There is a place I go where I know I can escape the snares of self-doubt that entangle an aspiring writer’s mind, a place of mountains and lochs, where the kingdom of imagination appears before my eyes in the parting of light and thunderclouds, where the mundane and the magical sit side by side, where silver men walk out of the cold loch and a car journey becomes a mad ride on horseback through outlaw country.
Back in April I was in need of this mystical place. Unable to imbue even a wet spark of alchemy into what I had spent months writing, I wanted more than anything to swap my desk and the uncooperative characters in my head for the distraction of wild, Easter hills coated with mist and snow, endless lochs and the comforts of fire, feasting and fresh air. Without thinking twice Mhor 84 came to mind, a curious motel off the A84 that I first encountered while exploring Rob Roy country a couple of years ago.
But dreams of escape were broken by a feeling of guilt. I did not deserve a break; I had made no progress for over a week, brain plodding in a frustrating circle. I don’t really believe in creative blocks and often feel that the only cure is to write my way out, preferably locking myself up without food, water or fun until a breakthrough is achieved. But this time I couldn’t seem to outrun the shadows, so, I channelled some rebellious MacGregor spirit and was soon whizzing my way south to Balquhidder.
It seems strange that a place I discovered only a year ago should have such a profound pull, but two hours later, as the Braes of Balquhidder rose gently before the road like dragons in sleep, I felt that I was coming home. Not a home of brick and slate but the home where I have dwelt for most of my life – the wild and liberated country of my imagination.
To read the place names on the map is to stumble into a landscape of fantasy; Ben Donich, evil mountain; Beinn-le-dhia, the Hill of God; Stony Mountain; Loch of the Dogs; Droachaid an Tuirc, the Bridge of the Boar.
After an eerie walk up a snowy Ben Ledi we headed to the wee motel by the roadside, our Prancing Pony or Hogsmeade for the next two nights. Mhor 84 is an unassuming building that blends cool minimalism with the eccentricity of a Scottish hunting lodge. By day guests and locals relax on the comfy sofas eating pastel-pink meringues the size of a child’s head and at night drink beer in a bar festooned with antlers, string lights and outlaw memorabilia. On arrival we made ourselves comfortable at one of the old farmhouse tables, and under the sulphurous yellow glow of vintage lamps, feasted on scones and cakes to chase away the chill of a Scottish spring morning spent on the hills. The knots in my mind loosened. I moved to the sofa with a volume of Anais Nin’s diary, but the book lay closed in my lap as I drank the hills and blue skies beyond the window. The beginnings of several new stories bubbled within my brain. I felt I could coorie into any one of the cosy nooks by the fire and write a hundred and one beginnings and a thousand endings.
That evening we sat by candle light, on bar stools fashioned from old tractor seats, talking about alternative Londons, dungeon masters and the pagan rituals that were once acted out on the very slopes beyond our motel room. Outside the light fell, the hill beyond barely visible, like the black shoulder of a resting giant. While the world prepared for sleep my soul leapt awake, alert and curious.
For the next day I walked, I breathed, I tried not to think. I let go of the guilt that any free time spent not writing is wasteful and unearned. A phrase of Anais Nin’s hovered on my lips like a protective chant, “We write to taste life twice.” For writing is living and living is writing. The story would still be there on my return, and the thought of the blank page was now as inviting as unsullied snow.
I reminded myself that such escapes are essential to creativity, that drawing water from the same well continuously only leads to drought, and that the imagination is not a bottomless well but a raging river, and to drink from it one must occasionally travel to the source.
On our second day a man sat at the bar talking about the wildflowers of Balquhidder, their names and where to find them. The waitress was busy but had time to remark on how pretty the flowers sounded. The man mentioned the wildflowers to anyone who would listen, it was all he could think of. A peculiar insistence for everyone to see the wildflowers before their beauty faded. He spoke in a detached voice, as if in a half-dream, or perhaps knowing in his heart that no one was truly interested in what bloomed wild on the braes of Balquhidder.
Spring light refracted through glass jars on the windowsill, falling on my hands, the wooden table-desk, the mismatched seating. A youthful light that seemed to have sprung from Bride’s magic wand. When I visit beautiful places in spring or summer I often wonder what they look like under the burnished hue of autumn gold or clear, cold winter light. I want to know a Loch Voil surrounded by yellowing leaves or transfigured to stillness by winter’s ice, how the sunrise will spill through glass onto the table. Perhaps one day I will return in October or on a frosted December morning to find out.
The Mr Hemulen of Balquhidder finished his pint, rose and left. Good-natured but with a hint of sadness. Perhaps he once lived in a world where his enthusiasm for wildflowers was not abnormal.
I ate my food slowly, not wanting to leave or sleep. Spring night fell, a temporary dark. We walked to our room, situated outside the main motel, stopping to watch the stars which seemed to sparkle differently from the ones I left behind only several hours before. I had changed too; arriving empty and nerve-shattered I would leave brimming with new ideas and the tools needed to spell stagnant characters to life. On that last night I thought of Henry Miller’s observation:
“Paradise is everywhere and every road, if one continues along it far enough, leads to it.”
And while my paradise is my bedroom on days when nothing but the story exists, sometimes it pays to discover other paradises in cosy motels off busy Highland roads. No doubt I will return one day, when the shadows lengthen, but for now I need only recall the room, the fire and the sun setting over Auchtubhmore, in order to imbue a dreich November night’s writing with a little Mhor magic.