Monday, 24 October 2011

Woodwords again

On Wednesday I set off on a massive trek around Scotland, with an A-B-Tree event each day for six days, as follows:
  • Ivy - Wednesday 26, 7.30pm, Forres Carlton Hotel, Moray
  • Ash - Thursday 27, morning, Alyth Primary School, Perthshire
  • Oak - Friday 28, Dawyk Botanic Gardens, near Peebles, Borders
  • Birch - Saturday 29, Benmore Botanic Gardens, near Dunoon, Argyll
  • Hawthorn - Sunday 30, Edinburgh Botanic Gardens
  • Willow - Monday 31, Logan Botanic Gardens, near Stranraer
All of the Botanic Gardens ones are at 2pm, and all but the Alyth session are open to anyone to come along. Bring a pencil and a notebook. It'll be about an hour and a half, of sharing titbits of knowledge about the ecology, practical uses and folklore of trees, plus some nice pieces of writing and a chance to find out how you and others respond to a tree.

I've just put the following press release out, which spells out what it's all about.


Sutherland-based writer Mandy Haggith is leading a national project which celebrates the traditional Scottish link between trees and writing. Known as the Tree Ogham, or Tree Alphabet, each letter of the Gaelic alphabet has an associated tree or shrub.

To celebrate this ancient connection, Mandy is organising a series of creative writing events in woods and gardens around Scotland, one for each letter and species. The events are happening during autumn 2011, as part of the International Year of Forests.

Mandy said, ‘I love trees and I find them a great inspiration for writing, not least because of all the legends about them and the amazing facts about their historical uses. This project is a way for me to encourage other people to connect with the rich tradition rooted in the Gaelic tree alphabet, pick up a pencil and paper (both of which come from trees) and let their imaginations run riot.’

The Gaelic alphabet has 18 letters, so there will be 18 events. These blend folklore, practical uses and ecology of trees while being playful with words during a walk in the woods. Most of the events are public and they are being hosted by schools, community woodland groups and environmental organisations around Scotland, from Borgie to Stranraer and from Skye to Angus, including the four Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh, the Borders, Argyll and Dumfries.  The project is made possible by funding from Forestry Commission Scotland and Hi-Arts.

Events so far have included an afternoon with Stoer and Lochinver Primary Schools, a morning with some mental health service users from Inverness, a session in the woods on Skye with children from Shetland, Orkney, Argyll and the Western Isles. There have also been public events with the Woodland Trust, Trees for Life and the Falkland Centre for Stewardship. The final six events are coming up between now and the end of October.

Mandy said, ‘I’ve been delighted so far by all the leafy words sprouting from participants’ pencils!’

Mandy is a writer who lives on a coastal woodland croft in Assynt. She has published dozens of nature poems in literary magazines, has two poetry collections (letting light in and Castings) and her novel, The Last Bear, won the Robin Jenkins Literary Award for environmental writing in 2009. This novel is structured around the Ogham: each of its chapters is called after a tree and draws on the Celtic tree lore for that species. 

Mandy has been a forest researcher and activist for the past fourteen years, prior to which she was an academic specialising in computer tools to support environmental decisions. She has worked on forest issues for many organisations, including the Centre for International Forestry Research, WWF, Greenpeace, the Taiga Rescue Network, Culag Woods and Assynt Foundation. She was the co-ordinator of the European Environmental Paper Network from 2005-2009. 

Mandy is an experienced facilitator of writing events, she has led many creative writing retreat weeks and poetry courses, as well as evening classes, guided writing walks and workshops.
For more information contact Mandy Haggith on 01571 844020 or mobile 07734 235704.
Email:, Website:

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Migration time

One evening too many sitting in the caravan with no heating, granny blanket across our knees, reading with gloves on... It's winter, and that means the great move up from the shore into the woods.

First of all come the bears, bedding and books, the porridge pan, the spirtle. A little ceremony is required, some small rituals. It is the passing of the seasons. We walk up through the woods to the cabin, scuffing through birch, aspen and oak leaves. The bracken is collapsing with a fanfare of bronze.

Then there is a second journey, to gather perishable food, music and creature comforts that have brightened our summer. Things we have duplicates of and those that will not hurt over winter can stay in the caravan.

Shifting up is a simple thing to do, at one level, but at another level it is the most profound thing we have done since spring. There's a deep satisfaction in acknowledging that the season has moved on, and so must we. The cycle has gone around. The year wanes. The tide of light is ebbing and we must withdraw into the shelter of trees.

Storms will lash the shore in the darkness. The crag will be treacherous with ice. The lochside will freeze and thaw. We will be tucked up in the cabin, safe from it all.

The moon is waning too, a mere sliver rose in the night as Orion strode the sky. It is time to pause. To light the winter fire, and go gently until the tide of light comes in again.

This time every year I always remember the autumn fortnight we spent camping on the shore of Heaven Lake in the Tian Shan mountains in northwest China, as Kazakh people migrated down from their high summer pastures to their desert wintering lands. They took everything, shifting their yurts and herding their flocks down the lakeside. They built a raft for a tractor and set it off to drift down the lake with a gentle breeze - it took all day to reach the other side. Their motion, in perfect tune with the season's changing, was relaxed, unhurried, yet inexorable. We watched and learned.

Now, every autumn, we nod our respects to them, with rucksacks on our backs, padding up from the shore towards winter.

Saturday, 22 October 2011


The polytunnel is woefully cold, and the tomato plants look dreadfully sad, with mouldering tops and green fruit hanging there, wistful. Is it time to admit that they are not going to ripen after all?

Perhaps if I were able to be more ruthless and drag plants out before they fall over, I'd suffer less fungus in the tunnel. And of course, if I got them going earlier in the year, as I do manage sometimes, I'd already have had a good crop of sweet red things and would be content to move on. But this year I have had so few salads graced by home-grown tomatoes I'm reluctant to admit the season's over.

OK, I've talked myself into it. Winter is upon us. Time to get the green tomato chutney pan bubbling...

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Fruit for free

I love brambles, just can't resist them, and one of the best things about the rewilding of the croft is how many more brambles there are than in the past. I love the way they fruit over a period of a couple of months, providing new ripe fruit for wandering bears or passing people.

They're pioneers, growing into sunny spaces on the fringes of the woods and scrambling up into the branches of young trees. Then as the trees grow and shade deepens, the brambles move on out into open land, They're a part of the first scrub layer that takes over from the grass and herbs and bracken. Their tangle helps to protect young trees from deer, though they are themselves vulnerable to browsing.

On Tuesday, I'll be doing an A-B-Tree event about bramble, the tenth of 18 events (for more details of which see the A-B-Tree webpage). It'll be at Comrie Croft, near Crieff, Perthshire at 5pm on 11 October, and I shall look forward to sharing tasty morsels of ecology, folklore and practical uses of the plant, as well as munching on some berries.

My favourite bit of folklore about bramble is the story that Jesus carried a bramble switch for riding his donkey and he used it to drive the moneylenders from the temple. Good on him. My opinion of the money-lending trade is pretty much unprintable, and I often find myself wondering how the world would be if usury was illegal and our economies ran on credit, barter and trust, instead of debt. I am puzzled by the inconsistency of the political rhetoric, from both right and left wing parties, bemoaning the fact that we are up to our oxters in debt, whilst at the same time urging banks to lend more in order to 'stimulate growth'. David Cameron's embarrassment to be caught nearly suggesting that everyone should pay off their credit card debts is typical of political double-speak about debt. We live in a society that depends on people spending money they don't have to perpetuate growth that we can't sustain. This debt sustains the richest members of our communities through extortion of interest from the poorest. It's a morally, as well as financially, bankrupt situation.

Meanwhile the brambles, like many of the best things in life, are free.