What makes a story?

An oak tree © John MacPherson


I public speak quite a bit, and tell stories, and I’ve been asked several times by people “What makes a story?”

And I say, “It’s simple really, observation and curiosity. Often its about very ordinary things, but in unusual places.”

Something as simple as a tree for instance. Like the oak tree behind my house, which I’ve pondered over for years, as we both grow older. An ordinary tree, but in an extraordinary place, right in the middle of the access to a bridge.

This fine oak tree sits beside a railway line, which was completed in 1863. And the line has a stone bridge over it, just one of many similar pieces of splendid granite architecture. I presume all the bridges would have been constructed around the same time as the railway. That would make sense. So thats about 150 years ago.

What about oak trees then? They’re big things, especially old ones, and you can estimate their age by their girth. Around seven feet is about 80 years old. Ten feet would equate to 140 years or so. Twelve feet might be 180 years old.

And so, when I first encountered this scene I was puzzled. This tree is big. Quite a good few decades of big held within its bark. In excess of 100 years I’d say.

And so each time I pass on my mountainbike the curiosity worm in my head wiggles and questions start to surface……

Did the oak tree grow there by chance?

It is perfectly centred on the bridge, how much of a coincidence is that? (It is almost as if it was planted there – why would anyone do that?)

Was it deliberately planted after the bridge was built? (If so, why? And why did boots crossing the bridge not crush it?)

Did it grow there naturally? (Why was it not removed as an impediment to using the bridge?)

Was the tree there first? (If so why build the bridge there, and how do you build a bridge and not crush an oak sapling?)

How many people chose not to cut this tree down? (It would have been small for many years, and easy to pull out surely?)

Or is it simply that the bridge was intended for pedestrian use only and the tree provided a perfect natural barrier to vehicles?

I’ve asked many people about this. Nobody knows. I’ve read several books and searched online, but no answers. Maybe one day I will find out a little more about it, and write a little story.

Until then I’ll retain my sense of curiosity, and wonder.


John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 27 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

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