Friday, 29 August 2014

Retreat to Assynt in 2015

Dates have been set for two retreats at Glencanisp Lodge next year: 4-9 January (the perfect week to kick start your new year's resolution to write the novel, finish the play etc etc) and 31 May - 5 June. The retreats are for writers or other creative people who want some peace, quiet and space to develop their work in a spectactular place with the occasional company of other like-minded people.

Glencanisp Lodge is a beautiful 12-bedroom house, about a mile from the fishing village of Lochinver, in Assynt, north west Scotland. It belongs to Assynt Foundation, a community body that also owns about 44,000 acres of land including four mountains and countless lochens. By coming on this retreat you help to support this community organisation, in a remote and economically fragile part of Scotland, and you also get to visit what Norman MacCaig called 'this most beautiful corner of the land'.

You'll have a room to yourself (unless you choose to share) with table and lamp, bed linen and towels are provided, and the prices are full board (not including alcohol). The kitchen is stocked so you can help yourself to breakfast and lunch as you please. We eat dinner together in the evening and afterwards we often share work and conversation by the fireside.

There is a 'creative warm-up' session each morning to kick start your day and a scattering of walks and writing workshops organised during the week. All of these are optional and you are free to take part in all, some or none of them. Our central concern is to ensure that your creative juices are helped to flow in whatever way is best for you.

Prices and booking

Prices must increase from last year but are being held as low as possible and there are a range of costs to reflect the various different size of rooms in the house and hopefully to suit all purses.

For the January retreat (4-9 January), the room rates are £450, £425, £400 per person. If shared, £300, £275, £250 per person.

For the June retreat (31 May - 5 June), room rates are £525, £475, £450 per person. If shared, £400, £325, £300.

To book, contact Jane Tulloch at Assynt Foundation, on 01571 844100 or email

In 2015, we, the people of Assynt, will have owned Glencanisp Lodge and the mountains of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg for ten years, so it will be a special time to visit.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

What's wrong with this map?

I'm just home from a jaunt to Edinburgh for the festival - the highlight of which was undoubtedly Paul Lewis playing Beethoven, which deserves a blog post in its own right. I also went to the Generation exhibition of contemporary Scottish art at the National Gallery (Steven Campbell is a highlight but David Shrigley stole the show). The map above is on the wall there. It shows all the art venues taking part in the exhibition. There are more than 60 of them around Scotland, and although they reach up to the islands, and down to the Borders and Dumfries and Galloway in the south west, there's a huge hole in the north west.

Why? It's not as if there are no contemporary artists or galleries in this part of the world. What about An Talla Solais in Ullapool? What about the craft village at Balnakeil? What about all of the artists in Assynt? I have ranted before in this blog about the way our arts agency, HI-Arts, was eradicated, and I can't help wondering if things would have been different if it had been there to advocate for all of the Highlands and Islands to be properly represented.

I've recently become the proud owner of a Peter White painting. I never thought I could afford such luxury, but I bought this when the aforementioned An Talla Solais held a sale. It emerged from Peter's practice of drawing and painting from photographs of people who died in concentration camps and gulags. I wrote about this practice in an interview with Peter here. It's an immensely powerful painting, an honouring of a victim of inhumanity, and I feel proud to be able to welcome this unknown person into my home, give them a place at the table, show them some respect. I am moved by this painting daily: that beautiful mouth, those questioning eyes.

An Talla Solais ran its art sale in an effort to improve its dire financial situation. Could this have anything to do with being overlooked by the mainstream arts world, we have to wonder? If anyone down in the Central Belt is reading this, hello! We have art up here as well and we're trying to keep it alive. We are not nowhere, and our artists are not nobodies. Please put us on your map!

Friday, 1 August 2014

Bears in captivity

Sorry not to have posted for ages. Summer in Achmelvich involves avoidance of the computer as much as possible! There's a boat to sail, there's a garden to tend, there are mink to catch (unfortunately) and there are birds and seals and people to watch.

But haunting my desk are letters and cards from Animals Asia, with images of bears in cages. I'm not going to reproduce them here, because they break my heart. They are mostly bears rescued from bear bile farms.

Bear bile farming is an unspeakable practice - bears held captive in order for bile to be extracted from their gall bladders for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Its active ingredient, ursodeozycholic acid, is supposed to be good for the liver so it is used, amongst other things, as a hangover cure. The trade is huge, and bile farmers claim that they are helping to prevent the slaughter of wild bears, yet the conditions under which bears are kept are cruel and the extraction of their bile is life-threatening. There are good synthetic and herbal alternatives - rhubarb is apparently just as effective.

So, it is a non-brainer that bile farming shouldn't be allowed, and I am 100% behind those brave people who are trying to fight against it, particularly in countries where challenging campaigning can be risky. Organisations like World Animal Protection,, Wildlife SOS, Free the Bears, Hauser Bears and Animals Asia are all trying to change perceptions and laws in China, Korea, Vietnam, Japan, India and other countries where bear bile trade is strong. There's a facebook community of people advocating for caged bears here. If you are interested, each day you can find an uplifting or horrific story about bears being rescued from a life of dancing, from baiting or from cruel zoos.

The thing that really breaks my heart is that when these campaigners win victories, and secure the release of captive bears, they usually can't be released into the wild because they are too ill, or damaged, or do not have the skills to fend for themselves. So they must be taken to sanctuaries. Animals Asia is currently trying to raise millions of pounds to create a bear sanctuary. I know it's necessary, and I hope that they achieve their goal.

However, we also need to remember that bears need protecting in the wild, through the protection of their natural forest habitats. We will have done a kind but stupid thing if we succeed in achieving more comfortable cages for captive bears, but fail to save their wild forest habitats. This keeps me awake at nights.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014


I inhabit a paradox. As a writer, I want vast quantities of paper to come pouring off the presses with my words on it, but as a campaigner for forests and the people who depend on them, I want the paper industry to stop trashing forests. This paradox has driven my obsession with paper for years.

It must be possible for paper production to be achieved sustainably, and many of us believe it is. In my day job I co-ordinate a network of environmental and human rights campaigners who all have a vision for the future when paper is made and used in benign ways. This is the Global Paper Vision, which was launched today, signed by more than 120 organisations around the world. It's worth following the link just to see how pretty all their logos are! You can make a pledge to make sure that you do what you can to use less paper and make sure you know what's in it. Join us!

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Cows on the croft

We have two new residents on the croft. Life suddenly has a new rhythm to it, with feeding time late afternoon, and two big, furry, friendly animals to stroke, pat, chat to and be mystified by.

They leave a scent trail. You can hear them coming from the rasping tear of gums on grass. In the rain, they steam and carry on munching. They can empty a pail of water with a single gulp. When I shake the feed bucket, they look at me with their beautiful, melted chocolate eyes, and follow me wherever I want them to go.

I am besotted.

Saturday, 26 April 2014

Primroses etc

Two weeks fly by. The poem every day trial was de-railed by a trip away. First there was relief not to have to expose these seedling poems to the harsh light of cyberspace, and then, I have to confess there were some days when no poem got written at all. Not that I didn't write every day; the novel gets its daily scribbled page no matter what at the moment, and my notebook is full of neat blue ink lines. Just not poetry, or not every day anyway. There have been some bursts onto the page though, so in the spirit of NaPoWriMo, here are some of them.

a big beary bumble bee
feeding on arctic bearberry


we                 all


more             space



the fuse is lit
life smoulders
through mats of fibres
sap wicks up
lusting to bloom


All the primroses say

Wake up! Winter's over.

Come and peer down on us
with eyes full of willow catkins.

Which of our two shades is primrose yellow?
Why not the other one?

Violets are so blue.
Celandines so gold and glossy.

You have to bare your soul
or bees will not come.

We are not afraid of the pig
though he seems wary of the way we gaze at him.

We may look innocent but we are sex machines.

Pin and thrum. Vive la difference!

Of course we do this every year. 
It is not a ritual. It is survival.

Birds are singing of love and so are we. 
What do you mean you cannot hear us? 
Are you listening?

Thursday, 10 April 2014


Here is a poetry seedling for #NaPoMo2014


Poems are like seedlings.
Keep them moist.
Gentle them.
Some wilt.
Others succumb to frost.
Bring on the rest
but not too quickly.

Pot up.
Give space.
Nip out lush growth.
Show care.

Then harden them off
for the cold world out there.
Ready them
for wrath and wonder.