Thursday, 16 June 2022

The river in pictures, words and stories

 Watching the river 

frogs sit, newts swim, water voles nibble...

a river of art and wildlife at Kelvingrove Museum

A story poem built out of ideas, pictures, words and sudden thoughts collected during workshops run by the Open University in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum during Glasgow Science Festival 2022. 

Words, ideas, comments and troubles 

collated by Gordon MacLellan

The River Kelvin

From Kelvinhead to Kilsyth,

Auchinstarry to Kirkintilloch;

Past Torrance and Balmore and Netherton,

Kelvindale to Kelvinside and 

The lost wet fields of Kelvinhaugh,

Under arches and aqueducts,

Running clear over gravel redd where the trout spawn,

This river waits for a cool morning and

The promise of visitors.


Stand here, 

On a bridge over the river.

Early morning,

The stillness before sunrise, and

A beautiful pink bird wakes the chorus,

While small birds crowd the branches, 

Adding their voices to the opening day.

The day’s first bumblebees, first butterflies charm.

The first flies irritate.

Long-legged, a heron stands beside a puddle and watches the water, while

Ripples on the river make circles of colour.


We might walk to the river, or run,

Or take a bus, a train, a bike, a car.

A taxi might bring us to the riverbank,

But after that it is up to us.

And wellies are best for a river-bank walk.


A fish flashes past, a flicker of rainbow light,

Fast as an arrow, fast as a cheetah, 

As fast as Sonic the Hedgehog.

Swans swim, watching us

While we watch for salmon.

There is no grass here, no helpful path,

Our feet sink in mud,

Pulling out, squelching, with a gush and a plop.


There is a bridge there, and another, graceful curves with guardian statues.

There are roads and museums and shops and schools and factories.

Up there.

But down here,

A curlew picks her way carefully across the mud.

Swimming in cold water, fish dart in excited shoals.

Wrapped round stones, long weeds reach up from the deep.

Tiny fish, stripy fish, hide in those weeds from fast otters and prowling pike.

Frogs sit, newts swim, water voles nibble,

A riverbank city without any people.


And down here,

On the edge of the water,

We can remember what the river remembers:

Smoke and noise and pollution,

(if we see nymphs we know the river is growing clean),

Shouting and fishing and too many people.

Machines, factories, trains and ships.

But the river sings of older memories,

And a wolf runs through the trees, howling at the moon, 

Checking on his handful of curious cubs,

Causing trouble, wandering off, investigating,

Splashing in the river,

Licking the rainbow snails like sweeties.

And older still, the Earth tells us stories.

Not the mud or the water, but the stone beneath our feet, 

Remembers dinosaurs, and heavier feet stamping,

The stone holding footprints like ponds for frogs,

Or fingerprints to fossilise,

To remember who walked here once.


The Kelvin runs and keeps running,

For days and weeks and months,

For years and centuries and ages,

Down to the Clyde, out to the sea,

Past tall ships and modern wonders,

And where the water tastes of salt, 

The starfish gather in parties, prickly-skinned and smiling.

There are crabs here too, 

Red, round crabs and square crabs, green crabs, spiky crabs. 


And if we get there, 

We should watch for the sharks,

One with gills and one without, 

Fast sharks hunting fish.

Barracuda thin and deadly,

Long, lean sharks with sharp teeth and no manners.

There is one fish,

A small fish, a brown fish, a brave fish, 

A fierce fish who chases the sharks away,

(Apart from the cool ones who play music on headphone and practice their Jaws moves).

Safe from the sharks, 

Fish dance in huge swirling patterns:

Midnight blue and pink, orange and golden fish,

Black fish and spotted fish and bumblebee-striped fish.


If you stand here on the edge of the sea with us,

There are jellyfish now.

The summer jellyfish who will sting your toes,

Wavering past in fluttering shoals, guarding 

Mammi Long-legs who sits in a cold pool, 

Playing the rivers’ currents like the strings of a harp with her tentacles.

She cradles an axolotl, holding it safe from the fierce world 

That would take its smile and end its life.


And when you salute Mammi Long-legs and go further,

Into the wide Firth where Kelvin and Clyde meet the open sea,

You just might see Nate’s huge whale,

Tasting the stories on the city’s rivers.

And taking those stories to the deep sea, 

The wide sea, 

The wild sea.


Stand here on a bridge and look down at the river

And know that there are stories running down there,

Over the water,

Beside the water,

Under the water,

Lives, adventures,

Mysteries and wonders,

Waiting for someone to listen.

With many thanks to the hundred of people who joined us at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum on 11th and 12th June for this OU contribution to the Glasgow Science Festival


Friday, 3 June 2022

Finger-print millipedes

a ripple of finger-print millipede
Drawing, printing, scribbling and writing
~ a day at Buxton Country Park, May 2022

Finger-print millipedes run through the beech woods of Buxton. Rainbow unicorns step through the dappled shade of ash trees. There are wonders hidden here, waiting for the explorers, the magicians, the storytellers….waiting for anyone to come and find them.


precision in leaf rubbing

We gathered words, phrases about the woods of our town. We built books and spun stories…The Stronger Roots project is back for another year of activities drawing people into deeper, more creative and more unexpected relationships with the woods of Buxton



A poem composed from contributions from members of the public during an event at Buxton Country Park on Sunday 29th May 2022


A path to follow,

A hill to climb,

Tripping over logs but hearing the birds.


A walk, a stroll, a scramble through leaf-mould,

Dirty fingers,

Moss in my hair,

And lichen in my toes.


Pinecones will start a fire

A twist of grass will kindle it,

Twigs will feed it

And a branch will help it grow.

Leaves and needles will brew a tea

While wild strawberries taste sweet.


Under the trees,

Dappled light,

Sounds slip away into the distance

And birdsong fills the space under the trees.

There is a tranquillity here,

A kindness.



Beyond the trees,

The hilltop opens out, 

The sky fills the world

And my lungs fill with air.

The touch of the wind,

Of the sun.

You can see down the hill,

Trees, roads, houses,

The Crescent is tiny.

A buzzard screams.


I walk these woods

As seasons change,

Feeling life and renewal.

A moment of calm

Under rustling leaves,

Sanity rooted in the green.


The first bronze axe cast here in three thousand years

Drips fire and gold ,

Onto stone.

Into wonder.


At the foot of the hill,

Coffee, cake, lunch...

And a car full of spiders.

There is a new programme of special events and weekly activities starting now and unfolding in the woods managed by the Buxton Civic Association. Find out more by following BCA or Stronger Roots on social media. Our events will be listed on the Creeping Toad facebook page (@creepingtoad) and on twitter (@creepingtoad) and instagram (creepingtoad)


Thursday, 2 June 2022

Totem Latamat's next chapter

Totem Latamat in the spring

The Crichton, April 2022

When does a story end?

When do we say goodbye?

Was that the end of the story? 

Back in November we took the magnificent Totem Latamat to its resting place at The Crichton in Dumfries. In accordance with the artist Jun Tiburcio’s wishes, we laid Totem down there to decay gently: a gift grown in the earth of Mexico and given now to the earth of Scotland. A “happy ever after” ending? 

Or maybe “and so it is over”. 

But of course, stories do not often actually end. They just turn a page and step into a new chapter….


Totem Latamat came to the UK to share a story, to offer an invitation and a challenge in the run-in to COP26 in November 2021. Commissioned by the Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival, the Totem’s story started in a woodland on the eastern coast of Mexico with a prayer and a ceremony to a cedar tree. The story continued through a village carving its words as images, memories, hopes and fears into the wood and sailing the tall carved Totem, across the wide seas to the UK. Over the autumn, the Totem travelled the UK, reaching Glasgow in time to stand in the Hidden Garden throughout COP26. Then, Totem Latamat arrived at The Crichton in Dumfries.


Indigenous artwork, Totem Latamat has travelled over 9,000km from Mexico to UK for COP26. Moving up the country, the 4.5m Indigenous Mexican response to climate change is travelling to important cultural hubs across the UK including London, Coventry, Milton Keynes and Manchester drawing powerful links between Indigenous experience and local heritage. From the Border Crossings' ORIGINS Festival news about Totem Latamat. 

Find out more here:


At the Crichton, I was part of the team who formally received the Totem as a gift, welcoming it this land, this sky, these people, this weather:

Totem Latamat, 

With the earth of our land,

The bones of our people,

The dreams of our poets,

The songs of our seals,

We embrace you. (Ceremony account here)

 Now, a season later, I was back to pick up the next chapter of that Totem story. Reclining on grass, Totem Latamat weathered the winter well: paint a little faded, a wing a bit cracked but a tranquil face still lay there gazing up at Dumfries’ spring clouds  and feeling the grass growing around it. We were quite relieved that the wasps we found settling comfortably into Totem’s hollows back in November had moved on and now we could sit beside Totem, sit on Totem, run toy cars and teddy bears along Totem’s length and enjoy having her there to interact with. (Her? Him? It? Them? I am not sure so I tend to shift to and fro!). 


With visitors, we made seed bombs: delightful cake mixes of compost and water and seeds. Some were planted here, tucked into holes beside the Totem, others went back to homes to grow in gardens, in pots in window-boxes, connecting Totem and its hummingbirds with the people of Dumfries. Over the summer, we hope these seeds will give Totem a new coat of leaves and flowers and invite butterflies, bumblebees and other pollinators to stop by. Then just as we find Totem a place to pause and reflect, so will these vital pollinators.



We also made finger-puppets, telling the stories of the animals that visit Totem there on the lawns of the Crichton. There were butterflies that perched briefly on coloured carvings. There were ladybirds crawling and mice scurrying. Dolphins and sharks sang strange songs from the Solway, echoing, whistling voices wandering in from the estuary. And when we were gone, when the gardens were quiet, beautiful, magical creatures, unicorns, dragons, and rainbow deer slip silently through shadows and gather round Totem to listen to the Hummingbird messengers, to carry the Eagle’s strength and the Seeds’ promise out of the gardens and into the dreams of the sleeping people of the Borders.


This was the second of our Totem Latamat at The Crichton events. I’ll be back in late August for a storytelling day there and an exciting winter event is planned with shifting shadows, flickering lights and glowing lanterns!

Friday, 15 April 2022

Inspiration, the environment and storytelling


An inspiration, a challenge, a provocation: 

storytelling and environmental connection

a word in explanation: recently I was asked to give a 10 minute presentation on how my work uses storytelling to explore environmental issues and personal creativity...I thought I'd post the piece here as well!

A story well-told is a conversation, a personal conversation, between the storyteller and a listener. If I have been telling stories to, say, a school assembly of several hundred children, at the end individuals want to talk about the story “you told me”. An effective story draws the listener in, engages them, enchants them even if only for the minutes it takes to tell the tale. The experience is personal. It is received by the individual listening as a gift from the ‘teller. (Good challenge for storytellers there: to remember our storytelling is a gift we are giving to our listeners, not an obligation on their part to listen!)

crows laugh while raven watches
As Creeping Toad*, I am a storyteller, an artist and a creator of celebrations, using creativity to encourage participants to explore the world around them and to find ways of expressing those discoveries. I use art to promote a sense of personal and communal emotional connection to the natural world, helping people build their own skills, develop their own languages of expression and reflection. Stories are central to that exploration. The conversations that unfold here, are part of my personal inspiration. Watching people explore the interface where self meets world is a delight, I can feel new stories unfolding while at other times I try to follow the advice I give workshop participants and simply sit. Simply sit and let the world fill me with whatever is passing, from the continent-roaming breath of a wind to the miniature detail of a beetle’s life. My creativity is informed by the world I move in, and I am inspired by the experience to create stories, or poems or to dance the rhythms of a lifecycle. To be creative isn’t necessarily to produce something: it can be just as rewarding and just as significant for the individual to let a moment fill them with wonder and the movement of grass in a breeze or the laughing shout of a passing crow.

there are always stories

In environmental contexts, we know the science, we know the facts and figures and the scary deductions, but it is the stories that call responses from a wider public. It’s the accounts of the struggling mother raising her cubs, that turtle: last of its kind, the brave people standing between the rhino and the gun that bring action. With a cynical turn of mind, I might talk about conservation economics, the commercial value of “fluffy animal” sales pitches and how easily people will be charmed by the apparent smile of a dolphin, but the more determined side of me is glad for any engagement.


Cynicism aside, stories are important. We are a storytelling species – we turn everything into narratives (go away and think about casual conversations and how often a story is being told) and when trying to inspire people to engage with the world around them more deeply, it is the stories that draw people out, lead people in, into the landscapes that they walk through and the forests of the imagination that open golden leaves in their hearts.


waking the Night Mare

 I'm not all that interested in stories with strong moral contexts. You might argue that most traditional stories contain moral lessons, but they don’t. Some are simply adventures, excursions, romances. Nightmares. Yes, one might find a moral if you really want one (eg “don’t steal cattle or a ferocious young woman might come and chop your head off” isn’t necessarily helpful in the 21st century) but equally, listeners are likely to take their own moral from, or find their own interpretation of, whatever story you tell. Just finding a story that is nice/nasty/scary/silly is a good indication of how strongly people respond to stories individual ways.



Extract from We are the Trees.  

We are the trees

Who dread the wind.


We are the trees,

Where the spores settle,

Where the fungus spreads,

Where the fingers wither,

Where the bark splits,

Where branches break.

We are the trees holding onto hope

In seeds and seedlings,

In long breaths held and 

Hearts clenched against the dread.


We are the trees who

Grow the keys of hope.

(Note: this poem was about ash trees – hence the “keys” reference – ash tree seeds are called keys)


For me, it is that individual response that matters almost more than anything else. A story should offer enchantment: an opportunity for listeners to step into the world they think they know through a different door, to take time to think, to wonder, to feel in different ways. And at the end to look at the world they walk through and recognise that there are stories everywhere, that the pigeon flying past, the bumblebee in the flowers, the rats in the subway, are all living their own adventures. Inviting “listeners” to become “storytellers”, in Creeping Toad workshops we try to take nothing for granted: there are adventures everywhere: for ourselves as well as the animals we’re looking at. Increasingly these days, people recognise that the plant worlds live through adventures as well. In a recent lockdown project, we gathered phrases from people about the woods they were visiting, looking at the landscape as both humans and as trees, especially as ash dieback (Hymenoscyphus fraxineus), spreads through those woods and we are steadily losing our ash trees. The scattered phrases were drawn together to give us two poems: “We are the people” and “We are the trees”. Around the poems grew celebration: two tall tree puppets who danced through those woods to the music of a lone saxophone, while the poems were chanted as conversations between trees and visitors. A moment of love and inspiration shared.


We live in a world worth celebrating. Stories are one way of inviting people to engage creatively with that world, to investigate, to create, to share, to celebrate. To play. I am a storyteller: the awareness of living in a world full of stories is a great source of inspiration for me as an individual, for the individuals I work with and for the communities (human and other-then-human) we are all part of.

extract from We are the People, 

the companion poem to We are the Trees, above


We are the people 

Who climbed the trees,

Who ate the picnics,

Who watched the birds,

Who fed the squirrels,

Who ran the paths,

Who were still in the shade,

Who sang,

Who built faerie doors

At faerie dens,

For faery tribes in 

Faery glens.


We are the people 

Who walked,

Who wondered,

Who laughed,

Who talked,

Who held hands,

Who strolled,

Who held their hearts and loves and hopes

Under Ash trees.

The poems "We are the Trees" and "We are the people" were composed from comments by members of the public about why the woods of Buxton had proved important to them during the lockdown months of 2021. Edited by Gordon MacLellan for the Stone and Water projects “A Year In Our Town” and "Ash Woods"

Images in this post:

  • me in action at Plas Power Woods: c/o Laurence Crossman-Emms and the Woodland Trust
  • Raven, Lichen, Nightmare and Grinlow Woods: by G MacLellan
  • Tree puppet face and tree puppet in rehearsal: c/o Aidan Rhode