Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms

by Merryn Glover

Merryn Glover among the pinewoods and mountains of the Cairngorms National Park
Merryn Glover among the pinewoods and mountains of the Cairngorms National Park

I have a folder on my kitchen bookshelf labelled ‘Nature Journal’. Organised by month, it contains observations from my wanderings, usually on half-hour runs and dog-walks, but also from longer expeditions up hill or down glen. I’ve been adding to it in a random way for years, but it’s full of gaps with some months very scant indeed. Then there are the field guides on birds, trees, flowers, fungi and even stars, with a few annotations, but mostly underused. And most of my copious writing notebooks, folders and files – littered across my house and laptop - contain further notes on landscape and wildlife, but never with any great consistency. Clearly, despite a life-long love of the natural world, I am no expert.

But I am a writer, and a writer for whom a sense of place has always been vital. Perhaps that’s because my own place has kept changing. I was born in Kathmandu and followed my parents’ work across Nepal, India and Pakistan till attending university in Australia. Twenty-five years ago, I followed my heart and a handsome man to Scotland. Together we moved around a bit, including back to Nepal, and finally put down roots in the village of Kincraig in the Cairngorms National Park. At nearly 13 years, it is the longest I have lived anywhere. It is now home.

And so I look around me and want to get to know the place, to learn the names of the neighbours, human and animal, to get acquainted with the trees. But life raising two boys is busy and the months and years fly by and though we are often out revelling in this remarkable place, my Nature Journal is still sketchy, my unknowing vast. And then one midsummer’s night at 4am I start writing a novel. I still have those first notes: ‘A story. A land. A people. This place of beauty and history, of loss and hope.’ It is a novel set here in Badenoch and because it is so connected with the land it makes me pay attention. I go out with shepherds, bird watchers and wildlife guides and the pages of notes grow. The story grows. I grow. It is a creative current flowing from experience and observation to recording and story making that propels me back out to experience more. What exactly does the moss smell like on a warm day? How does the beating of wings sound when geese rise from the loch? And then you experience it more deeply because all the senses are tuned and you are trying to capture this moment, that a reader may be captured by it.

The novel is finished now and waiting for a publisher, but it left me hungry to stay in this place – this place of alert immersion and creative response. I read an article in The Society of Authors’ magazine about writers’ residencies and a light went on. What if I could do that? Here. I wrote to Grant Moir, Chief Executive of the Cairngorms National Park proposing the idea and he welcomed me in to discuss it. Enthusiastic, he linked me with the Outdoor Learning team to develop a project plan and apply for funding. Writers’ residencies can take many forms from purely writing time to full-on implementation of a project and can last anything from a day to several years, but what’s important is that both writer and host organisation are enriched by the experience.

The idea that emerged with the Park, funded by them, the Woodland Trust and Creative Scotland, is this project running across 2019 - Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms. Knowing that people thrive best with access to the outdoors, and that the environment thrives best if we care about it, the aim of the project is to foster a deeper relationship with nature by encouraging people to write about it. At its heart is a call to anyone to add their voice. Shared Stories is not the preserve of naturalists, outdoor experts or professional writers, although they, too, are welcome. This is a project targeting people who do not normally have a forum, or the confidence, to share their writing. This includes Health Walk groups, Park volunteers and land-based workers such as game-keepers, stalkers, ghillies, farmers, foresters, outdoor instructors and rangers. There will also be workshops in five high schools and CPD offered through Outdoor & Woodland Learning Scotland. Finally, there will be plenty of opportunities for members of the public to attend workshops – see web link below.

Key to the project, as it says on the tin, is the sharing of stories, and we’ll be doing this in several ways. Firstly, people will be encouraged to read their writing in the workshops and their local context, be that a school assembly or open mic night. Secondly, we are inviting submissions of poetry and prose from anyone, anywhere in the world, who would like to share an experience of nature in the Park. These may be featured on the Park website, on banners at visitor centres and/or in an anthology. Full submission guidelines and information are on the website.

Finally, the third way in which we hope these stories will be shared is… everywhere! We encourage people, whether they attend workshops or submit to us or not, to draw from the project themes to write and share their experiences of the Cairngorms. Perfect places to send your work include The Neil Gunn Writing Competition and, of course, Northwords Now. When sharing online, do use the hashtags #SharedStories #AYearintheCairngorms to link with the growing conversation.

Meanwhile, for me, as well as leading workshops, I have been given 30 days for writing around project themes. The brief is completely open, which is exciting and a bit scary, but so far I’ve started a blog about my own encounters with people and nature called Writing the Way (on www.merrynglover.com). And, of course, I have dreams of filling that Nature Journal.