I apologise for writing in a rather woolly way, but I’m keeping the initial details of this blog vague as they refer to something that is still at the planning stage. I was contacted the other day by someone looking to organise a fundraiser (one of a series of such events) to try and raise much needed capital to repair Brownsbank cottage, in Candymill on the outskirts of Biggar. After being unoccupied for nearly a decade, this supremely important building is now in a very shoogly state, made of many ‘eemis stanes’.
What’s Brownsbank? you might ask. Well, from an architectural point of view there is very little to recommend it. It is simply a 19th century, vernacular stone-built two-room cottage – known in Scotland as a ‘but-and-ben’. It would have originally been used by a farm labourer and indeed, until it was handed over to the Biggar Museum Trust in the early 1990s, it was in the possession of the local farming clan, the Tweedies. Over the years a porch has been added as well as a tiny bath room and miniscule kitchen, in the form of one lean-to extension added to the building in (I think) the early 1960s. The funds for this were raised by the Communist-leaning actor Alex McCrindle and the labour was done by a student Communist society, who also helped to install electricity and water to the cottage.
Why did, and does, the cottage need to be helped? The answer to this also answers the question of the importance of the building. It was home, from 1951, to the poets Hugh MacDiarmid (Christopher Murray Grieve) and Valda Trevlyn. The then patriarch of the Tweedie family, Thomas, agreed (after the intervention of MacDiarmid’s publisher, William MacLellan) that the MacDiarmids could live there rent-free for the rest of their lives and it was there that they managed to live an extremely ascetic and quiet life. By 1951, MacDiarmid’s health was largely undermined by a life of grinding poverty, of trying to live via his writing projects and poetry. Anyone wanting to gain an insight into the abject indigence MacDiarmid and Trevlyn lived in (and managed to raise their son Michael) during the 1930s and 1940s, needs to read Beth Junor’s Scarcely Ever Out of My Thoughts: The Letters of Valda Trevlyn Grieve to Christopher Murray Grieve or Laurence Graham and Brian Smith’s MacDiarmid in Shetland.
Also, by 1951, MacDiarmid was a largely spent-force as a poet, having written manically in the 1930s in an attempt to get his work out into the wider world and make the barest pittance in order to get by. However, he had nearly three more decades of life ahead of him and with the constant help of Valda, they managed to have a life worth living in Brownsbank, much of MacDiarmid’s time taken up with letter-writing and reading pot-boiler detective novels! After MacDiarmid’s death in 1978 from bowel cancer, Valda lived on at the cottage alone (although with a series of wheaten terriers) until her own death over a decade later in 1989. In the early 1990s there was a local movement to see the building preserved as a monument to their lives and achievements. It was decided that the best way of keeping the building alive and in good order was to have someone living in it year-round. Thus, the Trust landed upon the idea of having writers in residence. Throughout the 1990s the cottage hosted a gaggle of writers (for one to two years at a time) such as Linda Cracknell, James Robertson and Gerry Cambridge, who has written widely about his experiences there, saying that it was his first time in a house after more than twenty years living in a caravan. See: Cambridge’s The Dark Horse: The Making of a Little Magazine.
We now need to fast forward to the early 2010s for my part of the story. In (I think) early 2012 I saw an advert somewhere for month-long Brownsbank writing retreats. By this time I had already read MacDiarmid’s work fairly widely (I was even in the early stages of a PhD at Glasgow University on the Scottish Renaissance) and had already wanted to make the pilgrimage to the house, even just to peer in through the window. The Trust had decided that since Brownsbank had sat idle for a number of years, it was beginning to fall victim to damp and who knows what else, and it was time to have the cottage occupied again. A grant allowed writers to visit the cottage for a month with a (to me, then and now) extremely generous living stipend to get by (I ended up spending a lot of mine on getting coal sent up to the cottage). I applied via the then very affable custodian and caretaker of the cottage, Andrew McCallum and was amazed when my application was successful. More or less everything in my life I have applied for to do with creative writing (poetry) has seen me rejected, but not the Brownsbank writing retreat.
I have a feeling it was autumn by the time I got into the cottage (which is why I needed a lot of coal). I replaced Catherine Sadler and my successor after my month was up was the poet Andrew Sclater. The conditions of the retreat were pretty simple – you were free to use the cottage and stay there and write whatever you fancied but at some point you had to branch out into the local community and do some sort of outreach work – be this a workshop, a session in a school or something else to do with writing outside the cottage. I recall that Catherine organised a wonderful afternoon of poetry readings in the back garden of Brownsbank (the last hurrah of the summer that year, I seem to recall). Lacking the confidence (knowledge, track record, experience etc) back then to do a writing workshop I also plumped for an afternoon of readings (I’ll come back to this).
I do remember the frisson of excitement and fear when I first moved into Brownsbank. Catherine had left me a really nice note and (I think) some sort of house-warming gift. I soon discovered that the cottage is effectively two bedrooms, plus the tiny lean-to I mentioned earlier. If you go straight through the front door, ahead of you is a small storage cupboard, to your right is Valda’s room, still adorned with all her knick-knackery, pictures, furnishings and books. Back in 2012, this room was already very damp and fusty – as I admired Valda’ D. H. Lawrence collection, I noticed that the books there were already spotted with mould, but they also had such touching inscriptions from ‘Chris’ (Hugh MacDiarmid). The reason, I think, for this room’s poor condition was that the original open-fire had been blocked up and replaced by a rickety old gas fire that I never even dared to use while I was there. Although I never met Valda (I was probably only 2 going on 3 when she died) I had a strong impression of her character, her bright-red henna-ed hair. And her room had oodles of personality to match, you might even say a presence to it (if you believe in the paranormal). I’d heard many ghost stories about Valda’s room, but I never experienced anything untoward other than occasional things falling off shelves. Gerry Cambridge, when I told him this, quipped that Valda’s ghost was probably going easy on me because I was a nice young man…
However, if Brownsbank hosts Valda’s ghost then I did my best not to upset it. There was an oil painting of Valda (I’m guessing from the 1930s, because it was heavily stylised and rather Art-Deco looking) which was propped up against the bookshelf, its back facing outwards, with a large gash in the canvas. I knew, having read a story by Linda Cracknell, that Cracknell had found this painting in the shed and thought it a great shame that such a nice artwork was relegated there, and she brought it in and hung it on the wall in Valda’s room. Within a few minutes Cracknell dashed back to the room to find the painting had flung itself across the room and managed to impale itself on something sharp. I’m guessing that Valda put the painting out in the shed because she hated it? I know that she once put a curse on the painter R H Westwater because she hated his painting of her husband so much. He was dead within a week.
I would like to know if anyone who ever stayed at Brownsbank ever slept in Valda’s room. I certainly didn’t – even when I had my mother over for a visit for a few days. On the first night, I woke after about an hour or so to see that the lights were still blazing in Valda’s room. I went in there to find my mother in the bed, rigid with fear, her eyes glaring. My mother is far more receptive to these things and I should have known. I let her have MacDiarmid’s camp bed and I slept on the floor (even then I couldn’t bring myself to sleep in Valda’s room…).
This is strange because MacDiarmid liked to speak of his own bedroom cum study as a ‘growing shrine to my vanity’. It is true that even in 2012 when I was there, the walls were festooned with his likeness in photographic and artistic forms, but somehow the room lacked the clear personality and presence of Valda’s – it felt more welcoming, or at least neutral. It was very brown, walled with books and the mantelpiece hosted a little collection of MacDiarmidian artefacts, such as his pipes (about thirty of them, all chewed with deep cogitation!). I was surprised at how much it looked like Margaret Tait’s 1964 filmic portrait of MacDiarmid. There was the red Parker-Knoll high-backed armchair by the fire, and behind it the pigeon-holes all stuffed with papers and ephemera. There were the empty bottles of whiskey (Glenfiddich) and ink (Quink), there was an old local farm-supplier’s promotional calendar from (I think) the year of MacDiarmid’s death. It was a cosy and ambient room, if and only if, you had the open-fire full of glowing coals. The fire place was the soul of the cottage and I tried to keep it going constantly while I was there (which was a full time job because I was always out in the little copse of trees beside the house looking for windfall branches and twigs to get the fire started in the morning).
For all of the cottage’s rudimentariness, there was something very luxurious about sitting in MacDiarmid’s chair, by the fire, with a good book and perhaps a dram, that it is possible to live in the mind very well with only the barest concessions to comfort, or that we as people don’t really need that much to be happy. I am not a fastidious person when it comes to these things, so I adapted to Brownsbank (materially speaking) quite easily. I don’t recall much bother from mice, although I clearly shared the place with them. The water, from a nearby burn, was sometimes a bit rusty and turbid, so I did cop-out there and buy in big bottles of water to drink. I think I liked Brownsbank so much because I am drawn to domestic modesty. At Brownsbank, this clearly contrasted quite touchingly with MacDiarmid’s own egocentric view of himself as a great artist. When I think of my favourite castle in the UK, I often say Lindisfarne, because it was re-designed by Lutyens as a home for a family, and is on a much more domestic scale that most of the ostentatious castles and mansions we have. I find nothing more boring than a house that tries too hard to impress me with power and status and I can’t stand TV shows where people visit stately homes and instantly begin tugging the forelock by saying how amazed they are by them, usually to the owners themselves. So that’s one of the reasons why I love Brownsbank – it’s a marvel and a triumph against the odds and it needs to be saved for the nation.
I recall writing a fair bit while I was at Brownsbank, some poetry and some research on my thesis at the time. I don’t think I wrote any poetry that survived at all – it was all pretty stillborn, but that was more because I was just enjoying living in the place. It was certainly very lonely at times and I did have a run-in with a local that knocked my confidence a bit. I was coming up the track to Brownsbank off the bus and opened the gate when a little ankle-biter dog jumped out at me and began barking. Not being a fan of dogs, particularly aggressive dogs, I told it rather loudly to ‘F*ck off!’ but its owner heard me and came hobbling down the track, and a scene ensued. Even now I feel aggrieved by it because I still feel I was right – it was on the property where I was staying and not on a lead (as it should have been) but there is no reasoning with the dog-owning majority.
My stay at the cottage culminated with my special community event – a free poetry reading. In my over-enthusiasm, I invited a number of poets because I felt that some of them would inevitably drop out or say no. I even summoned the courage to ask some eminent names such as Douglas Dunn, Vicki Feaver, Helena Nelson and John Glenday. I couldn’t offer them anything by way of payment or even meet their transport costs, but for some reason they all agreed. What ensued was a marathon poetry reading in the Corn Exchange in Biggar – it must have lasted two hours (maybe even more!). It was well advertised and drew a pretty good crowd – I recall one couple coming in and then leaving rather loudly (I think in frustration) as I got up to introduce yet another poet. But this poet was my headliner – Douglas Dunn – and this couple were nearly at the door to leave when I said ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome to the stage Douglas Dunn’ – and they did an abrupt U-turn and sat back down…
I had been so carried away with putting on this event that I completely forgot to plan for what might happen afterwards. Luckily, Helena Nelson had thought of this and phoned the restaurant across the street to book a large table for us all, I was very grateful she had done so. Just yet another example of Nell’s quiet, understated care and kindness for others in the poetry community. The reading – which I called (rather uninspired-ly) ‘the Clanjamfray’ – was I think a success and left me with very fond memories of Brownsbank, even if I never wrote anything worth a penny while I was there.
I hope that if a fundraising campaign can be got off the ground for Brownsbank that people see its tremendous cultural importance and contribute generously.