Attending a writers’ retreat is rather akin to handing someone the key to a cell and asking them to throw it away. We do it because so little creative writing can be justiﬁed in a society like ours: what is the worth of a poem or a short story or a play? Most of us are busy trying to justify our existence as bank clerks, librarians or bus drivers; the words that whisper away in the depths of the subconscious have to be kept alive but kept down, until such time as there is the freedom to scribble them on the back of an envelope. So these words, the very things we may actually (often secretly) believe deﬁne us, are kept for the fag-ends of the days, the bits of time that are the least valued.
At a writers’ retreat all of that can be turned on its head; with a clear conscience the days can be dedicated to this thing that has had to be hidden away. Hawthornden Castle is one of the few retreats in the UK that awards places to writers on a competitive basis. Drue Heinz is the founder of the scheme; she established the retreat because of her love and fascination for writers, her desire to support the endeavours of up-and-coming authors, not only from this country but from all over the world. So Hawthorn-den, that once belonged to the Renaissance bard William Drummond, is continuing a tradition by welcoming poets and novelists and translators to come and seek silence and inspiration within its walls.
This Kafka-esque castle is perched atop an escarpment a good couple of hundred feet above the River Esk. If you were to crick your neck you might be able to see Rosslyn Chapel through the trees on the other side of the river. It’s a bit of country that feels crowded with history; there are bits of castles and ancient graveyards to left and to right, yet a more recent mining history has left its mark too. The housing estates of Bonnyrigg are just a ten minute bus ride away, so the silence that surrounds Hawthornden feels strange, slightly artiﬁcial. But the grounds are wild enough, full of roe deer and loud with jays. From the back door of the castle paths lead off in every direction.
The truth is that so much silence is daunting to begin with. Most writers have dutifully played this day job game; they have looked after children and parents, gardens and goldﬁsh – and all of a sudden they are told that for a whole month they can do precisely what they have been prevented from doing, what they have sought to hide away and even forget. A month of silence is a long time. It begins at half past nine on the ﬁrst morning of the retreat.
The writers’ rooms are on the upper ﬂoor, the third ﬂoor, of the main house. A bottleneck stairway leads to the corridor along which the rooms are set, and on the outer side of each door are embossed in gold leaf the names of the previous occupants who have written something in that room in Hawthornden that has gone on to be published. The rooms themselves are nothing special: simple single beds, a desk and table lamp, an empty bookcase. The ﬁrst thing you feel is the sheer weight of words that lingers here; you can hear the scratching of the pens there has been down the years and it’s both a boon and a bane, inspiring and daunting.
I’ve been twice to Hawthornden. My ﬁrst month was some dozen years ago and in those days all the open ﬁres were lit. Every morning after breakfast one of the staff thumped upstairs with a load of logs and we lit our ﬁres. I remember sitting gazing into the ﬂames, the ﬁrelight that John Lister-Kaye calls Neanderthal television, the pen poised. Health and safety has beaten a path even to the door of Hawthornden and the grates of the garret rooms are smokeless now. There are still one or two nights of roaring ﬁres in the dining room down below, but mostly we just missed them this time, and talked about their absence incessantly.
The drawing room has an electric ﬁre too now, strangely incongruous in a magniﬁ-cent room reputed to have been decorated by Laura Ashley herself. Great writers gaze down from their great portraits: Truman Capote, Aldous Huxley and Rudyard Kipling. It was in this room we gathered each evening at half past six. By then we were dizzy with words and yet paradoxically enough hadn’t uttered a single one since early that morning. I was constantly afraid of saying too much, of chattering nonsense because of the sheer joy of having company once more.
And this was the room we returned to after dinner. You would think that by then we’d certainly have had enough of words, yet it was precisely words we often chose to play with until ten or eleven o’clock each night in ﬁercely competitive games. Once or twice we padded into a smaller chamber that lay behind the drawing room, a library whose windows during daylight hours afforded truly breathtaking views over the edge of the castle rock and down to the River Esk below. It was like standing at the prow of a ship, particularly when the winds tugged at the great old place (as often they did that month). It was in here that some of the most wonderful treasures of Hawthornden were to be found, books signed to Mrs Heinz by all manner of 20th century literary giants.
At some writing retreats your presence has to be justiﬁed; at the end of your time you have an interview with the director and something of your work is looked at and evaluated. I appreciated the absence of such a meeting. And the truth is that while a writer may pour out in an application form very genuine ambitions to work on a particular project while in residence, the reality may be very different. It was a long 18 months since I had applied for my second stint in residence and I had long since forgotten what I had asked to be given time to write. That having been said, I ﬁrmly believe it’s vital to come with some sense of what one does hope to achieve. If not, that month of silence can simply scare one into endless displacement antics that risk resulting in little more than a waste of time.
For four weeks we hardly lifted a ﬁnger (unless it held a pen), yet we were famished each evening and ate supper greedily. We comforted ourselves that it was all this writing that was burning the calories. You might imagine that after long days of writing, the world of literature would be the last thing we’d want to discuss, and there were certainly evenings when we blethered about everything but books and felt the better for it. Yet there were other occasions when we talked Ossian and argued for or against the work of Macpherson, or else it was Ted Hughes and his legacy, how fairly he had been represented in his lifetime and after his passing. As writers we represented several countries and three continents: for a series of evenings we presented the work of classic or contemporary authors from our respective home countries. As the token Caledonian, I worked hard to wave a banner for Scottish literature past and present; one evening I chose to introduce the work of Edwin Muir.
We drank Drummond’s health while we were in residence; we were after all ﬁve poets enjoying the beneﬁts of his legacy. His birthday fell on 13 December and we decided it would be only right and proper to read some of his work around the (electric) ﬁre that evening. Measured and careful, it all felt very neatly constructed. What was of greater interest by far was the story of Ben Jonson’s visit in the winter of 1618-19. The account of the conversations the two men had (enjoyed would seem too strong a verb by far) is fascinating for its literary gossip and for the impression the guest made on his host, and vice versa. Johnson stayed a fortnight at Hawthornden and it seems more than likely William Drummond considered it two weeks too long, judging by the comments on the dramatist he made afterwards.
Once or twice it all got too much for us too and we ﬂed to Edinburgh to remember real life: cold and windy streets in the weeks before Christmas, pavements packed with shoppers, the thrumming of engines in the Royal Mile. It was like taking a shower, washing away the silence and breathing in lungfuls of city. I felt like a child again, drinking in sights and scents as though I’d never encountered them before, babbling to the others about the things they had to see. After that I could cope with going back. The city bus rumbled through the last lit streets of Bonnyrigg before we were dropped back in the pitch blackness of the world beyond the castle gates.
Strange to see your own castle etched against the midnight dark, to think that for a month of your life it is somehow yours – a kind of time-share.
Some people can’t cope with the castle. It isn’t the place’s fault. The simple truth is that not every writer puts up well with quiet; some prefer the buzz of a city café, the hum of mufﬂed conversation. They may come to Hawthornden expecting the Hemingway lifestyle, but there are neither lions in the grounds nor champagne in the evenings. It’s actually a lifestyle that takes a good deal of courage; a day-to-day doggedness I simply couldn’t hope to emulate back at my writing cabin in Perthshire.
Facing the blank page each morning and wrestling with words until darkness falls is something every bit as brave as the quintessential Hemingway existence: the courage it takes is entirely different, but it amounts to courage all the same. The retreat is valuable because it only happens now and then; it’s a deep pool into which you dive, that all but takes your breath away with its intensity. And you come out changed, amazed at what you found, that you never knew was in you.