River of Words: Inspiring Students

Mary Bourne, Lead Artist for the replacement of Ellon Academy, Sheana Brown, leader of Cultural Learning at Ellon Academy and local poet Bernard Briggs discuss their experiences of working on the River of Words project.

Mary Bourne - The aim of the River of Words project was to gather varied text contributions from local people to create an artwork for the window of the new swimming pool at the replacement Ellon Academy due to open in 2015. The artworks at the new school use the River Ythan as a symbol for the community of Ellon: ever-present, but constantly changing. This work will constitute a river (applied in etch film to a long glass screen) made up entirely of phrases about the river and Ellon gathered from members of that community.

I was delighted to find such a rich vein of writing already going on in Ellon. The Academy’s English department pointed me in the direction of Bernie Briggs, a published local poet with whom they had already established a relationship, and he agreed to run workshops for the project. 

Bernard Briggs - As the person charged with the responsibility of gathering  phrases for the River of Words, I believed the

Bernard Briggs at Reminiscence
most important element to the workshops would be how to engage participants with the process and promoting ownership of their contributions for this important artwork; not only for the pupils at the Academy, but also for the wider community. I knew that, in my approach, language would be important and tried to use words like: ‘help’, ‘opportunity’ and ‘involvement’ to encourage them to participate. I also wanted to make the sessions fun and informal, but also productive, so it was important not to put undue pressure on the groups to be ‘poets’ or ‘writers’; allowing their natural thought processes to drive their imagination; resulting in what I hoped would be unselfconscious phrases.

Sheana Brown - The “River of Words” project has enabled the school cohort, who will be the first to populate the new Ellon Academy, to contribute to the design and fabric of their environs. This was seen by the pupils not only as a positive feature of the overall concept, but also as a motivating force for them to offer their best efforts.  

MB - Nicola Twine at the Ythan Centre introduced me to Ellon Editors (a group of adults with learning difficulties) that had already published a book of members’ writing and the Beyond the Block writing group, which is also very active and well established in Ellon. Both these groups, along with the Reminiscence group at the Library were keen to be involved. We also benefitted hugely from the support of Bill Kelly at the fantastic local bookshop, Better Read Books. 

Bernie Briggs at Better Read BooksSB – a group of pupils photographed important features of Ellon’s landscape with water and the river being central to their task. In addition, this group met with the Reminiscence Group to hear oral records of Ellon in the past. Over a period of two days over 350 pupils participated in this activity (of which 120 were funded by Live Literature) and provided their own “take” on the Ellon they know.

MB - It was a very pleasant surprise how easily this project came together, given how many different groups were involved. Huge thanks to all who took part and to the funders, LLF and Aberdeenshire Council. I am delighted with the results.

BB – Yes, I was very pleased with the feedback from the pariticpants and with the resulting material.

SB - The experience has been a positive one for the pupils, forming and reinforcing the cultural links to the past and to the pupils’ own local environment. The plan is to continue to give pupils opportunities to contribute phrases and to use the collected notes from the “Reminiscence Group” as the basis for a future creative writing activity. 

Mary Bourne, Bernard Briggs and Sheana Brown

Mary Bourne is the River of Words project manager and the lead artist for the new Ellon Academy.

Sheana Brown is an English teacher and the Leader of Cultural Learning at Ellon Academy.

Bernard Briggs is a poet, living and writing in Ellon. You can find out more about Bernard on our authors database.