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The Peatbog Trows - Drama on the Bog

Date: 24 Aug 2018

Sue White, Peatland Restoration Project Officer at Shetland Amenity Trust, writes: Most of Shetland’s hill are cloaked in blanket bog; in fact about half of Shetland is covered in peat. In general, though, local folk who drive by the hills every day have been unaware of the importance of the habitat. Shetland does, however, have a rich cultural tradition and the peaty hills, music inspired by the landscape, and tales of mysterious beings that co-habit the islands are all part of that. As peatland ecologists, we are all aware of the range of ecosytems services that peatlands provide, but what about their value as a resource for inspiring the imagination and telling stories?

In my role as a Peatlands Project Officer (funded by SNH Peatland Action) I have held guided walks for adults, training courses, activities for children, and attended agricultural shows in order to promote our peatbogs and peatland restoration. The events are well received but I was keen to try a new approach, a different way of engaging a wider audience and tap into the Shetlandic storytelling tradition. Rather than a standard lecture approach I thought it might be more interesting and fun to create a piece of theatre, and so the “Drama on the Bog” idea was born.

Participants at the Bog Trow Reception Centre © Shetland Amenity TrustI worked with local theatre practitioner, John Haswell, who has a huge breadth of experience, particularly working with young folk and Youth Theatre, and I was delighted to get Izzy Swanson, Drama Education Support Officer for Shetland Islands Council, on board too. SNH Peatland Action funding was secured for the project.

We wanted to get folk, especially children, out onto a peat bog so the “theatre” was to be up on the hill on one of our first peatland restoration sites in Shetland, 10 miles south of Lerwick at Cunningsburgh.

John worked up the “back story” about the previously undiscovered “Bog Trows” and we recruited a small team of local professional actors - Hannah Uttley, Paul Hughson, fiddler and actor Cathy Geldard, experienced local actors Zoe Spence and Robert Tonkinson, plus a great bunch of volunteer Trow “extras”. We also had Jordanna Keilty–O’Neil working with us, who brought first-hand experience of this kind of performance. Hannah (a qualified teacher and youth theatre practitioner) put together a resource pack for schools to help teachers and pupils develop ideas and experiences from the visit.

My role in the project was to give the artistic team a crash course in peatland ecology, the importance of bogs for ecosystems services and how we go about restoring peatlands. Then the team took over and the dramatic devising process took about a week.

Everyone in Shetland knows about “Trows”, they are a like Nordic Trolls but a bit less menacing and a lot more mischievous, and they figure a lot in Shetland stories and folklore. “Bog Trows” though, as our audience would learn, have only recently been discovered and are much shyer, distant cousins of other Trows and Trolls. The elusive Peatbog Trows have been forced out of their homes due to human activity, the bogs where they live have been drying out and the Trows have been forced into a horrible “Trow Refugee Camp”.

The Peatland Restoration Team (project managed by “The Professor”) working on the restoration of the peatbog and the Trows who still live there become aware of each other, and are now working together to restore the bog to its former glory with good outcomes for all involved.

The “Theatre” was on Hazel Mackenzie’s Hill Apportionment. Hazel was one of the first crofters in Shetland to get involved with a Peatland Action funded peatland restoration project. Hazel’s “Mackenzies Farm Shop & Café” is conveniently sited on the main road, a 15 minute walk from the site. We were able to use the facilities at their farm shop and café, and to use the staff room as changing room and base for cast and crew. Izzy took on organising and promoting the project in schools and sorting out the logistics of getting our participants to the site.

Our participants/audience were dropped off at the bottom of the hill, met by one of the Drama on the Bog team and followed the “peat road” through changing landscape up to the “theatre”. When they arrived they found themselves in the midst of the “Trowie Re–Settlement Camp populated by dispossessed, miserable Trows, too depressed to look at or engage with the audience. Then they would meet “The Professor” who would explain why peatbogs are so important and how the Bog Trows were discovered. Our audience/ participants would then walk around four locations (two examples ofThe Trows © Shetland Amenity Trust degraded bog and two areas of restored bog) where the Trows lived and hear their stories, including a Trow fiddle player, a very important part of Trow lore. At the end of the promenade performance participants returned to the Professor. The four Trows they had met would come together to the tune of the fiddle player and all participants (children, their teachers, other adults, RSPB bosses or whoever) were given a task to perform (planting cotton grass). Then it was time to walk back down the hill, sharing stories and impressions of their encounter with the Trows along the way, to the waiting buses. One school even stayed on to play the “extra’s” in the following show.

Over the course of the week we did 14 performances to approx. 550 schoolchildren, teachers, classroom assistants, parent helpers, Radio Shetland and other members of the press, finishing off with two public performances.

The impact of actually seeing the contrast between the barren “Trow refugee camp”, the miserable hopeless characters who lived there, and the restored peatland, where the joy of their existence in harmony with nature was palpable in the tunes of the fiddle player, was extraordinary. The experience of seeing and hearing the sights and sounds all around with skylark, golden plover and curlew all providing background music and the backdrop of hills and ocean will be memorable. It was a powerful combination of science, local folklore and theatre arts.

The Drama on the Bog Team would love to bring the performance to your bog, tweaking it to local conditions and folklore. The Teachers’ Pack can also be made available to share. Please get in touch with me if you are interested: sue.white@shetlandamenity.org

We had a lot of help from several sources; Shetland Amenity Trust, Mackenzies Farm Shop and café for use of the “theatre” and allowing us to use their lovely premises as our base, Augean plc for geotextile materials, Shetland Islands Council Rova head Waste Reclamation Centre , COPE Shetland Scrapstore and HNP Engineering for the materials to create the Trow refugee camp and Open Door Drama for help with materials, costumes and props. The project was funded by SNH Peatland Action.