In February I invited you to come with me on a journey into the Cairngorms. Thank you for your company! 2019 has certainly been a significant year: being Writer in Residence for the Cairngorms National Park has been my dream job and I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity.
It’s hard to sum up the experience, but I had five minutes to do just that at our celebration event last month, so I’d like to share those reflections with you now. (There’s also a link at the bottom to a fun slide show of the year, if you want to skip the book and go straight to the movie.)
Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms in five minutes, five words, all beginning with C…
The territory of the project has, of course, been the Cairngorms, in the widest sense of the word: the mountains and foothills, glens and straths, the forests and waterways, villages and towns – the whole of the National Park. Personally, I explored much new territory, driving over 3000 miles and walking several new routes into the mountains, though I know I’m still barely scratching the surface. I learnt to allow longer to get to workshops because I kept stopping to take pictures or to have a wee wander. Time and again, I witnessed the power of people responding to this extra-ordinary landscape.
The purpose of Shared Stories has been connecting people with nature and my second word is Community. At every workshop, different kinds of folk came together to share their experiences of the Cairngorms in both conversation and writing. There were school kids, retirees, rangers, outdoor instructors, crofters, artists, guides, educators and tourists – nearly 500 people in all. There was depth of feeling expressed, real interest and exchange, great encouragement of one another and a lot of laughter.
But the community gathered around this project has extended far beyond those who attended workshops. We had writing sent in from across Scotland and even around the world as people have borne witness to how special the Cairngorms are; that writing has been included in our anthology, shared online and read enthusiastically by countless people everywhere. It is a project that has captured the imagination of many.
And that leads to my next word: Creativity. There is already a great deal of good work in the Park connecting people with nature, and long may it continue. What was distinctive about Shared Stories was to make that connection through art; to take time; to pay attention; to tune the senses – and then using the power of the imagination and language – to fashion creative responses. Through creativity we discover and express deeper parts of ourselves and our relationships to those around us and our world. We experience nature with our whole being; we sing back to it.
My fourth word is Culture. At the creative intersection of people and place, culture arises. There is a rich tradition of Scottish and Gaelic heritage here, as expressed through some of the writing, as well the musicians and singers who played at our celebration event. It’s heartening to see how that culture is not just history, but a living and transforming culture of today and tomorrow. Additionally, one of the highlights of the project for me has also been illuminating the cultural diversity of this place, particularly through engaging with many visitors and encouraging the use of other languages in the writing of Cairngorms Lyrics. I will always remember the workshop where a Bulgarian woman spoke passionately about how much she loves this place, and how she’s never felt so at home anywhere else.
My last word is Chronos – time. The project has explored the ages, with work that contemplates mountains formed millions of years ago to the birth of a new leaf. It has involved toddlers scribbling capercaillie pictures in Carrbridge to a lady in her 80s sending a Doric poem about the River Dee. But it has explored another dimension of time, too, which is simply the importance of taking time in nature. Everywhere I’ve gone, people have acknowledged how much it means to them. The pupil evaluations in schools repeatedly said how much they loved the time outside and wished there was more of it. Busy adults reported how restorative it was to take time – to give, find, steal – time to fall still in the natural world.
Many – young and old – also spoke of how rewarding it was to take the time to write. One child gave me a note at the end of a workshop that said: “Thank you for taking the time to come to our school.” The pleasure, I assured her, was mine. I owe a huge debt of thanks to the Park and our other funders, The Woodland Trust and Creative Scotland, for making that time possible. May they continue to support artists working in these ways.
And so, it is with much thankfulness that my time as Writer in Residence of the Cairngorms National Park comes to a close. There was a considerable team of people at the Park who helped make the project happen and I am deeply grateful to them all, especially Alan, Anna, Sian, Karen, Cat, Adam, Mike, Alison, Grant, Will, Kate, Nancy, Emma, Lucy, several Jackies (several spellings) and many more, I’m sure. (I’m sorry for missing anyone!) Most of all, my thanks to everyone who joined in, whether by attending workshops, sending writing, reading and sharing the work, reading this blog or simply by extending encouragement. That means YOU!
But, I’m very pleased to say, my ‘traffic of love’ with the Cairngorms is far from over. I still live here, still explore, still write; and there will be further projects with the Park for next year: the secondary school workshops will be rolled out into primary schools and I will be developing interpretation for The Speyside Way.
AND… after a long, long wait and much discouragement there is some Very Exciting Book News on the horizon, so watch this space!
I will continue posting about my writing life here in the Cairngorms in Writing the Way – about once a month – so do stay on board if you’re keen to follow the journey. (But I will entirely understand if you’d like to bow out now.) You can also (or instead) sign up to receive my newsletter here, which comes out three times a year with a round-up of publication and event news, photos and some terrible jokes.
Finally, I would like to leave you with this short slide show capturing images and quotes from Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms, with music by Sam Appleby.
That’s it folks! May you know joy in this season of celebration, and hope as the new year dawns. See you in 2020.