Category Archives: Environment

Working with Libraries

I wanted to let you know about a few projects I’m doing with libraries.

Forest Families in Gorebridge

forest families

Tomorrow I’m off to Gorebridge library to run some woodland themed storytelling workshops with the local primary schools at the launch the Forest Families project. Here’s how the facebook page describes Forest Families:

A project providing positive, nurturing interactions and free play in natural environments, for children from Mid Lothian,aged 3-8 years and their parents

Oak trees are the theme for tomorrow’s workshops. We’re hoping the children will recognise the shape of an oak leaf. It happens to be the Midlothian Council logo so they won’t have just see it on trees. I’m even going to be wearing an oak leaf dress – now that’s commitment!

I’m working with craft maker and educator Jaimie MacDonald. The last time we worked together we were running crafty storytelling training for youth leaders. This time we’re storytelling and making crafts with the children ourselves. I’m excited to hear Jaimie will be wearing a mushroom jumper (in keeping with the forest theme).

Each workshop is a taster session. We’ll have an introduction from project founder Stephanie Walker. Then it’s me with the story bag, leaves, imagination exercises, stories and some songs. Then it’s Jaimie making nature journals and finally we finish up with a wee song from the little oak story as we plant some trees:

Wonderful, beautiful, there’s only one like you.

There’s only one who was made to do, the things that you will do.

Families in Gorebridge will have an opportunity to sign up to monthly Forest Families workshops. The first one is Saturday 22nd February.

Social Media Training for Edinburgh Libraries


Last month I ran a training session with team leaders and staff from across the Edinburgh public libraries. I was asked to share examples of how we used social media to promote reader development at Leith Library during the 9 month residency I did with the Scottish Book Trust and Creative Scotland (read the highlights here).

The course was full and it was a good opportunity for people to share ideas between libraries. With that in mind I didn’t want to be doing all the talking. For part of the session I got people to slit into groups and discuss different ways to tell stories digitally – audio, video, photo and combinations of the above. Through the discussion and feedback people came up with loads of great ideas for things to do within their libraries and that was all before I shared some of what we did in Leith.


Science Poetry at the National Library of Scotland

I was delighted to be asked to run a science poetry masterclass this April as part of the great big science read. I was also a little bit nervous since it’s called a master class. Did that mean I had to be a master of science poetry? Images of Yoda sprang to mind. But then we had a planning meeting at the National Library. We got excited about the titles of the science collection as inspiration for poems and I had a few ideas for exercises that the team really liked so that has put me at ease. There’s enough inspiration in that collection and in science itself so I figure I’m just going to be facilitating an opportunity for people to be inspired, connect and share.

If you’re interested you can find details of the event in the Science Festival Programme or in the latest National Libraries of Scotland what’s on leaflet.

You can read my most recent science poem ‘Relativity’ in the latest issue of The Istanbul Review.


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Shaking Shells

Last month I led a 3-hour Filmpoem workshop with five children aged between five and ten as part of the first UK Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar.

The workshop started with exercises and games to get the children thinking like poets (I wrote a bit about it here). Then we spent the second half of the workshop writing a group poem on a poetry walk.

Each section of the walk involved a different poetry challenge and at the next stop we heard the results of the last challenge and I set the next challenge. For example when you’re walking:

  • Explore the wall, touch it, smell it, describe it
  • What sounds do you notice? Describe them
  • Find your favourite object on the beach, if you find a better one, swap it. Describe it.

Each child worked independently during the challenge but we came together in a circle at the end of each challenge and each contributed one line to the poem.

Favourite Moments

Three moments really stood out to me. The first was when we stopped after the first poetry challenge. I wrote down each of their lines as they said them. I rearranged the order slightly and read it out. All of the children looked at each other with amazed faces and they said things like “Wow!”. From that moment on they were totally focussed.

During the walk artist Alastair Cook was capturing film and composer Luca Nasciuti recorded sounds. When we were down on the beach Donald (5) was in the process of finding his favourite object when he made a discovery….

“I’ve found a sound for the film!” he shouted. He was sitting down with a handful of mussel shells in his hands and he shook them to show me. He tipped his ear towards the shells again to make sure they sounded right. “That’s brilliant Donald” I said. “Let’s show Luca so he can record it” and I called Luca over and Donald shook his shells again.

My final favourite moment was the screening. The film premiered later that day at the Filmpoem Festival. The children brought their parents along to see it. I think you’ll agree their poem is amazing and the film (thanks to Alastair and Luca) is wonderful:

Filmpoem Workshop – Shaking Shells from Filmpoem on Vimeo.

I want to add at no point did I suggest lines or change their words, I only changed the order of some lines so perhaps Donald’s line came after Kitty’s instead of before. Every section was written during that stop on the journey and so the poem is linear in the order of the journey made.

My Thoughts

I enjoyed planning the workshops activities and the stops on the walk. I hoped it would work well but until you actually do something you don’t know how things will turn out. I was impressed by how well the group responded and how they worked so brilliantly as individuals to create something wonderful together. It was as if something magical happened, they seemed to share one collective creative brain that was five times better than any individual’s could be. Their lines fitted perfectly together and each section fitted perfectly with the last. They had so much freedom to create and they were enjoying every minute of it.

I love the film, Alastair and Luca did an amazing job of putting it together.

What did the children think? 

They were proud of their poem and they said it was fun and not like writing poetry at school. They also said it was easier to write about things when you’re outside experiencing them.

Here’s some of their comments:

Today was a very good workshop because we were all working together making a beautiful poem in Dunbar…

I loved working together with everybody and thinking of good words for the poem…

I loved feeling the wall and going to the beech..

You can see the rest of their comments below, It’s good to see Donald wrote about his shells!


The Filmpoem Festival was created by artist and Filmpoem project founder Alastair Cook. The Filmpoem Festival was supported by Creative Scotland, East Lothian Council and North Light Arts. Find Filmpoem online or follow Filmpoem on twitter (@filmpoem). 


Posted by on September 4, 2013 in Education, Environment, Events, Film, nature, poetry, Writing


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Filmpoem Children’s Workshop


This weekend I’m running a three-hour Filmpoem workshop with six children aged between 6 and 10. The workshop is part of the first Filmpoem Festival in Dunbar and I’m excited to be facilitating the workshop with artist and Filmpoem project founder Alastair Cook.

What is a Filmpoem? 

The programme puts it like this:

A filmpoem is a single entwined entity, a melting, a cleaving together of words, sound and vision. Poetry often tries to deal with the abstract world of thought and feeling, rather than the literal world of things. The filmpoem is the perfect marriage of the two.

Find out more and see examples the Filmpoem website.

How do you make a Filmpoem with children?

I’ve been planning lots of short interactive activities to get our workshop participants thinking like poets.

  • We’ll explore how we interpret our world through memories, imagination and observation
  • We’ll investigate rhyme, rhythm, meaning and anthropomorphism
  • We’ll take a sensory walk to collect new memories, objects and words

Every time I introduce a new concept we will do an activity or game to make it fun and relevant. So we’ll meet the camera as an example of anthropomorphism (he has three legs, one eye and 1 ear – he hates having his ear tickled!) and all of these activities will help us to think like poets and will work towards producing a brilliant final Filmpoem.

The workshop concept was created over tea and cake at Alastair’s many months ago. I chatted through ideas with Alastair and following that he ran a pilot with poet in residence Rita Bradd. Here’s the film they created:

Filmpoem Workshop/ All Tangled Up from North Light Arts on Vimeo.

I’m really looking forward to creating something wonderful with Alastair and the participants this Sunday. I’m also looking forward to the rest of the Filmpoem Festival!

The Filmpoem Festival is supported by Creative Scotland, East Lothian Council and North Light Arts. Find Filmpoem online or follow Filmpoem on twitter (@filmpoem). I contributed to one of Alastair Cook’s Filmpoems last year and blogged about it here.


Posted by on August 1, 2013 in Education, Environment, Events, Film, Media, poetry, Writing


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Wood Foraging in Pictures

I’ve recently installed a woodburning stove in my lounge and I totally love it. So when Daniel said:

Doddsy, wood foraging next week?

I said YES! Daniel is a wood foraging pro:


Back in the day when we worked at Changeworks, I dreamed of getting a stove but most people told me it was a bad idea. Most people, but not Daniel. He had a stove and pointed out how easy (and fun) it was to forage for wood in Edinburgh. Four years later and there we were.

My bow saw was a bit smaller than Daniel’s so it took me a bit longer to cut through the logs:


This was the pile we cut between us in less than an hour:


Daniel suggested bringing a wheelie bin but I only had a wheelie suitcase. I filled it just as it started to rain:


I felt proud of the wood we’d chopped as I walked back through the trees:


But when I got to the streets I suddenly felt a little self conscious. Did people assume I lived in the wild and had decided to return home and all of my worldly belongings were logs?

When I got home I started my first log pile, hurrah!:


My arm ached a little but I loved the experience of cutting my own fuel and being outdoors. Thanks to Daniel, I’ll be foraging again soon and next winter I’ll have the pleasure of burning those logs!

Just in case you were wondering, the wood was already dead and lying on the ground, we just cut it into bits. 


Posted by on May 19, 2013 in Education, Environment, nature


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Firefly Magazine

There was a big white envelope waiting on the doormat. Inside was my copy of the exciting new children’s magazine Firefly:


It’s a seasonal magazine which includes outdoor activities, puzzles, comics, wildlife, books, craft and cooking. The magazine is aimed at children 5 to 10 years or as the cover says “it’s for families who are wild at heart”.

Flicking through the pages you’ll notice Firefly is visually stunning. I think what makes it special is the contributions from many different illustrators and writers. I was commissioned to write a 2 page nature feature for the magazine and I chose to write about otters:


Why Otters? 

Otters are an animal most children won’t have seen but would like to spot. They’ve got character, they do funny things like pooping on the tops of rocks or tufts of grass so everyone can see where they’ve been. Urban otters are getting much more common so even if you live in a city you won’t be too far from an otter. They’re inclusive but not too common to be ordinary. I’ve tried to spot otters myself a few times so otter spotting is something close to my heart.

The Writing Process

First I found out as much as I could about otters online, in books and by asking people. I interviewed an otter expert (Chris Cathrine from Caledonian Conservation) and I spent time choosing the best bits from everything I learned. The hardest thing I think is condensing all of that research. Which bits stay and which bits go?

I wrote sections in bite sized chunks and gradually and ruthlessly chopped out sections until I was only left with the best. I want to make children laugh or tell them something so weird and wonderful that they would want to tell their friends or family about it. That way they’re much more likely to remember it.

If I used a complicated word I made sure I explained what it meant. I used to write the Dino’s Dynamos Kids Club magazine for Dynamic Earth so that really helped with knowing how to write and plan to communicate science to children. I had a good editor back then so I got told which bits worked and which didn’t. Later I edited the magazine when new writers started writing it so I think that whole process helped me to be objective and to really weed out every word that isn’t necessary.

I included Chris Cathrine’s answer to “What is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen an otter do?” because I knew children would love finding out something like that from an otter expert. I thought about the illustrations we would need to go with the text and made notes and found examples in books so I could send these to the illustrator who was working on my section (Cat O’ Neil).

I spent lots more time rewriting and cutting to get down to the word limit I’d been set.

Help, I can’t think of an otter joke!

I was desperately trying to come up with a good otter joke but hadn’t managed it. I went along to the Edinburgh Literary Salon for a much needed break from writing. It’s a monthly get together for writers and anyone involved in books and publishing. My friend Alan McIntosh was there (I interviewed him on this blog here) and knowing how quick-witted he is I explained I was trying to come up with a good otter joke. Here’s how the rest of the conversation went:

Alan: Tell me about them, where do they live, what are the names for things?

Me: Their homes are holts, their poos are spraints, they eat fish…

Alan: What do you get if you tread on an otter poo?

Me (smile)

Alan: A spraint ankle!

It was perfect, exactly what I was looking for. Any joke about poo is a big hit with children but they also love to learn a new word that they can show off with by using it in a joke. Funny and educational. When you laugh you learn more so massive thanks to Alan for that one!


When I finally submitted my feature it included a page of extra ideas, things like a dot to d’otter (otter dot to dot) or having a hidden spraint (otter poo) somewhere in the magazine for children to find. Firefly Editor Hannah Foley liked my ideas. She decided to add an extra page called ‘Otter Fun’ to include the puzzles and extra ideas so now I’ve ended up writing a three page spread on otters. My text went to copy editor Genevieve Herr and she was happy with it, she made some minor changes and that was me done.

It really is amazing to see the magazine in print. I just need to order a copy for my nephews and nieces!

Order your copy of Firefly Magazine on the Firefly website here


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Social Reporting from the Capercaillie Lek

If you live tweet from a bird hide does anyone care? How can you capture nature as and when it’s happening? Can you create a story around something that may or may not even be there?

This Easter I challenged myself to try social reporting from the caperwatch 2013 at RSPB Loch Garten.

Social reporting is about capturing an event from the inside using audio, video and photos.

Caperwatch is about waking up at 4am to see if you can spot a big black turkey like bird dancing, while peering through the window of a little wooden hut on the side of a loch.

The bird I’m talking about is the capercaillie and here’s how I got on: Watch to the video on youtube here

I interviewed Richard Thaxton from the RSPB to ask why we have to get up so early to see the capercaillie dancing, here’s what he said: Watch the video on youtube here

On the way and during the caperwatch I live tweeted some photos, here’s a couple from the carIMG_20130330_051821 IMG_20130330_052451

We watched the sunrise from the hide, wow!:


This is the osprey EJ, taken through a telescope with my phone on the eyepeice:


Can you spot the red squirrel in this shot?:


But the bird didn’t dance. Does that matter? We also went to see golden eagles but they didn’t fly in:


And we visited the national dolphin centre but we missed the dolphins by an hour:


I didn’t mind and the things we did see were beautiful. Getting up at 4am was worth it just to see the sunrise. Eagles would have been a bonus but mountains were enough.

Life can be a bit like that sometimes, you don’t always find what we’re looking for, things don’t always turn out how you planned but if you didn’t look for things in the first place you’d never see the wonderful things there are to see along the way.

Just wanted to point out the kindest way to watch a capercaillie is in the RSPB Loch Garten hide. The capercaillie are critically endangered and when they dance every day they sometimes just drop dead. Bop till they drop. If you go looking for them in the wild and one sees you it will dance to defend itself. The purpose of dancing (or leking) is to attract a mate and you are not that. You will be wasting the poor birds energy and it could be enough to push that bird over the edge. Please let him save the last dance. 


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Litter and Dog Poo Films

I’ve been commissioned to make a series of films about litter and dog poo for Greener Leith.

UPDATE: Click on the headlines below to read about this project in the news.

Leith has a litter and dog poo problem but these films don’t focus on the problem. Behaviour change research shows rewarding people for good behaviour is more effective than fining people for bad so we’re celebrating the positive here in Leith and focusing on the solution.

Watch the local Environmental Wardens present prizes to people who pick up after their dogs and put litter in the bin below. Find out more about the making of after that.

Love Leith 1: Dog owners rewarded for picking up poo on Leith Links (watch it on youtube here):

Love Leith 2: Janet wins a cream tea in the Kirkgate for binning her litter (watch it on youtube here)

Love Leith 3 (Mary picks up after aero the dog and gets a rewardwatch it on youtube here)

Love Leith 4: Shore smoker gets a reward from Mimis for binning litter (watch it on youtube here)

Love Leith Extra: Megan from Little Remis cafe sings praises of pocket ashtrays (watch it on youtube here)


The idea for the project came from Greener Leith’s Ally Tibbitt, his idea was to reward good behaviour with prizes from local businesses. The idea was so good it won funding from L£ith Decides.

After we secured the funding I approached local businesses to ask them to donate prizes. Mimi’s Bakehouse, A1 Pets and the Haven Cafe were all delighted to take part. We already had tickets coming from the Royal Yatch Britania thanks to Ally so I just needed to pick those up.


I filmed quick thank you clips with each of the local businesses while I was collecting prizes. I also bought some sparkly envelopes to put the prizes in too, to make it like the oscars.



I spent an afternoon filming with local Environmental Wardens Paul and Kevin. We met up and headed to the litter and dog poo hot spots of Leith. We needed to catch the action when it happened.

We had a problem, what if the dogs we saw just didn’t poo on camera? We kept seeing guide dogs and unfortunately for us guide dog owners don’t have to pick up.

Suddenly I saw a dog squatting in the distance. When the owner went towards it to pick it up I sprinted across Leith links with my camera shouting triumphantly “he’s picking it up!”. That’s him in the first video above. After that they just kept on pooing.

I had some disguises for the wardens to wear and some christmas gear for the Christmas special (see love leith 4 above).


I loved editing the films – especially timing it so a dog’s mouth opened in time with the woofs in the music composed by Sam Gallagher. The Warden’s had a good senses of humour, it really was a pleasure to work with them.


Since that first afternoon the Wardens have given out a prize every day and they’ve been sending me highly entertaining emails documenting people’s reactions when they’re given a prize.

I’m delighted to be part of this innovative project. You can read more about it on the Greener Leith website here.


Posted by on November 25, 2012 in Environment, Film, Media


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Mountain Therapy

A couple of weeks ago my sister got married on the banks of Loch Leven in Glencoe. My Mum made the wedding cake, it’s got playmobil on the top! I was a bridesmaid and it was a lovely day.


After the wedding I spent time with my family in Fort William and I went to visit a friend on The Isle of Skye. I’ve got a new phone, the Samsung Galaxy Note. It’s a cross between a phone and a tablet. “Is that your phone?, It’s a beast” Is a common response but I love it and it takes great pictures.

So here’s my highland holiday from the Galaxy note (and me).

Ben Nevis

I took these at the bottom of the mountain, can you spot snow on the hills and a yellow dog?:

We took a cable car up Ben Nevis, here’s the view from the top:

Neptune’s Staircase

We visited Neptune’s staircase – eight locks in a row on the Caledonian Canal:

Fort William to Skye

I took the train from Fort William to Mallaig – it’s a famous rail journey and it’s very beautiful but I think the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh journey is even better! I’ve been to Skye a few times but this is the first time I’ve traveled by ferry (speed bonny boat!):

Kinloch Forest Trail

I went a wee walk in a place I discovered when I last visited Skye, the Kinloch Forest Trail.


The trail takes you to one of my favourite views on Skye:

After that I hitched to Broadford and caught up with my friend Reuben. We cooked a feast for his friends Laurence and Bridget. We all stayed in a caravan with a wood burning stove and later we enjoyed oatcakes, a cheese selection and a wee dram. It was brilliant.


The next day we went for a drive to see the view over to Knoydart, the closest point to the mainland,:


Then we drove to Sligachan for some magical mountain views.


After that we went to the Fairy pools, my friend Tom recently wrote about them here.

The Fairy Pools

This is Bridget and Laurence at the fairy pools:

Bridget makes Firebread Pizza in London and Laurence is an artist in Edinburgh, they were both great.

There was snow on the mountains above. That didn’t stop this group climbing down to get to the pools to do something extraordinary:

I’ve blogged about the joys of wild swimming but there was no way I was taking off multiple layers of thermals and fleeces to enter the icy cold water. I love the carved curves and shapes in the pools. Here’s the icy water pummeling the rocks and splashing up into the air, you can see how it starts to shape the rocks:

Saved By Cheese

After that I went for a walk by myself over the hills. It was a three-mile track from the Fairy Pools car park to Sligachan but it took hours and I had a very strange experience. I’d been steadily climbing uphill for a while and the wind was blowing hard, it was freezing. Suddenly the wind dropped and I felt totally calm. It seemed like a really good idea to lie down so I did.

I didn’t feel cold at all and I decided to have a little sleep. At the same time there seemed to be a voice in my head saying “Don’t sleep, whatever you do don’t sleep!” but I felt so comfy and tired I just ignored it. As I closed my eyes the voice said “Don’t sleep, get up and eat cheese instead!”. At that point I opened my eyes, it seemed like a good alternative. So I got up and ate two slices of cheese I’d saved from my packed lunch as I walked on. Five minutes later I was quite appalled to think I was about to have a sleep on the freezing cold hillside! It started raining and I started singing into the wind just to make sure I stayed wide awake.

Finally the path came near to its end and I recognised the Sligachan mountains. It was very beautiful but I was mighty glad to getting off the freezing hillside and onto the road at last.


I hitched back to Broadford with an interesting lady, Dunia. She was a Cullin Fools circus performer, an artist and many other things (as is customary on Skye). She used to live in the city and was a social butterfly – she explained how she would often double book herself. Then she moved to Skye and everything changed. She now enjoys time alone and has been living around Skye for 13 years. She’s just brought a croft with her husband and they’re learning to do everything on the croft from scratch. I chatted to her and by the time we got to Broadford she had decided to start a blog to share her experiences. I’m looking forward to reading it!


The next day I got the ferry home, as I walked up the ramp I felt a sinking weight of sadness. Thankfully the ferry ticket man was so cheery he stopped me crying with his smile. I was going to miss Skye. I had a few hours in Mallaig before I got my train to Fort William so I asked a couple of guys where the best place to get a bacon roll and a cup of tea was. They sent me to the Fisherman’s Mission.

The Fisherman’s Mission

The mission was brilliant and really cheap, I spent a few hours there and was surprised to be asked to sign a leaving card. They explained I was one of the last customers at the Mission. It was closing that day due to declining fishing industry. It seemed such a shame. Just near closing time skipper Ewen Nicholson (above) came in for his last supper. He had worn his best suit for the occasion and he asked staff to take a photo. He’d been coming to the mission for 30 years. No one had a camera so in the end I offered. I ended up taking lots of photos of Ewen and having a good chat about his life, fishing and his pet seal. I wrote about him on the Leith Library blog here.

Mallaig to Fort William

I got my train and took more photos from the window, I was quite pleased with this one of the famous Glenfinnan Viaduct (from the Harry Potter Films):

The Slug Allotments

Back in Fort William I walked up the hill in Fort William with my Mum and found some lovely allotments:


The Train Home

The next day I got a very early train home to Edinburgh across a misty Rannoch Moor. Deer kept running along beside the train. It was very beautiful. I experimented taking photos of the vegetation passing the lochs and mountains to make streaks.


Back in Edinburgh

I’ve found it hard to readjust to a busy life back in the city. I’ve been back just one week but it’s been full on. I had the Reader in Residence induction day and a poetry gig. I filmed and blogged interviews at the launch of book week Scotland and had to rearrange a speaker for this Thursday’s NENgage social media training. I’ve also had three meetings to set up three new freelance projects and I’ve been working at the library.

Don’t get me wrong, all the things I’ve been doing this week have been great but I loved being anonymous in the mountains. I wanted to stay a little longer there.

But life goes on. I’ve vowed to get out on my mountain bike a little more and go walking in the hills at weekends. That way I can maybe get a little mountain therapy all year round.


Posted by on October 27, 2012 in Environment, nature


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Destination Local: Local Edge

The last day of August marks the end of my two years volunteering for local community website Greener Leith. One of the last things I did as a volunteer was to make a two-minute film pitch for an application to Nesta’s Destination Local. Here’s the film:

Here’s a bit more about the project:

Local Edge will allow users to receive and post geographically relevant news and information on their mobile phones.  It will develop a loyalty card system working with local shops and service providers.  Users who participate in civic activities will also be rewarded with vouchers to spend at local stores.

The good news is the application received a whopping £45,000 of funding from Nesta. There were 10 winners out of 165 organisations who applied so we did really well. You can read about the winners on the Nesta website here.

The brilliant idea for the project came from Greener Leith’s Ally Tibbitt. He submitted the application in partnership with the Broughton Spurtle and ap makers Tigatag. I can’t take any credit for the project idea. I just helped by filming and editing the pitch.

Planning the FIlm

The application was for mobile technology so I wanted to use mobile technology to film and edit the pitch. I wanted to show the genuine nature of the people behind the project and share a sense of place too. Editing 10 minutes of footage down to 2 minutes of story was a real challenge. I also nearly missed the application deadline because it took ages to find the perfect sound track to capture the essence Alan McIntosh. Thankfully I think I found the right intro music eventually (if you’re curious about his essence there’s an interview with him here).

I know the film is a bit rough and ready but it was supposed to be. I’ve enjoyed producing films, podcasts and blogs for Greener Leith over the last two years and I’m glad to be leaving on a positive. You can see all the blog posts I’ve written for Greener Leith here. There are 70 so I don’t expect you to read them all (:


Posted by on August 31, 2012 in Environment, Film, Media, Writing


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Find Your Element on the Isle of Eigg

I’m off to the Isle of Eigg this summer with educators, artists, scientists and writers. It’s for a Speygrian Creative Connections course, you’re welcome to join us. The course runs from Friday 10th to Monday 13th August and costs £99. The fee covers accommodation, food and workshops facilitated by the brilliant poet, musician and photographer Gerry Cambridge and the wonderful writer, broadcaster and lecturer Kenny Taylor. Art workshops are provided by the lovely artist Susan Smith and our top teacher Tania Noble is on hand to make sure everything runs smoothly. Find out more about the facilitators here and read about the Eigg course here.

Last year I took part in a Speygrian Creative Connections Weekend at Duiletter Lodge, Argyle. Here’s how I got on….

This blog post originally featured on the Speygrian website.

The Element

“It’s a bit scary to come to something like this on your own?” I thought as I read the programme. ‘Place based learning, storytelling and poetry with Sam Harrison’, it intrigued me.

I was persuaded to put fear behind me when I read Ken Robinson’s ‘The Element’. Ken states we all have an ‘element’. It’s the place where the thing we enjoy meets the thing we’re really good at. Sadly for many people, friends, family, the education system and modern society squash their element away before it’s even been realised. We learn to fit in with the world’s agenda for our lives and we lose the unique person we were made to be. Ken recommends we seek out those who are acting in their element. These people will help us to discover our element and give us permission to express who we are. I decided the weekend would be a good place to put Ken’s theory into practice. I signed up quick, before I could change my mind.

Glen Strae

I first saw Glen Strae in the moonlight, the snow-capped mountains shimmered on all sides. I couldn’t wait to see it in the morning.

Saturday Solo

I woke up stupidly early (6am) with the cold hard ground bearing into my bones. After unsuccessful attempts to get back to sleep I decided to get up and see those mountains. They were breathtaking.

I left the building and bumped into local farmer Donald. He proudly showed me the sparrows nesting in the barn and all the rosettes the cows and sheep had won that year. I went for a wee wander in the glen and took some photos. My grumpiness lifted as I explored, you can’t beat a little mountain therapy, I remembered who I was and felt at home.

Exploring ‘Sense of Place’

I exhausted my camera battery and headed back to join the group for a much needed cup of tea. After breakfast we started our first optional activity: Exploring ‘Sense of Place’ with Sam Harrison. We met outside and there was Donald the farmer, this time with two highland coo! Sam explained we would be taking them up the Glen to the Sheiling (settlement) for the first time in hundreds of years.

I carefully picked my way along the narrow paths and over streams, far in the distance I saw Donald with two cows on a lead, he was in his element! Suddenly I saw it, the tepee, my old friend. It brought back happy memories of the wilderness adventure last year.

Back in time

Two ragged girls welcome us with a penny whistle duet. A woman left her washing and came over to greet us in Gaelic as we crossed the river. She beckoned us into the tepee.

They explained what it was like to live in the sheiling over the summer, 200 years ago. We learnt about their way of life over a hot cuppa. Later we found out she was Julie, the local primary school teacher. Sam had been working with her pupils to make films re-enacting historical battles in the area.

Story challenge

We split into groups and created our own stories. Our group created the ‘story of the baby and the bog butter’. A tale of how the locals came to bury their butter (something they did do to keep it cool). We shared our stories, hilarity ensued, elements were ignited.

In the afternoon we took a difference course exploring ‘creative ways of getting into place’. We embarked on a journey through the glacial valley, we climbed a drumlin, a mound of earth left by a passing glacier.

Drawing challenge

We headed through some trees to the ‘Faultline Falls’, a hidden gem of a waterfall. Sam encouraged us to choose a section and draw it. Art teacher Alistair Thompson, a longstanding member of the Speygrian network, reminded us there are at least five reasons to draw and only one of them is to produce an attractive picture. I kept this in mind as drew the rushing water with difficulty. I enjoyed the process, it helped me to stop and really look at what the water was doing, it helped me to escape the business of everyday life and listen to nature.

Poetry challenge

After drawing we were challenged to silently write down words we felt described our surroundings. We shared our words as a group and we were challenged to use the words to write a poem. There was no pressure for a masterpiece in ten minutes, whatever you come up with has to be commended for effort.

Here are the groups words:

  • Ancient earth
  • White skeleton fingers (silver birch)
  • Wind swept trees
  • Stop
  • Wait
  • Thunder
  • Rushing chasm
  • Roar
  • Time well spent
  • Still reflections

Here is my 10-minute poem:

As I sit beneath the white bone fingers
I think
It’s time well spent

As I look upon the wind-swept trees
I see
It’s ancient earth

As I think beside the rushing chasm
I hear
The thunder roar

As I stop beside the still reflections
I know
My time is now

As we shared I was stuck by the individuality of each person, from the same starting point we produced such different expressions of place. We journeyed back and the group seemed closer, we’d made new and creative connections.

Saturday Evening

After a wonderful meal we retired to the lounge.

The logs crackled on the fire and the accordion came out to play, accompanied by a cardboard box boran. Jean and Douglas gently strummed guitars and Sam rocked the recorder. An impossible task but he really did, his sight reading of Scottish traditional music at triple speed was a wonder to behold, he was in his element.

Brian Cox Challenged

After the music finished a hardcore contingent remained to finish the singleton malt. Here’s a snapshot of the conversation:

Sam: I don’t understand why everyone loves him

Me: But he’s not a minger?

(Everyone laughed and I felt embarrassed! The conversation had previously been intellectual – the scientific accuracy of the wonders of the universe)

Sam: Well put it this way, as a heterosexual male, I wouldn’t want to look like Professor Brian Cox

Me: I think passion and intelligence are attractive

Sam: Right so if you had a choice of Paolo Nutini or Brian Cox to come round for tea, well who would it be?

Me: Brian Cox every time, I’d want a good conversation. I can put on a CD if I want to hear Paulo.

Jean was with me too; Julie was on Paolo (and Sam’s) side. Alistair was sitting on the fence as the five of us continued. I’m all for showing everyday people how fascinatingly beautiful the world is through physics.

David Attenborough Challenged

Another debate forced me to stay awake to defend David Attenborough. The argument – he portrays nature in an unrealistic way, apart from people. In the real world people and nature are not separate. Two intelligent and strongly opinionated men with loader voices then me didn’t give much space for my opinion. They were in their elements. I was trying to argue that if people were there, they’d scare the animals off! To me what David is capturing is that moment of privilege you get when you spot an animal, say an otter, that’s not seen you. You watch it, it’s totally unaware and unaffected, its natural in its element. I wasn’t having much luck. Julie kept piping up that spiders were nature too and Alistair finally came to the rescue with an example of ‘if the Tay beavers lived in Glen strae’. I threw in the towel at 4am.

The morning after

It was sad to say goodbye, I’d miss my fellow debaters and it had been a thought-provoking weekend.

If you like outdoor learning, mountains, creative sharing and optional debates, why not come along to the next Speygrian event on the Isle of Eigg? I’d recommend you search for you element too, you’ll never know where it might take you.

See more photos of the weekend here.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to read about about my wilderness journey on Greener Leith, the SpeyGrian Creative Connections course on Colonsay and the Wild Connections course on Tanera Mor.


Posted by on May 28, 2012 in Education, Environment, Events, poetry, Writing


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