Spilling the beans on Hawthornden

hawthornden_castle_2013I’m sure writers will be taking to the internet in their droves to pen their reminiscences of fellowships at Hawthornden Castle, in Midlothian, Scotland, on hearing of the death on Friday of Drue Heinz, heiress of the Heinz (57 Varieties) fortune and literary patron and philanthropist. I never met this mysterious chatelaine who was said to stay occasionally in her own wing of the castle, and who died aged 103 in Lasswade, in the environs of that castle. The retreat for writers was managed by poet and old Wykehamist Hamish Robinson, who would not be drawn out on any details about Heinz while I was staying there or why there were 57 varieties – he was an impeccably well-bred and discrete chamberlain and I hope the retreat (and his job) survives Heinz’s death. Had I known what I know now, I’d have taken much more advantage of my time there, haunting the library and reading its vast collection of Ecco Press (which Heinz co-founded) books and back runs of Antaeus (which she funded) and The Paris Review (which she published). During my stay, a large library was being built in a pavilion in the grounds. Even with the shelves only half full, it was enormously impressive and I can only imagine what it looks like completed.

I visited the castle in October 2011 (aged 25), before I had ever published a poetry collection (or anything for that matter other than poems in journals) and at the very start of my PhD in Scottish literature at the University of Glasgow. For such an absolute beginner, it was exciting to have been granted the opportunity to stay and eat for free for a month in a castle on the outskirts of Edinburgh. In fact it was one of those magnanimous gestures that have been rare in my writing life and which I more associate with individuals and friends, rather than funding bodies. I’m sure like many writers who go to Hawthornden, I was lying at the time to myself and to others by saying that I was going to work on something in particular, I was really just hungry to experience this unusual literary rite of passage. In common with other retreats I have been on, I found the pressure on myself to perform on the spot to be counter-productive and my month there, despite the bowery, craggy beauty of the wooded glade in which the castle nestled, was not conducive to writing poetry. I tinkered with some poems that eventually made it into my first pamphlet Spinning Plates (2012) but the main achievement of my time there was to write the introduction to my thesis, which would, after some contretemps, earn me my PhD in 2015.

The room I stayed in was ‘Boswell’, quite apt really considering I spent my time writing about other, much greater writers instead of writing anything original or imaginative myself. The names of various literary luminaries who had stayed there in the past were painted on the door. I recall the names Ian RankinCandia McWilliam, Jon Silkin and Sebastian Barker jumping out at me at the time, and being such a greenhorn, I did of course feel like a fraud being there. But quickly you get absorbed in the daily routines of the house – communal breakfast (porridge) in a twee tartan-lined, low-ceilinged room on the ground floor and then quiet, solitary study and writing in your room for the rest of the day. At midday, small wicker Fortnum and Mason hampers materialised outside your door and these contained sandwiches, soup, flask of tea and fruit (I think, memory a bit sketchy here). At six, or perhaps a little later in the evening, people would gather in the grand dining room, or its little ante-room for a sherry (yes, really!), and the evening meal would be the gustatory high point of the day. It certainly was a nice, cloistral (silence was a rule enforced during the day) bubble to be in for a month, although now and then I caught a waft of Auld Reekie blowing in through the window and absconded for the day, although this was rather frowned upon and I understand why. Why would you ask for seclusion and then be given it only to escape for the city?

The corral of writers who were held in the stables of the attic rooms at the time I was there were all poets: Anna Robinson and Sally Goldsmith were my neighbours and Will Stone and Meg Peacockewere just downstairs. All of the rooms were comfortable but Spartan, in a late Georgian way. Although there were sometimes differences of opinion over the dinner table or in the evening in the drawing room, gathered around the open fire, I got along well with all of my fellow in-mates. In the case of Will Stone, I made a close and key poetic, pro-European friend (who introduced me to Lapsang souchong tea and who let me play ineptly on his Martin acoustic while we talked Nick Drake) and in Meg Peacocke I found a poet whose work I admire extremely highly and whose advice I value to a similar degree. I’m proud to say that I remain in touch with them both. These two friendships alone made the month worthwhile.

Although castles are supposed to be hefty, defensive structures, I’ve always been attracted to the ones that work on a smaller, domestic scale – that’s why I think Lindsfarne Castle is the most beautiful castle on earth (I also love the tiny Chateau Muzot in Switzerland – the last home of Rilke). In effect I like castles that welcome rather than repel. Hawthornden has a similar charm, although it is hidden in the woods and built on a rocky scarp, and not on a huge coastal bing like Lindisfarne. You approach it on a meandering, leafy driveway and it reveals itself to you. Like a borehole sample who can see the whole history of the building from this angle – the original 15th century ruined tower and the more gentrified 17th century L-plan bastle house sprawling outward like a graft on a dying tree. The house was handsome and handsomely furnished with period fixtures and fittings. There were touches around the place that gave clues as to the literary connections of the house, such as a large bronze plaque in the garden by Leonard Baskin in celebration of Ted Hughes. Of course, the castle was the retreat of writers long before Drue Heinz bought it – it was the family home of the 16th/17th century aristocratic poet William Drummond who entertained the litterateurs of his day there.

In a previous post, on Tangier, I was talking about so often missing the boat and being left with some pale imitation of the more attractive past, but I can say that for a month my address was Hawthornden Castle and I think that’s something. Whether or not the Heinz estate will continue the fellowships is unknown and it would be regrettable if they didn’t, but at least I had my time there, even if I didn’t write anything of any worth, it was a validating experience and one for which I am very grateful. I have grave misgivings about Capitalism as an ideology in which so many people invest so much (for me Punic) faith but examples like the Heinz Endowments and, for that matter, the Carnegie Trust, show that obscene amounts of money accumulated by individuals in their lifetimes can be (posthumously) put to good, cultural ends which are also, of course, beginnings.

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