Well that’s a wrap! On the 21st of November we raised our glasses and cheers in a celebration event to mark the end of the Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms project and to launch the anthology of writing that was gathered across the year. Wonderfully, some people travelled from as far as Falkirk, Perth, Aberdeen and even Ayrshire to swell the 70-strong crowd at The Pagoda in Grantown.
As well as wee speeches from Grant Moir, CEO of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Anna Fleming, project manager, and myself, we had readings from several contributors. These featured commissioned writer Linda Cracknell, poets Karen Hodgson Pryce and Jane Mackenzie, and local crofter Lynn Cassells, whom some of you will know from the BBC programme This Farming Life. A personal delight was to round off the readings with a line-up of Cairngorms Lyrics that included Neil Reid, editor of Mountaineering Scotland magazine, pupils at Kingussie High School and myself.
To break up all the words, we had a couple of sets by the Suie folk musicians and finished the evening on a high with the Gaelic singing and step dancing of Comhlan Luadh Bhàideanach, the Badenoch Waulking Group. Their songs all come from the tradition of Highland and Island women singing together round a table as they rhythmically pound and work the tweed. Comhlan Luadh Bhàideanachhave been together for nearly 25 years and in October won the Harris Tweed Authority trophy at the Royal National Mod. It was brilliant to bring these groups of musicians back into the Shared Stories project again as they had supported our open mic night in the Badenoch Festival in September.
At the end, everyone milled about over drinks and nibbles, grabbed copies of the book and discovered many connections and crossed paths. Scotland is a small place, and never smaller than when landscape and literature meet. Anna Fleming had led the editing and production of the anthology, sourcing the perfect cover art from Steffan Gwyn and overseeing the design to yield a beautiful, high-quality publication of which we’re all very proud. Copies are available in visitor centres, bookshops and libraries across the Park, by donation to The Cairngorms Trust.
And for those who don’t have a copy yet, here’s my introduction to the anthology, which is also a good way of summing up the work of the year. (Don’t worry – this is not my last post and chorus – that’s next week!)
It’s a very powerful thing to fall in love. Lynn Cassells, p 77
This book is a story of the heart. It is a collection of writings from very different people with one thing in common: their interactions with the rocky heart of Scotland, the Cairngorms. As you will see, it is what Nan Shepherd called ‘a traffic of love’.
The anthology arises from the 2019 project Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms. Organised and part-funded by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, with additional funding from The Woodland Trust and Creative Scotland, the project set out to encourage people to write creatively about how we and nature thrive together. As the first Writer in Residence for the Park, my role was to facilitate this work through a varied programme of activities taking me all over the bens and glens of the Cairngorms and into the company of countless folk. There were open workshops in three locations, drop-ins at the Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend and Forest Fest, and workshops with schools, rangers, health walk groups, educators, land-based workers, outdoor instructors and Park volunteers. We invited everyone to the table and welcomed every voice.
Throughout the year, rich conversations emerged about people’s experiences of the natural world of the Cairngorms, whether they were born-and-bred locals, settlers or tourists passing through. Inevitably, there are as many perspectives as there are people. There can be controversy and conflicts of interest across the National Park, but the space for shared creative activity enabled us to exchange views with open-ness and interest, rather than argument.
The groups I attended had some really great insights into the landscape, nature and ways of life that I had not seen before. Blair Atholl participant
Most people claim to value nature, to see it as both beautiful and necessary, but most of us have blind spots about the ways in which we threaten it. A key element of the project, therefore, was to address blind spots. Not by exposing ignorance or harmful lifestyles, but by turning the focus the other way and opening our eyes to nature: encouraging us to peer deeply, to pay attention, to discover the complexity and wonder of the world around. We appealed to the senses, going outside wherever possible to tune into the sights, smells, sounds and feelings of a place. Sometimes I spread forest finds across a table – moss, lichen, leaves, stones and branches – and we focused on one small thing. Much like Linda Cracknell in Weaving High Worlds on page 46, people discovered infinite dimensions.
Attending the Shared Stories workshops changed the way I appreciated the Cairngorms. I saw a richness of colour and depth of texture that had previously passed me by. Ballater participant
But more than just discovery, the project invited people to capture their encounters in words. In trying to find the right words, we are forced to pay even closer attention and move beyond assumptions. What exactly is the colour of that sky – here, now? How surprising that this clump of earthy moss smells like medicine, not dirt. And when we make attention a habit – a way of being in the world – we begin to notice how astonishing, how precious and how vulnerable nature is. Alec Finlay in Conspectus, page 16 talks of ‘the power of looking.’ We become aware of what is here, what is lost and what is on the brink. It becomes a gaze of love. And, I hope, of committed action. We will look after what we love.
Thank you for opening our eyes and ears. Kingussie participant
An important thread through Shared Stories has been the celebration of languages. In the workshops, we explored the Gaelic, Scots and Pictish place names of the Cairngorms, along with the rich lexicon of local words for the outdoors. Amanda Thomson’s A Scots Dictionary of Nature was an inspirational source, as you will see from her sixty two words for rainy weather on page 62.
Early in the year, I invented the poetic form the Cairngorms Lyric which proved a dynamic tool for enabling all kinds of people to capture a Cairngorms moment while also enjoying language diversity. Folks were delighted to discover they could write the entire Lyric in their own language and I was delighted in turn to hear many different languages joining the Shared Stories throng. That is why a Spanish Lyric is included in this collection, along with poems in Gaelic and Doric.
Being able to use my own language makes me feel I belong.Abernethy participant
Finally, a fundamental aspect of the project has been the sharing of the stories. This always happened in the workshops, of course, but also spilled out onto eight banners displayed in Visitor Centres across the Park. We held an open mic night as part of the new Badenoch Festival in September, drawing both workshop participants and others to tell their tales. In addition, we encouraged input from anybody, anywhere, who would like to express their Cairngorms nature encounters, and these pieces – from as far afield as the US and Australia – appear on our project blog: sharedstoriescairngorms.tumblr.com It has been exciting, too, to see Shared Stories activities in other contexts, such as RSPB’s Sarah Walker getting Junior Rangers to write Cairngorms Lyrics at Insh Marshes.
For me, it has been a year of gifts. I have learnt so much from my own traffic with this place and its people and have a head humming with experiences, images and words. Some of these have taken shape in my blog about the project, Writing the Way, and others are emerging as poems, but much of it will continue to find voice in the years to come, I am sure. For this store of treasure, I am deeply grateful.
This anthology, therefore, seeks to capture the range of voices and experiences that have responded to Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms. The work here spans young children to a woman in her 80s; academics to farmers; ‘locals’ to visitors. There are works commissioned from four professional authors and anonymous pieces found amongst papers at the end of drop-in workshops; there are poems and prose pieces; serious reflections and comic encounters; enduring memories and luminous visions.
Throughout, these voices express the shared sense that we, in our humanity, are part of nature and integral to this place. In the earth’s thriving, is our own thriving; in the well-being of the Cairngorms environment, is the well-being of its community. As Samantha Walton says in Embodiment, page 22 ‘How rare to be alive to all this’.
We invite you to celebrate with us this shared life – and this shared love – of the Cairngorms.