A Contemporary Fantasy based upon PhD research into Fairy Traditions and Folklore of the Scottish Borders – coming soon…
Janey McEttrick is a Scottish-American folksinger descended from a long line of female singers. She lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she plays in a jobbing rock band, The Jackalopes, and works part-time at a vintage record store. Thirty-something and spinning wheels, she seems doomed to smoke and drink herself into an early grave (since losing her daughter she’s been drowning her sorrows and more besides) until one day she receives a mysterious journal – apparently from a long-lost Scottish ancestor, the Reverend Robert Kirk, a 17th Century Presbyterian minister obsessed with fairy lore. Uncanny things start to happen… She and her loved ones are assailed by supernatural forces, until she is forced to act – to journey to Scotland to lie to rest the ghost of Robert Kirk. Until she accepts who she is, and the gift passed down to her by her ancestors, the gift of the knowing, Janey will never find peace.
‘Gripping, emotionally affecting, difficult to put down‘ Nimue Brown
Contemporary Fantasy; Scotland; Appalachia; Second Sight; Fairy Tradition; Supernatural Ballads
Kevan Manwaring is a writer who lives in Gloucestershire, on the edge of the Cotswolds. The Knowing is the culmination of his Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester. To write it he has undertaken extensive research into the folklore of the Scottish lowlands, Robert Kirk, Fairy traditions, ballads, the Scottish diaspora in Southern Appalachia, Cecil Sharp, borders and the Fantasy genre. He has spent many hours in research libraries (The British Library, as an Eccles Centre Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies; the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House; University of Edinburgh; National Library of Scotland; App. State library & others); he has done extensive fieldwork in the Scottish Lowlands and Highlands and in North Carolina; he has walked the West Highland Way and Hadrian’s Wall; he has co-created and performed a show, ‘The Bonnie Road: tales and ballads of the Borders’, with his partner, the folksinger Chantelle Smith; he has written a collection of poetry inspired by his field-trips, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015); and he has taught himself guitar and ballad-singing. Other books include The Windsmith Elegy (5 volume Fantasy series), The Bardic Handbook, The Way of Awen, Desiring Dragons, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (editor). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic.
A special preview copy of The Knowing will be released as an e-book on 20th March 2017. If you would like to order a copy or would like to review it, please contact the author: email@example.com
Recently a curious journal in an antiquated hand came into my possession…
It appears to be from Robert Kirk, a Scottish Presbyterian Minister who is best known for being the author of The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies, (1691). He is said to have stepped into a fairy-ring and disappeared. Folklore has coalesced around his parish ever since.
Offerings on the grave of Robert Kirk, Aberfoyle (K. Manwaring, 2014). When it was opened it was discovered the coffin was full of stones. In local belief Kirk had been taken by the Sluagh Sith, the People of Peace, punished for revealing their secrets, and is a prisoner there still. Only a living descendant can free him…
The journal bore Kirk’s distinctive initials…
Kirk’s hand is virtually illegible at times, but here is what I have managed to transcribe so far…(the spelling has been modernized).
MS RB.013. 91 TRANSCRIPT (EXTRACT)
I sit in the near-dark of my chamber, gazing at the black mirrors which surrounded my bureau. They seem to catch the available light, gradations of black-upon-black, like Dr Dee’s scrying glass. I might as well be a necromancer, for do I not dabble with fallen angels, with invisible spirits and occult powers? Within my own parish I would have been burnt as a witch, were such a thing still common. The terrible executions stopped half a century ago, but the crime of witchcraft is still a capital offense. I doubt most would look mercifully upon my research into the secret commonwealth. In my defence I would argue that the existence of the Subterraneans, and of esoteric communications between mortals, is proof of the celestial hierarchy and God’s glory. All my efforts have been to this one aim in this, in a secular and corrupt age.
My time being in this world but short, I took most pains in those languages and parts of learning which were deemed useful for that place of the world which God designed for me and man called me to, as my post. I applied myself to my studies as a young man in Edinburgh and St. Andrews; and as Clerk of the Presbytery I have laboured at the great work, to bring the Light of the Word to the Gaelic North – first in my metrical psalters and later in Bishop Bedel’s Bible, translated into the Hibernian tongue.
And it was the printing of the latter which took me to London — three thousand were to be printed and distributed amongst the parishes of the Tramontaines: surely a Godly endeavour in that English Sodom? And while I oversaw this great labour, marvelling at the infernal engines of the rolling presses, the workers black as devils in the colours of their trade, that I steeped myself in the spirit of the age, the Glorious Revolution. I attended churches of every hue and persuasion – Anglican to Roman Catholic to Quaker. In my pocket-book I recorded sermons and observations, my mind awhirl at the diverse exegeses. The capital is a veritable Babel of voices, of opinions, and arguments.
I feared that if I remained there much longer I would be as the figure from the Gypsy-teller’s cards, falling from the lightning-riven tower. After my day’s toil, I wandered those lychnobious streets, horrified at the depravity I beheld – a demi-monde of poverty and disease, harlotry and opium dens, thievery and murder. With every day a deep longing for the uncorrupted hills of my parish, for the untainted mountains and minds of the Highlands, ached in my breast.
In such a precipitous state it was perhaps inevitable I would stumble.
There the journal entry becomes almost indecipherable, but further study may enable me to decode more of this remarkable account. What we are to make of it I shall leave you, dear reader, to deliberate…
An extract from The Knowing by Kevan Manwaring 2017, advance e-book version available from 20 March. Watch this space…
Copyright © Kevan Manwaring 2017
Practice-based research in the creation of a novel
In the creation of my contemporary fantasy novel, The Knowing, the main focus of my Creative Writing PhD at the University of Leicester, I have undertaken extensive experiential research as part of the practice-based research of writing the novel itself. It has to be emphasised that the writing of the novel is the research, for it is as much a scrutinization of the creative process as a dramatisation of that process through the characters, setting and plot. The PhD began as an examination of the ‘Longing, Liminality and Transgression in the Folk Traditions of the Scottish Lowlands and Southern Appalachians’ (as my initial research question framed), at least when it became ‘conscious’ – in September 2014 when I began my part-time research degree – yet creative aquifers had been at work long before that.
I have long been interested in the folklore, tales and songs of the Scottish Borders, but things crystallized the day that Janey McEttrick, my main protagonist, walked into my head with her mane of red hair, steel-string guitar and second sight. She wanted her story told, and she wouldn’t let me go until I told it. She’s the kind of woman that you simply cannot turn down. And, besides, I fancied spending time in her company, having been hanging out with an Edwardian aviator and the lost of history for over a decade (in the writing of my 5-volume series, The Windsmith Elegy). I felt the need for a change of register, to write something set (mostly) in the present day, and from a different perspective – looking back at the Old World from the perspective of the New.
A Scottish-Native American folksinger, hanging out near Asheville, North Carolina, Janey’s story dramatizes the diasporic translocation I was interested in. Descended (on her mother’s side) from a long line of singer-seers, she epitomizes the cross-fertilisation that took place when waves of Scottish and Scots-Irish migrants upped sticks – through force or choice – and undertook the perilous crossing to the Americas, settling all the way from the taiga of Canada to the swamps of the South, but in particular, in the Appalachians where the mountainous terrain made them feel at home. They brought their songs and tales and folklore with them, in many instances preserving and customizing in fascinating ways. When I heard how Elizabethan ballads were discovered being sung by the early song collectors I was intrigued, and wondered what else might be preserved in these polders – what traces of the Old World could be found in the New? How had they adapted and mutated? And how the so-called Celtic Fringes had extended their borders into the West – to the point that the plaid of the clans became the classic checked shirt of the cowboy, and in a million other peculiar ways Celticity reinvents itself, a restless global meme: a way of seeing and a way of being that transcends genealogy.
I have found the most effective way to bring alive the world of my characters is to have analogous experiences. If I cannot go to the actual place where they lived, then I will go to somewhere equivalent and equally as evocative – for it is always in the telling detail, discovered beneath one’s feet, that the location comes alive. And often by walking in the footsteps of your characters – real or imaginary – you gain an insight into them. So I opt for a ‘method-writing’ form of approach, especially as I want to be able channel the voices of my characters (mainly Robert Kirk and 9 generations of McEttrick Women) as convincingly as possible. Note I didn’t say authentically – for authenticity in prose is as much a performance as anything. For genuine authenticity one would only be able to write about oneself, one’s limited world – resulting in mere solipsism – whileas a novelist, with sufficient empathy, research and skill, can and should write about lives for beyond his or her own. To undertake such a creative challenge requires requires an almost fanatical obsession with research. A PhD, in particular, requires nothing less. It is the ultimate anorak. And in the journey of the research one is engaged in a continual feedback loop – gauging one’s ideas against what one finds, discusses, is challenged by, and practices.
And so off I set on my quest, following my wandering star … Here is a summary of my practice-based research to date:
- In August 2014, hearing the call of the Borders, I decided to walk Hadrian’s Wall –an 84 mile long path from Newcastle to Carlisle, following the line of the Roman Empire’s northernmost border – with my partner, Chantelle Smith.
- From here we headed farther north, to the coast of Wester Ross – to a croft I have returned to again and again as a place of inspiration.
- Heading south I visited key sites associated with the Border Ballads, Thomas the Rhymer, Tam Lin and Tam o’Shanter, as well as climbing Schiehallion, the ‘fairy mountain’ in the Cairngorms.
- In 2015 I walked the West Highland Way solo, a 100 mile long distance footpath from the Lowlands to the Highlands, camping along the way, and climbing Ben Nevis (4000ft).
- From these trips emerged my collection of poetry, Lost Border (Chrysalis 2015), which I performed at the Cheltenham Poetry Festival 2016 with Chantelle.
- In 2015 I also became a Postgraduate Fellow in North American Studies, based at the Eccles Centre, the British Library. This year long fellowship enabled me to undertake research in that amazing research library.
- I also received a Postgraduate Fund which enabled me to spend time at the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library, Cecil Sharp House, Camden – as I delved into the archives, researching the field trips undertaken by Cecil Sharp and Maud Karpeles to Southern Appalachia, 1915-1918.
- This was augmented by a field trip to North Carolina in late summer 2015, made possible by the generosity and hospitality of my American friend, Debbi McInteer. I joined her and her family on a road trip from Jamestown RI, to Asheville, NC, visiting key locations associated both with Cecil and Maud, and my fictional characters. I got to experience the fabulous music and meet some descendants of tradition-bearer Jane Hicks Gentry and the Ward Family.
- While in the States I ran a workshop based upon the folkloric motifs of Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin (‘The Wheel of Transformation’); try out some wild-writing; and co-host the ‘Crossways Medicine Show’ – a social gathering and sharing of cultural songlines.
- Out my research into the Scottish Borders, I developed a ballad and tale show with my partner, called ‘The Bonnie Road’ which we performed in 2015 in various venues.
- I was granted the fantastic opportunity to spend a month at Hawthornden Castle International Writers Retreat in late 2015. Here, in the home of the poet William Drummond, I wrote the second draft of my novel (160,000 words).
- While at the castle I made several forays into Edinburgh to visit the fabulous archives at the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. In their Special Collections I was able to see first-hand the surviving manuscripts and notebooks of Robert Kirk, the 17th Century Presbyterian Minister, and author of the monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies (a key character in my novel).
- In 2016 I instigated, commissioned and edited Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold, to be published by The History Press, June 2017. This features 19 retellings of traditional ballads, pushing the envelope of genre and gender, setting and sexual politics.
- My practice-based research really began when I first started performing ‘Thomas the Rhymer’ in my early 20s, and visited the Eildon Hills, wild-camping upon them in the hope of inspiration or encounter!
- And my connection with Kirk began in earnest when i created and performed a monologue in character, with Fire Springs, for ‘Voices of the Past’, Bath Literature Festival 2002.
- Finally, I really felt I could not write a novel about a musician unless I had some first-hand experience to draw upon, and so my practice-based research has also involved learning the guitar and plunging into ballad-singing. I certainly have found the latter to be something I enjoy both in isolation (e.g. while walking the long-distance footpaths such as Offa’s Dyke) and amongst friends (starting ‘Sunday Song’ with Nimue Brown as a place to share in an informal way). And studying the former has certainly given me more of an insight and appreciation of songcraft.
- Other activities have included: presenting papers at conferences on aspects of my research; writing a blog (Bardic Academic: crossing the creative/critical divide); tweeting; undertaking commissions which allow me to explore the creative/critical voice in my writing (eg Marginalia; Houdinis of Bewilderland) and entering competitions, eg The Re-imagined Book, winner of the AHRC 10 Essay Prize.
And, until it is all complete, the journey continues…
ON WRITING RETREAT AT HAWTHORNDEN CASTLE
‘The Retreat for Writers at Hawthornden Castle was founded to provide a peaceful setting for creative writers to work without disturbance …’ So begins the official leaflet describing the international writers’ retreat situated in Midlothian, the Scottish Lowlands, in the former home of the poet William Drummond (1585-1649). The original castle dates from the Middle Ages, but Drummond made alterations (dismantling some fortifications as though in defiance of its former status as a Border Castle, and adding a new range), and others were added in the 18th Century – the dining room, drawing room and additional bedrooms. Built upon a crag riddled with ‘Pictish’ caves, it dominates a dramatic bend in the river gorge of the Esk, which tumbles jauntily below. With its turrets, courtyard, balcony and ruinous tower, it is the very picture of a Romantic retreat, a fortress of quietude and literary industry.
Since The Alchemist playwright Ben Johnson walked from London to Edinburgh in 1619 to visit Drummond, who recorded their Conversations, Hawthornden has been a place of colloquy and inspiration. From its fastness the esteemed Hawthornden Prize is administrated (founded by Alice Warrender in 1919 for works of imaginative literature in poetry or prose by writers under 41 years of age, its prize-winners reads like a who’s who of wordsmiths from the last hundred years) and its magnificent library hosts many signed first editions by both winners and retreatants – the latter are invited to stay for a period of one month to work upon a literary project of their choice in the company of (usually) 5 other writers. Each retreatant (selected by the admissions committee based upon published works, references and project) is allocated a snug room named after presiding geni literati (Yeats, Shelley, Pope, Johnson, Bronte, et al) and adorned with the names of previous guests whose project has gone on to be published … Alasdair Gray, Kathleen Jamie, Andrew Greig, etc, etc … the roll of honour is impressive and a little daunting.
After breakfast, retreatants are expected to spend the day writing. Lunch is brought up to the rooms in Fortnum and Mason hampers – delicious soup, sandwiches, fruit and the obligatory babybel, which became almost a bartering currency during my stay. There are no phones and no wifi. Any research needs to be done in advance or in the old-fashioned way – from books (the library has an extensive reference section among many enticing novels and poetry collections, art books, biographies, etc … one could easily spend hours if not days there and I half expected to stumble upon a skeleton of a former guest, bony digit forever pointing at a suitable epitaph). If not for dinner, when guests are expected to gather for a pre-prandial sherry in the luxuriant lounge, then make small-talk or exchange literary bon mots over beetroot soup or one of the Cordon Bleu chef’s famous fish pies or puddings, one could spend days without seeing another soul, or hearing another human voice. It is a profoundly peaceful place – with none of the white noise of the apparent world we anaesthetize ourselves to – traffic, roadworks, TV, CDs, youtube, ipods, phone-calls, neighbours, emergency services and parties. Hawthornden truly lives up to its motto: ut honesto otio quiesceret – to be at peace in decent ease.
From mid-November 2015 I spent a month as a guest writer at the Castle to work on a 2nd draft of my PhD project, My Big Fairy Novel as I fondly call it. I was there with 4 other published writers: two poets (Irish; English), a playwright (American) and a short story writer (German). We were supported in our writing by being fed, watered and undisturbed in our rooms. Apart from dinners, no socialising was expected.
Using the extensive feedback received from my supervisor, my partner, and an American friend I redrafted my novel dramatically. I began with a MS 146,396 words in length. After removing the last 100 pages (!), as Harry advised (never let it be said I can’t take feedback. I happily murder my darlings) the MS was 120,00 in length. By the end of my time at the castle, I had written an extra 40,000 words, and edited 160,000 words in total. To be so industrious was testimony to the powerfully conducive environment. To have such headspace and focused writing time was, in hindsight, a real privilege and rare luxury (as I know all too well, trying to write another novel in the midst of a busy academic term).
On top of this, I wrote 3 new poems (The Corvine Tree; Snow Falling in a Scottish Wood; The Apprentice Pillar) to add to my poetry collection, Lost Border, which I copy-edited while there. It was published by Chrysalis upon my return in time for Yuletide, a two week turnaround. It seemed I had brought some of that focus back.
I also undertook extensive research in the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh Library. There I examined the original 17th Century archives of Kirk’s work: the various known versions of his 1691 monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies; his notebooks and Book of Hours. To hold these works was thrilling – to examine Kirk’s actual handwriting, his thoughts, musings and marginalia, was like looking down the well of time.
I appreciated being able to escape the ‘writing monastery’ of Hawthornden once a week for a trip into Auld Reekie, a 30 minute bus ride away. There I availed myself of caffeine and wifi whisky and good company! I performed stories at the Gude Craic Club (in its old home of The Waverley) and at the Story Café in the Scottish Storytelling Centre (an excellent resource designed to make a sassenach bard like me green with envy); attended a talk on the seminal author, scholar and folklorist John Francis Campbell (best known for his 4 volume Popular Tales of the West Highlands), and met David Campbell, a Scottish storyteller/tradition-bearer, as well as contemporary practitioners with whom I felt at home. Being away from ones friends and loved ones for over a month (I had presented at Literary Leicester and the NAWE Conference in Durham before going onto to Hawthornden) was a challenge – even for a habitual hermit like me – one can feel lonely and isolated, even in or especially in constant company (sharing two meals a day with five strangers can be a strain, however nice they might be individually – and sometimes the last thing you want to do after a day’s writing, is talk shop), but with my fellow storytellers I felt an immediate warmth and affinity.
I delighted in visiting some of Edinburgh’s fine museums and galleries, cafes and bars, but ultimately the focus was always the novel and to it I would return like a dutiful husband to his spouse every day – my constant companion for a moon’s turning (and the rest – 3 years and counting). And the castle itself was the most evocative, ideal space for my project – which is partly set in a castle … in Scotland. It even had a dungeon, and caves within its grounds associated with William Wallace, Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie (although most caves in Scotland seem to be). Only a brisk four miles walk away is the breath-taking Rosslyn Chapel, which inspired Dan Brown whose bestselling book, The Da Vinci Code, has helped to substantially boost its revenue and preserve it for future generations. Even genre, then, has its place at the high table.
The power of words echo around this ancient, atmospheric landscape – in its ballads and odes, sermons and histories, romances and novels. In an Age of Stupid, such civilised eloquence is an oasis. Long may Hawthornden resist the prevailing tide of barbarity and be a sanctuary for literary excellence, for works which expand and deepen our knowledge of the human condition, cultivate compassion for our fellow dwellers upon this planet, inspire future generations, and for all who wish to gather beneath its Corvine Tree (the ‘company tree’ which once stood outside the castle, where the poet greeted the road-weary playwright after his long journey north). As Drummond himself put it:
‘The world is full of horrors, falsehoods, slights;
Wood’s silent shades have only true delights.’
Thank you to the admissions committee, to Hamish our host, Mary the cook, and, of course, to Drummond!
(Written while Writer-in-Residence, Hawthornden Castle, Nov-Dec 2015)
The news is given casually over dinner.
Not the bombing, but:
‘It is snowing.’ The first
Of the winter. I venture out.
A white and black world
A game of draughts.
The chill exchange of one mass
For another. Boots sink into
Two, three inches. The castle
Is illumined in fairy tale
Perfection. I hold my
Breath, not wanting to
Break the spell.
The forest beckons.
It is night, but the path
Is lit up by itself – silence
Is dislodged, a thousand
Muffled falls, as though
The undergrowth teams
With wildlife. It is the stuff
That panic is made of.
Risk perverse, I stray
beyond the pale.
The forest revels in its own beauty,
Every lineament delineated by
Kohl and crystal. A deadly
Glamour. This femme
Is fatal. An ice-bound cailleach.
The snow falls unconscionably,
White fists of rage,
A furious silence
Demanding to be shattered.
I slip and stumble
On the chancy footing,
Inches from the tumbling
Black Esk precipitously
Below. A splintering crack
Shatters the night –
Wooden lightning, a tree
Toppled by the weight of the
A cave mouth screams,
Empty eye sockets stare
As I pass. My impertinence
The picturesque provides
a pleasant distraction
As bombs begin to fall
In Syria. There, snow
is ash, buildings, homes,
Skin and bone, up in smoke.
Lives vaporized by a passing tornado.
Whitehall shadow falling
In negative, an optioned winter,
Radicalising the earth.
Featured in Lost Borders, Chrysalis, 2015
As I was up in Edinburgh doing research in the archives for a week I thought, what the hey, why not have a Highland fling? But instead of tossing the caber willy-nilly, so to speak, I decided my ‘fling’ would involve a 9-10 day solo writing retreat in a remote croft on the coast of Wester Ross. Boy, I know how to party! Actually, I can’t think of anything more pleasurable (solo). It would be my third visit to the croft – a private residence and long-time family shieling which I had the good fortune to gain access to through a chance encounter at a Resurgence Readers’ Summer Weekend, where I was performing five years ago. Belonging to a musician and eco-minded soul, the old fisherman’s cottage, nestled within its private cove at the end of ¾ miles of rocky track overlooking Gairloch Bay, radiates many a well-spent summer, family holiday and contentedly peaceful time simply looking out over the sea-loch. That view – from the conservatory – would be all mine for the next few days as I wrote at the desk there. Rush-hour at the croft would involve a family of sheep munching their way past (or, excitingly, a pine-marten hopping over the shore-line, a heron taking flight, a pod of porpoises breaking, a seal spyhopping, or a shy sea-otter ruckling the smooth membrane of the brine).
Every couple of days the local fisherman would come and check on his lobster pots – perhaps the only person I’d see from one day to the next, unless I trekked the seven or eight miles into town to check my emails and recharge my phone at the Gale Centre, a fabulous community initiative located in the old tourist information centre, or savouring the soul coffee, ‘mountain scones’ and ambience of the hip Mountain Coffee Company, with its John Muir quotes and well-stocked bookshop. The croft has no electricity – only gas, for the oven, and, mercifully, shower. So I couldn’t rely upon my netbook to stay the distance. The last thing I wanted was for it to cut out half-way through a chapter. So I wrote long-hand, which I got into after the initial sluggishness melted away. I would heat a hot-water bottle in the day to keep warm when the temperature dropped (it was at times ten degrees cooler than the south) and fire up the log-burner at night. Gas-light and candle-light made some evening reading possible, but not much writing, so I mainly worked in the mornings, making the most of the light and a fresh-head (well, not that fresh after a wee dram or two for a night-cap). But a pot of strong coffee soon enabled my brain to achieve lift-off.
For it was in this low-tech setting that I worked upon my new science fiction novel, which has suddenly found its way to the top of my ‘to do’ list after winning Literature Works’ One Giant Write SF novel competition, which I entered in the summer with three chapters and a synopsis, not suspecting I was actually going to win. I’ve entered so many such competitions, so I usually try and forget about them after I’ve sent off my entry. I literally discovered I’d won a couple of days before heading north, so rapidly had to prepare materials for my three-week trip, in case inspiration struck.
And it did! Well, I would say it didn’t exactly strike: I had to cosh it over the head and drag it back to the croft – press-ganging it into service on a daily basis whether it wanted to or not. Perhaps the Muse had other plans and was just about to gambol over the hill to shower her favours on some wandering poet. Instead I forced her into my chilly, hellish paradigm – subjecting her to long exposure to deep space and nightmarish scenarios. Poor gal! And yet she did oblige me, after some cajoling (i.e. Apollo levels of ‘rocket fuel’).
At first, sitting down at that desk, staring at that blank page, was, I have to admit daunting. There I was, ten-days in a croft, with nowhere to hide. It was like looking at a map of Antarctica. But, one step at a time, even the vastest continent can be crossed. And so I plodded on, pushing ink, dragging my sled of ideas. I find it can often take a day or two to get into the zone. At first it feels impossible to write – what an absurd notion! Who are you kidding? You’re not Hemingway, standing manfully at your Remington, hammering away, chomping a cigar, but a sleepy Slow Loris, gummy-eyed in your hammock of dreams. The page yawns. The impotent pen hangs there uselessly. One wades through the bog of ineloquence. But eventually, almost always, something happens, and you start to bog-trot, jog, run, and then, next thing you know, you’re flying.
I found my remote location, and the logistics it entails – long exhausting treks to the nearest town for provisions, lugging back groceries over the rocky track; lashing the cover to my bike in high winds; drying dripping clothes by the fire; going to the loo beneath profoundly dark skies slashed open by the bright wound of the Milky Way; the endless soundtrack of buffeting wind, rain rattling on the conservatory roof, big humanless silences – strangely apt and very conducive to my project.
There is something perhaps blindingly obvious about the massive, dramatic landscapes and seascapes of Scotland that makes you think big, outside of the box, beyond the human. Dwarfed by the mountains – in Gairloch’s case, the jagged peaks of the Torridons – the human presence on the face of the planet is put into perspective. We are less important than we realise. The fragile structures we create are shanty towns compared to the majesty and magnitude of the natural world. And yet humans are undeniably having a significant and long-lasting effect on the biosphere. The mess we have made of this, our one precious home, will outlive us for millennia. This is indeed the Age of the Anthropocene. The outlook does look bleak. Boltholes like the croft are certainly enticing when one thinks of things to come. Some have already gone off grid, or are skilling up for power down. It is enough to bring out the survivalist in all of us – but unless you have the skills, land and community to match, it is a delusional fantasy. And a misanthropic one. No man is an island. When one lives in such an isolated place one realizes how important human contact is, how vital a friendly neighbour. Paradoxically, the further away from people you live, the more you need them. To jumpstart your car if you have flat-batteries, to pick up some groceries if lacking mobility, some medicine if illness strikes, call a doctor, or simply to spend a few minutes chatting, asking how you’re fairing, maintain your connection with the human race.
In contemplating bleak outlooks for humanity, I realised I was following, in my own small way, in the giant footsteps of George Orwell, who, during 1946-1949, spent time on the isle of Jura, at Barnhill, whilst working on his dystopian classic, Nineteen Eighty Four. I can see why his location would have served him well. But I found myself seeing beyond the ‘boot stamping on a human face – forever’, as Orwell’s big brother imagined the future. Instead of a (predictable, default) dystopia, or a naïve utopia, I found myself envisioning something more balanced, or subjective, an ‘Ustopia’ perhaps, to use Margaret Atwood’s witty, hybrid term. One (wo)man’s utopia is another wo(man)’s dystopia, after all. And we carry our demons with us. A central idea of my novel is that: no matter how far in the universe we travel we will always have to confront our shadow.
The paradox of paradise is – if you find it, you destroy it. But I was determined not to leave this little Eden any the worse for my visit, which meant emptying the loo, replenishing the log-pile and packing out all my rubbish and recycling, as well as the usual cleaning, turning off of gas and water, ensuring all surfaces were free of mice-temptation, and any preservable food-stuffs sealed safely away. It reminded me of living on a narrow-boat. You had to take care of everything yourself – living lightly, leaving only diminishing ripples and good will in your wake.
I left the croft after nine nights and ten mornings with a third of my novel written (at least in ‘dirty first draft’ form). However squawling, red-faced and ugly my words at this stage, I had made a start. My last full day was blessed with golden sunshine and a glorious sunset. I girded my loins for the long ride south (over 600 miles on two wheels), but for one last evening, savoured the stillness, the silence and the solitude.