Hmm…who would like the opportunity to write for a month in a Scottish castle?
So when I heard that Margaret Skea – fabulous historical fiction writer – had secured a residency at Hawthornden Castle, I was overcome with jealousy.
I caught up with Margaret after her experience and she shares a glimpse into the writing fellowship program at Hawthornden Castle as well as the imposed periods of silence, broken boilers in February and eating porridge from a pewter bowl.
What was the programme?
I was privileged to be awarded an Hawthornden International Writers’ Fellowship for February / March 2016. This is a month of free accommodation with all meals, in Hawthornden Castle in the South of Scotland, providing dedicated writing time.
How did you find out about it?
Some years ago I came across it while browsing on the internet, and it looked absolutely fabulous, but there are strict eligibility criteria, so at that stage couldn’t apply. Once my first book (Turn of the Tide) was published by Capercailllie however I became eligible. (It is reserved to writers who have had at least one full-length fiction or non-fiction book, collection of poetry or short stories, or full-length play published by a mainstream publisher.) The application process is all by snail-mail, including an application form and references submitted by two referees, who are asked to comment both on the quality of a prospective fellow’s work and also their suitability to live in a small group setting for a month. I applied in May 2015 for a 2016 Fellowship and then the long wait began…
How was the experience?
The castle is not remote, but so well concealed that most of the locals don’t know of its existence. I arrived on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, as the light was beginning to fail. It felt surreal to have automatic gates opening in response to the code I’d been sent, allowing me access onto a long drive curving downwards through woodland carpeted with snowdrops, to an imposing red sandstone building perched on a triangle of rock above a gorge.
The main entrance leads to a grassed courtyard, bounded on two sides by the remains of an ancient keep and on the third by a low parapet, providing the only protection from the sheer drop of 100 feet or more to the river below. The Drummond coat of arms is carved above the castle doorway and a welcoming fire burns in the stone-flagged hallway.
The writers’ rooms are on the second and garret floors, the latter reached via a steep spiral staircase, so narrow that several Fellows had to open their cases in the hall and ferry up their belongings. Each room is different, varying from tiny to very large, but all are comfortable, and have everything we need. I quickly felt at home in mine.
The first meal was formal, in the castle dining room, with linen napkins and elaborate place settings, including huge pewter water goblets. It was also the opportunity to meet the other five writers with whom I’d spend the next four weeks. We all had very different backgrounds, coming variously from Denmark, America, Ulster and England, which made for lively and interesting discussion.
Breakfasts and dinners (other than Sundays) were served in the ‘hearth room’ at an elm table scarred by centuries of use. Pewter is a feature of the castle, from the enormous fire-irons in the ingle-nook fireplace, to table-ware – it was a novel experience to eat porridge from a pewter bowl. Lunch was delivered to our rooms in Fortnum and Mason wicker baskets, and our after–dinner conversations in the drawing room were presided over by near life-size portraits of Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau and Truman Capote.
The food was wonderful, the staff very helpful, and there was a sense that work could and must be done, no doubt helped by the lack of internet and mobile phone reception and the rule of silence between 9.30 am and 6.30 pm each day.
Aside from the individual rooms there were plenty of other work spaces including five library areas and (my personal favourite) two huge greenhouses.
Work was done, each of us finding our own rhythm, but all I think achieving our self-imposed targets; in between forays into the surrounding woods and along the river: ‘thinking’ time in which to process ideas, returning re-invigorated. I came hoping to start the third novel in my 16th century Scottish trilogy, but with no idea of a plot. I left with a storyboard covered in post-it notes and 23,500+ words of the first draft.
It’s impossible to adequately describe the experience, suffice to say it was one of the most productive months of my writing life.
Was it like you expected?
It was hard to know exactly what to expect. I was quite confident that a 9-hour rule of silence would suit me, and I was looking forward to having all the household chores done for me – the cooking, cleaning, washing of clothes etc, but living for a month with folk I’d not met before was more of an unknown quantity.
I’m a bit of a board-game fiend and I did hope that maybe some of the others would be too, so had come prepared with a couple of games to while away the evenings. Four of us did play a couple of times, but it didn’t become a feature, at least in part because at the end of the first week the boiler broke down and we had two weeks without central heating, which in a 17th century castle was atmospherically chilly. Although we were given small heaters for our rooms it wasn’t possible to heat the communal areas so our evenings in the lounge came to a temporary halt. None of us wanted to be sent home though, so we determined not to complain, donning extra layers, hugging our hot water bottles, and thinking of imaginative ways to minimize the discomfort.
I turned my room into a ‘cave’ covering over the windows with double layers of heavy card, the lack of natural light far out-weighed by the lack of draughts. And on days when the sun shone, I worked in the greenhouse by the main library – which even in February was much warmer than anywhere else in the castle.
One totally unexpected bonus was the insight we gained into the gaps in understanding caused by differences between US and UK English and by differing physical environments. I was astonished to realise (for example) that many American readers (and likely other nationalities also) wouldn’t have any mental picture of ‘moorland’ to draw on, and as my characters spend a lot of time trekking about on Scottish moors I might have to re-think the amount of description required to meet their needs.
On the last evening someone asked what we each might change when we went home? Imposing a 9-hour rule of silence in my house would be impossible (sadly), but I do hope to maintain a daytime embargo on internet use.
Thanks for sharing, Margaret. Where can people find out more about you and your books?
There’s a lot of information about me on my website and I’d love folk to visit / browse / comment. I don’t post very frequently, but I’m hoping to do more in the future and would love more followers and feedback. I’m also on Facebook.
My two novels, Turn of the Tide and A House Divided, both set primarily in 16th century Scotland and centred on an historic clan feud, are available to order from any UK bookshop, and in both paperback and Kindle versions internationally via Amazon.
Turn of the Tide: Winner of the Beryl Bainbridge Best First Time Author Award .
A House Divided – Long-listed for the Historical Novel Society New Novel Award 2015.
I also have two x two sets of short stories (30 minute reads) on Kindle as ‘tasters’ of a wider range of my writing.