Monday, 30 May 2016


Sitting in a broch: 
the provocation of 
the overheard conversation


I admit it. I like listening in on other people’s conversations. Not the deeply personal, requiring-the-release-of-eavesdropping-mice, tucked-away-in-a-corner exchanges but those brash, loud and quite-possibly-intended-to-be-heard-by-strangers ones. And given that I am not all that inconspicuous, being some 190cm tall, extensively tattooed (if not always obvious), and excessively hairy (in some judgements), I seem to be quite good at being overlooked*.

In visiting a place, be it historic monument, ancient site, city park, formal gardens, rock on a beach or occasional tree, I like to just sit. To sit and soak up the atmosphere, to sit and feel the place around me, to sit and simply enjoy the moment. And eavesdrop.

The Broch of Gurness is a favourite loitering place for me when I’m on Orkney. 1000 years of settlement in layers and structures and precisely stacked stones, mortar free houses and wheel-houses and twin-walled towers of rock.

I watched. I listened. Standing in the centre of this dramatic site, this set of visitors could only talk about other places. Yes, I concede, without question, that the ancient tombs of Malta are wonderful but you’re not on Malta, you are here. Have you come to these islands on the edge of the world to stand in the midde of this broch and burble about somewhere else. And no. You’re not burbling about somewhere else. You are burbling about yourself in that other place. Is that the key? You can visit marvellous places as long as everyone knows it is you (or, in Scots, “yous” as in you plural) who is visiting. You are the centre of this story - the “you” in this instance being 4 people. I was there. I listened for all of the 15 minutes they were in the Broch. Not long, but quite long enough for uninterrupted monologue, and no-one seemed to even notice me (suprising, see parag 1 above, and add barefoot and crosslegged on the grass….ok, maybe “carefully not noticing wierdo in corner” counts as a survival strategy). But in that time, there was no reference to here, to looking at, enjoying, appreciating this place - or even comparing it to the Tombs on Malta. It was enough that here in this place everyone knew that yous had been Somewhere Else (within a genre)as well. Is a visit to a site like that just to provide a setting for broadcasting of your own experience?
O, it was dull. But intriguing in a dismal sort of way, so I waited and watched and listened and wondered if we would ever get to any perception of here. We didn’t.

This wasn’t a random monologue directed at the rocks, the winds and the wierdie in the corner. It could have been a closed conversation among the visitors concerned, but they seemed to have cornered a young man who I took to be the curator/guide/warden of the Broch (there had been a little notice in the window of the gatehouse: “warden on site”), but no, the young man being so informed and instructed was just another visitor. Maybe the warden had already escaped or was spreadeagled out of sight just over the cliff-edge waiting for the terns to scream an all-clear. I met the victim/subject later and we shared a quite, stone-filled moment of empathy.

 They left. I sighed. I think the Broch sighed, too. It’s seen worse after all. They left, with Birsay and Skara Brae and the Tomb of the Eagles to do as their declared targets in the next 2 hours. This would make for an interesting whirlwind tour of Mainland and South Ronaldsay especially as the tide was high and Birsay would be out of reach
Birsay causeway at high tide
This is a bit of a rant. Not really an angry one but more a recognition of a challenge. For those of us who try to educate and work face-to-face - but more for those of us whose interpretation has to do its job in our absence, there is a question renewed for me about what can we do to encourage people to stop. To simply stop, to shut up, and appreciate a place for what it is: not for its connections, its similarities to 6 other places I’ve been to and which might have been better, not for its amazing this or appalling that, not even for its story but just for its own sake.

Can we build a philosophy of observation into our work?

And I still wanted to slap those people with a bit of wet kelp.

And the great mountain
Is unconquered, when
It remains the victor
By not noticing the men

Nicholas Stuart Grey

* There is an activity I sue withg roups that amkes the point that being invisible isn’t about being able to hide, it is about beign able to become inconspicuous, see Celebrating Nature

Sunday, 22 May 2016

House, cave and castle: public event

a Bates Panorama

Up your street
join us on
Thursday 2nd June
Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

2,000 years of Buxton life is built into our streets, streets full of secrets and stories, treasures, trees - and houses. Inspired by the Bates Panoramic Prints of Buxton scenes, on Thursday 2nd June, at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery we’ll be making the pop-up streets of Buxton.Buxton has a legacy of bildings and relics from cave dwellings in the hills to lost Roman settlements and medieval farms. There is the 16th Century Old Hall and the spectacular Georgian sweep of the Crescent Hotel. But this is a town, the home of thousands of people and those domestic houses are valuable too.

there might be some wild imaginations here....
So join us at the museum to make your own house as a card-sculpture and help us build the streets of the Buxton 

You might make your own your house as it is now. It might be your house once upon a time. It might even be the house you wished you lived in (palaces?, caves?, castles, we can acommodate them all!). And if you are a visitor - that's all right, we'll offer you a Buxton house (or cave or castle or mansion) to occupy.

we have adventurous Gardens, too

Understanding a town is as much about feelings and stories as architecture so on this exciting day we’ll mix all three

During a session, visitors can make their own pop-up building and add it to our long streets of Buxton panoramas – and then then take them home at the end of the session as a reminder of the Buxton you (might) live in!

Practical points:

Date: Thursday 2nd June 2016
Times: there will be two sessions to choose from 10am  - 12noon and 1- 3pm
Venue: Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, Terrace Rd, Buxton, SK17 6DA

Cost: this workshop is free and materials are provided
Bookings: you don’t need to book a place, just come along and join in but last new entries will be at 11.30 and 2.30

For more information email: or tel: 01629 533540.

This event is one of a series supporting the Museum’s Collections in theLandscape project. This project is expanding public access to the Museum’s Collections both in the museum by redeveloping the Wonders of the Peak Gallery ad through school and public activities and enabling access to the Collections through virtual resources

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Woods, frogs and owls

Haunted woods, enchanted frogs 
and a flapping owl
visiting Highland Schools, 2016, part 2

There was one dead lamb rotting behind a wall,
And two crows sitting on a branch watching,
Three children leaning over the wall.
But four stumps waited for bottoms to sit on them
And five tall trees guarded the playground
Where six children ran across the ground
To the seven stumps in front of the
One grandfather tree.
Eight steps would take them over the wall,
Nine steps would take them to the middle of the field
And with ten jumps they would be up in the sky flying like the crows….
("counting a story" ideas from Mulbuie)
Invergarry's Owl

We grew stories. In school playgrounds (Mulbuie), with piles of odd bits of stuff, with wooden bowls and golden goblets (Tarradale) and an enchanted pink frog princess (looking always for her prince, when she found him they would kiss. And he would become a frog too!)
We recognised that stories can grow out of anything and everything so at Mulbuie we heard the story of the Green Leaf Children who live in the tallest trees and come down to the ground in the night to play football with their friends, the Twig Children. They play their games with little balls of scrunched up paper which is the only trace we might find the next day, blown by the wind across the playground when we come to school….

And at Invergarry, my stories inspired new ones and Vikings took shape, and a Highland Cow and a Loch Ness Monster, a cat, and some stranger creatures. Shadows shaped up too and by the end of the day we heard stories of the lost girl, we met the hedgehog and the tortoise, a brave samurai, a dragon and an owl who could flap her wings in surprise….

A week of delights – at least for me! – and there will be more in September. I have perhaps one day still available for a Highland school if anyone is interested (follow the link for more information)


Invergarry dragon

 With many thanks to the staff, storytellers, artists and enthusiasts of

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Lost treasures?

 By the Broch of Gurness

I was just sitting there, finding a quiet corner out of reach of the persistent wind and being steadily dribbled on by a half-hearted rain shower (it looked great as it swept through in trailing curtains over the hills, just not so much to be in).

Listening to a spring morning. skylarks, skylarks, skylarks. Every field, it seemed, sprouted larks (not soaring as high as less windswept southern cousins). And curlews. The combination of lark-song and curlew piping could have been all the enchantment I needed.

But I sat there with the broch behind me and the fields beyond that and the swell and sigh of Eynhallow Sound in front of me. It took a few minutes for my eyes to understand those patterns of grey and silver and breaking white, and the shifting shadows that told the story of the dangerous currents of the Sound. I had some binoculars but they were hardly needed.

Lying low and barrelling their determined course through the waves, black scoters ploughed across the scene which suddenly exploded into life. There were birds everywhere. Goosanders, as low in the water as the scoters but sleek arrows to the ducks’ solidity. Eiders on the rocks, and cormorants. They always sound like they’re squabbling but maybe all those wheeling terns are just talking very fast. There is a gull. And another. No, I’m no birder. That is another gull, but a different one. And that is a fulmar. Gliding, sliding along the wind with barely a wingbeat between Midhowe Broch and this Gurness edge. A skua on patrol, dark wings and dangerous thoughts. And two martins, new come from those long migrations, blown sideways into the shelter behind the broch.

The sea, grey, racing, laughs itself into waves and breaks; but turn a corner and there is peace and the bay is still with pale turquoise clear water over graceful sea wrack meadows. And everywhere, always, watching everything; dark eyes, bobbing heads and the sudden roll and splash of a fat body as the seals invite us to play.

In 10 minutes of sitting there on a stone, I felt that i had seen more wildlife than in a day’s walk at home. Is this what we’ve lost from the southern counties? Maybe not those actual birds but that richness of life, that sense of a world bubbling with activity at every level, at every intersection of a habitat…..

Broch of Gurness, 8th May 2016

Raven at the Brough of Birsay
Pictures: no, I didn't take any when i was just enjoying the birds, so these come from before and then later in the day when it sort of stopped raining for a bit

Monday, 2 May 2016

Well-smoked and slightly confused

Well-smoked and slightly confused
at the Highland Folk Museum at Kingussie

last thoughts of a blackhouse on N Uist
I don’t know why these places feel so familiar, and so comfortable. I didn’t grow up in a blackhouse or spend my summers in one of those quaint 2-room tin-shack summer houses by a windswept western beach, but they feel so instantly familiar that I am left confused.

N Uist, looking out
 In the peat-smoked interior of the long, dark, heather-roofed house, the box-bed, the worn dresser, the enamel pans on their nails, I know them all. My grandparents lived in a tenement in  Campbeltown at the tail end of the Mull of Kintyre - the dead-end, they call it now although when we visited there, there was still an RAF base at Macrihanish and a ferry over from Glasgow. That row of tall houses, with their stairs worn into alarming ripples by years of shuffling feet and the outside loo where giant sea-slaters lurked in wait, is long gone. My memories are of darkness and dark uncomfortable furniture and a coal fire range and a tin bath and the cheerfulness of family and the stern-ness of grandparents who were yet indulgent. And the walk in the morning with a jug to the dairy down the road…
and i wonder if the furniture in that upstairs apartment was essentially that of any highland home or any highland couple of a certain vintage, a sort of standard set that might have been found in blackhouse, or croft or tenement apartment in Campbeltown

And that doll’s house of a seasonal home, corrugated iron and sleepers shaping two rooms and looking like the refuge of a maiden aunt. Perhaps that what it is: those clothes hanging behind the door could be her clothes, that coat her coat, the smell of soap, the pin-point neatness, the small ornaments, the understated evidence of a quiet life lived by being and not by owning, all this could be hers.

But I am still standing here in the Highland Folk Museum, blinking in the sunlight and heading for a bit of singing stillness in Leanach Church
N Uist, looking in

Sunday, 1 May 2016

A Feast for Lost Travellers

A feast for lost travellers
 on tour in northern Scotland, April 2016

snow on the mountains
It is always tricky during workshops to catch the moments I treasure as photos. My camera tends to get left in corners or daubed in glue or lost in a pile of cloth. Wherever it lurks, it is rarely to hand on those critical moments when….

across the whirling, weird, wonderful waterfall
where the freaky, fabulous, flying fish
feast on lost travellers 
 (poem by Daviot School's storytellers)
drawing and story notes, Daviot
So I often feel slightly off-kilter when I’m trying to report back on the latest adventures as the images I’ve got do not do credit to the excitement of activities. (So come on, last week’s schools! All photos gratefully received - especially ones I can post here!)

I am working up in the north of Scotland just now…2 weeks of wildness from the beautiful woods of Middle and led more and a day for the Woodland Trust with alternating sunshine, rain and occasional hail. The weather then rather set the standard for the rest of the week,working indoors as the clouds variously added rain to puddles, hail to drifting lines across playgrounds or even snow in squelchy moments while it gathered in more dramatic sweeps across the mountains

A return to Daviot on Monday warned of the risks of wandering across the hills, let alone venturing boldly into any ruined buildings you might stumble across. But beyond the hills and the trees, the sea is always waiting….
a smooth sea on a sunny summer’s day,
darting dolphins dancing in the dark waves,
the voice of the sea invites us to dance with the dolphins

storybox theatre in action
We were making story boxes there and it was a delight to see people turning storybooks into instant puppet theatres….

exploring the haunted house while lightning hovers overhead,
climbing carefully through the crumbling windows,
into the echoing corridors,
following the sound of flapping wings to the room
of the rattling bones and chattering skulls

a castle from Culbokie
and a mysterious door from Kiltearn
fine details in Kiltearn
cheerful adventures in Strathdearn
Other hosts during the week were Culbokie (tales of old Scotland and heroes for adventures), Strathdearn ( exciting story landscapes) and Kiltearn (some very carefully precise artwork there, picking out the stones in old walls and enthusing about……..

Now it is May Day and the world turns towards summer (at least in theory). i was woken, to my delight, this morning at 5.30 by ravens having a loud discussions in the trees at the end of the garden and yesterday spent a sunny afternoon (hoorah!) watching the racing waters of Rogie Falls

Next week is fully booked but I am due back in Scotland in September if anyone out there reads this and would like to plan a session…

With many thanks to the lovely pupils and 
welcoming staff, 
our storytellers, artists and inventors of adventurers at 

a ruined castle from Kiltearn
and an adventure involving bats, caves and a bridge from Strathdearn