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.