The group's two pigs - Charlie and Barley
With 135 chickens, six ducks and two pigs to look after, as well as a brand new walled rose garden to maintain, the students in Lews Castle College's Community Interest Company Hebridean Castle Trading are certainly being kept busy.
And the hard work in gaining qualifications and life skills being made by students with additional support needs on the Alpha course and the Learning and Working course will be shown off to friends, family and staff at their Open Day on Friday, June 10th.
“It gives the students a real sense of purpose and self worth,” said course auxiliary Coleen Campbell. “The students care for all the animals and run the egg business; they're learning new skills all the time, like making deliveries and working with money.”
Course Lecturer Christina Macleod added: “It gives students more practical experience, they're moving into real life working situations. The work gives them responsibility for themselves and they are really proud of what they have done.”
Established three years ago and started with only 20 hens, the Community Interest Company has grown and developed, and scooped the 'Social Enterprise in Education' award from Scotland's Social Enterprise Academy in 2014.
Hatching their own chicks, the group's hen numbers now top 135 – and most recently the egg business produce has been graded, meaning that Alpha Eggs are now sold in the Good Food Boutique and Macleod and Macleod Butchers in Stornoway, as well as throughout Lews Castle College UHI.
As future projects expand, it's hoped to add some Highland cattle to the company's growing menagerie, already home to six ducks and two pigs – Charlie and Barley – as well as invest in Polycrubs to move into growing fruit and vegetables for market.
And alongside caring for animals and running their Community Interest Company, students have also been working towards gaining their John Muir Trust award by reclaiming and replanting the previously derelict walled garden at Lews Castle College.
“We've had a lot of help and advice on growing the plants from seed, especially from Hamish Bremner,” said Coleen of the students' horticultural work.
“They've been inspired by a visit we took to the Horshader project and to Brue Highlanders; and we also have to thank Donald Macleod from Harris, our 'rose expert' who helped plan and plant the walled rose garden.”
Christina continued: “Funding is really our main issue in moving forwards. The business is doing well and all the earnings are put back into the business, but for big things, large purchases like the Polycrubs, we need investment.”
The group pay thanks to a number of local councillors who have supported the project through ward funds – John A Maciver; Catriona Stewart; Norman Macleod; Zena Stewart; Alasdair Macleod; Donald Crichton, and Gordon Murray.
And also to Fiona Chisholm, and Kathlene Morrison and Donna Matheson at LEADER for assistance and advice with funding applications.
“We really have had so much support from people,” said Christina. “Alasdair and Seonaig Macleod have been fantastic giving general support and pointing us in the right direction.
“Neil Macleod has been on hand to give us crofting advice, 'Cudig' Macleod shares his pig expertise with us and Donald MacDonald, aka The Hen Man, is always at the end of the telephone when we need advice about the chickens.”
She continued: “The benefits for the students are so visible and for me it's all about seeing them happy. They're such good company to be with.”
And Coleen added: “It was such an achievement when we first set it up [the company] and amazing just seeing how the projects have grown and developed.
“We're really fortunate to be here in the College and we hope to keep growing and expanding into the future.”
The Learning and Working course at Lews Castle College UHI will be running on both a full-time and a part-time basis when students return after the summer break.
Anyone interested in finding out more should contact Lews Castle College UHI on 01851 770000 or visit www.lews.uhi.ac.uk
The derelict walled garden (above) was transformed into a peaceful haven (below) by students' hard work