Having Words with the Non-Writers

Group on wooden bridge

Though the Glen Tanar Health Walk group love where they walk and were very happy to have me join them, it was made clear that they did not want to do any writing.

I said, ok, I could certainly work on that understanding. In fact, most of my engagement with the Health Walk groups for the Shared Stories project has not involved a ‘writing workshop’ as such. Each group is different and rather than impose an unwelcome activity, I’ve tried to come alongside them and enrich their weekly outing in ways that respond to their interests. My times with the Grantown, Aviemore and Kingussie groups are described here.

My first visit to Glen Tanar was a typically cold, grey and drizzly November day. It’s nearly two hours’ drive for me and burrowing through thick cloud on the rollercoaster Snow Roads, I did wonder if it was worth the time and effort just to trudge along with a group who maybe didn’t really want me there. In the car park of the Glen Tanar Charitable Trust, I watched them emerge from their vehicles adjusting their plumage of waterproof jackets, trousers, gaiters, boots, hats, scarves, gloves and sticks. No outing in the Cairngorms is just ‘a walk in the park’!

Group walking in drizzle
Glen Tanar Health Walk Group

But they were brimming with smiles and laughter and greeted me warmly, Glynis offering me chocolates from the bag she passes round every week. I thanked them for including me and assured them there were no writing activities and the last thing I wanted to do was to spoil their walk. More smiles and laughter, maybe even a little relief.

Glen Tanar is on the eastern side of the Cairngorm mountains where the Tanar Water flows into the River Dee. Once the lands of the Marquis of Huntly, the estate was bought in 1865 by Manchester banker and MP, William Cunliffe Brooks. Since 1905, it has been owned by four generations of the Coats family, who now run it as a diverse Highland estate for field sports, holiday accommodation and weddings.

Group walking through forest


Because of Scotland’s access laws, anyone is free to roam on private land (respecting certain restrictions) and the Charitable Trust actively encourages people to explore and enjoy Glen Tanar, in particular its National Nature Reserve. The Health Walk here has been doing exactly that every Friday, come rain, hail or shine, for many years, usually in the company of a Trust ranger. And it’s easy to see why.

The landscaped gardens were designed for Sir Cunliffe Brooks at the end of the 19th century and include a series of connected ponds and 200 different tree species. Now somewhat overgrown, a creeping wildness is overtaking the Victorian fancy, original paths and flowerbeds lost under the competing tangle of native and introduced plants. On that misty, late Autumn day, the place was breathing its stories, pungent with the cycles of growth and decay.

Lichen & leaves


One lady showed me a giant stump from which 15 new saplings had sprouted, mostly different kinds of tree. We stopped to look at an abandoned summer house, its wood quietly rotting as a fairy-tale stone well stood sentinel nearby. The group pointed out the tendrils of leaves from the very rare twinflower, and at a lochan fringed with reeds, we watched a heron in its perfect stillness.

Well & summerhouse in woods


“Don’t step on the frog!” someone said.

“It’s a toad, it’s a toad!” Ranger Mike was rolling his eyes. The group laughed. Apparently this happens regularly.

“When I was wee,” a senior lady murmured to me, “we just called it a puddock.”

Afterwards we retired to the warmth of The Boat Inn, where the coffee was fragrant and the scones served up like a Bake Off Showstopper. Every Health Walk ends with this gathering for beverages and a blether, and the two halves of the expedition are equally enjoyed. The Glen Tanar group sat around one large table and I asked if they’d like to play Talk in the Park. It’s a simple activity where each person in turn chooses a card, reads out the conversation prompt on it and then shares with the group. Not everyone has to take a card, of course, but as soon as someone starts, most folk want a go and, inevitably, everyone is involved in listening and pitching into the conversation.

One of the cards read: Talk about a person who is a frequent companion in your nature experiences. Aileen’s face creased into smiles, her eyes shining, as she talked about the wonderful person who had gone with her on nearly every outdoor adventure for countless years. “And that’s him, there!” She grinned, pointing across the table at her husband. “Oh that’s a relief,” he said, cheekily. “Was wondering who she was talking about.”

Group sitting around table having coffee and scones


When I gave out a sheet of Scots words for nature, former school teacher Mary launched into a spontaneous and splendid recitation of the fabulous poem The Puddock by John M Caie. Cheers and applause all round and no arguments about whether it was a frog or a toad.

“Now,” I said at the end, passing round the Cairngorms Lyric handout, “I know you folks aren’t interested in the writing, but this is just to show you some of the things that have been happening across the Park. Just for your interest, you know. Just… well, just in case…”

And, as they say in all the best internet click bait, you’ll never believe what happened next.

Group walking across wooden bridge


(But you will have to wait till next week to find out…)

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