Sunday, 11 October 2020

the Goddess of the Waters


As long as waters run

The hills relaxed long shoulders as the weight lifted.

And She woke as the ice melted,


I am writing this blog while on Orkney. Writing about Buxton’s waters on these rainswept islands feels a bit strange. Here the water tells its stories with wild seas and racing tides, through white swans settling on shimmering lochs and the deep, heaving movement of waves in sea-caves. Buxton’s water runs quieter, through limestone caves, in seasonal courses through the dales. Buxton water tells its stories in moorland seeps and springs, in quiet pools and clear rivers where trout quiver against the stream and dippers bob on stones.


But there are holy wells in both places: stone-lined, stone-capped, places of power, of reverence and of good clean water. Here on Orkney those wells reveal strange depths, chamber under chamber like man-made caves under the fields (look at Mine Howe and the well at the Broch of Gurness) while in Buxton our wells connect us to our own limestone caves and we can still step into that subterranean mystery and rest in the dark where a flickering candle reflects off cold cave water.


Water runs through Buxton, in rivers through the town, in ancient wells, mostly stopped and lost now, in the history of the town. From Aquae Arnemetiae itself (Waters of the Goddess Arnemetia: the Roman name for the town) to the 18th and 19th Century taking of the waters and remedial baths, to today and Nestlé bottling Buxton water and shipping it round the world while the Crescent Hotel reopens offering spa treatments and access to the ancient waters that it stands over (but also drop into the Pump House Visitor Centre or the Cavendish Arcade for a sense of what taking the waters might have been like).


Cross my palm with silver, lady,

Cross my palm with copper,

Cross my heart with happiness

And I’ll share this water with you.


There is a story there about our relationship with water that runs back ‘way before a Roman town to lost Neolithic settlements and a temple reportedly just there. The ruins of a Roman temple were, of course, over there, on The Slopes, until the 18th century at least. We instantly become part of that ancient story: the water that we sip from St Ann’s Well in the centre of town has taken some 5,000 years to percolate through the hills and seep through limestone layers to run out into our palms and cups and thirsty bottles. We drink Neolithic rain.


Film: As long as waters run




That story, that continuity lies within the next of my Buxton Museumand Art Gallery story-films. Arnemetia, the Romans called her, Arnemecta she was before that to the local Britons, something else again to older peoples…..Did she quietly persist, goddess or temple guard or the old woman who dipped a cup of water for you from the wells so you did not muddy your ground-sweeping crinoline? Is she still here? The spirit of the waters, watching her wells…so that for us stopping by St Anne’s Well or walking through Poole’s Cavern or even finding Dale Head on Axe Edge we touch a lineage that runs unbroken through thousands of years of people living here in these hills. A treasure based not on gold and jewels but on life and those life-giving waters and a reminder of our connection to and debt to these hills and their waters


Reflecting that same legacy of waters, we have several watery films in the museum collection.

There is As long as waters run, above.


There is also:

 The Magic of Water by Aidan Rhode



And then there is the memories of water project that you could add your own thoughts to...

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Brooding anger, festering rage


Bind your anger into bone....

a story of different perspectives


There is a carving in a collection of artifacts from northern cultures in Buxton Museum. Tupilak carvings are quirky characters, hovering somewhere between engaging and horrific. The stories behind them are even more intriguing as these figures carved in whale tooth and bone are illustrations of a much grimmer original. Made from discarded flesh, bones and skin, original Tupilak have apparently never been seen by people outside of those indigenous cultures and are bound around with stories of anger and revenge. I am storyteller. I was captivated.


I am a storyteller. Yes, I tell stories. I enjoy talking. But as a storyteller, I also need to be a story-listener. I need to absorb other stories. That might be from other people talking and telling. It might be as a quieter listener as I read books. It might be listening to whispers on the wind, the long low rumbling stories told by stones or the sighing voices of the waves breaking on the sand. 


The film below grew out of these accounts and stories with a generous helping of my imagaintion thrown in  and with many thanks to Aidan Rhode for making the film and Ros and Ben from the Buxton Museum for adding their voices




As a listener, Tupilaq* stories intrigued me:


"You are to bite Nukúnguasik to death; you are to bite Nukúnguasik to death."1


There is a mystery around these. Built from the dismembered remains of animals by arctic magicians (lots of different northern cultures have Tupilaq or similar – Inuit, Igluulik, Caribou) to execute ferocious revenge on their personal enemies, Tupilaq were (or are?) agents of vengeance. But to make one was risky for the magician wo sends it plunging into the icy sea or across a frozen waste to find his or her foe, for if the supposed victim turns out to a be (or have the support of) a stronger magician than the maker, then the Tupilaq might be turned back and might return its need for a life to consume, for a warmth to steal, thwarted. Until it comes scratching at the door of that first magician’s tent….



Tie flesh to flesh,

To bone,

To hair,

To skin,

To pain,

To anger,

Tie to the blade of a vengeful mind,

To the harpoon of an intention,

To the ax of a soul,

Tie pursuit

Tie destruction

Tie a long bitter revenge

Tie death at the end of anger.2


Tupilak carving

And Tupilaq were made in secret, so secret it is said that no-one outside of those cultures has ever seen a real one. As western explorers met the northern peoples and heard the stories, they were fascinated. So local people started carving Tupilak to sell, trade or give away to those explorers. The Tupilak we see in our museums are not Tupilak: they are tourist shapes: bone and teeth carved into drama: tusks, flaring nostrils, fins, hands, tails. They are vivid, striking carvings, but do they hold the essence of Tupilaq?


But I am a storyteller, a listener, and so I went and listened in the abandoned cold and dark, listened for the voices of the Tupilak who told a different story. They speak of the end of anger. Of brooding hatred built into their frozen, sliding flesh but then released with their melting, returned to the snow, dwindling, diminishing with the thaw, returned to the snow and the sea, the wind and the stone. A different story.


Buxton Museum and Art Gallery has a Tupilak carving. It emerged from a box of wonderful bits in the County’s School Loans Collection that is being carefully dismantled by a team at the museum. Treasures are being found new homes: joining relevant collections in other museums, some may be returning to long-lost homes or finding new homes in societies and community groups. As one of the Museum’s ACE Emergency Response artists, I’ve been immersed in the richness of those polar artifacts. Bone tools, wooden carvings, a stone lemming, exquisite kayak models, a shaman carved in bone, caught in a moment of transformation from human to goose. And a Tupilak


They are a challenge as they offer another question to the ongoing collection of storyteller questions I have been building through this Buxton Museum project:

“what do you hold onto despite everything and what do you let go of?”


Do you hoard your anger like treasure, a golden trove of brooding bitterness? Or like the hero escaping in a story, do you throw your anger over your shoulder? Maybe like the vanity of a comb that springs into a hedge of thorns and prickles to thwart pursuit or the mirror that becomes a lake and give you the chance to escape

What do you need to be free of to be ready to become something new?



Rage in flesh, anger in bone,

Envy, greed, and malice,

Caught in this festering flesh.

And lost with it.

To the wind,

to the storm,

to hungry beaks and tearing jaws

Tupilak is

Lost to the thaw

And all anger is released.2




*Tupilak or Tupilaq: no-one seems quite sure if there is a correct spelling. I like both!

1.from:  Eskimo Folk-Tales, by Knud Rasmussen, [1921]

2. poems are lines from the story poems in the Tupilak film you can visit here


From the top:

Kayak model and Tupilak carving: BMAG collection, G MacLellan

Tupilak: wikimedia commons

Thumbnail from Tupilak film

Wednesday, 23 September 2020

where does enchantment wait?

Where does enchantment wait?

One of the positive things about this strange summer has been a rediscovery of local landscapes, with people taking the time to walk half-forgotten paths, to find lost corners of just down the street or up the road. We have remembered that home territories hold their own delights

In my continuing Between 2 Worlds story poems for Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, now we pick up the question “what adventures do ordinary places hold?” or maybe “what enchantment waits on the other side of this tree”

I have a long-standing love-affair with trolls. Not excluding other members of the world of Faerie, and not meeting them as lumbering carnivorous horrors (or 21st Century tech-driven idiots) but as the slow unfolding of a rock into a character, a figure made of rock and earth, grass and pool and flower, for me this holds a special affection

Gritstone skin on a stoneface troll, folded down here with grass in the creases of her joints and something scrabbling holes in a nostril. She basks here on the ridge above the Moss, lumpen nose raised to the sun and eyes closed deep in those stone folds. But ravens come and whisper into her sleep, sharpening their beaks on the edge of a finger. In that sleep, she feels the crow who flies by on lazy wings, a curlew’s call echoing across the landscape of her dreams. And once in a whole, just now and then, in the slow breathing of a hill-shaped troll, a hen harrier will rest on a head-rock and watch the Moss for movement.

For us, as human people, our connection to place often gets overlooked. We know we like this place or that place is special. But a walk is often taken over by a conversation with friends, by a dog’s excitement, or even by looking through a lens. We often forget – or don’t think about – just enjoying a place for its own sake

For me this is important: getting outside and having a walk, with friends, with a dog, with a camera, with a bucket for rescuing toads, are all good and rewarding and renewing activities. But there is a different treasure to be found in just going out to wander. To stop. To appreciate a place because it is there. It might not be some wild, dramatic landscape. It might be the municipal park in the middle of town. It might be your own garden. Sometimes it is be there and simply stop. Breathe. Watch. Listen, Touch, Smell, Feel. For some people this approach is mindfulness. For others, it is prayer. For me, it simply is.

Take it a little further, or maybe a bit too far, and, like the person in the Earth Trolls film, maybe you’ll become entrolled and stay there. For everyone else, let the earth in. Let a flower open inside your heart. A hoverfly buzz through. Let a breeze carry a scent and an echo from the worlds where the horns of Faerie still blow

Relax. Remember the wonder of everyday places. The treasures of the familiar

Becoming the place where I sit,
Old stone and tree roots,

A grassy heap,

A shadow on a park bench,

I stop trying.

Just sit. 


A wind blows round the edges of me,

Me, green as the grass,

Me, brown as the earth,

Bristling beech husks, that’s me

And the river runs through the hollow shape of me,

Here I stop.

Here I let go

Here I can be still.

Here I become my own troll.

If you have enjoyed the Earth trolls film and these various blogs, why not sink a little deeper. My book "Old stones and ancient bones: poems from the hollow hills" is still available. £5.00 (inc 2nd class postage) in UK. Overseas contact me direct.  You can also get it on Amazon (costs a bit more there). Message me for order details:

Thursday, 17 September 2020

a pond, a pool, a frog, a tale

A pond, a pool, a frog, a tale

films and stories from a boggy world

I am a storyteller. I tell stories. Some I draw from old sources, some I sift from other storytellers’ words, some I grow from seeds the world gives me. Some I just make up. 

This blog is really to start posting my responses to the challenge of the B2W project. In an earlier post, I talked about the inspiration and opportunities the Between2Worlds project has brought myself and other artists. The challenge for me has been to look at the exhibition,  at this summer, at a changing world, as a storyteller. Which usually means nothing will run in straight lines.

In that earlier blog I said:

In story terms, we could be the person who hears a wolf in the distance and runs off shrieking through the forest and straight into the cooking pot of the hungry giant. Or we could be the children of Hamelin seduced by a Piper’s tune to go unquestioning into the unknown. Or we could be the questing heroes who set off not sure of direction or even goal but head out with their wits about them and hope in their hearts

old trees tell fabulous stories

In the best stories the answer is rarely just ‘yes” or “no”. There is often a “maybe” as well and one maybe can lead to another and another, can open a path of possibilities, often not right or wrong just maybe. These are the paths that call for courage and a readiness to step out into that uncertainty, the third brother, the youngest sister, Vasilisa in the deep woods, Perceval looking for the Grail. We, as individuals and as communities, don’t need to go alone into the adventure. We have friends with us, friends who will help, comment, criticise, reflect and, hopefully, just be there. Can we be our own Knights of the Round Table? Our own Famous Five?

So we begin…..

Have you got a pond in your garden? Is there a pond you know of? Visit? Would you like one? Haven’t got a huge space for a pool large enough for crocodiles, or a running water feature to hold giant salamanders? Never mind: a bowl in a back yard becomes a water hole for sparrows to bathe in, its mud might attract butterflies (sipping minerals from muddy clays). A deep bowl with a water plant or two will call in hover flies, will offer a refuge for a passing frog, a moment of relief for a wandering a water beetle (they fly you know),  sanctuary for a lesser water boatman.

Visit Froglife to find out more about your own personal ponds….

a first frog might do it or maybe a noble toad...

Here, I invite you to make a minute or two and drop in:

a) B2W – an introduction to the films that will post over the next few weeks

b) Pond Ripples: everything has consequences, any moment might offer opportunities, please don’t overlook the importance of small actions, of small offers to the world around you


  • A thousand thank yous to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and the Arts Council England Emergency Response Fund for the opportunities these have offered us
  • Thanks to the other voices in Pond Ripples: Sarah Males and Caroline Small 
  • And an especially BIG thank you to Aidan Rhode for recording, filming, thinking, advising and being immensely patient! if you follow the link iN Aidan's name you'll find another B2W film
Picture credit:
All photos c. G MacLellan

Saturday, 29 August 2020

Becoming Your Own Troll

Becoming Your Own Troll

The St Mark’s Flies hatched late in this hot spring. Usually they can be relied upon to be turn up on their saint’s day: a fluttering black follow-up to St George’s destructive tendencies, appearing on 24th April with their blundering, drunken flight. While heat should encourage an early hatching, maybe it was also too dry. Certainly, sitting here on gritstone rocks looking own on the moss, I had missed the squelch it usually took to get here. The sense of an imminent wallow if I strayed into the boggy bits was gone and my wellies felt clumping and redundant. Sitting here now, a month later, at last, the flies were out with their bulging eyes (the males) and hairy legs, their feathered antennae (males again) and thick egg-bloated bodies (females), landing awkwardly and wearily on the pages of my notebook before dropping off the edge of a page and wandering away again.


Sleeping under heather and heath.

Inviting grouse to nest in the rich thickets of her hair,

Once a year, eyes of cloud and sky open,

As she rises from dreaming

To dance with her cousins of the Tors.



A beetle takes off from the prow of that notebook, a straight-line, don’t stop me, buzzing flight leading my eyes down and over shades of sand and fawn and green and darker green, grass and rush and moss with the heather somewhere between grey and green and mauve with just the first few frecklings of flowers.


Tussock, the Marsh Boggart

Hidden in the Moss

A clump of rush,

Of sedge and grass and stone,

Pebble eyes opening when you have squelched past,

A rustle and whisper and a slight drip,

Rising from the mud and the mools,

To follow you, to pause, to hide, to sink again,

To follow again.

Sparking marshfire from fingertips,

A lamp to light your way,

Homewards maybe.

Or swampbound.



It is good here in the edge of the ridge soaking in the cloud light and gleams of sunshine

Sit here long enough, quiet enough, casual enough and you become the stone as well and the bird on the next rock sings and a vole forages in the shadow of my stone self.


There are lots of small birds, keeping low, in the heather, among these tumbled tor-stones, in the willow scrub but this warmth of cloudy sky is empty. A single raven flew across earlier but there are no buzzards soaring now, no stray seagulls, no swifts. A summer sky empty of swallows


Gritstone skin on a stoneface troll, folded down, here, with grass in the creases of her joints and something scrabbling holes in a nostril. The ravens come and talk, a crow flies by on lazy wings, a curlew calls. Ever so rarely, a hen harrier will rest on a head-rock watching the moss for movement


I had been reading a chapter about old Norse mythology and a proposal that the beings we meet now as different types of creatures: Aesir, Vanir, Giants and Trolls originally were not seen as separate species but were more like tribes of the same basic lifeform and that was why Giants and Aesir (the gods) could so easily marry and why exchanges between them all were often so evenly matched. The piece went further, however, suggesting that even less than separate tribes, to be described as a Troll, in particular wasn’t because you were in some way troll-monstrous (and you were always very far from some vindictive 21st century digital grouch). To be a Troll was to be in a magical state, to be in a personal condition where you were either ready to, or were already, working enchantments. That quality of “trollness” could descend upon anyone and then they might be called entrolled and that possibly our “enthralled” comes from the same root where thrall was to be caught in that magical troll-state. It felt a bit tenuous, my memory probably changed the detail but I’m a storyteller, point me in a direction and let me go, or light my blue touchpaper and stand back….the thought of people becoming entrolled was enough…..


Stop talking and listen,

Stop listening and watch.

Stop watching and feel.

Stone is good.

The curve of a rock face,

The fern in the fold,

The lichen on the edge,

The moss,


Don’t think. Just look.

Don’t look, just feel.

Don’t feel, just be,

Touch it. Lean on it,

Lie down on it,

Be warmed by it,

Just be beside it until





I have been working on a project for Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. With funding the Arts Council England’s Emergency Fund, the Museum has commissioned work from a number of local artists*, inviting us to respond to both the current exhibition, Between Two Worlds, and to the current situation and offer ways in which the Museum could be a point around which the community turns, or be an agent standing as an organisation between two worlds, the world that was and the worlds that we might be becoming. My work is being turned into a series of story-poem films which we’ll start posting soon…but posts like this, my thinking, gathering, rambling posts, are appearing here…..


A wind blows round the edges of me,

Me, green as the grass,

Me, brown as the earth,

Bristling beech husks, that’s me

And the river runs through the hollow shape of me,

Here I stop.

Here I let go

Here I can be still.

Here I become my own troll.

* Wonderful people like

Martin Olsson

Sarah Males

Aidan Rhode

The Green Man Gallery

Caroline Chouler

and more....

Images: the scan is from one of my troll drawings...sorry it is so poor! Photos are from the landscapes around Buxton where I live


Some of my best friends are Trolls, and Boggarts, 

and  Beasties and Bits

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Dreaming of lemmings

Dreaming of lemmings

challenge and change with Buxton Museum

In Buxton Museum and Art Gallery throughout these distanced months there has been a fascinating exhibition. Built from material from the slowly dismantling “Derbyshire Schools Library Service” collection, “Between Two Worlds” holds a wonderful array of material from beautiful prints to dresses to Inuit carvings from cold northern lands. Everything here holds stories. There are the graceful evocative prints of Clifford Webb and then there is a small, sliver of elegance, carved on a cold night or maybe in one those endless summer days of an Inuit shaman changing into a bird. And, no, we haven’t been able to go and visit the Museum for months but gradually we’re heading for a reopening and meanwhile you could visit the Museum Blog and Youtube channel, read an article or try an activity


More telling than the pieces, are the terms used to curate the collection – not terms chosen by the museum, but words originally used to describe the people involved


“As you are, in fact, abnormal, I think it would be a good idea if you took up art” said Kyffin Williams’ Doctor. Williams had epilepsy. Williams’ work is stunning - striking landscape painting (go on, look him up)


The Museum, however, presents this work not as examples of the work of degenerates, the disabled, the displaced, Old Uncle Tom Cobbley And All (see below) but as statements of power, of creative strength and honesty, ways of telling the stories of people and cultures that stood, or still stand between at points of change where past and future offer possibilities, threats, challenges, cultures standing between two worlds. Working with an Arts Council England Emergency Response Fund grant, the Museum has also invited a whole bundle of local artists to respond to a challenge from the Museum


“We want people to say “Do you remember in 2020? We learnt to do this from the museum website; the museum made us smile; they helped our business to win through… it was brilliant… the museum an influential supporter, a change maker”. “ Brief to artists, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery


I’m a storyteller and poet and a creator of events…for me the museum’s challenge is resolving into a fusion between the Between Two Worlds exhibition and the stories it holds and the world we have found ourselves living in now….this is by way of a starting point post/ Other artists have gone down different paths. We didn't have to use this exhibition but for me...there were carved bones, how could I not?


I like looking at things.

I like feeling into unexpected connections.  

I like carvings, things to hold, to handle, to speculate over…

For me, the museum is helping me ask questions of myself and of the people around me: might not make us smile but might help us ask challenging questions about ourselves and the opportunities that might comes out this disturbed summer


Displaced, we are,

Disabled ,they labelled us.

Imprisoned, depressed, degenerate

All of that, that’s us!

Tolerated sometimes.

Persecuted at others.

Revived by the strength of our hearts.

Challenged, that’s us too.

Challenging: insiders, outsiders

Strangers or friends,

We remember who we are.


We all need to remember who we are, not a superficial O, this is me, but where our inspiration and our identity lies. I feel it is important that we use these strange weeks to stand between these worlds of before and during looking ahead to an after, consciously, awake and questioning:  to look at who we have been in these months, who we could be, should be, haven't been, might yet be.... 

All of which for me strikes a chord with a wonderful Tibetan rap that is about personal, communal and national identity and is about change and determination and also joy. So, please, drop in on Shapaley singing “Made in Tibet”


“we haven’t forgotten where we came from” Shapaley


And after all that, sitting in a box among the Inuit work is a wonderful carving of a lemming. It’s a bit damaged so it’s not on display, but for me lemmings are a delight and a reminder of the value of the overlooked, the despised. Lunch. A small animal who has been the subject of a horrible human-made story for 70 years. No, they don’t throw themselves off cliffs, unless some film director chases them




Grey owl with golden eyes


For running feet,

Under the snow.

Hungry wolverine follows,

A scent trail under the snow.

Lynx and bobcat,

Hawk, fox and wolf,

All follow the whisper of hurried feet,

Under the snow.


Packed lunch.

Two-finger mitten,

Thumb glove,

Toe shoe,

A small slipper,

A hand full,

A cup full,

A whole family nests in an old hat,

A lemming casts a shadow

As round as itself.

The small one,

The quiet one,

Everyone’s lunch

Who holds the world together.

looking for summer lemmings


  • Clifford Webb prints: c. Buxton Museum and Art Gallery
  • Brown Bear in Finland: c Adam Nardell
  • carvings: G MacLellan