Opinion: Folded tents and farewell to the Jamboree

By John Knox

Scotland’s premier scouting event has just folded its tents and left the field below Blair Atholl castle. For the past fortnight, 1250 scouts and their leaders – from 20 countries – have been camping, fire-lighting, cooking, singing, chanting and taking part in over 40 outdoor activities. And I was privileged to be there.

To walk across the field was like walking through a circus. There were performers all around – playing volley ball, climbing trees, turning wood, wheel-boarding, fencing, practising first aid, tramping off on hill-walks, waddling in wet suits on their way to water sports and yes, learning circus skills. It is two weeks of team-work, survival and fun. It is laying the social foundations of the next generation.

The Blair Atholl camp is not technically a Jamboree – it is not big enough – but even a jamborette is a major logistical operation. Scottish patrols, of six scouts each, are teamed up with overseas patrols. They live and cook together in six sub-camps, huge circles of green tents completed by a large white marquee. A few staff live in the sub-camps but most, around 400, live in their own tents in the “staff lines” and are fed separately in a large marquee.

The quartermaster’s store is a wholesale supermarket under canvas. At 7.30 each morning its sides were rolled up and rations issued to the patrols for the day. Shower and toilet blocks were erected and plumbed in the day before everyone arrived. The camp’s own castle, spelt Kastle, is a long marquee running down the east side of the field in which there is shop, a bank and a post office, room for inside activities and a themed disco almost every night. The staff are treated to the quieter twangs of folk music in the staff club, another large marquee with the luxury of a wooden floor.

All this infrastructure is provided largely free of charge by scout groups up and down the country and by the labour of those who have given up their holidays to drive trucks, dig wet-pits, erect marquees, man field kitchens, collect rubbish, rig stages for the rock stars of the future.

One leader asked me: “ Is scouting part of David Cameron’s Big Society ?” Yes, it is, but it was here long before David Cameron was old enough to be a scout. And it will be here long after David Cameron goes to the great marquee in the sky.

Scouting is the largest youth organisation in Scotland, with over 40,000 members – 15 per cent of them girls. And it is growing at 4 per cent a year. A scout leader from Ireland told me scouting has grown 14 per cent in the Republic since the recession began. Parent have realised that encouraging their sons and daughters to join the scouts is cheaper and better than private gyms or sports clubs or holidaying abroad.

There are 30 million scouts, scattered across 161 countries. And at Blair Atholl we were given an insight into at least some of them. The Spaniards arrived, all singing and dancing. The Austrians were more reserved, the Swedes more casual, the Dutch disciplined, the Americans confident, the Canadians cool and calm. The contingent from Hong Kong were polite about their big neighbour China. The Russians told us their scouting organisations are sadly split into party factions.

The patrol from Japan were from Iwade province which was devastated by the tsunami in March 2011. Scouts in Fife raised £10,000 to buy them new equipment and pay for them to come to Scotland.

After the camp, the overseas patrols and leaders were hosted by their Scottish counterparts in their own homes for a few days before they flew home. These international exchanges are all part of the vision of Jack Stewart, the founder of the Blair Atholl Jamborette which has been held every second year since 1946.

For me – a returnee to scouting after 40 years – it was fascinating to see the next generation taking shape. In some ways the same shape, in other ways a very different shape. I could see boys and girls for whom the camp was a major challenge…fitting in, overcoming the fears of climbing or plunging into mud baths, or gorge-walking. There were others for whom such challenges were easy and a chance to show off or lead. What one’s peers think is much more important these days than it was when I was young. Life is more of a collective effort and less led by outside authority.

Scouting of course in not normally about large jamborees. It is done in small troops or units, in the neighbourhood hall or park, or in basic camps or in the hills. Blair Atholl is more of an agricultural show than a farm. But it does showcase the internationalism of a movement building the society of the future and giving young people a sense of fun and adventure.

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