Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Inspiring Places and the Appeal of Scotland or A Holiday Report

Two weeks ago I went on a short holiday to Glencoe, Mull, and Iona. Before leaving, I talked to a friend, telling him I was hoping to find some inspiration during my time away from the city. He nodded, but told me that a place did not have an effect on his writing. It got me thinking and I realised we were talking about two different ways to be inspired.

Inspiration is both the motivation to do something (usually creative) and the brilliant idea it sparks. For my friend an inspiring place is one that inspires him to do that work. For me, it is one that sparks ideas.

Even though I live in the city my heart belongs to the quiet, green places of this world -- and pretty much any body of water. Growing up in a landlocked country means the pull of the sea is incredible, and once experienced, it never quite goes away. I do not deny that its great natural beauty was one of the things that originally drew me to Scotland. And perhaps that same beauty is what inspires so many fantasy (and historic) authors, myself included, to set their stories here or, at least, be inspired by the country’s rich mythology.

When I write, I spend a lot of time imagining the setting. When I edit, I spend a lot of time removing overly long and overly flowery description, but the setting remains vivid in my mind’s eye. An inspiring place, therefore, is one that may become a setting, or even the seed of a new story.

This picture taken on a hike in Glencoe ticks both boxes for me. The eerie quality of the trunks; their short twigs that look so much like little arms; the darkness when I stood among them; the moss on the trunks. They will all find their way into my descriptions at one point or another. But there is more to this place. If I let my mind wander, I could almost picture the faces watching me as I moved between the trunks. Almost I could see little creatures flitting about the dead needles on the ground. Almost I could hear their evil cackle. Almost. Or perhaps it really was just my imagination – or the imagination of one of my characters, who, after a weary day of travelling, finds himself in this forgotten part of the forest with nothing but bare limbs and the skittering and whispering of beasts for company.

The history buff in me had a field day with  the ruins of a house encountered on that same walk.

Who were its inhabitants? Were they part of the Macdonalds of Glencoe? What was their life like? And how did they die? Perhaps during the massacre in 1692? If so, did they see the beacon fire allegedly lit on the Hill of the Sun? Or perhaps they died much sooner in one of the battles during the Jacobite Rising? And maybe they did not die in Scotland, but emigrated to Canada, forced to leave their home – or perhaps happy to do so?

One place, so many possible stories.

My personal highlight was a boat tour to Staffa, a tiny island west of the Isle of Mull made up entirely of volcanic rock. It’s the same type of rock that makes up the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. As legend would have it (or so our tour guide assured me), Fingal, a giant, was fighting with another giant in Ireland and threw a chunk of rock at him, which ended up becoming the Giant’s Causeway. Not happy with that, the Irish giant threw a smaller rock back, which became Staffa. With such a wealth of legend – however (un)true – how can you not be moved to draw from that well for your own writing?

Staffa is most famous for Fingal’s Cave. I had never heard of it, but when a friend mentioned it and Google showed me pictures I knew there was no way I could go to Mull and not make a trip there. It is not for the faint of heart or those with no head for heights as I discovered, holding on to a sometimes wobbly banister for dear life, climbing rocks arranged like pillars while to my left the sea roared and waves leapt high. (To be honest, I probably chose this year’s calmest day for a visit and the waves were more lapping than leaping, but it’s not an adventure unless the sea has roared at you and this was most definitely an adventure.) The inside is quite a sight to behold. Personally, I would have liked to be able to venture deeper and stay longer to soak up every detail and emotion the place evoked, but others were coming up behind me, eager for a look of their own.

Last on my trip I visited Iona, the historic centre of Gaelic monasticism and a place I had wanted to see ever since I first heard of Saint Columba. I can only describe it as the epitome of peace. Here, at last, I found a place that inspired not only my inner catalogue of settings, but also motivated me to get writing. I could have sat in that lush green grass for hours, looking and listening to the sea, writing to my heart’s content.

This trip showed me how much I love my chosen home, but it also made me wonder about its appeal. Scotland has a hugely romanticised image. Even looking at my own photographs I am fascinated with the rolling, green hills and untouched nature. As this post shows, I cannot help but be invited to dream when I roam the countryside. But beauty is not the only thing that draws readers and writers to Scotland. The mythology and history behind it, so readily available in popular media from Braveheart, to Outlander, or even Disney's Brave, have shaped the country's image as much as the land itself. Everyone, at least in western cultures, has heard of the Loch Ness monster, of druids, and strange sea creatures like the selkie or the waterhorse. The emptiness of those beautiful landscapes only helps5 in bringing history and legend to life. Alone in a glen at dusk, with nothing but the wind and the odd rabbit or deer for company, it is not difficult to see Scotland's appeal not only as a setting, but as a mythological base for writers.

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