Louise Senior | Forest Reflections

This weekend, amidst the crowning of the Marymas Queen, the Highland dancing and the tunes of the Thurso pipe band, we officially launched our ‘Hidden Forest’ trail. The Caithness winds were gusting at up to 50mph, forcing the Marymas Fair into the local village hall, which lent a different kind of atmosphere to events.

Nevertheless, alongside the chair of the Dunnet Forestry Trust, we set up our stall in the corner of the hall and, in-between the fancy dress competitions and the bake-off awards, we were able to show off our glossy new leaflet and talk to numerous people about the stories of social history hidden in Dunnet Forest – and even collect a few new ones. For me, this was the culmination of months of collaboration with the Dunnet Forestry Trust on a social history trail through the forest which began when I attended the Afterlife of Heritage training workshops.

So what have I achieved over the past few months since entering into this process? Firstly, the project itself has received some really positive feedback from local people. The very idea of a forest having a ‘social history’ has intrigued many folk and everyone I have spoken with has enjoyed learning about the stories that I have collected, and have often responded by giving me a story of their own. Aside from this enthusiasm for forest stories, people have often become interested in the wider context of my research. The stories provide a good starting point for discussing the more theoretical angles of my PhD and this has allowed me to develop a number of new contacts, thus improving the overall quality and depth of my research.

The idea of engaging the public with a fairly philosophical research topic had seemed daunting to me when I applied to take part in the Afterlife of Heritage training, but the most valuable lesson I have learned during this process, and which has been a running theme throughout, is the importance of starting where people are at.  My initial ideas for this project had included talks or displays at local museums or heritage centres, but by making the forest itself the host of the project we have hopefully ensured that we are reaching a captive audience. With more time and money, it would be beneficial to branch out of the forest and deliver some kind of outreach sessions to attract a wider audience, but I think we have made the most of our current capability by focusing on the forest and its users.

Similarly, our ideas for launching the trail leaflet had included targeted events, but I believe that by piggy-backing on an existing event with close links to the forest, we were able to reach a far wider audience. The very broad appeal of the Marymas Fair allowed us to speak to all sorts of people who would have been unlikely to attend a specific ‘forest talk’ type event.

Reflecting back, there are a few things that I would do differently next time. On a very practical level, I underestimated the amount of time that I would need to devote to the project and was overambitious about my design ideas. I think that consultation with my designer earlier on in the process could have helped me to plan the project more accurately from the outset. The uncertainty that these factors created led me to lose confidence midway through my project (see blog #2, ‘Finding the Path’), which probably affected my approach to launching the trail leaflet. Luckily, my cultural partner maintained confidence in the project and supported me with the launch, demonstrating the utility of an effective working partnership.

I’m glad to say that, although the bulk of my Afterlife of Heritage project is now complete, I don’t think it will ever really be finished in the true sense of the word. The history of the forest keeps on unfolding and new stories of life in Dunnet Forest will continue to emerge. I hope to hear many more of them and the forest blog that we are working on will offer a place to record these stories, providing a resource for the community to draw upon and to contribute to. In this sense, the process initiated by attending the Afterlife of Heritage training is an ongoing one which doesn’t end with my role in our joint project, but which continues its journey in the hands of the community here.

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