“A life built around making the spaces to write”
That was the description of writer Christian McEwen in a recent Scottish Poetry Library podcast. Christian was talking about the difficulty of - and the necessity for – finding the space for creativity. I recommend listening to this wonderfully inspiring interview.
Creativity requires both physical space and emotional space. Christian spoke about her desire from a very early age for a private space of her own. At the age of seven she took over a disused garden shed, lugged in her bookshelves and made it a place to write her first stories. She talked about the need to protect the delicate growth of a new idea, to free the imagination from the mental influences of family and friends, to pay attention to hearing, touch and scent, not just the ubiquitous images and sounds which assault our eyes and ears in the contemporary world. It was inevitable that Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space would get a mention - that quirky and wonderful book about how intimate spaces are essential to the imagination.
As I write in my summer house I think of the words hafod and shieling, the Welsh and Scottish (via Norse) names for a summer house. On maps they are marked high up in the mountains or near remote coast lines. When I find them they are often in reality only humps in the ground, overgrown turves, a few stones. These were working summer houses - places where people went in the summer, taking their cattle and sheep with them, away from the fields of crops. There would be grazing for the livestock, a stream or pool for water. The long mild days, light until almost midnight, would be a time for cheese-making, peat cutting and perhaps a little romance, away from the restrictions of township life. I wonder if it is a faint collective memory of this transhumance way of life which makes some people long to get away to the mountains and the sea in summer.
David and Claudine Mackenzie, who farmed on the Isle of Mull at Ballygown (the same house where I have stayed several times), described reconstructing a shieling in the hills above the farm. It was a place to stay for a summer break when they couldn’t afford a holiday. It combined work and leisure – they lined chick boxes with sphagnum moss, did some botanical research and drank a little whisky. I think they also did some writing as David describes the experience in Farmer in the Western Isles - “The gentle and constant movement of life on the summer mountain tops only reveals itself to those who sleep and wake there”.
By contrast my summer house is only a few yards’ walk from the back door. I use it from early March to late October. It’s my “Think box”, designed by my architect son when he was still a student and built by him and his brother from rough-cut wood from the local saw mill and recycled planks. The wooden floor extends out to raised decking overlooking a miniature valley where a small stream trickles down on its watery way to the Solway. The decking faces west and double doors open right out on this side so that the afternoon and evening sunlight shines in, filtering through the leaves of a chestnut tree.
This is where I come to write, read, and eat solitary meals when no one else is around (or watching yet more sport). Sometimes the old black and white cat comes in for a while. Inside is a wooden table and a café chair. There are pebbles for paperweights, some pottery bowls made by the children at school and a line of horseshoes cast by the Clydesdales and fell ponies when they worked on the farms round here.
It is not silent – always there are birds – a pigeon cooroocoos, a blackbird starts up in alarm (the cat’s about again), a buzzard mews high up over the wooded ghyll. Most days there is the drone of tractors and farm machinery and in fine weather the voices of people out walking or cycling along the lane.
But there is no one else in my summer house. I only bring the task in hand – writing to work on, research to do, a book to read. There are no distractions and no to-do lists, no unanswered letters that eye me accusingly. There is no radio, no phone. I forget my watch. I work on into the midsummer evening, citronella candles flickering to drive away the midges, a hurricane lamp to prolong the light.
Go to www.scottishpoetrylibrary.org.uk and follow the links to Connect and Podcast for the Christian McEwen interview. Jennifer Williams, an excellent interviewer, asks the questions.