“The Hawthornden Castle Fellowship Experience” (by William Burton McCormick)

William Burton McCormick’s fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery MagazineThe Saturday Evening PostSherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, and elsewhere. A four-time Derringer Award finalist for the year’s best short mystery fiction, he is also a novelist whose historical work set in the Baltic States, Lenin’s Harem, was published in both English and Latvian and became the first work of fiction ever added to the permanent library at the Latvian War Museum in Rīga. William’s first story for EQMM, the Derringer-nominated “Pompo’s Disguise,” appeared in March/April 2015. It starred the ancient Roman thief Quintus the Clever. Quintus appears again in his new EQMM story “Voices in the Cistern,” coming up in August of this year. He is also cowriting the financial thriller KGB Banker with businessman and author John Christmas. A native of Nevada, William has lived in seven countries including Latvia, Estonia, Russia, and Ukraine. As you will see, he was elected a Hawthornden Writing Fellow in Scotland in 2013.—Janet Hutchings
Hawthornden from the River. All photos courtesy of William Burton McCormick.

Hawthornden from the River. All photos courtesy of William Burton McCormick.

Imagine if you will six strangers, all professional writers in one sense or another, assembling in a medieval castle in rural Scotland. They are to live in this wild, eternal place for a full month at no cost to themselves, their every need met by the castle’s charming and obedient staff, their only task to work on their various literary projects within the keep’s silent stony walls. But as the days pass, the guests become more adventurous, leaving their writing desks and slipping out of their cozy, fire-lit rooms to explore. They discover great halls, haunted libraries, twisted dungeons, and a beautiful, mysterious dining room overlooking the river gorge which passes just beneath the castle. These strangers, becoming friends, have the run of the entire estate, except, of course, for one ever-locked room kept for their unseen, unmet benefactor.

Dining Room  Drawing Room

All goes well for a time. But on the last night a crime occurs.

Is this the plot of some Agatha Christie novel? A classic British drawing-room mystery? Or perhaps something more sinister? A slasher film where the authors are mowed down one by one Ten Little Indians style?

No, this is a real place and real events. It happened to me. And, if you wish, it could happen to you too. I would highly recommend it. (Though you might want to skip the “crime” part, but we’ll get to that in the end.)

But let’s back up a bit. How did I come to spend a month writing in a Scottish castle with five strangers? As an American living in eastern Ukraine at the time, I already had quite enough adventure in my daily life, no need for further travel or expectations of living in castles. One fateful night, however, I was reading an Ian Rankin short story collection and discovered in the author biography that he had been “elected a Hawthornden Fellow.” I didn’t know what this was, but given the many distinguished accomplishments of Mr. Rankin over his career, the fact that he (or his publicist) thought it worth mentioning in his official bio piqued my interest. As a crime writer you could do far worse than adopt the motto “Do what Rankin does,” and after a little research I discovered a postal address associated with the fellowship. I wrote to the director and requested further information.

I’ll save the details for an addendum at the end of this article, but in short the Hawthornden Fellowship is an award for professional writers of all types which consists of a month’s full room and board in a castle in Lasswade, Scotland about eight miles outside of Edinburgh. The writers must pay their own way to Edinburgh but after that everything is covered by the fellowship. The only thing asked in return is a small acknowledgement of Hawthornden in any work produced during the stay. Everything written during the fellowship remains the author’s own.

As someone who perhaps played too much Dungeons and Dragons in his youth, I was captivated at the idea of living and writing in a castle, and, if I’m honest, the price was certainly right. The application was simple enough, the key parts being publication credits, letters of reference, and a writing sample. For the last of these I submitted a thriller short story called “Blue Amber” which had been published in AHMM and had been a finalist that year for a Derringer Award. A few months later I received an acceptance, my designated slot was mid-February to mid-March. I found a roundtrip flight from Kharkov (via Kiev and London) to Edinburgh for less than $200 and I was off.

I arrived a day or two early as Edinburgh is one of my favorite cities in the world and I love to walk around and soak up the atmosphere, historic, literary and otherwise. On the first day of my fellowship the castle’s director, a man named Hamish, was kind enough to pick me up from my hotel in Edinburgh and transport me out to Hawthornden. Hamish is a busy guy during the first days of a new sextet of authors, driving about the city to the airport, train station, and various hotels to assemble the latest group. In my particular ride was historical suspense novelist Lucretia Grindle, author of The Nightspinners and Villa Triste among several other excellent books. I was quite glad to see another MWA writer among the guests. I’d harbored a slight fear that my fellows might be strictly literary-fiction types, looking down upon those of us who spend our days imagining murder for fun and profit. As it turns out, this was not the case. Everyone was wonderful.

So, Lucretia, Hamish, and I set out to Hawthornden. Though only a short distance from Edinburgh it feels like another world. The large buildings of the city disappear, replaced by little towns, open fields filled with horses, sheep and cattle, and quaint little roadside pubs and groceries. The castle itself is invisible from the main road, hidden back on a large estate behind a gated entrance and screens of ancient trees. You arrive at the back of the castle, its size initially seeming much smaller than it will from all other angles (especially the river gorge below). Hamish introduced us to a staff consisting of several maids, a gardener, and a professional chef, then showed us to our rooms before setting off to pick up more arriving fellows.

Hawthornden from the Road

I should say at this point something about the history of Hawthornden and how it came to be a writers retreat. The original castle dates from the Middle Ages with additions being made in the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries. Under the castle and elsewhere nearby are caves that are said to have been dug by the Picts, and later to have hidden William Wallace, Robert the Bruce, and Bonnie Prince Charlie. Queen Victoria visited both the castle and the caves in 1842. A picture commemorating this event now hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Renowned cavalier poet William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585 to 1649) composed his poetry here and entertained Ben Johnson and other literary figures of the age at the castle. At some point, I believe in the twentieth century, the castle was purchased by the Heinz family (of ketchup production fame) and it was under them, honoring the creative spirit and goodwill of William Drummond, that the castle began to invite writers to compose their works here. The idea is to provide refuge free from the distractions and duties of daily life where authors can concentrate wholeheartedly on their writing. Four months a year, the Heinz family maintains Hawthornden as a residence, the other eight it functions solely as a writers retreat.

Hawthornden Day Time

By the evening all the authors have assembled. Besides Lucretia and myself, there was an English poetess, a Scottish short story writer, an American playwright from California, and an American poetess who specialized in work in French translation. In all, four women and two men ranging in ages from early twenties to (I think) mid fifties.

We had very comfy private bedrooms each with a writing desk, fireplace, and open window view over the estate. Painted on the doors of the bedrooms were the names of authors who had stayed in the rooms previously. (Note: To get yourself listed on the door you had to a) have published what you composed in Hawthornden; b) acknowledged the fellowship in the work; and c) sent a copy back to be added to one of the castle’s three libraries. Still, what small price to pay for Scottish castle immortality?!)

The first night we dined together with Hamish in the large dining room which was heated by a roaring fire and decorated with paintings and drawings of various Scottish lords and clans on the walls. The first meal was haggis (the only time we had it), though all later dinners would include a wide range of excellent cuisines. During the meal Hamish welcomed us and explained the rules. Breakfast was served in the smaller dining room and afterwards there was no talking permitted in the castle until dinner. No internet, no cell phones, nothing to disturb the writing of your fellows. The staff prepared lunch from a menu provided to the writers at breakfast, and delivered in to the authors’ rooms in charming wicker baskets between twelve and one. We had the run of the entire estate, the libraries, the gardens, the paths down by the river (where the castle looks both foreboding and impressive), everywhere except the locked rooms of the absent Heinz family. At six the silence was lifted and dinner served. (It should be noted this rule of silence was only strictly enforced in the main building—on the grounds I had plenty of conversations during the day.)

Hawthornden is, quite simply, the perfect environment to compose creative works. I found the castle atmosphere conducive to any sort of writing (though historical fiction and horror fiction came naturally to me here. I kept thinking of The Turn of the Screw . . .) The fellowship’s staff provided everything needed to eliminate distractions and get work done. In addition to the three meals, there was a food station on the authors’ floor with a ready supply of coffee, tea, and biscuits (cookies) twenty-four hours a day and a printer available to produce hardcopy of your drafts. The maids cleaned your rooms and did your laundry. As William Drummond might have imagined it five hundred years ago, modern Hawthornden is a haven for creativity

The long hours of silence, however, meant the six of us were glad to speak when the daily moratorium ended. After elegant multiple course dinners, the writers and Hamish retired to the castle’s main drawing room, a comfortable place with large cushioned chairs, an endless variety of British literary magazines, all overseen by life-size paintings of George Plimpton and Truman Capote. Here, over wine or sherry, the authors would discuss everything under the sun into late in the evening (and sometimes morning). Hamish also proved to have a wry sense of humor, passing on amusing or adventurous tales of the castle, Lasswade, or previous fellows.

Over thirty days we didn’t exclusively stay focused on our writing, of course. There were occasional trips into Edinburgh or the local villages. Explorations through the gorge below the castle and along the river North Esk were common. One evening prior to dinner, Hamish took us down into the tunnels below Hawthornden. Here in the twisting, turning passageways we found, among other things, a series of pens where carrier pigeons had been kept centuries ago. Used for communication in those olden days, these birds were also seen as a food source reserved for when the castle fell under siege. (Fortunately, it never did according to our host).

My time in Hawthornden was productive. (Among many other works, I drafted the opening scenes of my first EQMM story “Pompo’s Disguise” on a stone bench carved out of a boulder down near the river.) I spent most of my time writing in the new library which rests on a hillside near the castle’s main entrance. There are two older libraries, one off the drawing room, where the books of past fellows are kept, and another, still older one in a separate stone structure that hearkens back to the castle’s original medieval foundations. This later library, snug, dark, with a thin staircase winding up to a tiny attic, is the perfect atmosphere for those who want to compose anything with a Gothic or horror flavor. But the most mysterious event happened to me in the new library.

Let me preface this to say I know there is a scientific explanation for what I am about to describe. I am an Ivy League educated man. Both my parents were mathematics majors who instilled their logical thinking into me from birth. I am not superstitious. I do not believe in the supernatural. Yet, that afternoon as I worked alone on “Pompo’s Disguise,” the door to the new library slowly opened. There was no one in the doorframe and no discernible gusts of wind or drafts present to push it open. A moment later the light bulb above me burst, raining glass down on the floor at my feet. Then that door slowly closed. Again, no breeze. A rational twenty-first-century mind knows the cause to be a change in atmospheric pressure which opened and closed the door and destroyed a flawed light bulb unable to contain its expanding gas. Yet, I can only tell you my impression at that moment sitting in the library alone. It felt very much like something had entered, found me in its favorite spot, angrily destroyed my lamp, and left in a huff.

Silly me.

I spent the rest of the fellowship writing in my room.

On the last evening our crime occurred. In anticipation of the authors’ final gathering in the drawing room, Lucretia had bought two bottles of very fine champagne. As we didn’t have access to the kitchen, she had placed them in the cool of the garden under some hedges until after dinner. It seemed a safe enough place. Alas, two trespassers crossing over Hawthornden grounds stole the champagne that afternoon. When Lucretia went to retrieve the bottles for our final banquet they were long since gone. The authors, bless them, had to make do with sherry and wine their final night.

Forgive me if the crime is a bit anticlimactic but I had to draw you in with the classic mystery analogy. The journey is always better than the destination isn’t it?

No, not in the case of Hawthornden. The destination is fabulous. If you’re a writer, go. If you’re not a writer, become one. Get your name on that door. I want to see it when I go again. Fellowship rules say an author can reapply after five years have passed if they have published the work written at the castle and given appropriate acknowledgment to Hawthornden.

The publication is easy, acknowledgment easier. Only two more years to wait. I may try writing in the new library again.

And bring a spare bulb this time.

*

If you are interested in applying for the Hawthornden Fellowship please write:

Hawthornden Castle
International Retreat for Writers
Lasswade
Midlothian
EH18 1EG
United Kingdom

They do not accept correspondence via e-mail. They may accept a request for information by fax at +44 131 440 1989

The retreat is open to any published writer whether short story authors, novelists, poets, screenwriters, playwrights, nonfiction writers, journalists, etc. At the time of my application in 2012 the admission committee strongly preferred traditional publication credits to self-publishing and print-on-demand. As previously mentioned, references, writing samples, and award credits were also factors in admission.

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18 Responses to “The Hawthornden Castle Fellowship Experience” (by William Burton McCormick)

  1. Lou manfredo says:

    What an incredible experience it must have been. And how generous and innovative an offering by the Heinz family; I intend to double my ketchup consumption immediately.

  2. Thanks for sharing, Bill. I enjoyed reading that. 🙂

  3. My thanks to you, Bill. I am headed there in September, and this was a delicious account, right down to the disturbing library encounter.

    • What a good read. Thank you, Bill. I have just applied for a Hawthornden fellowship and now my hopes are even higher. It sounds wonderful, especially for a historical novel set in Scotland, my ambitious new project. I just downloaded the Kindle version of Lenin’s Harem and am ordering Marjorie’s Uncanny Reader for inspiration on the supernatural element in my novel.

    • I am just checking this account now. Please have a great time Marjorie! I’m sure you’ll enjoy it.

  4. Hello William–Thanks for the post. I will be at Hawthornden in November by way of Ukraine where I will be on a Fulbright doing research for my next book. I would appreciate knowing how you traveled from Ukraine to Edinburgh. Any suggestions/advice/warnings? Looking forward to having adventures to write about (ghostly or otherwise) when I get there. Cheers, Irene Zabytko

    • Hi Irene; I’ve just checked this blog for the first time since I posted it, so you (and everyone else) will have to forgive the late responses.

      I took Wizz Air from Kiev to London and then took an Easy Jet flight up to Edinburgh as I recall. I didn’t carry much baggage so it wasn’t much of a problem. There’s always a risk if you change airlines though.

      I hope you have a good time. No warnings or advice really needed. Hamish will pick you up. I’d just make sure you’ve got all your affairs in order (no emails at Hawthornden) so you can concentrate on writing and seeing the wonderful area. Please let me know how it goes. Maybe, I will run into you in Ukraine. I am in Kiev now by the way and will be visiting Kharkov soon.

      • Thanks, Bill! I am getting ready to leave next week for Hawthornden but will return to Kyiv December 19th onward. If you are around, let me know. I am in Ukraine until March so maybe will see you sometime to compare notes. Looking forward to sharing adventures and good memories I’m sure. Am truly thrilled to escape to Scotland for a month’s respite and writing/polishing my novel too. Cheers, Irene

  5. William J McCormick says:

    Proud to be your father and see your successes. Love, Dad

  6. rustyville says:

    Hi
    I loved this. Can I assume correctly that I send a letter to the address you provided and ask for an application?

    Thank you

  7. I am a writer and an Abernethy descendant. The Abernethy family apparently owned the castle in the 13th century. I shall apply! I also have a postcard from 1912, written by a great-aunt to her sister in Glasgow, that mentions the connection. However, the postcard labels the castle as “Drummond Castle, Hawthornden”. I shall bring it with me should I be gifted with the opportunity!

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