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The Idyllic School Founded by Tilda Swinton in Scotland


Drumduan Upper School educates for a world that must return to simple values and learn to be in nature and solitude.

Perhaps because it only has 17 pupils so far, few people know that British actress Tilda Swinton founded a school in 2013. Drumduan Upper School is one of the most idyllic examples of the new models of education that have emerged in our times. The campus is located in the spectacular Moray Firth, in Scotland, an area of small coastal towns, forests, cliffs and beaches where various species of dolphins swim.

The school emerged as a branch of the already established Moray Steiner School when Swinton and another parent, Ian Sutherland McCook, sought to persuade the teachers to create a high school, as the pupils at Moray Steiner (where their children studied primary) had to leave aged 14. When they failed to persuade them, they decided to do it themselves.

In a review in The Guardian, Aaron Hicklin describes a visit to Tilda’s bucolic school this year, and who had invited him to join them on a school trip to the tiny Colonsay Island (population: 120). There, the 17-year-old students, bereft of mobile phones, had to guide themselves using their own initiative (perhaps a disorientating task for the majority of young people today). “Some activities were planned,” Hicklin says, “including a day studying the protected bee colony on the island, but the week was relatively unstructured. Tilda thought it was important that the children had the freedom to get bored.”

It is precisely that which Tarkovsky considered to be the most important lesson for young people: to learn to be alone and to enjoy their own company. The school trip, according to Swinton, is designed so that the pupils take the time to process all that they have learned during the semester, but also, and above all, to discover the power of silence far from the mainland. One of the activities was to walk for eight hours around Colonsay until they found, each on their own, a place of no more than five steps in diameter and to spend one hour there. “An island within an island,” Hicklin says.

As is common in Steiner schools, in Drumduan there are no marks or any kind of exam, and all learning is interdisciplinary and practical. The students learn science, for example, by building a canoe. The school’s professor. Krzysztof Zajaczkowski, explains it better: “You’ve got mathematics, geometry, physics of buoyancy, the chemistry of epoxy resins, the art and aesthetic of colour and shape, the process of collaboration and the physical, outdoor experience of it all.”

We already know various new educational bastions that fill any adult who endured institutionalized schooling with a mixture of envy of and enthusiasm for the new generations, but Drumduan promises to be, at least, the most extravagant and the most aesthetical. Those of us who had a “traditional” education could imagine if we had been taken, at the end of a semester aged 17, to a tiny island to put theory into practice by making canoes and to balance the urban and mental mess that we are unhealthily accustomed to.

Our era has the virtue of curiosity, but also the power to mold educational systems that have obviously failed to guide us in this strange world. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian founder of this educational movement, wrote: “To be free is to be capable of thinking one’s own thoughts – not the thoughts merely of the body, or of society, but thoughts generated by one’s deepest, most original, most essential and spiritual self, one’s individuality.” For her part, Tilda Swinton took Steiner’s thinking one step further. And about time.


Tilda with bees, image by Murdo MacLeod for the Observer / Drumduan Upper School

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