.
Every now and then, each year group would go to an outdoor-pursuits centre where we would throw ourselves into activities such as sailing, high ropes, archery and kayaking. In my final year, however, we took these adventurous skills to a higher level and embarked on an experience I have since been unable to match. We went to an adventure island that took school year groups for a week and plunged them into a new level of ‘rough and tumble’.
Throughout this week of staying in wood cabins we climbed almost sheer cliff faces then abseiled down them, threw ourselves off cliffs on a zip line into a bottomless mud pit, competed for the most swims in the sea at 6am, and followed a rope blind-folded across big stretches of the island, having to wade through marshes and crawl through rock tunnels. As if this wasn’t exciting enough we created even more momentous tasks for ourselves, abseiling in fish boxes, rock climbing 3-legged, blind-folded or with someone on our back (or sometimes all three at once!) and playing tig in the sea across the kayaks.
At the end of this week of hard core ‘training’ we were then scattered over the surrounding islands in groups of two or three and left to fend for ourselves until the next day. This required us not only to set up an appropriate shelter and find food and water but also to write a song to perform upon our return. It was emarkable; truly unique and utterly rewarding experience. And to ease the modern mind of health and safety, yes we were armed with a light and a whistle, not that it seemed to matter at the time – we were having too much fun to get into trouble.
It was experiences and opportunities such as this that helped me to develop a confident, persevering and adventurous character, and one that has learnt to appreciate all that Ardvreck offered me. I was particularly shy when I started Ardvreck; something that, in the face of all this adventure and, in some ways, intensity, could either have been teased out of me pretty quickly, or encouraged to fester in an act of defence and defiance. Luckily for me it was the case of the former.
This allowed me to open myself up and put myself out there not just physically with sport and adventure, but also mentally. The active lifestyle and learning-style we had at Ardvreck was indispensable in helping me to develop confidence in myself and my capabilities.
At the same time, most of my friends now are shocked that we faced such physical endurance, and that we had Saturday school at that age, refusing to believe that eight and nine year-olds were not only forced to spend the weekend away from home and their parents, but also forced to go to lessons and play sport for half of it. I, however, never saw this as a chore or a negativity at school.
Perhaps that is because it was what it was and I didn’t know another way; as far as I was concerned, we had school on Saturday – that was that and it wasn’t a big deal. But even so, waking up at 7am on Saturday morning and putting on that distinctive green uniform was just another way in which I came to learn what working hard was, and how fun and rewarding it could be.
In light of this, I never resented having a shorter weekend or lessons six days a week; it was all part of the process that Ardvreck adopted in preparing us for the big scary world out there. And it is a big and scary world, but having gone to Ardvreck I really do feel like I can stare it in the face and take it on with my own bare hands – the Ardvreck way.
They don’t call us ‘Ard as nails for nothing!