Park life

Spring 2015 issue

Mount Royal University and St. Andrews University head hand-in-hand to the Highlands

Words by Michelle Bodnar
Photography by Mike Quinn


This little Scottish town plays an important role not only in academic history, but also in popular culture.

Known to sports fans as the birthplace of golf; movie buffs may remember it as the setting for the Academy Award-winning film, Chariots of Fire (1981); while royal family watchers recall it as the place where “Wills and Kate” fell head-over-heels in love.

St. Andrews is, of course, the location of the remarkable St. Andrews University, an institution with an impressive 600-year tenure. The university’s hallowed halls and significant stone buildings have played academic host to a number of notable historic figures, including Nobel Prize winners and several members of the British royal family, such as Prince William and his spouse Kate Middleton, now better known as the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

This spring, St. Andrews will gain a few more scholars in the form of 15 Mount Royal University students who will take part in the first-ever Scotland Field School: Sustainability in a National Parks Context. The field school will be led by Mike Quinn, director and Talisman Energy chair for Environmental Sustainability at Mount Royal’s Institute for Environmental Sustainability; Celeste MacConnachie, associate professor for Mount Royal’s Department of General Education; and Kathy Rettie, adjunct professor who earned her PhD at St. Andrews. On the Scottish side is Charles Warren, senior lecturer in geography at St. Andrews, and several St. Andrews graduate students. The group will undertake a hands-on investigative contrast-and-comparison study of sustainability between Scotland and Canada’s national parks systems.

“Collaborations with overseas universities are always stimulating because of the opportunities to discuss shared interests from fresh perspectives,” says Warren, PhD.

“(This field school) will give students the opportunity to engage with the highly-charged and rapidly-evolving debates surrounding the management of the Scottish environment.”

Students will begin by studying Canada and Alberta’s parks systems at Mount Royal, including visits to Banff National Park and Kananaskis Country. They will then assemble again at St. Andrews University, where parks experts have already had their interest piqued by the Banff model.

“They see our system as being like the Cadillac of national park systems because the state has full control,” says Quinn, PhD.

“Banff National Park has been in place since 1885. It’s large and intact with free-roaming populations of deer and wolves and grizzly bears. In Scotland, they’re dealing with lands that have been highly altered over 800 years or more of industrialism.”

“They see our system as being like the Cadillac of national park systems because the state has full control”

Once in Scotland, the group will head to Cairngorms National Park, located in the Scottish Highlands. Cairngorms includes several plots of land held by single families for hundreds of years and wealthy industrialists from Europe, belonging to the royal family or under the management of the Scottish National Trust.

“It’s all owned by individual private land owners, but they agree through legislation to manage their land in a way that meets the needs of the whole country,” says Quinn.

“The students will see very different kinds of ownership and structure, different sorts of pressure and uses all on private land,” MacConnachie adds.

Students will meet with estate owners and park rangers representing various park sections, as well as explore the royal family’s property, Balmoral Estate.

“The royal family is really hands-on when it comes to the conservation,” says Quinn, adding that during the field school’s reconnaissance tour last spring Queen Elizabeth herself was spotted beetling about in her Range Rover and inspecting her horses. Sustainability efforts are visible in the protective fences she builds around young trees and new micro-hydro developments for green energy.

Some estates are focused on maintaining their deer population, some on preserving water, while some may want to create energy and preserve the landscape. As in Canada, there is a continuous search for the perfect balance between tourism and use.

Third-year Information Design program student Elyse Wittman is looking forward to being visually inspired by Scotland’s mystical Highlands, especially standing on the same ground where the famous Battle of Colluden was fought.

“Scotland itself has such a rich history, and if you don’t protect that, that’s thousands of years wasted. Just the fact that I could be part of looking at how they are sustaining that and how to apply it to other countries is incredibly valuable to me,” she says.

According to MacConnachie, the concept of sustainability is hugely important for post-secondaries.

“It’s not just a collection of the different disciplines, it’s how they all integrate with each other,” she says. “Sustainability is how education can continue to thrive in an ever-changing world.”