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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Writing the Land, Writing the Sea

A report of last week's HighlandLIT Writing Holiday at the Old Brewery, Cromarty by HighlandLIT Secretary, Jayne Austin

By the end of my four-day writing holiday with HighlandLIT I felt tired, elated, nourished and blessed. My soul reconnected to the rhythms of the sea. My mind inspired by Hugh Miller’s legacy and equally inspired by Helen Moore, who led our writing holiday in the wonderful setting of The Old Brewery, Cromarty.

Helen (left) is an ecopoet who articulates with a Seer’s knowing the complexities running through the veins of life. She seeks new ways of vocalising the dangers facing our planet and all living creatures on it, yet with hope and sensitivity.

I had read Helen’s poetry collection, - Ecozoa - before meeting her in person at a workshop which she led for HighlandLIT based in Inverness. Drawn to her unique, singular voice, it seemed out of tune with the world. In Helen’s latest Collection, - The Mother Country - she opens with the words: ‘For all the disinherited, human & other-than-human’. This profound sentence spoke volumes to me in having been cut off from my own family twenty-five years ago. I was excited, if not nervous, to be pushing myself out of a comfort zone to engage in this experience.

The Cromarty programme was rich and fulfilling, and I have listed below some of the materials Helen called on for our workshops, which centred on: Life on the Edge – Dynamic Border; Reclaiming the Commons; Rewilding; Freshwater/Saltwater; Conscious Oil; Ancestors & Animals; Geology and Deep Time; and Local Stories, which would bring the village of Cromarty alive in new ways of seeing.

Outdoor excursions provided opportunities to be ‘in the Nature’, find personal ‘sit spots’ to engage in five ways of knowing: thinking; feeling; sensing; intuiting and imagining. Drawing us away from the general ‘knowledge’-based culture we inhabit and placing each way of knowing on an equal footing. Helping us to look more closely, delve deeper and try harder to create words which could then be shared in a supportive and trusting environment.

One excursion found Helen leading the group up to the hill-top cemetery where Hugh Miller is buried. There we gathered by a silver birch tree, framed by a circular path, where we were invited to view the tree from a different angle. Some got up close and personal - within touching distance - others further away, lying on the floor or sitting on a bench. We were then invited to write words this tree inspired in us, which Helen collected. One sentence from each of us on the writing holiday forms the poem below.

In a world where I can feel overwhelmed by the personal challenges faced, the grief that many problems on the planet are of our own making, the inadequacy of my own options to make a difference, nothing more than a drop in the ocean; Helen reminded me of human compassion. Yes, there will be times when we feel helpless, lost and alone, but if we make our touchstone compassion, perhaps we can stay alive to the beauty of a group of former strangers coming together to unite in the power of words, and the power to remove boundaries.


Mother Nature has gifted this canopy of silver-green –

layers of leaves circle the light, radiating in random orderliness,

connecting not touching.

I nuzzle into the soft fleshy limb, the smooth soft skin

of a new-born;

this insect-eaten leaf is a viewfinder to the sky.

Fountain of jade across a thin white column;

dappled leaves on sky of grey like a snow fall of rich green;

spindly ivory fingers weighed down by fleshy green foliage;

pale bark clothed in layers of leaves, serrated edges of Robin Hood green

nibbled precariously by ravenous insects.

It’s alive in us –

this timeless quietude of reflective interconnectivity.

(Illustration by Drew Hillier)

Links to Helen and some of the materials used on our Writing Holiday:

Helen Moore, Poet -

HighlandLIT –

‘Deep Time’ by Anthony Nanson –

Poem ‘Conscious Oil’ – Myth and Mind in the Age of Petroleum -

Poem ‘The Fountain’ by Denise Levertov -

‘Scotland: A Rewilding Journey’ –

‘Soil and Soul, People Versus Corporate Power’ -

‘The Blue Planet: A Natural History of the Oceans’ -

‘A Sand County Almac’ by Aldo Leopold – (Pictish Wolf)

‘A Land’ by Jacquetta Hawkes (1951) -


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