I’d heard about this wonderful wee festival that happens at the Highland Folk Museum every August – all about wood – but never made it along before (usually because it’s Edinburgh Festival season). But this year, I was lucky enough to have Forest Fest in my programme of activities for the Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms project, so I was definitely going.
The Highland Folk Museum is a living history museum in the town of Newtonmore that demonstrates Highland life from the 1700s on. Established by the noted folklorist Dr Isabel Grant in 1935 it is now an award-winning free and open museum, drawing thousands of visitors ever year.
Forest Fest, supported by The Woodland Trust and Scottish Forestry, has been one of its special event days for several years now and is growing in popularity, with some people planning their holidays around it. It’s easy to see why. Alongside all the usual exhibits spread across the 80 acre site, the Fest brings together a colourful cohort of folk all demonstrating skills and passions centred around wood.
The main attraction is always Tarzan the horse, who helps his man Simon haul logs in the traditional way. Then there are the Sawdust Fusiliers Living History Group recreating the Canadian Forestry Corps who were based here during WWII; the sawmill; the small wooden boats called coracles paddling across the mill pond; opportunities to make traditional tinders and wooden crafts; guided woodland walks; bird-spotting and mini-beast hunting; and tree-themed storytelling.
And then there was me. In a damp barn in the corner with paper and pens. Well, it was easy to feel upstaged and drab next to all the woodland wonders happening beyond, and my cheerful signs about ‘creative writing for all ages’ seemed an effective repellent to most visitors. I know, I know. It all looks too much like school.
I was there, of course, with my Writer in Residence hat on trying to woo people into the woodland groove with a word or two. I had activity sheets galore and cunning plans to sweep folks off into the trees for sensory walks that segued seamlessly into poetry, snatches of travelogue and profound personal memoir. All right, all right, I’d be happy with just a few scratches in the dirt if only somebody would give it a try.
But gradually, they came. Especially when the rain bucketed down and my dark barn suddenly turned into an inviting haven. One wee boy threw himself at the colouring pens with gusto. No wafty tree pictures for him, this was Pacman! When I crowed with delight over another boy’s yellow rabbit, he told me scornfully it was Pikachu (another video game character, for those who have led a sheltered life.) But how could I despair when his little sister drew hearts and gave them to me with huge, melting eyes?
And then, slowly but surely, the writing stuff started to happen. A woman and teenaged daughter wrote a Cairngorms Lyric in Dutch and English. A wee fellow raced outside with his senses activity sheet and got Mum to fill in all the boxes; a beautiful little girl from Dubai took me with her to do the same. More kids took sheets, a few more adults had a go at nature poems.
The next day an outdoor shelter was free and I decamped there, maximising on the passing trade between the fabby Roots & Shoots women making wooden necklaces and the ice cream van. More folk came. Actually, most of them came when Liz English took over for half an hour. One of the museum curators, she kindly gave me a break to go on a tree discovery walk with Alan Crawford of the Woodland Trust. (Brilliant, by the way.) I returned to discover a veritable publishing house. The tables were awash with fully illustrated activity sheets and reams of rhyming verse. Always good to know how dispensable one is.
But it didn’t stop there. A French family came by to add their Cairngorms Lyric and two girls from Glasgow spent ages filling out their sensory sheets and writing poems from them. One attends a Gaelic-medium school and finished hers with a few lines of Gaelic.
The other took advice and inspiration from the young Edinburgh history graduate and emerging writer, Hazel Atkinson, who was a volunteer at the Fest helping with the storytelling. And that was the final gift of the day. Packing up, I found her poems lying quietly amongst the Pacmans and Pikachus. Two of the cleverest acrostics I’ve seen in a long time, they confirm that not only is she a writer to watch, but also – though it may not compete with Tarzan the Wonder Horse – ‘creative writing for all ages’ can make magic.