Monday 4 April 2011

Retreat from the retreat

I spent the last week at Glencanisp Lodge, running a creative retreat. I have led thirteen of these over the past 5 years, since my local community bought the house in 2005. For the first few years I did it on my own, and then a year ago I helped to form a community interest company, called Top Left Corner, to run the retreats and do other community arts projects. Last week was the last of the weeks that will be held at Glencanisp Lodge, at least for the foreseeable future.

Top Left Corner has had to fold - the costs (particularly the cost of renting the lodge) are too high and customer numbers too low to enable us to make sufficient profit on retreats to cover the basic costs of running a company (insurance, accountancy, administration, marketing etc). I have spent a year on an immensely steep learning curve, at the top of which I can see I have acquired an understanding of lots of business concepts, though I am still as ignorant as I ever was about how to 'succeed in business'.

What I do know, however, is how to run a retreat, and this last week was a delightful pleasure - a lovely one to end on. There are three phases to a good retreat week.

There's the start, which begins for me with preparation, and when the participants start to arrive I'm already tired from shopping and getting the lodge set up ready to be a retreat venue (installing a library, putting writing tables in every room etc). But as the house fills up with people, I revive. Last week it was a mixture of friends, acquaintances and unknowns. My job is to make everyone feel welcome, to help them to find their space, and to stir the pot of people until they blend into a whole. This can take a few days. This last week it seemed to happen within a few hours. It was a fairly small group (9 of us altogether) of mature artists and writers and everyone had clear reasons for being there and mostly pretty clear goals for the week. I urge everyone to identify treats they will indulge in during the week.

After the soup of creators has blended, my job is to disappear or at least not to get in anyone's way, but to be there to help the creative work to go on. I do a daily session in the morning, called a 'creative warm-up', which allows people to come and check in, get a boost in their work if they need it, check their direction, or simply spend time with the others. I offer a gentle activity, a walk or a talk, on most days. We went to Achmelvich to read Norman MacCaig poems together. We walked to Suileag bothy to discuss our creative processes.

An important part of this middle of the week is listening to my guests' ideas and urges and helping them to give themselves the treats that they deserve. I encourage people to go to the bookshop at Inverkirkaig, or to walk the river circuit and buy a pie on the way. I link them up to local artists. I point them in the direction of Fergus Stewart's ceramics studio and to Highland Stoneware in Lochinver, to Barbara Macleod's jewellery workshop or to the soap and candle shop in Drumbeg. I called Helen Lockhart to come to the lodge to sell her yarns - she filled the sofas in the living room with irresistable colour one afternoon. Agnes Dickson came to sing Gaelic songs. My partner Bill came to talk land revolution. My aim in all of this is for my guests to feel how alive this community is, and to feel that they have touched its pulse and made real, human and artistic contact with this special place.

Then there is the end. It begins before anyone starts saying 'only a day to go'. It's a subtle shift, but I always feel it. It's when I start to check if everyone is finishing what they set out to do, asking, hopefully not too pointed questions, about progress, completion. On the morning of the final day I run a session about beginnings and endings and this always helps to focus creative minds on the last push towards closure. I start to think about how to empty the fridge. I pack up my own things in my room. I have winding-up thoughts. Creative work pulses to conclusions. We share what we have done.

And then, on Saturday morning, we wake up, bundle our hangovers into our bags and go home. I empty the lodge of our presence: books, music and food. I return to the quiet solitude of the croft. I rest and reflect.

It was a wonderful week of art: paintings, textiles, words and friendships forged and strengthened. Glencanisp Lodge is a wonderful venue for creativity, and I gain a subversive pleasure from inhabiting what was once (and still sometimes is) a venue for killing (fishing and hunting) and using it for creating new and beautiful artworks. And as always, it is wonderful to be home.

On the morning after, I woke to the first skein of geese of the year, flying over, on their way north to distant summering grounds. It is, now, time to move on.


  1. Ah, yes - the ongoing, interminable, hopeless costs of running a company. Sounds almost as impossible as making ends meet running a publishing company! Sorry it had to fold; hope you do well in the Summer Isles.

  2. Happy memories of my various visits to Glencanisp. Glad your last retreat there was a success.
    Good luck on the Summer Isles.
    All best, Steph