A Sense of Place

Teenagers doing outdoor writing activities

What happens when we pay close attention to nature? A Sense of Place, about my residency with the Cairngorms National Park, first appeared in the 2020 Summer issue of The Author.

‘Do you see them? There’s a ruby – and over there, a sapphire!’ The senior gentleman points his walking stick into the long, frosted grass where melting droplets are firing with all the colours of the prism. The more we look, the more jewels we see, winking brilliantly in the November sunlight. Later in the pub, they read me their poems.

In stillness by the river, a woman gathers sounds and memories that take her back to a childhood walk and a kind lady’s biscuits. She writes the story for the first time and glows with the telling.

A schoolgirl sits so quietly in the woods that a ladybird roams over her finger and into the words on her page.

a ladybird on a girl's hand

These are just some of the encounters that have stayed with me from Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms – my project as the first-ever Writer in Residence for the Cairngorms National Park, which ran throughout 2019. The aim was to encourage participants to express in words how people and nature thrive together.

The relationship between humans and the natural landscape is a key priority for the Cairngorms National Park, which is the biggest national park in the UK and a unique, fragile environment. Half its land has international significance for nature, and it is home to a quarter of the country’s threatened species, including the red squirrel and the elusive capercaillie. At its heart are the Cairngorm mountains, a granite massif of connected summits. They were once higher than the Himalayas, but worn down by glaciers, wind and weather over millions of years, they are now rounded humps that can be climbed in a day and appear deceptively easy. The reality is much harsher. Rising above the mellow straths, the plateau is a small slice of the Arctic, with a climate as dramatic and dangerous as the rock faces that woo climbers from around the world.

Successive generations of those mountaineers have sought to capture their experiences in writing, often with as much determination and passion as their attempts to conquer the rock. Notable Cairngorm writers include W.H. Murray, whose 1947 masterpiece Mountaineering in Scotland was written on toilet paper while a prisoner of war. When the manuscript was destroyed by the Gestapo, he doggedly began it again. The book is testament not only to his love of the mountains, but also to their power – and the power of writing – to elevate him above wartime despair. Describing the summit of Lochnagar, he wrote: ‘Over all hung the breathless hush of evening. One heard it circle the world like a lapping tide, the wave-beat of the sea of beauty… We began to understand, a little less darkly, what it may mean to inherit the earth.’

Another remarkable Cairngorm author and Second World War vet was Sydney Scroggie, who trod on a landmine in the final fortnight of the war and lost half a leg and his eyesight. A hillwalker from boyhood, he said, ‘I can do without my eyes, but I can’t do without my mountains.’ He went on to make 600 ascents with walk companions and wrote the book The Cairngorms Scene and Unseen. Often walking shirtless, his writing bears witness to the intensity of the sensual experience but also the importance to him of the ‘inner experience, something psychological, something poetic.’

While these men were away at war remembering the Cairngorms, a woman was walking them and writing a book that was only published 30 years later and not truly recognised for another 30 after that. Nan Shepherd’s slim volume, The Living Mountain, is unique in adventure literature and far ahead of its time. Just as her goal as a walker was not to summit the mountain, her goal as a writer was not to document the route or its challenges and triumphs. ‘It’s to know its essential nature that I am seeking here,’ she wrote. Her life-time of deep exploration took her across all the Cairngorms’ terrains and weathers at all paces from running to falling asleep. Throughout, she committed to this ‘traffic of love’ with every fibre of her being.

Nan Shepherd in her garden
Nan Shepherd

Inspired by all the Cairngorm writers, but particularly in Shepherd’s spirit, I approached the Shared Stories residency as a pilgrimage of discovery. Although one workshop was with the hardy outdoor instructors of Glenmore Lodge, most of our participants were not mountaineers or trying to pit themselves against the Cairngorms. Many were children and several were over 80, so Shepherd’s approach made sense. Never casting herself as a sportswoman, she was an English lecturer at an Aberdeen teacher’s college and, according to her biographer, Charlotte Peacock, always walked in skirts.

That is, of course, until she walked in nothing at all, which was what she did to enter the cold lochs high in the clefts and corries of the range. Because to Shepherd, the aim was full immersion, a whole-body experience of the mountains that called on all her senses, and both seized and superseded her mind. ‘Here then may be lived a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to think.’

Senses, therefore, were a key starting point for nearly all the Shared Stories workshops. Wherever possible, I took groups outside and we spent time falling still in the natural world, working our way slowly through each sense, scribbling down the words that came. It never ceased to astonish us how much was revealed when we paid that kind of close attention, even in very familiar places. One group who walked regularly beside the River Gynack, stopped with me on a small wooden bridge and with eyes closed, simply listened. We realised that the stream did not have one sound, but many, like an invisible orchestra with a percussion section, bass notes and an ever-shifting melody. Afterwards, a man from the group sent me a poem and this note: ‘Thank you for opening our eyes and ears on the walks.’

Smell is a sense often ignored until it is assailed, so we needed to get in close to notice the subtleties. Clumps of bark covered in moss yielded a surprising medicinal fragrance quite different to the smoky darkness of peat. And though our generalised image of granite might summon shades of grey, looking closely at Cairngorm rock reveals that it is actually pink inside. Even on the grey surface, the patterns of lichen are full of colours: yellows, lime greens and ochres. And though we may be most protective of the sense of taste, sensibly, we opened our mouths to nature, too, in the taste of wild berries and the tingle of snowflakes on the tongue.

boy in snow with tongue out

Touch, I learned, is something to be explored with far more than our fingers, as Shepherd, Scroggie and Murray testified, all of whom plunged into mountain lochs. In Scotland, especially, where we spend so much time bundled into layers of clothes, it is startling to peel off and allow the water and weather to reach us. But when we do, the experience is arresting, the focus total. And often, the words that arise are equally rewarding.

The process, therefore, of paying attention with our whole bodies proved vital not only to experiencing the world with more clarity, but also to discovering fresh ways of writing about it. Once we move beyond the clichés – the sky is blue, the grass is green – and seek to capture the truth of what is there, we are compelled to find new words. In a workshop for adults with learning difficulties, we stood under a forest canopy and brainstormed all the different words for green in the leaves above. Emerald, jade, turquoise, lemon, sage, olive. Through this tuning of the senses and intensifying of focus, we begin to recognise the dimensions and complexity of the world around us; the wonders that go un-noticed.

Six people walking through a field

The project was undoubtedly successful for the participants and the Park, but what about me? Writing teachers often share that the energy and time of helping others create can drain your own resources and I certainly felt that way at times. I loved the project, but sometimes while participants were dashing off nature writing and saying how joyous it felt, my own well was dry. Over the year, however, deep things happened. I learned habits of stillness and observation; I captured notes, scribbles and fragments; I read the work of other great writers. And I dedicated time to poetry. My usual ground is fiction and drama, and though I’ve always written poems, in off-the-cuff scraps, I had rarely before invested the slow, patient work of crafting. It taught me how difficult it is to write the kind of poetry I really admire, but how much I wanted to. And perhaps that was the most important opportunity for me from the project: to have a year as Learner in Residence.


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