Louise Senior | Finding the Path

I’d had my brilliant idea for engaging the public with my research, my cultural partner, the Dunnet Forestry Trust, had offered me wholehearted support for the project, and, importantly, I had managed to secure the Afterlife of Heritage funding to put my plan into action. I thought the difficult parts were over and I was raring to get going – this should be the easy bit, right? Not so.

I have lost my way countless times over the past few months and my original idea has had to be tweaked over and again. This blog post presents the story of how some of the complications I experienced were overcome – partly through creative thinking, but mainly through having developed an honest and effective working relationship with the people who represent my cultural partner.

My research employs ethnographic fieldwork in rural northern Scotland to explore how people relate to an ever-changing environment. For the Afterlife of Heritage project, I wanted to focus in detail on one aspect of the Caithness environment where a lot of my research has taken place: Dunnet Forest, the most northerly community-managed forest on the British mainland. Dunnet Forest lies within a SSSI and there are mountains of archived paperwork recording all kinds of data and statistics on birds and bees, moths and trees, wildflowers, soil types…the list goes on. However, during the course of my fieldwork I have been told many fascinating tales of human activities in the forest, tales that haven’t been recorded anywhere, and I wanted to share these with the local community and other forest users. My idea for a social history trail through the forest seemed a good way to share these stories with a fairly dispersed and often transient population.

Sitting down to put my proposal into action, I recognised that my decision to use the term ‘trail’ was perhaps slightly misleading: I had no intention – and nowhere near enough funds! – to build a path, although luckily I don’t believe anyone expected me to, but I also realised that I was reluctant to direct people to walk around the forest in any particular way. One of the delights of the forest is arriving upon some unexpected feature out of the blue – I didn’t want to take that joy away from people by creating something that instructed them to take a particular path. My initial confidence in my idea began to crumble as I wondered how to avoid this outcome.

I was still struggling with how to address this quandary when, along with a director of the Dunnet Forestry Trust, I met with the designer who would create the leaflet to accompany the trail. As we discussed my increasingly vague plan for a “trail” and I described the leaflet-come-map that I envisaged to accompany it, he cast his eye over the existing maps we had of the forest and explained that they were not up-to-scratch for the job. New maps would have to be drawn, he said. This would be an incredibly costly and time-consuming task requiring specialist skills – certainly not possible for this project. I felt my plan begin to fall apart.

As our conversation progressed, I suggested that I would like to include in the leaflet up to twenty of the stories I had collected. This was possible, explained our designer, but would make for a messy and hard to decipher leaflet. The amount of words on the leaflet could easily put people off reading it. He showed us some examples of overly-wordy pamphlets and I was forced to agree. Pages and pages of text with a scruffy map would be unlikely to engage anyone with my research. At this point, I was almost ready to give up on the project altogether.

We scheduled another meeting to give me the opportunity to reconsider my strategy. Unfortunately, the plan I came up with to salvage the project resembled a very boring and basic forest information leaflet. Luckily, having shared many long conversations over tea and biscuits during the preceding weeks, the designer and director both had a good understanding of what my research is about and gently steered me away from this pathway to disaster, reminding me that the project was to present my research, not provide an advert for the forest.

Between us, and with the aid of more tea and biscuits, we came up with a solution which we have called ‘Hidden Forest’. The artefact we have designed comprises a beautiful A3 aerial photograph of the forest and surrounding landscape – kindly taken for us by a contact of the Dunnet Forestry Trust – and just seven of the stories I have collected, but told in sufficient detail to grab a readers’ imagination and allowing space for personal quotes from those who told the stories to me originally. We are developing an accompanying blog to tell more of the stories and to allow people who are inspired by the stories they read to contribute their own. We will officially launch ‘Hidden Forest’ at the Marymass Fair, held in the vicinity of the forest, next week.

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