Thursday, 1 March 2012

Building Cabins and Building Character: A Knowledge Exchange event at the Scottish Parliament

Over seventy people crammed into Committee Room One of the Scottish Parliament last Friday to listen to two experts in different elements of the Norwegian outdoor experience talk about their own approaches to it and what this could entail for Scotland.
Delegates from the 2012 Nordic Research Network conference, hosted by the Scandinavian Studies section at the University of Edinburgh, and members of the public heard from literary scholar Dr Ellen Rees and outdoor educationalist Dr Ralf Westphal about different aspects of Norway’s famous tradition of friluftsliv (outdoor life).
Dr Guy Puzey presenting at the NRN conference in George Sq
Ellen, a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Linguistics and Scandinavian Studies at the University of Oslo, told the audience about her ongoing research into the literary significance of the rural cabin in Norwegian society, emphasising the central role which so-called ‘cabin culture’ plays in Norwegian cultural life. Ellen is presently engaged in writing a book about the portrayal of the cabin in Norway and revealed how the cabin and the associated stoic outdoor lifestyle can act as a barometer for the changing face of Norwegian society. Starting with the first public cabins instituted by the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) in the 1800s, Ellen traced the evolution of the cabin in Norway. In contrast to the small one-room fishermen’s and mountain huts of the early days, Norway’s cabins have become increasingly more elaborate and numerous. Ellen showed how the Norwegian mountain cabins began in a similar way to shielings in Scotland, acting as a residence for people away in the mountains for a period of the year to watch cattle and tend the land. She also illustrated how the definition of a cabin, or hytte, is somewhat nebulous and ever more frequently encompasses large alpine chalets owned by Norway’s increasingly wealthy upper class. Her presentation outlined both the centrality of the rural retreat to many aspects of Norwegian culture and the problems created by access to the countryside and the challenges of expanding hut communities in the natural landscape, concluding that huts and outdoor access were nominally a good thing but that Norway was a warning as well as an example of what can happen through countryside access.
The assembled panel in Committee Room One
Ellen was followed by Ralf, who presented a comparative study he has written on outdoor education and culture in Britain and Norway. Ralf emphasised that much of Norway’s outdoor culture in fact has its roots in the adventuring of the British upper classes and is marked by the philosophy of the deep ecology movement, perpetuated through organisations such as the DNT and the Norwegian system of folk high schools, in which he himself has worked. Ralf’s study concluded that British outdoor education is centred very much around problem-solving, adversity and the idea of building individual character which makes it something of an elitist and liberally-inclined activity designed to develop strong leaders and individual success. Norway on the other hand has a rich tradition of outdoor education as a means of understanding folk culture and achieving contact with and an understanding of the natural world. The Norwegian folk high schools provide state subsidised access to the countryside for extended periods, often between secondary school and university, and are a unique resource which has no parallel in Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Access to the countryside via outdoor education projects is something available to young people in Norway, as opposed to the exclusivist and increasingly corporate ethos which dominates British countryside access and the affordability and nature of outdoor experience.
After our two speakers had presented their work they were joined on the panel by Professor Pete Higgins, head of the Outdoor Education section at the University of Edinburgh, and Alison Johnstone MSP, Green member for the Lothians region and kind host of the evening’s event.
Dr Ellen Rees presents her ideas
In answer to a question from moderator Dominic Hinde, Pete voiced his opinion that investment in outdoor education, however expensive, would have a highly positive impact in Scotland. Pete’s view was that the Norwegian education system is far better at focusing on the personal development of children and does not emphasise testing as the only measure of educational success. Whilst Scotland finds itself in a far better position than England with regards to outdoor education, his conclusion was that there was still much to be done to move outdoor education into the mainstream.
Alison Johnstone, in reference to the affordability of both private cabins and the DNT system in Norway, suggested that politicians potentially have the ability to make such opportunities open to all and not the preserve of a privileged few. Alison illustrated her point by revealing how a recent holiday in a Lochaber woodland cabin with her family had cost several hundred pounds and that it absurdly enough would have been cheaper to take a week in Spain than in Scotland.

As the floor was opened up to the audience the room heard from members of the public and representatives from the Carbeth Hutters Community, Reforesting Scotland and the Thousand Huts campaign, discussing the challenges faced by Scottish hutters and educationalists in making sure that the countryside is a resource accessible by all. A Thousand Huts’ Ninian Stewart voiced his hope that a turnaround in our contact with the outdoors could be part of a much larger re-evaluation of Scotland’s societal priorities. Dr Bjarne Thomsen from the University of Edinburgh concluded by emphasising that the heart of the hutting philosophy in Norway, Sweden and Denmark is the idea that wealth, location and background should not be an obstacle to enjoyment of the outdoors, and that in Scandinavia successive governments have recognised and facilitated this.

We are very grateful for the continued support of  the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in Edinburgh, the Nordic embassies in London, University College London and the University of Edinburgh in sponsoring and facilitating this event.

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