The new tartan army

A school full of refugees needed a new identity - and found a classic Scottish solution
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The Independent Online

On Sighthill, one of Glasgow's most notorious council estates, the spring sunshine doesn't inspire much hope.

On Sighthill, one of Glasgow's most notorious council estates, the spring sunshine doesn't inspire much hope. The 10 tower blocks rise grim and unwelcoming out of a barren land. A cold wind blows down from the graveyard to the east, chasing torn crisp-packets like tumbleweed towards the motorway. There are no blossoming trees to signal that the world is changing.

But it is. In August 2001, Sighthill made national headlines when Firsat Dag, a 22-year-old Kurdish man from Turkey, was fatally stabbed. Fifteen months later, an Iranian asylum-seeker, Masood Gomroki, was attacked by a gang of seven white youths and stabbed in the stomach with a bottle. The area, which already had a reputation for social deprivation and violence, was branded a hotbed of racial conflict.

Three-and-a-half years later, there are almost 3,000 refugees and asylum-seekers living here - nearly half of the local population - but good neighbourly relations is something the residents are proud of. Most of this change was engineered by the Sighthill Community One-Stop Shop, a local centre where both indigenous and foreign people can get free legal advice, help with finding doctors and schools for their children, or simply a cup of tea and a much-needed chat.

Detective Jim Kirkland, head of Strathclyde Police's Asylum Seekers and Racially Aggravated Crimes Unit, says: "The community deserve credit for the strides they have taken towards social inclusion. The housing authority keeps getting requests from Scottish-born residents for the flat next door to be assigned to asylum-seekers, because they are such good neighbours."

But, although life on the ground may have changed, Sighthill's reputation hasn't. It is this that Claire Gunn, the art and design teacher at the local St Stephens primary school, wants to turn on its head.

"We don't have racial problems in the school," Gunn says. "All the children work together and have mixed friends, and I really wanted other people to see that. I think it's unfair for this impression to be left of Sighthill. These children know they're working well together, but they are getting dragged into that old idea of Sighthill, and it's not like that at all."

Her brainwave was to create a new identity for the school, using the one thing synonymous with Scottish culture - tartan. "The idea came to me during a teachers' night out to celebrate the end of the school year: get the children to design a tartan for our school," Gunn says. "The more I thought about it over the holidays, the more the symbolism struck me: individual children would be the threads, but the finished tartan would be the tightly woven community of our school."

Brian Wilton, the director of the Scottish Tartans Authority, applauds her choice: "Clan and family tartans have always been a sign of strong bonds. By using a tartan to symbolise the ethnic range of the school, it says a lot about the bond that all the children at the school have - and about the 21st-century Scottish clan."

With money awarded by the Glasgow Council's arts initiative bid scheme, Gunn began an after-school group with 11 pupils from Years Six and Seven. Their first task was to work out exactly how many different nationalities they had in the school. The answer - 35 out of a total of 214 pupils - surprised them all. "We knew we had a mixed bunch," Gunn says, "but we didn't realise just how international we were."

Their next job was to research the flag for each nationality, work out how many colours were in these flags and the percentage of pupils each colour represented. "I told them it was an art and design project," Gunn says, "but it ended up being more maths, certainly to start with."

After choosing the four colours that were most representative of the many faces of the school - and were most washable, as it was decided that the tartan would be used for a new school tie - the pupils set to work designing the blue, red, green and black "All As One" tartan. A couple of months later, it was on the loom of Ingles Buchan, one of Scotland's leading kilt manufacturers.

"It's a great design," says Colin Brown, the sales director of Ingles Buchan. "It' s up there with the Flower of Scotland and the Royal Stuarts. A lot of tartans don't look very different, but this one is quite special because of the colours chosen."

Ultimately, it's not just how it looks that makes it special, but the effect the All As One tartan has had on the pupils of St Stephens. Thurga Srikaran, 11, says the project has helped her to feel at home in Glasgow.

She arrived in Sighthill five years ago from Jaffna, the city at the heart of Sri Lanka's two-decade long ethnic conflict. "We came here to get away from the war and the fighting," she says. "Doing this has made me feel really welcome in Glasgow. I feel we can work together."

Another advocate of the tartan is Chimwemwe Kadzuwa, 11, from Malawi, who greets me with a handshake, a nod of the head and a declaration that one day he's going to be a politician. "Everyone can say this is a bad area, but now we've shown them different," Chimwemwe says. "We are the first school to make a tartan. We' ve shown them how unique we are."

When asked why they chose the name All As One, Maxine Reilly, 11, from Glasgow, says that it symbolises "that nobody is different. That everybody is the same, everybody should be appreciated the way they are."

The final flourish came with all the pupils of Primary Year Seven organising a public-relations event to present the tartan to their parents, the media and the Scottish Tartans Authority, who had added it to its official register. It was up to them to send out invitations, get sponsorship for the drinks, balance the books and, on the day, field photocalls and interviews with the press.

"Everything we do at St Stephens is geared towards boosting the pupils' self-esteem and making them feel good about themselves," Gunn says. "And, right now, they feel like they're invincible."

It looks as though the tartan story has some way to go still. The pupils of St Stephens have been invited to talk at the Junior G8 summit to be held in Gleneagles, and to put their tartan on display at the Special Olympics to be held in Glasgow. Both events take place in early July.

The head of school, Jessie McBrearty, is amazed at the effect of all this. "So much happens in a school year, so many ideas don't make it to fruition," she says. "It was wonderful to see this really work. I hope it stays with the children for the rest of their lives. If they can grow up and respond to racism with the attitude, 'No, you don' t have to think like that, that's not how we think,' we will have achieved a lot."

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