Interview With John Wilmott: A Man Of Many Parts … Born Storyteller… One With Nature … A Fascinating Life

1. Could you tell us a bit about yourself? e.g. Where you grew up, work experience, why you came to Ireland…

I was born in Ilkley, Yorkshire, and my family lived in a place called The Glen between Baildon and Ilkley. At that time The Glen was a pretty lowland of native woodland and a highland of moors that looked a lot like Carrowkeel does near here. I used to fly kites on the moors there. Now it is a built up area due to Bradford sprawl.

Cottage where we lived in Yorkshire

At 8 years old our family moved awhile to a family cottage home at Lochbuie, Isle Of Mull, Inner Hebrides. The reason was due to a lot of domestic disruption that I will not go into with this interview. But I was mainly on Mull until 11 years old. 

My father decided I needed secondary education in England. So we moved into another established family home in a village near Hertford, Hertfordshire and I went to Richard Hale school, an old fashioned grammar school in Hertford. I did well at O levels there, as it was at the time, but I did not want to stay on for A levels. I will explain a bit more why through later questions.

12 years old at Grammar school. Guess who is making a paper aeroplane with the British Museum programme?

From Hertford I moved to Somerset near a village of Shoscombe between Bath and Glastonbury. I had been asking theatres all over the country to take me on with my little playlettes that I had performed with friends through childhood and teen years. Bath Arts Workshop took me on via their Natural Theatre Company. They saw my idea as a possible good fundraiser tool. 

Also they wanted to bring Glastonbury folklore tales to Glastonbury. This was 1968,  and then Glastonbury was a very quiet conservative town with most shops boarded up. When Boyle was like that during recession years, after the tiger years, it reminded me of Glastonbury 1968.

The smallest lineup of Gladdicks Wood Band at Glastonbury

We took over the lease of a cafe that had some space for a performance area. From there we offered a combination of catering and folklore entertainment that really set me for life. There were challenges with local people doing this but as there are more questions to answer I will leave that for another time.  

I was in Glastonbury for almost 4 years. I also bought a lovely little cottage at 18 years old as I had saved up for deposit through a building society account through my teens. I had some successful little businesses through my teens that made this possible, so I saved my money. The cottage was only £2000 though, and I had £1000 saved up in my building society account, so getting a mortgae was easy. My parents did not know about those saving though otherwise they would have grabbed it. 

The problem with that Glastonbury time, for me, was low income. We really got what the Arts Council granted to us and no more. Myself and two other lads set up a sideline mowing lawns for the extra money. Our lawn clients gave us other tasks such as building rockery gardens and building small stone walls. 

I also was married very young then with my eldest son on the way and born. Financially it was a mess and stressful, so that sadly ended in divorce very quickly, and I lost the cottage.

With a new partner and also desire for new family we decided to have and raise a family on the Isle Of Mull. We had great ideas of setting up a community towards self sufficiency. These dreams accelerated when I got a year’s work with a BBC drama series, ‘The Survivors’, filmed mainly around the original Hampton Court in Herefordshire that was owned by Howard Hughes at the time, but he never ever stayed there before his death a few years later.  With that BBC drama series I got work doing landscape adjustments for scenes. A lot of this was making sure cables and other unsightly things were well hidden, plus building small walls and planting flowers and veggie plants where needed. 

One of my sons and how we lived first on Mull before getting cottage

My wife and I also became involved in a short project facilitating a bunch of rebel youths at a school of disruptive children that secondary schools had expelled. I put them through my little theatre antics that I did as a child and teen. Those youths actually won a drama competition with that project, and they were very proud. Also a coincidence is that that school later moved into Hampton Court for awhile a couple of years after I worked there.

So eventually it was back to Isle Of Mull full time from before second child was born. On Mull from October 1973, I think. We first had a cottage near Bunessan then onto a beautiful place, Tiroran. My first work was dry stone walling repairs as that’s how the fields were walled. That got me onto a fascinating stone building project in Fionnphort that was very well paid and we had to quarry our own red granite. Quite a few stories about that, but I must move on here. 

Children digging up front garden of cottage, but over the road we had orchard and big veggie garden

Myself and my working partner were then invited to do a few contracts and Iona Abbey and Nunnery that included a lot of work on the Relig Oran, Iona Abbey, and the alter and sheela na gig in the Nunnery. 

However, I sandwiched other work in with this stone work, as the income was huge for fit lads back then. I also did shellfishing and forestry tree planting as well as the Iona work.

 Also, I was being an astrologer too. Since being a child, this was passed down by family. I was signed up with an agency and worked various Psychic and Mystic Fairs and the grand 10 day Mind Body & Spirit Fairs in London. These were great earners too. It also landed me a syndicated column on Celtic mythology and folklore, bringing in some astrology too.I was published in varied places such as Harpers and Bazaar, Living magazine, Family Circle, Bride magazine and the Scottish Daily Record. So I dedicated a day a week to that for almost two years, but I will not go into why that folded up. 

At that time my family life folded up too, but it was not due to lack of time with them, I was good at managing time then and had most weekends off and we had money to go off on nice holidays. 

So after all that break up I had also studied to be a herbalist, plus I was running storytelling and mysticism retreats on the Isle Of Mull, 

I went to Aberdeen University as a mature student, 1987, I think, but based in a college annexe outside Thurso, Caithness. I lived outside Thurso for almost 4 years.

At that time my dream was to get back into theatre and I had gone through the interviews and auditions for a BA and MA in Theatre at Dartington College, Totnes, Devon. As I thought about it I thought I was getting too old to do that and should get a more secure ‘real’ job. I had been studying and qualified in herbalism over several years, amongst everything else too. So I dropped the Dartington acceptance and went for Food Science with intent of exploring developing my herbal knowledge with a nutrition approach as I did not want to be a practitioner.

I will skip the college years tales, which are many, including setting up a furniture renovation shop with a couple of others for extra money through college years, and I did storytelling stuff too then.

Eventually I was swooped up by a herbal products production company in Provo, Utah USA. I was doing a lot of work with stevia, that they were doing too, plus I was looking at immune boosting through increasing production of t-cells through nutrition, and they were researching that too. Now this is topical today.

We were fascinated by this work going on in pharma R&D labs since 1988, I think. I wondered how we could develop this with plant material. The intent was to try and find a different better way of fighting cancer cells than use chemotherapy. 

So lads and lasses, the Pfizer approach to Covid is not as new and experimental as you may read. We were onto it way back in 1990. Though Covid cells are quite different to cancer cells, but the t-cells still attack and destroy them, as they do with common cold cells. But we just never knew how reliable this was, but certainly not harmful, as far as we could tell. 

After a year there in R&D, the company moved to Las Angeles,California, but I did not like living there plus I was fed up with the production line manner of my research work. I wanted a new life. I wanted to get back to storytelling and theatre again. I decided to return to Scotland and try again, and also be close to my family again.

On the way to Scotland, I visited a friend outside Miami, Florida. She had a gift basket service and also drove a minibus for the blind. When I visited she was very busy making gift baskets for Madonna and Elton John and asked me if I could drive the blind people instead of her, that day. 

Well, the conversations with the blind leaders there landed me a job at their school in St. Augustine, Florida as I understood computer screen readers and voice synthesisers. For a year I taught blind people to become teachers of using these devices. While there I met a blind chef !!! She had audio devices for everything. 

Skipping on from this quickly, we eventually partnered, and I was also doing weekend storytelling and mini theatre workshops for the craic and extra money. We bought a house together in Ormond By The Sea, not far from Daytona Beach. From there we started up a cafe, then two cafes, then created a catering service that also included storytelling theatre on Celtic tales. Our timing was good because not long after along comes Riverdance, and everyone wanted to book a sort of Riverdance. This we could do with catering and stories too. We also employed blind and mentally disabled people too.

We got burnt out after a few years of doing that. But the people who did the music for us did not know how to distribute their music. 

So the next thing, now 1997, I learned about transferring music to the new MP3 format and how to put this online. I started teaching the Celticky musicians that had worked for us. This is how I first met singer harpist Claire Roche as I helped her to get her music online and downloaded.

My relationship with the blind partner also fell apart during this time as the went off with another man and they both sued me. I lost everything and got very ill and just had enough money to get back to Scotland. 

I just could not get started with anything back in Scotland, so I went to a Job Centre, and the first job that came out on the computer printer was a dishwasher at Glendalough, Ireland. 

On my way to Scotland from Florida, I actually changed planes at Dublin and took a couple of days with singer harpist Claire Roche and we went to Glendalough. I would love to tell tales of vision and coincidences that happened at that time, but I will move on instead. 

The part owner and manager at the Glendalough hotel could not make up his mind about me so I was bold and ended up on his doorstep and ordered a job! He said he would try me for a month and gave me a free board hotel room to stay in. Within 3 months I moved from dishwasher to restaurant waiter, restaurant manager, and then assistant manager of the hotel. That position also included bonuses for selling weddings. With that new big money I soon bought a car and computer gear, and explored Ireland learning more stories.

One thing I had missed out is that while raising family on isle Of Mull I also came to NW Ireland often with my bicycle as there was a hydrofoil boat service between Oban to Malin Head, Donegal, via Mull and Iona. So I would go to Donegal, ride my bike, and pick up stories from Donegal, Fermanagh, Leitrim, Sligo, and Mayo. 

Back at Glendalough, after a year or so of using days off to explore Irish ancient sites and stories I actually booked custom one or two people story tours in my car on my days off at the hotel

In less than 3 years I got the job of General Manager of Markree Castle in Co. Sligo  and got a lovely cottage to rent. I wanted to explore more of NW Ireland for more stories and visit ancient sites again. After a year of that I was fed up with selling weddings at the castle. I wanted to do tourism. At Masrkree I did make me a lot of money, so I bought a used minibus for cash, thanks to a good trade in price on my car. I left the Markree Castle hotel, and went into the tourism business properly.

As manager at Markree Castle

Claire and I also started to do storytelling and music tours around the USA each spring to lure people to what we were doing in Ireland and to come here to tour with me. Claire bought a ruined cottage by where I was renting in Keash and we had that restored, with it’s original thatch, and I started creating the Labyrinth Gardens.

Outdoor gigs in California
Carrowcrory Cottage when we bought it.

Life was very intensive then. During early October 2008, I think it was 6th October, I had to move out of my rental cottage so new tenants could move in, and I moved into our restored cottage that was only just liveable. That day I also had to rush to Knock Airport to catch a plane to London to catch a flight to Sydney Australia to join Claire on an Australia and New Zealand performance tour to attract people to what we were doing in Ireland too. 

I was back to Carrowcrory early November to receive 300 native tree plants to create the Tree Labyrinth that we have established today. By the following March we opened this Tree Labyrinth to the first visitor walkers, but we also had to rush off for a USA tour through much of March and April. That tour was 27 gigs in 22 states over 5 weeks, all driven to using a camper van. 

Aerial view of Tree Labyrinth when the 300 bare root plants were planted

Alas, after I was back at Carrowcrory early May, on 6th May 2009 I had a major stroke. 

I recovered from the stroke quite well within 3 months but had to give up my minibus and tourism business. Claire then continued using the thatched cottage Carrowcrory as a song, story and music venue for herself and I would care for and create the Labyrinth Gardens and show visitors around and tell stories too. I then started writing a lot too. 

Minibus when I was doing tours outside the Keash cottage I was renting

Claire lives in Dublin but would be at the cottage for the afternoon bookings. This slower more contemplated life I was living continued well from about August 2009 until December 2019, 10 years, amazing.

Cottage, photo 5 years ago and herb spiral labyrinth

We did two short and slower paced NW USA performance tours during this time though. Also for the craic I hosted Bards In The Woods from 2012 until 2018 to share nature walks, poetry, storytelling, and picnics in the woods on Sunday afternoons.

A few from Bards In The Woods -Lake isle of Innisfree
Bards In The Woods

December 2019 I had two strokes during that month that totally knocked me out. Then we could not open up Carrowcrory due to.Covid. But I got Covid myself in April 2020. Then the horrible debilitating Long Covid set in early June 2020 and is still with me. I can barely walk or stand for long now. It just hangs on and will not go away. 

During 2019 I had started up ‘Sunday Sessions’ at the Labyrinth Gardens on Sunday afternoons. People turned up for stories, labyrinth walks and picnics, but we could not continue that during 2020. So I learned how to do online streaming and put ‘Sunday Sessions’ online via Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. 

Triple spiral labyrinth, on the area some of the outer ring stones covered but a walking photo too.

That is what I still do today under the name of ‘Nature Folklore’ but the Labyrinth Gardens have overgrown a lot due to the chronic fatigue I have with Long Covid. I am unable to do much physically at present, so my upkeep of the Labyrinth Gardens is not very good. I am 70 years old now.

The Tree Labyrinth 3 years ago

2.  You are a great storyteller. How did you get into story-telling?

It all started when I was 4 years old really. My mother had died of heart failure at only 32 years old. I was with her, the only one, when she died. My father worked mainly overseas but somehow he managed to get married again very quickly after my mother’s death. 

My first stepmother was very assertive and at first very encouraging. She wanted me to be top of the class at school before I got to school so she intensely got me straight into reading and writing. The first book she got me to read was not Janet & John ABC, but the King James Bible !!!

This is wedding with my first stepmother, I was 4 here and about to be taught reading with the King James Bible

I remember enjoying the challenge of this and learned to read quickly. Being a wee tot I had no concept of religion but I loved the stories. The Resurrection story and the Last Supper really got my attention, and I think that set me for life.

I would love to tell you the full version of the next story, but will keep short. I was with my stepmother in Bradford, Yorkshire heading for the bus station and going through a park. A talent show was going oni the park and that fascinated me. My stepmother shouted at me to keep up or we will miss the bus, but I ignored her. 

Very soon I had what seemed like a tall man with a dark suit lift me up and put me on the stage and shoved a huge mic by my face. “And what are you going to do for us?”, he asked.

The only thing I could think of was the ‘Humpty Dumpty’ rhyme I had just learned at school. So I recited the first verse of that. Then thinking how silly it was, I then went right into my version of the Resurrection story using Humpty Dumpty as a reference in it. It went down well and I have never really had stage fright since that experience. 

Here I am 6 and about to head into my storytelling adventures. Its pity that my drama photos of this time are stolen.
8 years old and truly into storytelling mode at this time

Being forced into books by my stepmother, though I could read well when I got to school, I was bored and I started hating books. 

At our small country primary school, in the very small library was an Ordnance Survey map. When I opened that up it was a magic spell. I then sneaked out the map from school, until I could buy my own one, and sneaked off on my little bike to the sites such as the holy wells and stone circles, shown on the map, to get the stories from the farmers and others. Of course adults were very concerned about a wee boy on a bike by himself with out adults. Eventually an uncle went around with me. 

I picked up lots of stories and gathered my school friends to take on roles of characters in the stories and then play them out to see if I could understand more about the stories. I did this through my teens too. Through my teens I had a second stepmother then too, but I will skip those stories. Sadly both stepmothers were violent and abusive eventually.

During primary school years I also became addicted to anything charting, astrology, mapping, dowsing, ley lines, weather maps, navigation. But as home life was miserable and abusive I spent a lot of time escaping in the woods and by the river there. So I followed a lot of wildlife through the seasons. 

During my teen years I started writing to theatres to see if they were interested in my small folklore mythological plays. The rest of what happened from then on I answered after the first question. I wanted to run away to the theatre. 🙂

Things I would love to add but would take to long is how I learned Glastonbury stories, how we performed these through our Gladdicks Wood Band, the stories i learned from an Attie McKechnie on Iona, especially about Ogham, and Charlie Maghee from Burtonport, Donegal about the Sidhe etc.

3. You are very at one with nature. How would you describe your relationship with nature?

As I hinted at in the last question, as I was scared to be at home due to the violence and abuse, I was outside as much as I could, following the animals, trees and nature through the seasons. I had my little sanctuary den there, just as I have one of live willows today in the Tree Labyrinth here that I sometimes broadcast Nature Folklore from.

Tree Labryinth

This is why my storytelling today is focused on Nature Folklore of the seasons, their celebrations, and biodiversity rather than tell stories of the battles, war, murder, and heroes.

While living on the Isle of Mull I was constantly in the elements of land and sea, so connecting and being at one with nature cannot be avoided and is essential.

My children were raised on nature closeness through being involved with what we do. One son is still very involved with his biodiversity and woodland teaching career, and so are his children very connected to the nature around them and understanding it.

Eventually as a tour guide in Ireland my niche was on Nature Folklore as there were plenty of guides teaching the invasions, the battles, famine and treacherous stuff from Ireland’s past and it’s relics from that. I did not want to do that.

4. How would you describe your philosophy on life?

My wider family was not of a religion, and they were not atheists either. I would say they were very much into being Pantheons believing in spirit and vision from all things and not believing in the divisions of heaven and hell at all. I believe that was a huge beneficial grounding for me, despite my own domestic challenges.

Today, I firmly believe in the spirit of the sidhe in all things, especially in water, and the water in the trees. I believe water carries our memories and ancestries, and not ancestry in our bones.

Three things I feel are important for lifestyle, especially achieving an enlightened lifestyle.

  1. Cut out worry and be present. Over 99% of the things we worry about never seem to enter into our present. No worry means more vision.
  2. Believe and embrace synchronicity and coincidences. Maybe I say that from my astrology learning but astrology is only attempting to chart these.
  3. Keep focused on the local, what is around you, a lot more than national and international. What is around us, we can connect to with all senses. What is not around us we are not really connected to.

5.  What would you like your legacy to be?

I do not think of that at all, really. I do record and write and hope that will be passed on, but I am not obsessed with that. Largely I think I do not care about what of me is passed on. I think this links to my belief in life and memories are in water and water is free to move. I do not believe in the possession of our bones for legacy.

6. Have you got a favourite story to tell, and why?

Because I was forced onto a  stage at 5 years old, as I mentioned earlier, and the first inspiring story to me was the Resurrection Story of Christ, I love to look at and tell stories in folklore that also tell of that. I love the transformation of winter from Samhain to Imbolc and the grand conception story at midwinter that I think is told best through the Daghda mating with the Morrigan stories here.

I also love the stories of the evolution of the Ogham as a symbolic language and how a tree language may well have inspired this.

Lately I have been fascinated by the stories of the Croms, Crom Cruach and Crom Dubh, especially of their origins possibly being from the Balkans to the Baltic. But the story of Shen Nung, the original Chinese herbalist and inventor of the plough and farming tools, that I was told of by my USA herb company boss, is also so much like the Irish Crom stories. So, I am picking up on those Shen Nung stories again lately.

Claire and I performing at Bloom Festival Gardens
Rehearsing in the John Field Room National Concert Hall

7.  You seem to have a great sense of community… what is the importance of community to you?

I believe it is essential because, for one, I do not like any form of nationalism at all. 

I believe more in clans, cultures and tribes that are organic and forever changing like ebbs and flows of the seas. The allegiances between them and the networking of them I find fascinating 

I do not believe in how the government is run or how corporations are run today in their growing extreme centralized ways. 

I think every policy, lifestyle and culture starts from the local community but conversations about this are now difficult. Talk to local people about local things, especially care of what is around, and most conversations quickly leap into national and international matters, especially regarding war, murder, governments, influencer celebrities, and sports. It seems people have become incredibly disconnected from ‘local’ now 

I believe that everything that changes is from the community up. The government is never going to perform that miracle of caring from the top down.

8. What advice would you give to the younger generation?

Get involved in nature based education and activities and young as possible. Spend as much time as you can in woodlands, biodiversity, permaculture gardening, and especially how to care for and preserve these things

Believe in developing skills through doing apprenticeships much more than through University. If and when you are at university do an apprenticeship in something on the side to keep yourself hands on and connected.

Try to never discourage people. Look for anything that other people do that inspires you or at least looks skillful and beneficial, and always encourage that person that inspires. I had a school bully who used to beat me up but I recognized he also had humanity and wrote wonderful poems. We became very close friends and he became an incredibly helpful and popular social worker, especially with bullying and domestic abuse. 

Never get into the addiction of envy, jealousness, and blame but turn that around into praise. You will be amazed how such a change in attitude enriches our own lives in many ways.

9. How have you coped with lockdowns?

No problem at all, because I have had to also deal with recovery from strokes and then Long Covid, so I would not have been able to continue the storytelling events here at Carrowcrory, though Claire would have continued with her sessions at the cottage here.

I have loved the quiet here though. I never get lonely. I loved the opportunity to learn online streaming and that has helped me to set up Nature folklore online properly. 

I miss my abilities to keep up with the labyrinth gardens, though, due to my current affliction of chronic fatigue.

10.  Please name any of your books, websites etc and give links

I have been awful with books and I have several uncompleted ones.

I released my ‘Bathing In The Faes Breath’ that combines tree and woodland folklore with Ogham folklore and combined this with intense visions I had during my first stroke. There are many poems and stories in that book. A lot of it is fiction, of course. I think non-fiction is very temporary anyway. 

Other almost completed books are

Bathing With The Sidhe about water and life

Bathing Among The Aislings & Green Man about sanctuary, visions and how to use them especially through poetry, stories, and art.

Bathing Our Roots about connecting working with the soil in our gardens and woodlands, to our inner consciousness.

I must do a Nature Folklore guide book too.

Bathing in The Faes Breath has a web site

https://www.faesbreath.com/

Nature folklore on Sundays are archived with an announcement of the next one at

https://www.youtube.com/naturefolklore and click videos

Carrowcrory Cottage web site

https://www.carrowcrorycottage.com/

Nature Folklore web site

https://www.naturefolklore.com/

Claire Roche music web site

https://www.claireroche.com/

Herb spiral labyrinth aerial photo
When it had grown a bit.


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