Scotland skillshare 2

By Kath Baker


The first of the Permaculture Association's Regional Skillshare events kicked off in style in Scotland at the end of April. This long anticipated series of five skillshare events was crowdfunded through our Big Give campaign, designed to support both groups and individuals who wish to work with others in their communities. Our Scotland Regional Skillshare Event focussed on how to develop a practical learning programme and was led by permaculture educator James Chapman, who has a passion for teaching practical skills to empower people to become more resilient and to be able to confidently 'do' permaculture. 

After months of planning and making a thorough pest of myself on social media, I was full of anticipation about the event, what we would learn and in particular the unique alchemy of people and their shared wisdom, that always makes these events so rich. I arrived in the scottish borders unprepared for snow on the ground. However, I am always prepared for cooking and as I arrived with my ridiculously large stick blender, I was warmly received by skillshare host James Chapman, plus Christina and Sharon, his volunteer chefs, who were cooking up a storm using mountains of produce overwintered in the Willowburnlea polytunnel. 

Scotland skillshare volunteers
human mapping

On Saturday morning, twelve of us met up at the St James the Less church hall, a light and airy community building in Penicuik, Mid Lothian for the 'classroom' part of the day. The group included four members of the Permaculture Community Classroom, A network hub and autonomous self-education group based in Edinburgh, a community gardener, an ecotherapist, a regenerative flax and sheep farmer, a community orchardist, sweat lodge facilitator, an educator developing a brownfield site using permaculture principles and some folk local to the area, who had heard about James and were curious about what he was getting up to! One participant, Cheryl, had travelled from Fife, and was looking to add a learning element to her farm. Some people were attending to weave more practical skills into their own practice, others because they had identified a real skills gap that they wanted to try and fill. 

James framed the day by stating that we had the opportunity to train a whole new generation of VUP's (very useful people), and how necessary this is given the multitude of challenges facing us in modern times.  It became apparent early on, through James' human mapping exercise, that there was a lot of knowledge and skills in the group. We were invited firstly to identify some of the practical skills that we have and of these, which have we had exerience of passing onto others, whether formally or informally. Between us, we had a richness of skills not only in food growing, natural building, cooking, sewing, repairing, preserving and animal husbandry, but also in capacity building, community development and communication. 

After a lengthy tea break, James introduced us to a world cafe session, where we moved between three tables, each set up with a large piece of paper bearing a question, "what skills are in decline?", "what training and resources are available?" and "how do we teach practical skills?". We were encouraged to cluster around the tables in small groups, discussing each question and capturing our collective knowledge on the sheets. This led into a lively group discussion about what we need to teach, how we equip ourselves to teach it and how do people learn. 

world cafe
woodland home

Following a delicious soup and salad lunch and an informal practical skills session (washing up) we lift shared to James' woodland home a couple of miles up the road at leadburn in the Scottish Borders. We spent well over an hour taking a tour of the 7 acre site, starting in the small forest garden to the back of the cabin and ending at the beautiful clearing beyond the woods, overlooked by the pentland hills, that James' PDC students are designing to be a large wildlife pond. James began by sharing that he was supported to buy the house and woodlands by a fellow permaculture educator, who lent him the cost of the property as a bank free mortgage alternative. After a few years in a caravan, James and his family moved into their off-grid (ish) cabin, complete with its own compost loo, rainwater catchment and local larch cladding. 

We then headed past the impressive vermiculture set up that last year yielded a builders bag full of rich castings and into the polytunnel stuffed with an abundance of overwintered salad greens and herbs. A whole host of healthy seedlings were happily growing in the hotbed inside the tunnel, which was lucky for them, as the polytunnel sides had been lined with snow on my arrival the previous afternoon. Some of James' ecobuilds on the tour included a wooden hut, initially built for his daughter, but now inhabited by volunteers due to its poor wifi signal, which made it an unappealing choice for a sociable teenager; a composting toilet, built as part of a practical permaculture course and the new roundwood timber framed outdoor classroom, again built by James' practical skills students. 

Framing the property is the dense sitka spruce plantation, that James is selectively felling to open up space for native birds and to slowly convert to a productive coppice and broadleaf woodland. This is a sensitive process however, as the woodland is currently home to a large owl population, who don't take too kindly to too much felling. Although not as robust as the local larch, the felled sitka has been used for the timber framing on site, with the long, stripped poles charred at the ends to preserve them where they touch the ground. 

roundwood outdoor classroom
bark stripping

The day ended with a practical skills session. This gave everyone an opportunity to learn a new skill and also to have an experience of how practical skills can be taught. There were two options available, tool sharpening and preparing poles for timber framing. Participants had been given the option of bringing a tool with them to sharpen. Despite being in the possession of a number of blunt axes, I didnt bring any with me, as I thought that these days it might be frowned upon to be weilding an axe in Edinburgh castle, which I was planning to visit the following day. Others had brought knives, chisels, secateurs and loppers, and learned if they were single or double bevelled and how to sharpen them using a series of different stones and files. 

Group two headed off into the field behind with a large sitka log, and learned from Shane, one of James's current PDC students, how to use a draw knife to strip bark from the log to prepare it for roundwood timber framing. This process looked extremely satisfying, especially when the bark came off in one long curl. Shane expertly demonstrated how to use the knife safely, the maintenance that the tools required and how a number of learners could all work in the same space, if the logs were carefully strapped down at safe intervals on the purpose built pole stripping frame. 

I left James's place feeling tired, but both grateful and inspired. For me, the skillshare was partiocularly good because it built on the foundadtions of what we already knew and gave us the confidence to identfy that most of us were already teaching practical skills in some capacity. The group was brilliant, everyone was really engaged, knowledgable and willing to participate. We all learned a lot from eachother over the course of the day.

It has made me feel really excited about the next four skillshare events... the next one taking place on May 11 at Ecoworks Community Garden in Nottingham. If you can get to one of these events. I highly recommend that you get to one if you can (yes, i know i'm biased). Nothing beats the learning you get from being part of a fantastic group, led by one of our amazing network of educators, coupled with the opportunity to visit some of the most well designed and inspiring permaculture places in our network. 

tool sharpening