Anyone straying near the Market Cross at 11am on Saturday could have been forgiven for thinking the World Cup had arrived early and been relocated to Lerwick.
Close to a thousand people – double organisers’ expectations – enjoyed a samba atmosphere before taking part in the CURE (Communities United for Rural Education) march against education cuts that will, organisers say, devastate rural schools and communities.
Dozens of banners representing, mainly, rural sports clubs, colourful outfits and sounds pumping from High Level Music, made the demonstration an eye-catching, if brief, example of the strength of feeling against the council sanctioned closure of schools and secondary education cuts.
If the atmosphere created by the hundreds of parents, children and grandparents from all over rural Shetland was festive, their purpose was deadly serious: the vast majority of people in the areas affected by the proposals are dead against them. That gives a council, one of whose core commitments is the preservation of rural communities, a seismic headache. It also calls into question the point of the extensive consultations that have surrounded the exercise.
One of the march organisers, Gordon Thomson, who is also a member of Unst Action Group, said that it had been a “tremendous day out” and that he was “very pleased the march had exceeded our expectations”. He said that that the proposal to limit secondary education at rural schools to S1 and 2 was “dead in the water” according to the opinion of Education Scotland.
Mr Thomson, who was clad as a Viking for the day said: “The march today shows the tremendous strength of feeling in rural communities to keep schools open from secondary one to four and also to keep the primaries open.”
Chairman of Sandwick Parent Council Raymond Mainland said: “The philosophy of the way these cuts are being made is wrong. We need to see this [education] as an investment in these rural communities, not an expense.”
The demonstrators remain deeply concerned that closures are still on the table for Monday’s town hall meeting.
According to grandparent and ex-headmaster of Aith Junior High School Jim Nicolson closing secondary departments will have a very damaging impact on rural economies. Two of Mr Nicolson’s three grandbairns could be affected by changes to Aith school.
“We have real concerns about it. Folk would inevitably not build houses in rural areas but would move closer to Lerwick.
“There’s no good grounds to say there is any educational advantage. On the HMI website (Education Scotland) they say that they have no preferred option on the curriculum.”
Father of two children who will soon be entering the school system at Dunrossness, John Robertson, said that the council’s plans would be damaging rural communities when they should be “doing the opposite.”
He added: “Councillors and officials show hypocrisy when they criticise the government for centralising when they do exactly the same within Shetland.”
Among the host of ill-effects opponents of the school plans say will be wrought on rural life is the decimation of many sports and recreational clubs that have sprung up around rural secondary school departments.
Father of six Ian Walterson said that the original plan to save £5million from education had ben achieved some time ago and that figure had been increased to £7 million. Now another three and a quarter million had been tagged on to savings.
“Every time a saving is made they move the finishing line,” he said. “I think the head of education should turn around and tell the elected members it is impossible to do what they are saying they want. This is doing serious damage to education in Shetland.”