I'd long liked the idea of going on a writer's retreat without having done much about it. Procrastination is, after all, part of the writer's trade. A few months ago, however, I could not put off a deadline – always a moveable feast – any longer. A Facebook appeal was launched, and it led to me to the edge of the world.
At least it seemed that way. The north-westerly point of Europe would be more accurate, a description that remains geographically true if not politically. Once an eye-wateringly expensive return flight had been ruled out, I decided to take the scenic route from London: a train to Inverness (just over eight hours); overnight in a cheap B&B (sans breakfast); bus to Ullapool; quick breakfast at the Ceilidh Place; boat to Stornoway, and, finally, an hour's drive to Aird Uig on the Isle of Lewis.
Laura and Andrew, my agreeable and generous hosts, describe Àras nam Fir Chlis as being 'situated on Europe's Atlantic edge'. From here, on a clear day, you can see St Kilda; next stop, Iceland. My retreat took the form of a private apartment at the end of a long pale blue structure once inhabited by the RAF. Although COVID-19 has barely touched the Outer Hebrides, I was in regulation-compliant splendid isolation.
Indeed, for seven days I wasn't required to wear a mask and almost forgot about the whole damned thing. Perhaps the virus daren't venture there on account of the weather: wind and rain lashed my four walls for hours on end, but this was good: stable weather would have been a distraction, and distractions would have undermined the whole purpose of the retreat.
My output is exclusively non-fiction, so I felt a little fraudulent occupying a space normally intended for 'creatives'. Writing history or biography is more akin to a process of elimination. You begin with primary and secondary research; progress by arranging your notes into loose chapter outlines; separate the wheat from the chaff and then fashion some sort of narrative, allowing the material to guide any conclusions. At least that's how I do it – I know others who begin with a thesis and then work backwards.
It took until a Saturday afternoon for me to overcome the usual psychological barrier and actually start writing. First, I walked down to the windy beach at Aird Uig where the seaweed looked like alien tentacles and the sea made a gurgling noise as it swept over the giant pebbles. By that evening I had entered a pleasantly productive groove interrupted only by food breaks and a bottle of Laphroaig. Paragraphs arranged themselves and connecting themes began to emerge. I imagine any writer finds this satisfying.
Laura and Andrew, both of whom I'd encountered during the 2012-14 independence referendum campaign, inhabit what used to be a French restaurant. This still enjoys a surprisingly lingering reputation. On learning where I was, at least half a dozen friends and associates recalling dining at the 'Bonaventure'. Once upon a time it was the place to eat on Lewis, frequented by locals and Cabinet ministers. It failed under new management, its founder and chef having moved on to ventures new.
Occasionally there was a break in the weather and I could go for a walk. Gallan Head was extraordinary, a rugged, near-alien landscape punctuated with the remaining infrastructure from the RAF's residency. Some of it had been adapted, other buildings abandoned. A couple of others had braved the elements to ascend the hill and we nodded to each other in mutual, silent appreciation of our surroundings.
On straying from the main track, I stumbled across the scenery several friends had raved about: a stretch of rugged coastline with crashing waves I found momentarily mesmerising; the sun attempting to burst through thick clouds and steep, perilous looking cliff edges which somehow didn't feel threatening. The Lewis Chessmen were discovered near here and I tried to imagine seeing those strange, comical figures for the first time in centuries.
There were also brief excursions to Valtos and, of course, the standing stones at Callanish, which I'd seen a couple of times before but never bathed in such beautiful late-afternoon light. The latter was en route to Stornoway Airport and my flight to a predictably deserted Glasgow City Centre. By then I had broken the back of the book, my laptop containing 40,000 words of eminently editable text. What was it someone once said? There is no joy in writing but only in having written.
I'm not certain I agree with that weary sentiment, nor with the quote often attributed to Hemingway about writing drunk and editing sober (though the Laphroaig definitely helped). I enjoy the whole process of writing, most of all the initial research but the structuring, drafting and honing too. Strangely, holding a printed copy of the finished product doesn't quite compare. This time, when it happens, I'll think back to my week at the edge of the world.