Stories that bring the world together


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.


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.

Pupils on beach beside River Spey

Kingussie High pupils looking across to the Cairngorms

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.

Group at writing workshop

Glen Esk Workshop

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.

Girl with clipboard beside wooden stool and fire pit

Girl at Forest Fest at the Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore

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!

Cat Campbell of the Cairngorms National Park Authority

Cat Campbell, one of the great team at the Park

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.


Merryn Glover Author


Well that’s a wrap! On the 21st of November we raised our glasses and cheers in a celebration event to mark the end of the Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms project and to launch the anthology of writing that was gathered across the year. Wonderfully, some people travelled from as far as Falkirk, Perth, Aberdeen and even Ayrshire to swell the 70-strong crowd at The Pagoda in Grantown.

As well as wee speeches from Grant Moir, CEO of the Cairngorms National Park Authority, Anna Fleming, project manager, and myself, we had readings from several contributors. These featured commissioned writer Linda Cracknell, poets Karen Hodgson Pryce and Jane Mackenzie, and local crofter Lynn Cassells, whom some of you will know from the BBC programme This Farming Life. A personal delight was to round off the readings with a line-up of Cairngorms Lyrics that included Neil Reid, editor of Mountaineering Scotland magazine, pupils at Kingussie High School and myself.

Launch of Shared Stories Anthology


To break up all the words, we had a couple of sets by the Suie folk musicians and finished the evening on a high with the Gaelic singing and step dancing of Comhlan Luadh Bhàideanach, the Badenoch Waulking Group. Their songs all come from the tradition of Highland and Island women singing together round a table as they rhythmically pound and work the tweed. Comhlan Luadh Bhàideanachhave been together for nearly 25 years and in October won the Harris Tweed Authority trophy at the Royal National Mod. It was brilliant to bring these groups of musicians back into the Shared Stories project again as they had supported our open mic night in the Badenoch Festival in September.

Scottish folk musicians

Comhlan Luadh Bhàideanach - Badenoch Waulking Group


At the end, everyone milled about over drinks and nibbles, grabbed copies of the book and discovered many connections and crossed paths. Scotland is a small place, and never smaller than when landscape and literature meet. Anna Fleming had led the editing and production of the anthology, sourcing the perfect cover art from Steffan Gwyn and overseeing the design to yield a beautiful, high-quality publication of which we’re all very proud. Copies are available in visitor centres, bookshops and libraries across the Park, by donation to The Cairngorms Trust.

Shared Stories anthology front coverShared Stories anthology back cover








And for those who don’t have a copy yet, here’s my introduction to the anthology, which is also a good way of summing up the work of the year. (Don’t worry – this is not my last post and chorus – that’s next week!)


It’s a very powerful thing to fall in love. Lynn Cassells, p 77

This book is a story of the heart. It is a collection of writings from very different people with one thing in common: their interactions with the rocky heart of Scotland, the Cairngorms. As you will see, it is what Nan Shepherd called ‘a traffic of love’.

The anthology arises from the 2019 project Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms. Organised and part-funded by the Cairngorms National Park Authority, with additional funding from The Woodland Trust and Creative Scotland, the project set out to encourage people to write creatively about how we and nature thrive together. As the first Writer in Residence for the Park, my role was to facilitate this work through a varied programme of activities taking me all over the bens and glens of the Cairngorms and into the company of countless folk. There were open workshops in three locations, drop-ins at the Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend and Forest Fest, and workshops with schools, rangers, health walk groups, educators, land-based workers, outdoor instructors and Park volunteers. We invited everyone to the table and welcomed every voice.

Throughout the year, rich conversations emerged about people’s experiences of the natural world of the Cairngorms, whether they were born-and-bred locals, settlers or tourists passing through. Inevitably, there are as many perspectives as there are people. There can be controversy and conflicts of interest across the National Park, but the space for shared creative activity enabled us to exchange views with open-ness and interest, rather than argument.

The groups I attended had some really great insights into the landscape, nature and ways of life that I had not seen before.  Blair Atholl participant

Most people claim to value nature, to see it as both beautiful and necessary, but most of us have blind spots about the ways in which we threaten it. A key element of the project, therefore, was to address blind spots. Not by exposing ignorance or harmful lifestyles, but by turning the focus the other way and opening our eyes to nature: encouraging us to peer deeply, to pay attention, to discover the complexity and wonder of the world around. We appealed to the senses, going outside wherever possible to tune into the sights, smells, sounds and feelings of a place. Sometimes I spread forest finds across a table – moss, lichen, leaves, stones and branches – and we focused on one small thing. Much like Linda Cracknell in Weaving High Worlds on page 46, people discovered infinite dimensions.

Attending the Shared Stories workshops changed the way I appreciated the Cairngorms. I saw a richness of colour and depth of texture that had previously passed me by. Ballater participant

But more than just discovery, the project invited people to capture their encounters in words. In trying to find the right words, we are forced to pay even closer attention and move beyond assumptions. What exactly is the colour of that sky – here, now? How surprising that this clump of earthy moss smells like medicine, not dirt. And when we make attention a habit – a way of being in the world – we begin to notice how astonishing, how precious and how vulnerable nature is. Alec Finlay in Conspectus, page 16 talks of ‘the power of looking.’ We become aware of what is here, what is lost and what is on the brink. It becomes a gaze of love. And, I hope, of committed action. We will look after what we love.

Thank you for opening our eyes and ears.  Kingussie participant

An important thread through Shared Stories has been the celebration of languages. In the workshops, we explored the Gaelic, Scots and Pictish place names of the Cairngorms, along with the rich lexicon of local words for the outdoors. Amanda Thomson’s A Scots Dictionary of Nature was an inspirational source, as you will see from her sixty two words for rainy weather on page 62.

Early in the year, I invented the poetic form the Cairngorms Lyric which proved a dynamic tool for enabling all kinds of people to capture a Cairngorms moment while also enjoying language diversity. Folks were delighted to discover they could write the entire Lyric in their own language and I was delighted in turn to hear many different languages joining the Shared Stories throng. That is why a Spanish Lyric is included in this collection, along with poems in Gaelic and Doric.

Being able to use my own language makes me feel I belong.Abernethy participant

Finally, a fundamental aspect of the project has been the sharing of the stories. This always happened in the workshops, of course, but also spilled out onto eight banners displayed in Visitor Centres across the Park. We held an open mic night as part of the new Badenoch Festival in September, drawing both workshop participants and others to tell their tales. In addition, we encouraged input from anybody, anywhere, who would like to express their Cairngorms nature encounters, and these pieces – from as far afield as the US and Australia – appear on our project blog: It has been exciting, too, to see Shared Stories activities in other contexts, such as RSPB’s Sarah Walker getting Junior Rangers to write Cairngorms Lyrics at Insh Marshes.

For me, it has been a year of gifts. I have learnt so much from my own traffic with this place and its people and have a head humming with experiences, images and words. Some of these have taken shape in my blog about the project, Writing the Way, and others are emerging as poems, but much of it will continue to find voice in the years to come, I am sure. For this store of treasure, I am deeply grateful.

This anthology, therefore, seeks to capture the range of voices and experiences that have responded to Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms. The work here spans young children to a woman in her 80s; academics to farmers; ‘locals’ to visitors. There are works commissioned from four professional authors and anonymous pieces found amongst papers at the end of drop-in workshops; there are poems and prose pieces; serious reflections and comic encounters; enduring memories and luminous visions.

Throughout, these voices express the shared sense that we, in our humanity, are part of nature and integral to this place. In the earth’s thriving, is our own thriving; in the well-being of the Cairngorms environment, is the well-being of its community. As Samantha Walton says in Embodiment, page 22 ‘How rare to be alive to all this’.

We invite you to celebrate with us this shared life – and this shared love – of the Cairngorms.

Merryn Glover holding copy of the Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms anthology

Photo by Stewart Grant

As loyal readers of Writing the Way, I thought you might enjoy this recent article by Roger Cox, Arts & Books Editor of the Scotsman Newspaper. It is copyright of The Scotsman Publications and is being used with their kind permission. All images, unless otherwise stated, are my own.

Forget haiku – Cairngorm Mountains inspire new type of poem

Merryn Glover, author, poet and educator, is sitting in a cafe in Edinburgh’s New Town, telling me about “The Cairngorms Lyric”– a new poetic form she’s devised in her role as writer in residence for the Cairngorms National Park. “Initially it came from the idea of a haiku,” she says, “and what Allen Ginsberg did with that, the American Sentence, which he thought was more fitting for American culture. [The American Sentence was a single sentence of 17 syllables.] “I thought, ‘Why can’t we come up with a poetic form that’s unique to the Cairngorms?’ So the idea of the Cairngorms Lyric emerged.”

The rules, she explains, are deliberately simple and the idea is that “everybody and anybody” can have a go at writing one. Rule One: a Cairngorms Lyric must have 15 words – not syllables, as it’s easier for kids to count words. Why 15? “The 15 comes from when the park was established in 2003. There are five local authorities, five of Scotland’s ten highest mountains, and five of Scotland’s most iconic rivers flow out of it – so three times five is 15.”

School pupils doing creative writing beside River Spey in Cairngorms National Park
Kingussie High School Pupils beside the River Spey, looking at the Cairngorms

“The second rule is that it has to include an element of nature in the park,” she continues, “and the third is that it needs to include one word of non-English origin, so Gaelic, Scots, Pictish… those languages are all there in the local place names and even if you use the word “loch” you have one. But the one word can be in any language, and we’re encouraging people to write the whole poem in their own language if they want to, partly just to push back against the dominance of English and partly to celebrate the linguistic heritage of the area and also the contemporary linguistic diversity.”

Glover, who lives in Kincraig, took up her writer in residence post at the start of the year, and in the last few months she has held writing workshops for adults and schoolchildren all over the Cairngorms National Park, from Aviemore to Tomintoul, under the banner Shared Stories: A Year in the Cairngorms. Her residency is co-funded by the Woodland Trust, the Cairngorms National Park Authority and Creative Scotland, and it allows her to spend 70 days doing education and outreach work and a further 30 days working on her own writing. One of the Park’s priorities, she says, is strengthening people’s relationship with the natural environment, so, wherever possible, she’s been holding workshops in the open air, in Abernethy Forest, for example, or on the banks of the River Spey.

Creative writing workshop in Abernethy woods
Outdoor Woodland Learning Scotland workshop in Abernethy Woods

Of course, trying to quantify the outcomes of projects like this is a more-or-less impossible task: “After attending this workshop, would you say you felt your relationship with the natural environment is a) stronger, b) weaker or c) about the same?” However, anecdotally at least, the workshops certainly seem to be popular, with some people even travelling from outside the park in order to attend.

My favourite story, however – and a great advertisement for the power of the Cairngorms Lyric as a literary leveller – involves a workshop Glover ran in a primary school.

Pupils and staff doing creative writing activity in an open tent outdoors
Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend – Rural Skills Day

“In one of the workshops I do in schools I start with this activity of getting the kids to put themselves on the spectrum in terms of how much they like being outside and how they feel about writing,” she says. “I tell them, ‘if you love writing go to that end of the room, if you hate writing go down that end.’

“So at one school there was one wee boy who was all the way down the far end for loving being outside, but then for writing he went all the way to the other end, shot out the door, went all the way down the corridor and he would’ve been down the fire escape if it hadn’t been for his teacher running after him and getting him back in. But he ended up just churning out Cairngorms Lyrics at the workshop and really having a fun time. He just couldn’t contain himself by the end, writing all these lyrics and desperately wanting to read them all out.”

School pupils doing creative writing activity in woodland
Words in the woods

At the end of her residency, Glover is hoping to publish a book of writing by the people who have attended her workshops, both poetry and prose, and she is planning to use her 30 days of dedicated writing time to work on her own poetry. In terms of a lasting legacy, though, look no further than the Cairngorms Lyric, which, you can’t help feeling, could be around for some time to come.

Example of a Cairngorms Lyric
Written at the Cairngorms National Park Staff Away Day


Most of you probably recognise the word, some of you use it in yoga classes and some may even know what it means. Pronounced num–ah-steh it is the commonest greeting across the Hindu world, usually with palms pressed together, and serves as both hello and goodbye. It’s been part of my vocabulary from childhood as I was born in Kathmandu and grew up in South Asia, so I love hearing it whenever I go back to my beloved Himalayan countries, and I use it as the sign-off for my newsletters. I was amused, therefore, to discover it recently in this Cairngorms Lyric from a workshop participant:

 The wind blows, the trees move,
A bird swoops upwards gracefully,
SPLAT! Wind turbine.

One of the three rules of this new poetic form, arising from the Shared Stories project, is that at least one word must be of non-English origin. A very intelligent teenager in a workshop I was leading for Moniack Mhor Young Writers, rightly pointed out that most of the English language has developed from other sources. So it has, and remains all-embracing in continuing to absorb words from everywhere including street slang, tech and the constantly evolving vocabularies of popular use. And that’s the point. If people use them, words inevitably become part of the language.

Mother and son work together on a writing activity
Shared Stories participants at Cairngorms Nature Big Weekend

Despite what English teachers, Scrabble players and other pedants (I’m all three) might insist about what is or isn’t a ‘real word’ or ‘proper English’, there is no legal boundary. Even the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t own the language; it merely seeks to record it. We do have a thing called ‘Standard English’ and it’s useful for people to learn, as it’s the medium of much information and power, but all the other forms of this vast, sprawling, boundless tongue are not incorrect or inferior, just variations on a constantly changing theme.

But that vastness is part of the problem. English is a great river into which all the words of the world can run, but it also threatens to flood them, to dilute the richness of other languages and to drown them out altogether. Language loss is happening at an alarming rate across the globe. I say alarming because language is a profoundly important expression of culture, and to erase language is to erase a people’s distinct voice and with it, much of their history, literature, song, beliefs and practices. Increasingly, diverse ethnic groups are being absorbed into ever-dominant and homogenised cultural monoliths, and quite often, language is the driver.

School boy shows his hand-written poem on a clipboard.
Iolair is Gaelic for eagle

Sometimes, this is because ethnic groups rightly recognise their need of the national and/or English language in order to access education, work and influence, and without it they are disadvantaged. At other times, national policies have enforced use of the state language and punished use of indigenous languages and dialects, as happened with Gaelic in Scotland. For both these reasons and more, English is increasingly dominant world-wide, and though I support everyone’s right to learn it to meet their needs, I am also passionate about reinforcing linguistic diversity.

That is the reason I was very keen from the outset of the Shared Stories project that we encourage the use of other languages. This includes the heritage languages of Scotland – Gaelic and Scots – but also all the others spoken by residents and visitors in the Cairngorms National Park. One of the activities I run in schools involves looking at Gaelic, Scots and even Pictish words for landscape and nature, as explored in the Place Names of the National Park leaflet and map, and several books including Amanda Thomson’s wonderful compilation A Scot’s Dictionary of Nature.

Map of Cairngorms National Park with book 'A Scots Dictionary of Nature'
Place names and nature words

And that is why the Cairngorms Lyric must have at least one non-English word. That’s not difficult. Just mentioning a loch or Ben Macdui or a ‘wee’ bird will do it. But many people have enjoyed digging deeper and drawing from the rich meanings of the place names and old words. Loch Mallachie means The Loch of the Curse; Càrn an Tuirc is the Mountain of the Wild Boar. Other people, wonderfully, have included words from other mother-tongues or languages they know. Sometimes, as in the namaste above, they are just a single word. A Welsh boy delighted in having his own country’s greeting in the middle of his lyric:

My feet squelched through wet mud
“Bore da!”
I cried to the squirrels and birds.
- Eoin Jones

But the rules of the Cairngorms Lyric mean the entire thing can be written in another language. When I said this at the workshops I led for school groups at the Rural Skills Day on Monday, faces lit up. Two Polish teens wrote poems that were a mystery to me but had them rolling with laughter; another teen wrote in her native Spanish, which impressed her pals no end; another teamed with a friend to work on the English version together and then she wrote the Polish, which her friend copied down. I loved the way these responses not only reinforced the young person’s use of their language but brought celebration and respect from their peers.

Two teenage girls show their poems on clipboards
Polish teens show off their poetry

Then in the beautiful Abernethy woods on Wednesday night I led a workshop with teachers and other practitioners for the wonderfully named OWLS: Outdoor and Woodland Learning Scotland. One participant spoke of how Gaelic words for colours were so much more expressive to her. Another read her Lyric in French, filling our forest glade with sounds that, even if we didn’t understand them, were beautiful. “We don’t understand what the birdsong means,” I commented, “but we still enjoy it.” A Danish participant spoke of how glad she was the project embraced other languages and it led to a discussion of the rich potential of drawing from all the languages in the classroom and the many extensions activities such as audio recordings and learning about translation.

And so I invite, I encourage, I urge YOU to join in the project, in your own tongue, and to share the richness of your language and voice with all of us. Come along to a workshop or send us your writing about the nature of the Cairngorms to share on our website and our end-of-year anthology. We want to hear you!