I recently spent a month living in a castle in Scotland. People ask me how I managed such a thing. It all started at Mineral School Artists Residency. I enjoyed myself so much in that beautiful little school by the mountain lake that I started thinking about when I could have the residency experience again. Jane Hodges, the administrator of Mineral School was a delightful and attentive host who read our tarot cards and bubbled with stories and information.
I told her how much I wanted to come back some day, and she said that residents can apply every two years, but that I should also try for other residencies. She then told me a treasure of a secret: There is a residency in Scotland, and if you’re selected, you get to stay for a whole month in a castle near Edinburgh. I was given the name of the magical place: Hawthornden. I applied, and to my joy and amazement, was invited to attend. All I had to do was get myself to Scotland.
The castle was once home to the Scottish poet William Drummond. The oldest part of the structure includes a dungeon and an entrance into an ancient cave. The castle and caves are protected as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. The castle was purchased in the 1980s by arts patron, Drue Heinz. She fully restored it and set up funding for the residency to provide a peaceful retreat for writers.
My time there feels like it might have been a wonderful dream. Especially when I talk to friends and family and I watch their faces, realizing how absurdly fantastical it sounds when I say, “There was a chef and she made opulent desserts every night. In the morning when I went down for breakfast there was food and coffee set out, and I would fill out a card saying what I wanted for lunch, and at 12:30 a lunch basket appeared at my door!… Laundry? No. There were lovely people who took care of that as well.”
There are many praises to be sung about the castle, and the wonderful people who run the residency, but one of the things that made my stay so special was the time with my fellow residents. The castle is silent between the hours of 9:30 am and 6:30 pm, but evening hours offer time to enjoy good food, games, and engaging conversation. There were two other Americans and three Brits in my cohort, and we got along like haggis, neeps, and tatties.
The Brits taught me new and creative profanities, and one of the Americans taught me a useful phrase about procrastination: “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute.” He was a wellspring of wit and wisdom. I read his book while in residence, and it was a wonderful experience to find myself enjoying well crafted prose, immersed in the fictional world of an author’s story while the author was right there at the dinner table every evening.
There was a vegan poet with us. She lives according to a set of beautiful ideals, which I found myself regularly inspired by. During our orientation I noticed a pin on her backpack that said, “Decolonize and Moisturize,” and I thought, this person is cool AF. My first impression proved true. She has the most elegant and enviable voice, and being a poet, she also has a captivating way with words. She once ended a statement with, “For those of you who eat evil food…” The way she said it made me completely enamored with my identity as an eater of evil food.
The youngest of our group was an American from the west coast; a brilliant Fulbright Scholar who spent his time writing in Greek and making us all feel admiration for his focus and dedication. He radiated kindness and intelligence, and I think we were better people while he was among us. But he habitually went to bed early, so we reverted to our lesser selves, playing games of raunchy themed bananagrams, featuring words normally reserved to describe celebrity crushes or villainous politicians.
There was a novelist with us who was particularly skilled in the art of the bananagram. She possessed an expansive vocabulary, and pure gold in the form of amusing and expertly told stories. One night, we had Brussels sprouts with dinner and she shared an anecdote that I laugh about whenever I think of it. She’d once seen an interpretive dance performance in which a woman made simulated love to a cabbage and birthed a Brussels sprout from her mouth. There was also a good humored Welch poet in our group. He had a chronic hankering for suet pudding, and a very endearing disposition.
The laughs we shared in the evenings were a welcome reprieve from the sometimes difficult and emotionally fraught writing I did during the day. The excellent company of my fellow writers, the expertly prepared food, and the overall comfort and visual splendor of the castle and its surroundings made the hard work approachable, while the luxuries of time, freedom, and solitude gave me space to reflect and create, unhindered by day-to-day concerns.
All I had to do was write; whatever my process was fine and fitting with the aim of the residency. If I felt like I needed inspiration or a day to let my story churn, I would take a 40 minute bus ride into Edinburgh. If I needed a break but wanted to stay local, I could go for a walk along the river, wander up to the library, or grab a book and settle into a luxurious bath. The best thing the residency offered was a space that honored my identity as a writer, answered my need to let my soul float and swirl like dust in sunlight, and said yes to my inclination to dream and write, and dream some more.