Friday 28 February 2014

The Alchemy of Bronze

My next novel is set more than two thousand years ago, in the Iron Age, and I have recently been getting serious about the research for it. I have been reluctant to write about it here, as it's going to take me ages before the novel is anything to speak of. However, the research is fascinating in itself.

I began February down in Cornwall, among storms. I'd never been there. Despite travelling all over the world, I kept thinking it was odd I had never visited the other end of this island. Finally I had a good excuse to go - some of my fictional characters belonged there. I am sure normal people have sensible reasons for where they go on holiday, but is one of the peculiarities of being a novelist that you go to places because people who don't actually exist 'live' there.

Anyway a big reason to visit was to find out how bronze would have been made in the Iron Age, and one of the highlights was meeting Neil Burridge, a master of the craft of bronze smelting, who specialises in the methods used in the Bronze and Iron Ages. He was kind enough to take me to see a place where tin was mined and smelted in the iron age. Then, even more kindly, he let me watch (and smell, and listen) while he smelted bronze, blending tin and copper in a crucible, and then cast a replica bronze age sword and spear head, shown in the picture fresh from the forge.

Watching Neil I was enthralled by the alchemy of bronze. Solid copper is put into a crucible, where it seems unaffected by tremendous heat. More than a thousand-degrees-centigrade leaves it apparently unmoved, unmelted, unchanged. Then a little tin is added, a remarkably small amount, but this diminutive little blob of metal melts rapidly to a silver drop, which seems literally to devour the copper. In a matter of moments the solid, invincible copper is reduced to a little puddle of glistening liquid. This liquid is then poured from the crucible into a mould, with considerable speed and all the drama of flames and smoke, and in just a few moments it is solid again.

It really is magic. I imagine how much more magical it must have seemed to people before the age of science and engineering. But even today, it's still magic.

Thursday 20 February 2014

Upcoming events

I have a flurry of bookish events coming up in the next fortnight, in Falkland, Kilmartin, Skye, Glasgow, Golspie, Inverness and St Andrews, so I hope to see some of you at some of them. It has to be said, this is an awkward moment for the car to die - but that won't stop me!

I'm particularly looking forward to being in Kilmartin Glen this weekend - the museum there is my favourite museum in Scotland, and the glen is full of the most fascinating traces of past lives, including the mysterious cup and ring stones.

Friday 21 February - Falkland Centre for Stewardship, Fife, a workshop with school children
Saturday 22 - reading and discussing my bear novels, Bear Witness and The Last Bear, Kilmartin Glen Literary Festival (see here)
Sunday 23 February - talk about the Tree Alphabet and tree poems from Into the Forest, Kilmartin Glen Literary Festival
Tuesday 25 February - reading from Into the Forest with Rody Gorman and Maoilios Caimbeul, Skye Reading Room, 7pm Skeabost Hotel (see here)
Monday 3 March - Glasgow University environmental careers event, 4pm
Thursday 6 March - celebrating World Book Day with tree poetry at Golspie, 9.30-12.30 am
Thursday 6 March - poetry workshop at Eden Court, Inverness 7-9pm
Sunday 9 March - StAnza Festival event, a poetry tour of Scotland, Byre Theatre, St Andrews, 3.30-4.30pm

Thursday 13 February 2014

Retreat to Assynt

If you need a bit of peace and quiet to get on with a writing project, or indeed any other creative project, why not come to Assynt? From 20-25 July, Glencanisp Lodge will be hosting a creative writing retreat, and I'm delighted to be able to invite people back to this most spectacular setting.

Since the Assynt Foundation bought a huge chunk of this land, bringing the beautiful mountains of Suilven, Canisp, Cul Mor and Cul Beg into community ownership, I've periodically booked what used to be the laird's hunting lodge and invited anyone who wants to come to join me in a retreat there. We've done this 15 times over the years, and it has never failed to inspire people to produce writing beyond their wildest imaginings. I've watched people write the first poems they have written since school. I've been amazed as writers have poured out literally thousands of words of a novel or a memoir. We've had people finishing their novel, writing their first ever short story and even writing a complete play.

When you see the landscape, perhaps that's not surprising. It is, in Norman MacCaig's words, 'this most beautiful corner of the land'.

The Lodge has been refurbished to a wonderful level of comfort, and there are rooms to suit all purses, from grand and en suite (£425 full board), to budget with shared bathroom (£295 full board). If you'd like to join me from 20-25 July, please contact Sara Corkish at Assynt Foundation, email: or phone 01571 844100. See the Glencanisp Lodge website for more details:

Sunday 9 February 2014

Scotland's National Tree

There was a debate last week in the Scottish Parliament about our national tree. Scots Pine was chosen after the consultation last year. Not rowan! Despite my championing! Of course it's no surprise and I'm very happy that this mighty tree is now the symbol of the nation.

I'm even happier that the Parliament noticed that trees are the stuff of poetry, and gave Into the Forest a mention. Who says poetry and politics don't go together? You can read the debate here.