“There are people in these woods”

This week’s blog has been sent to us by the legendary Creeping Toad: aka Gordon MacLellan. Gordon is an environmental artist and storyteller who works with groups to find ways of celebrating the places where people live and work and play.

 The workshop begins with a whispered revelation that opens a treasure trove, a honey pot, a dragon’s hoard, of delights and set us off exploring, wondering and getting thoroughly over-excited.exploring

We started with stories, but then I usually do. I’m a storyteller and tend to build new stories with a group over the course of a workshop or two. Developing a story over the course of an event lets a group develop ideas for themselves…we need characters and places, they’ll need a home to go to, to start from, to swing the story around. What could go wrong? What could they find? Will they even get home? 

But “there are people in the woods….”

Workshops tended to start with a story and a scribble. Letting first ideas unfold, plots begin…Outside, simply rummaging around and making faces out of found objects is often a good way to get the words going… “an old man lives in the woods with lichen eyebrows and a mossy beard where mice live. His beard is so long that he tucks it into his wellies to keep his feet warm”Goblin maid 1

“With eyes as dark as blaeberries,

An old witch lives

In a house made of branches and bracken,

On a beach beside a burn,

Brewing bubbling potions

In a big, iron cauldron

Through these workshops, we wanted to create a set of stories that and grown out of these woods, that showed a real connection with this landscape*. Some of these were open, holiday workshops so individuals came and went, joining in or moving on as family circumstances demanded, others were school sessions.

There is always a risk in projects like this that everything just becomes a reflection of whatever participants are watching or reading. The challenge then for us as leaders is to take those ideas and experiences and encourage people to adapt them in light of their experiences here, to help stories belong to these woods, to this stream, and not just to that film, this game. It was delightful to watch speculation become revelation as children found just the right place for… or turned round waving a goblin finger, or a fairy’s wand. There was at one point a magnificent conversation about whether trolls had their own tooth-fairies and, if so, what these would look like.storyboard

In creating the characters and then the stories around them, we used lots of familiar activities: listening to the sounds of the woodland, walking along a path counting things (that would later give us ingredients for potions, chart journeys or build an atmosphere), picking up whatever and telling outrageous lies about it. We laughed a lot. We sneaked into a goblin camp to light their fire and toast their marshmallow dinners (or we roasted troll-snot, depending upon who you listened to). And stories grew. The broke staid principles that say “ a story needs….”. Workshops like this really validate the stories children make in play. Our job, my job, is to provide the strong foundation, the activities that keep things moving and sometimes to weave disparate strands from different life stories into hopefully coherent wholes…

These are good workshops for pushing assumptions. If our characters are drawn from our woods, then beauty might be shaped by birch trees or toadstool, strength by oak and chestnut, beautiful skin is “green as moss and smooth as stones”. “She looked like a lumpy old root and she was the nicest witch in all the Garden”. Playing here we can challenge ideas about who, or what, is good or bad, handsome or ugly. People can make unlikely friendships. Play.


We drew on local folklore a lot. Some people don’t like that. But for me, local folklore is a reflection of how our ancestors in this place have looked at and explored the world that we are trying to connect with. We may not agree with the imagery they created but it gives us a starting point to set people looking at the world as a place where adventures might happen and to start feeling out for themselves just what those adventures might be….


  • This blog uses examples from workshops run with the Abriachan Forest Trust near Inverness, the National Trust at Linch Clough in Derbyshire and the Moorland Stories project for Borderland Voices.


Creeping Toad: http://creepingtoad.blogspot.co.uk/

Abriachan Forest Trust: http://www.abriachan.org.uk/

Borderland Voices: http://www.borderlandvoices.org.uk/


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