To mark International Bog Day (25 July) and as part of the bid to win UNESCO World Heritage Site status for The Flow County, three short stories have been written to capture the beauty and significance of Scotland’s globally important blanket peat bog.
The Flow Country Partnership, a collaboration including The Highland Council, NatureScot, RSPB Scotland and Wildland Limited, aims to make the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland Scotland’s first World Heritage Site inscribed for purely natural criteria, and it is using the power of storytelling to help make its case.
An outstanding example of a blanket peat bog ecosystem, The Flow Country stores some 400 million tons of carbon – more than all of the UK’s forests and woodlands combined – making it crucial to the fight against climate change. Its landscape of interlinking pools is also home to an array of amazing plants and rare birds in habitats that will be at risk without long term restoration and protection. If successful, The Flow Country World Heritage bid will secure the peatlands’ international status alongside such natural wonders as the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef.
The stories have been written by award-winning authors Janis Mackay and Ruth Thomas, as well as Roxane Andersen a Professor of Peatland Science at UHI and leading scientific authority on the Flow Country. Each writer has taken a very different approach to the task of helping people understand the need to protect this area of land as well as the sense of peace and creativity it inspires. These are now available online, published for International Bog Day.
Ms Mackay, a children’s author, conjures up The Bog Girl in an atmospheric tale of the guardianship of the peatland’s unique wildlife. Ms Thomas’ Above the Plain, is a subtle journey of awareness. Prof. Andersen has taken to poetry to describe the ‘special blanket’ knitted by the plant spirits to keep the dragons lying beneath from awakening and causing havoc.
Steven Andrews, Project Co-ordinator for The Flow Country Partnership, said:
“We saw the power of storytelling during our presentations at COP26. Being able to use stories to express the value and wonder of the Flow Country captures people’s imagination and attention in ways that science can’t do alone. With this being Scotland’s Year of Storytelling, it felt a truly worthwhile project as part of the campaign to secure World Heritage site status and the stories we have are captivating. I believe that these will go a long way to help people understand why protecting the peatlands is so important.”
Ruth Thomas added:
“As a writer I love to convey how people connect with the place they're in - even a place that's initially strange to them (as the Flow Country was to me before I went there earlier this summer.) Unusual settings tend to become more familiar when we look more closely at them - just as an apparently insignificant detail can be crucial to the wellbeing of both a story and a landscape. It was the sudden appearance of a tiny lizard on the boardwalk while I was there that triggered all kinds of memories for me (as it does for my story's main character) and altered a lot of expectations about what the Flow Country is, and why we need to protect it.”
Janis Mackay said:
“I was delighted to be invited to write a story, set in, and celebrating, the Flow Country. Having lived in Caithness (as writer-in-residence) for five years, finding there that the wide open and free spaces in the landscape in turn gave me the clarity and space to write novels, it was not difficult to turn my imagination back to that wondrous place.
“As a storyteller and writer I am a great believer in the power of the imagination and see it as a gentle catalyst for change. When we imagine something, we can feel its truth and potential. When we imagine something - or somewhere - we may be moved to act in order to support that place.
“Storytelling allows us to see inner pictures; to imagine, and the art form speaks to the heart. Stories may contain information and interesting facts but that is not their modus operandi. Stories work on our feelings and deeper sense of truth. Stories can inspire us to act, inspire us to visit places, inspire us to empathise and care about places - 'without the story in which everyone, living, unborn and dead, participates, we are no more than bits of paper blown on the cold wind.' George Mackay Brown.”
The Bog-Girl of The Flow Country, by Janis Mackay
There was once a Bog Girl. Her dress was peat-black fringed with soft green moss. In her dark hair she wore tiny flowers of white bog cotton and pink bog-bean, and her long necklace was made from dark green Bog-firs. But she was lonely, this Bog-Girl, and often gazed at her reflection in dark pools for company. The Bog Girl looked after the wilderness of the Flow Country, caring for its marvel of deep peat Blanket Bog that covered the ancient and vast sunken forest. The Bog Girl sang with the wind to help the people of Scotland breathe good clean air. She sang songs to encourage the insects, the birds, the running deer, and she sang to remember the Bog People, now gone, but not forgotten, for she, The Bog Girl, remembered them. Some called the Bog Girl the spirit of the wind. Others called her the guardian of the great bog. Though few have ever seen her.
Marta closed her little story book and put it by her bed. She knew the story of the mysterious Bog Girl off by heart. No matter how many times she heard, or read the story, she wept. Imagine being so lonely that you stared at your reflection for company.
‘Well, it’s a wet and lonely place,’ Marta’s mother said, when Marta asked what the Flow Country was like. ‘Twice the size of Orkney and some say, almost otherworldly.’…
Above the Plain, by Ruth Thomas
… On the train up from London, somewhere between Newcastle and Edinburgh, she had found herself thinking again about Joe and his Aeolian wall lizard – and she’d also thought for a while about her late grandfather, who had always been something of an amateur expert on wildlife and the natural world. He’d really seemed to know what he was talking about as far as nature was concerned, and in the year since his death she’d often wished he’d known about her new job at Wild Life - which at least purported to be about nature, even if it was often more about sustainable bamboo furniture. Her grandfather’s own garden in Nottinghamshire had had a fruit-cage as well as flowerbeds, a herb garden, a compost heap, a woodshed and a little pond, full of tadpoles in the spring and baby frogs in the summer. For years, he’d also used to have a couple of bags of Irish peat propped up against the side of the woodshed. Lucy remembered that, suddenly - with a little burst of recollection: how the words Finest Irish Sphagnum Peat Moss had always been printed on the side of the bags, alongside an image of a bright green shamrock, and how, as a young child, she’d wondered what sphagnum was, and whether (because of the letters it contained) it had anything to do with spaghetti. She also remembered that one summer there’d suddenly been no bags of Irish peat propped up by the woodshed, and that in their place were bags of something called peat-free compost. ‘Why aren’t you using the Irish peat any more? The one with the shamrock on the bag?’ she’d asked him. This would have been in the late nineties: she would have been nine or ten.
The Special Blanket, by Roxane Andersen
… “See all the life that depends on this blanket”
“The rivers that it feeds, the birds that live on it…”
“Look at all these colours, how they change in the light?”
And the children saw it all with a new-found delight
They tried to describe this beauty to others
And managed to protect some of the blanket’s corners
But the damage was profound, the blanket was shrinking
And the dragons, deep down, soon started stirring...
The full stories can be found on the Words & Art page of the Flow Country Website.
The Flow Country World Heritage bid has been brought forward by the Flow Country Partnership (formerly the Peatland partnership) which is a broad group representing a wide range of stakeholders in the peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland. Funding for the project is being provided by the Highland Council, NatureScot, RSPB and Wildland Limited. If successful, the Flow Country will become Scotland’s first World Heritage site inscribed for purely natural criteria, and only the third (for natural criteria) in the UK. It would also be the first peatland site inscribed on the World Heritage list.
The peatlands of Caithness and Sutherland only became known as ‘The Flow Country’ when the Nature Conservancy surveyors began to examine the area in the 1950’s. ‘Flow’ is a term used in the north for any flat, deep and wet bog, and is derived from the Old Norse word floi, which in turn means wet or marshy. The Flow Country has never had a defined boundary, it most loosely takes in much of Caithness and northern Sutherland, but if the world heritage bid is successful it would most certainly be put on the map globally.
The bid, which comprises an extensive nomination dossier and management plan will be submitted to UNESCO by the UK Government (DCMS) at the end of 2022 and following a site visit the outcome will be decided in mid-2024.
If you want to learn more about the above project, please contact:
Steven Andrews: email@example.com (World Heritage Site Project Coordinator)