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The Nature Writer & The Big Surprise

When I arrive at Speyside High School the welcome from Lesley Williamson, Head of English is warm, though a little surprised. She confesses with a giggle that they’d somehow got me down as Mervyn and were expecting a man. And a beard. I apologise for any disappointment and acknowledge I have an unusual name and answer to anything beginning with M. I’ve had ‘Mervyn’ before, every variation of ‘Mary’ and even ‘Melon’. (I kid you not.) But never sported a beard. Evidently a much-loved accessory of Scottish nature writers, especially the mountain-going males, it’s never really suited me.

Fortunately, the S1 pupils that file in after the bell seem to have forgotten the advertised gender of today’s visitor or have made a seamless adaptation; they certainly don’t look puzzled. But they do look excited. This can be a little noisy, though is far preferable in my view to the look of dead-eyed boredom they will no doubt perfect in a couple of years. This bunch are about 12 and still too young to know they’re not supposed to show their enthusiasm.

We play ‘Take a Stand’, where I get them to place themselves along a line depending on how much they enjoy being outdoors. A wee lad whom we’ll call Bobby presses himself against the door that indicates the far end of the ‘love outdoors’ spectrum. When it comes to the question about how much they enjoy writing, he runs across the hall to the opposite door, shoots right through it and on down to the end of the corridor to a fire escape, where he might have escaped were it not for a teacher high-tailing it after him. He gets the intended laughs from his peers, though I move swiftly on.

There’s an animated discussion between another teacher and the kids about the ideal location for our outdoor activity and, with a couple of athletic lads as guides, we set off for the Linn Falls. On the way I discover one girl’s love of the outdoors includes dressage while another’s love of words has seen her filling diaries from before she could write – which she dictated to her mother. I also discover that the Linn Falls might have been ideal for a Duke of Edinburgh expedition but if we’re all to be home before the weekend, let alone get any writing done, we might need to think again. I wonder if Bobby was behind the plan.

At a grassy lane on the edge of fields, I suggest we’ve stumbled on the perfect spot, and we agree to settle – tents and provisions no longer required. The class spread out, sitting on jackets on the damp grass, or perched on gates or, in the case of one, in a tree, and I am thankful for the presence of supportive teachers and no over-zealous Health and Safety Officers. We go through a guided sense awareness activity, closing eyes and focusing on breathing and the sense of smell. Of course there are remarks and snickers from Bobby and friends about feet and farts, but I ignore these too and commend the good focus of the majority. And most of them are amazingly still and quiet.

Gradually, as we work through each sense and take time to tune in to the natural world, it is astonishing how much is revealed. A burn tumbling down a stone channel brings a soft, continuous plashing; there are bird calls nearby and far off; the hedgerows hold deep scents if we get close enough to breathe them in; the breeze is cool but gentle on our skin. We are lucky: it was forecast to be drizzle but we’re lolling in sunshine with a hint of spring warmth in the air. After taking time to concentrate on observing and feeling, I get them to jot down as many words as possible for each sense.

For taste, however, I outlaw eating anything; (even I have my Health and Safety limits, though it would seem Bobby – who is eyeing up the sheep droppings – does not). Instead I encourage them to imagine an animal that might pass this way. What would it eat? What would its food taste like? A couple of boys ponder the culinary habits of a bird and decide on a worm for lunch. They write: squidgy, squirming, soft, squishy. The very words that leap to mind when I emerge in my swimsuit for the first time after winter, but I don’t mention this.

Back inside I ask if anyone used Scots or Gaelic words and after initial head shaking, we discover that, unawares, they have. Words like ‘burn’, ‘glen’ and ‘wee’ are so common here that it’s easy to forget their origin. We look at the leaflet ‘Place-Names of the Cairngorms National Park’ which explains the language roots of names in the Park, including Pictish, Gaelic and Scots. I also pass out a sheet of words selected from Amanda Thomson’s wondrous publication, A Scots Dictionary of Nature. These bring a lot of laughs: imaky-amaky means ant, gulliewillie is a quagmire covered in grass and whutterick-fuffing is a gathering of weasels.

I then explain our new poetic form, The Cairngorms Lyric, and set them off using the word hoards they created outdoors and the Scots and Gaelic words from the handouts, to create their own. Feverish writing ensues. Not a child kicks back or rolls their eyes or does nothing. Not even Bobby. Because Bobby, as it happens, is inventing faster than anyone, scribbling, giggling and bursting out of his skin to show me his work. When it comes to the end and I ask if anyone would like to read aloud, there are many eager hands, but none waving as madly as his, and though there are many poems that delight and enchant, none make me grin so much as his.

Aye – bin a braw day fu’ ae surprises for Mervyn the Beardless Writer.

(Look out for Cairngorms Lyrics from Speyside High in future posts.)

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