It was late in the Special Collections room at the National Library of Scotland on November 27th, 2015… I had been scrutinizing 17th Century MSS all day, examining the surviving works of Robert Kirk, the Minister of Aberfoyle, best known for his extra-ordinary monograph, The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies – the heart of my PhD novel project at the University of Leicester since September 2014. I had wanted to see Kirk’s writings for myself. So much can be gained from beholding the actual handwriting of a historical figure – the minute emphasis of a particular word, a name say, can infer so much. And the marginalia discovered within manuscripts and notebooks – notes, dates, addendum and doodles – can reveal much about the personality of the writer, their thought processes, and their milieu. To actually hold one of Kirk’s notebooks, after reading, pondering and writing about him for so long, was thrilling; to behold his handwriting – like looking down the well of time.
If I had given up, downed tools, and returned to my domicile (more of that in a minute) before perusing the last of my stack of archive material – the least promising – then I might not have discovered what I did. I was tired, I was hungry. My eyes were sore, and my stomach was saying: dinner-time! But I dutifully persisted. I placed the last bound volume of 17th Century material upon the reader. Islandised within the circle of light from my reading lamp, the sole remaining scholar in the corner of the reading room, I carefully opened its fragile, foxed pages...
To complete the Gothic quality of this vignette – the trope of the ‘found manuscript’ which acts as the framing narrative for many tales of the genre – I must add that I was staying at a castle during my time visiting Edinburgh’s archives. In mid-November 2015 I had travelled to Hawthornden International Writers Retreat, as one of their 5 guests for a month. I had submitted an application for a residency, to allow me time to work upon the manuscript of my Kirk novel in suitably atmospheric surroundings: and Hawthornden could not have been more perfect.
The former home of the poet, William Drummond (1585-1649), Hawthornden is dramatically-situated on a crag overlooking the swirling waters of the Esk, close by Roslin Chapel, in Midlothian, 30 minutes from Auld Reekie on the bus. Since 1982 80s it has been an International Writers Retreat, with up to six writers staying for a month-long period to work upon their respectful projects in ‘peaceful ease’. Lunch is brought to your comfortable room (named after a canonical writer) is a Fortnum and Mason hamper. Apart from joining your fellow retreatants for a pre-prandial sherry before dinner, no socialising is expected. The castle is wifi free, and silence is maintained throughout the day. There is a well-stocked library, along with a dungeon and Pictish caves. One can feel the ambience of literary colloquy oozing from the walls. Les Murray, Alasdair Gray, Helen Vendler, Olive Senior, Hilary Spurling, Andrew Greig, Kathleen Jamie and many other writers of repute have stayed there. The Hawthornden Prize is administered from its fastness, and every summer a ‘literary salon’ with the winner (Colm Tóibín, Hilary Mantel and others of their calibre) is held there. Many splendid signed first editions grace its magnificent library – a bibliophile’s paradise.
To spend a month in such atmospheric surroundings, in the domicile of Kirk’s near contemporary (they overlapped by half a decade) could not have been more conducive to my project. I worked upon a 2nd draft of my novel, writing forty thousand words, and edited the whole 160,000 word MS during my stay. I also wrote a few poems, and, of course, visited the archives of Edinburgh at least once a week (making the most of my day out by enjoying the museums, galleries, cafes, cinemas and social life of the handsome city).
|A Romantic Ruin: Hawthornden, the original tower|
And so, coming from this castle to visit the Special Collections did not feel like a paradigm shift, but a continuation of a narrative, a Gothic one. It was winter too, and snow did fall while I was there. The light above the Lammermuir Hills had a fey quality to it as I set out early for the day in the archives. Roslin Castle was said to be haunted by a black shuck*, the Mauthe Doog. To complete the uncanniness, opposite Hawthornden there is the research station where Dolly the Sheep was cloned... I was only disappointed that throughout my time at the castle I never heard a single rattling chain, moan or bump in the night. After Mary the Chef’s legendary feasts prepared for us every night it was hard not to sleep soundly, especially after a wee dram or two (a fine malt bequeathed to us by the previous retreatants). The place seemed to have a spell of almost unnatural quietude cast over it.
Yet something of its magic must have rubbed off on me as I trekked to the bus-stop in Bonnyrigg, holding onto my hat in the hoolie that assailed Midlothian during my stay, because it was amongst some old papers once belonging to William Drummond himself that I discovered a most remarkable find ... a bona fide found manuscript*[i], one that bore Robert Kirk’s name...
I cannot say more than that at this stage, as it research I have not yet published, so forgive me if I do not go into details here. Suffice to say, to come across such a find felt like such an affirmation, the ultimate seal of approval from Kirk (and Drummond). Their shades must have been looking over me that day – and I raise a glass to them both.
Kevan Manwaring is a writer and PhD Candidate at the University of Leicester. He is the author of The Long Woman, Desiring Dragons, The Bardic Handbook, Oxfordshire Folk Tales, Northamptonshire Folk Tales, and is the editor of Ballad Tales: an anthology of British ballads retold (The History Press). He blogs and tweets as the Bardic Academic. The Knowing – A Fantasy, published as an e-book 20th March, 2017, is available on Amazon.