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FOUR SEASONS: LAPTOPS FOR GREENLAND

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 21 November

Here’s a thought: what would happen if the Scottish Government put aside a modest sum of money each year – £100,000, say – to fund “inspiring endeavours”? Yes, I realise there’s a recession on, and I realise Inspiring Endeavours is an uninspiring name, but bear with me – I might be able to come up with something better in a minute.

This fund would be aimed at ordinary folks who had a yen to do something extraordinary, something with the potential to lift the heart of the nation. Applications would be whittled down by a panel of suitably inspiring people – sporting heroes, literary legends and the like. Then, in an unprecedented move that would see the people of this country actually getting a say in how their money was spent, there would be a public vote, and the winner would get the cash to do… well, whatever it was they wanted to accomplish.

Of course, this is all pie in the sky – everybody knows you can’t dish out public funds without setting up some sort of quango and creating a jungle of paperwork for applicants to wade through. Still, if by some miracle a fund like this were to come into being, I know who I’d like to see win the inaugural hundred grand.

Former Royal Marine Craig Mathieson is one of Scotland’s greatest living explorers. In 2004 he successfully led the first Scottish expedition to the South Pole and two years later he defied the experts by leading another expedition – this one including a completely inexperienced 16-year-old boy – to the Geographic North Pole. He doesn’t just make these journeys for the sake of it, either. He believes passionately in exploration as a means of inspiring people. When he returned from the Antarctic he toured primary schools for six months, giving talks to spellbound pupils.

“Every expedition I’ve done has been for educational purposes,” Mathieson tells me. “If you just go out and be the old hand-on-hip explorer type and plant flags everywhere, that to me is just nonsense, complete nonsense – a hollow expedition.”

In keeping with this ethos, Mathieson’s latest venture, dubbed The Northern Lights Expeditions, is a real bit of blue-sky thinking which aims to foster links between primary schools in Scotland and eastern Greenland through a combination of e-communication and – hopefully – face-to-face contact.

The project is split into three phases. Phase One began in August, when Mathieson, 40, from Bo’ness and another former military man, Richard Smith, 38, from Uphall, kayaked to six remote Greenlandic settlements, delivering laptops to schools, setting them up (Smith is an IT expert) and showing teachers and students how to use them. The hope was that the Greenlandic kids would then start to correspond with pupils at three primary schools in Scotland – Castleview Primary in Edinburgh, Deanburn Primary in Bo’ness and Craignish Primary near Lochgilphead – and the initiative already seems to be bearing fruit.

“There’s a whole load of questions and answers going back and forth at the moment,” Mathieson says. “Because it’s coming up to school dance time the kids here are going to make a video and send that, and then hopefully they’ll get traditional drum dances sent back.”

Global warming may not have had much impact on Scotland yet, but the Greenlandic communities involved in the Northern Lights project are already suffering. “They’ve seen a way of life disappear in a generation,” says Mathieson. “There’s less ice and when it does form it’s thinner, so the seals aren’t coming, so they can’t hunt them. The Greenlanders are full of pride for the old ways but everyone says they can’t survive on their own any more.”

Phase Two of the project will involve taking six Scottish students and three teachers to Greenland; Phase Three will see six Greenlandic kids and three teachers visit Scotland. Mathieson estimates the total cost of both phases to be £64,000. So far, despite his best efforts, he is not even close to raising it.

The merits of the scheme are obvious. Apart from the cultural exchange, we’d have a group of kids seeing at first hand how climate change is affecting real people. This knowledge would then be transmitted to their friends and families and further afield, as they visited other schools to talk about what they’d seen. Yes, those flights to Greenland would create carbon emissions, but think of the potential savings as the ecological intelligence of entire communities was improved and people came to see flying as a privilege, not an entitlement.

In the absence of an Inspiring Endeavours fund, you can contribute to the expeditions at www.northernlights1.squarespace.com

Craig Mathieson will talk about the project at the Dundee Film Festival on 28 November, www.dundeemountainfilm.org.uk, and at Tiso stores in Edinburgh and Glasgow on 7 and 8 December, www.tiso.com/news/

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