TAKING the decision to leave her family behind for weeks at a time so she could go to university was the toughest choice Kirsty McLeod has ever made but it looks like it will be worth the heartache.
The 41-year-old former pub landlady has just received a first class degree with honours in forensic anthropology from Liverpool John Moores University where she won her class award for most outstanding student.
All of this was achieved whilst worrying how her husband, Jim, and her two teenage sons, Ciaran, 17, and Liam, 15, were faring more than 200 miles away back in Horncliffe.
“I found it incredibly difficult being so far away from them, especially at first,” admitted Kirsty, back on a fleeting visit to celebrate Jim’s birthday and their 10th wedding anniversary.
“As a mum, there were times when I felt so guilty heading back down the M6. After all, I had two boys back home at a very impressionable age and with important exams of their own coming up.
“I always tried to get back home at least once a month to see them but my workload at university simply meant I couldn’t do it as often as I would have liked.
“However, Jim and the boys have been absolutely fantastic about it. Jim has been so understanding. I know it can’t have been easy for him coping with two growing boys whilst also being at work but he also knows how much this means to me.”
Jim added: “We are all so very proud of her achievements. Her dedication has been second to none. Travelling up and down to Liverpool has been extremely hard when having to leave her children and me behind.”
Kirsty used to run the Angel Inn, then moved on to the Black and Gold in Tweedmouth but ran into financial difficulties after making a big investment in the refurbishment of the social club lying in the shadows of Shielfield Park.
“The pub trade was becoming more and more difficult to make a living from so I knew I had to do something else,” recalled Kirsty.
Five years ago she signed up for an HNC course in health care at Hawick with the intention of pursuing a career in nursing but decided it wasn’t for her – then discovered a real passion for biology instead.
“I’m a bit of a bone freak,” she admitted. “I really fancied doing pathology but that would have meant about nine years of training which I didn’t have time for given that I was already in my mid-30s. I would have been just about ready for retirement by the time I qualified! So I did an access course in forensic anthropology and got an unconditional offer from Liverpool John Moores University. I started my degree there three years ago and have never looked back. I absolutely love it.”
She added: “I think it’s made a big difference going back to university as a mature student, taking a lot of life skills with me. It’s a specialist subject – you have to be 100 per cent committed to it and I was.
“I think it’s even helped the boys’ school work. They’ve seen me studying whenever I’m back home and it’s rubbed off on them which I’m really pleased about.”
Her dissertation was analysing Romano-British skeletal remains discovered in a cave in Haverbrack, Cumbria.
“It was about building up biological profiles and trying to establish why there were so many neo-natal remains there,” she explained.
She has recently been on a seven-week placement in Romania where she worked on human skeletal remains before returning to Liverpool to complete an MPhil (Masters).
“We uncovered two medieval burial sites but the amazing thing was that they didn’t have any specialists in skeletal remains out there so I spent most of my time excavating and analysing the finds before sending them back to the university for full biological profiling to be carried out.”
Kirsty has also spent three years volunteering at the Poulton Research Project in Cheshire, popping along at weekends and rare days off to help with the excavation of graves at the monastic site.
“I’ve probably done about 60 skeletons now,” she revealed. “I’ve gained so much experience at Poulton that when I went over to Romania it was all second nature to me.”
Closer to home, Kirsty has also done some work with Northumberland county archaeologist Chris Burgess and is involved in a project with Berwick-based archaeologist Kristian Pedersen.
“At the moment it’s all about gaining experience in as many different projects as I can so I make a name for myself which will hopefully lead to the right job coming along,” she said.
In January, Kirsty is hoping to be selected for a two-month long excavation project in the Sudan desert, although that would mean suspending her studies and more time away from her family.
She is also scheduled to make her TV debut that month, having just completed filming for a programme called ‘The Burial Business’, to be aired on The History Channel.
Eventually, she hopes to become a lecturer in osteology (bones) which would be supplemented by field work as and when the opportunity arises.
She hopes that will be sooner rather than later given the level of competition moving into the field.
“When I first started there were only a dozen of us on the course but the numbers have more than tripled in just three years so the competition for jobs is only going to get tougher,” admitted Kirsty.
She believes popular TV shows such as ‘CSI’, ‘Bones’ and ‘Waking the Dead’ are behind the sudden interest in the subject.
“I rarely watch them myself - ‘Coronation Street’ and ‘Casualty’ are just about the only things I see – but I do know that they’re not the reality.
“There’s certainly no place for high heels in forensic anthropology!”