What it’s like to spend a year in Edinburgh’s Officer Training Corps
When I travelled up to Edinburgh last year as an innocent history fresher, I arrived with Emma Bridgewater mugs in hand, a Cath Kidston duvet, lacrosse sticks and Gombrich’s ‘Story of Art’. I had visions of studying in the Athens of the North strolling up Arthur’s Seat each morning and writing epic poetry with a quill and parchment.
Although the glamorous surroundings of Grant House somewhat dented this vision, at no point would I have believed that I would spend the following year running around the Pentland hills with a rifle in hand.
After signing up to every society Edinburgh has to offer, somehow or another, I ended up becoming a member of the Edinburgh’s University Officer Training Corps – essentially the uni version of CCF or cadets, although massive bonus: you get paid for every single hour you attend – yes, really! I had officially pledged allegiance to the British Army (cue jokes at home: “What a relief! Now we really feel safe!”).
Every Wednesday we’d catch a 20 minute bus and speed out to the unit base where we were duly issued kit, given our army number and assigned a section and Junior Under Officer: a second or third year student essential for providing handy tips and tricks.
The course is run by members of staff (i.e. real adults), and lessons began in map skills, theory of section attacks, army values and standards, how to march, throwing grenades, how to operate a rifle – skills which would (in theory) be transferred into the field at weekends.
The weekends saw us whisked away to the Pentland Hills overlooking Edinburgh. With cam cream liberally applied and branches tucked into helmets, section attacks were put into practice, we practiced on the ranges, patrols were executed and ration packs were consumed – 24 hours worth of vacuum packed rations which were pretty hit and miss (although tactical exchanges could be made: “Anyone want a fruit cocktail in light syrup in exchange for the mint hot choc?!”).
As the term went on, it gradually got colder, wetter and I suppose more Scottish in weather. It was lying, shivering in the snow on Valentines Day when my friend Tash (quietly sobbing) and I began questioning what we were doing and, more pressingly why. There was a constant effort to keep up morale: staff often resorting to giving out sweets “Don’t worrae pal have anoother jelly snake”.
Some weekends we weren’t in the field, but continuing lessons. Get used to being referred to as a female or male, using ablutions and eating scoff for breakfast at 0630 on a Sunday morning – a delicious blur of baked beans, tomatoes in sauce, weetabix and weak squash.
Dorms had up to twenty people, and despite being utterly exhausted we’d always stay up chatting, trying to remove left over cam cream (less liberally applied once we realised it gave you spots) and enjoying hair free from the constraints of a hair net.
On the Sunday evening we’d return to halls, and it seemed yonks ago that we’d left on Friday night. Yet there was something deeply satisfying and rewarding knowing that we’d been busy, challenged and awake for the whole weekend (and paid!) – unlike the rest of Pollock still recovering from Prow, spent the day completing horizontal exercise and eating doritos.
Yet there is far more to being an Officer Cadet than the ‘green’ stuff. I’ve been throwing balls on the rugby pitches, charging down the polo fields at Sandhurst, I’ve tried my hand at drums in the unit pipe band – which this year went on to perform at the Tattoo.
I’ve had two weeks skiing tuition in France, been on a ten day hiking expedition in Iceland, and we have access to all the courses the army has to offer – sailing, scuba diving, mountain biking, sky diving.
The social side of OTC is pretty whizzo too – how could it not be with such wacky experiences! The ‘mess’ is the units self-run bar, which, with it’s cheap prices is a regular haunt for all the OCdts.
With mess games (the slug race is my particular favourite – sliding across the hall in sleeping bags), themed socials and four formal dinners a year, you can imagine it attracts a pretty eclectic crowd but that plays to its strength.
My first year in the Officer Training Corps was certainly an experience. It’s been tough: I definitely cried once or twice whilst lying shivering in a snowy wood or when I was so tired and hungry the last thing I wanted to do was to carry boxes of ammo up to the front line (really what am I doing with this army malarkey?! I would think).
And you must get used to being thrown in the deep end, taking responsibility when you have no idea what’s going on, learning to work with all kinds of people in all kinds of situations, and often using your initiative. Yet it’s those hard bits and overthrowing moments of doubt that have created incredibly close friendships, hilarious memories and a sense of achievement.
There are so many memorable moments the OTC has brought me: on night patrols in the Pentland Hills watching Edinburgh lit up at night, partaking in a slick and professional pass off parade in front of my parents, charging along Sandhurst’s front lawn on a polo pony, climbing to the top of Eyjafjallajökull in Iceland and the three highest peaks of the UK, attending balls in the Playfair Library and leading other Officer Cadets through the chaos of leading an attack in the field.
Of course, joining sports teams and orchestras have much to commend – I myself was a keen member of the lacrosse team, and I’m currently a member of the shooting club and rehearse with Edinburgh Uni Savoy Opera Group. But I can’t believe that anything challenges and rewards you in such diverse and fun ways.
I’ve never wanted to join the Army. I’m not an ‘army kinda gal’, and I still relate more to Katy Perry’s “Part of Me” video than what is actually going on: I’m still struggling to do more than five sit ups for the fitness assessment (yes five! I know – it’s shocking). But I’ve wholeheartedly loved my involvement in the unit – and it goes without saying that it feels pretty good to receive lump sums of money every so often after skiing in France or spending a weekend with all your pals.
Would I recommend it to freshers, second years – anyone? Roger that!