Saturday, November 22, 2008

Hawthornden On My Mind

AN EXPERIENCE THAT I will always remember is my fellowship at the Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers in Lasswade, Scotland, from 19 November to 16 December of 2000, exactly eight years ago today. The memory is timely; it was also autumn and post-US presidential election period, but then there was a bitter contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore about the election results, particularly in Florida. In fact, it was then when I learned that the meaning of the word "chad" other than a country in Africa was a paper fragment created when a hole is made in a ballot card, from reading The Scotsman newspaper in the castle living room. My candidate Al Gore had apparently lost because "hanging," "dimpled" and "pregnant" chads which had been punched, though not completely, on ballot cards were not counted to his favor. I had become an American citizen in April of that year and was happy to have exercised my right to vote, but was very disappointed. Today, after eight years of Republican dynasty, I am happy to see a Democrat get elected once again, and what a president-elect he is. I know this has been said countless times, but I am going to say it again: Barack Obama will lead this country through the challenges of the times. That said, please allow me to sit back and indulge in a little nostalgia.

On November 18, 2000, I took a Northwest Airlines flight from JFK to Amsterdam Schiphol Airport, then transferred to a smaller KLM plane to Edinburgh (pronounced Edin-burrah). I took a cab with a courteous driver who drove me to the castle for about twenty minutes, lamenting how tourists had descended on his town since a ski path had been carved out of a hillside along our way. I arrived in the castle just before dinner, was welcomed by Amy, the administrator, and was immediately led to a room called Jonson on the third level, my home for the next four weeks. The castle had winding stairways that provided a challenge as I dragged one of my two heavy luggage upstairs (sorry, no elevators in ancient castles), but Amy, despite her little frame, did the other without effort; she had obviously done this for other fellows before. Not too long after, it was dinner time and sherry was served, on the house, as Amy welcomed the fellows formally.

What followed was a succession of days of writing privilege; as silence was maintained in the castle at all times, except dinner. From the castle through the trees, one could actually hear the waters of the River North Esk. Lunch, which consisted of simple fare like sandwiches and a thermos bottle of hot soup, was brought to the fellows' rooms, who were left on their own most of the day. Some fellows packed their lunches and caught the early bus that passed by the castle gate to make day trips to Edinburgh, the capital city, or to see Rosslyn Chapel for its Knights Templar history. Some simply stayed and made the river walk behind the castle. I went to the city on days when I craved good old rice, which did not seem to be part of the castle menu. Around downtown, there were Chinese and Indian restaurants where I had beef broccoli or chicken curry with rice to quell my Asian stomach. After lunch, I wandered about Princes (not Princess or Prince's) Street, the main thoroughfare, dominated by the majestic Edinburgh Castle from Castle Rock, before catching the last bus to Midlothian, where my castle was. At dinner, the Garden Room became alive as fellows shared stories about their ventures of the day. Sherry flowed; there was a list to tally how many glasses one had had for the evening, to be charged upon checkout. I became friends with Tom Kennedy, an American living in Copenhagen who used to live in Jackson Heights, New York, and Parm Kaur, a British poet from London with a Punjabi background. Maybe because she was the only other minority writer and smoker in the group, we became chat buddies. One evening, the shy kitchen ladies prepared haggis, that traditional Scottish dish of sheep's stomach stuffed with liver, heart, lungs and a bunch of other goodies only a Filipino could also eat. I was expecting it to taste like dinuguan or higado, but was disappointed as it was mostly bland.

Hawthornden Castle sat on a secluded crag overlooking the River North Esk, providing impressive views of the surrounding glen. It was the home of poet William Drummond, who built a new house around a ruined 15th century tower in 1638. The castle remained home to the Drummonds until 1970 and is now owned by philanthropist Drue Heinz, publisher of The Paris Review and widow of H.J. Heinz of catsup fame. From what I remember, there was a working water well on its courtyard, and a cave further down where Robert the Bruce, King of the Scots from 1306 to 1329, was said to have taken shelter. By the gate, there was a little house that Mary Sharratt used to call "the gamekeeper's cottage." The bathroom of the castle had an ancient toilet bowl that flushed by pulling a chain, but it also had a sunroof that gave one a piece of Scottish sky while taking a dump.

Whatever, the silence and privacy were what mattered. In the retreat, I got to polish my short story The Capture, which early that year won Best Fiction in the Philippines Free Press Literary Awards. Later, it was shortlisted in the Fish Short Story Prize sponsored by Fish Publishing in Durrus, Ireland. Before leaving, I wrote a poem for Drue Heinz in the logbook and donated a copy of A Habit of Shores: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English to the castle library. All in all, it had been a great experience, and today, sitting in my cubbyhole at Rosenthal Library, aging and arthritic, I relive the memory and hope that I will have a similar luck someday.

Here is a picture of the fellows in the Dining Room. L-R: Mary Sharratt, Linda Leith, Parmjit Kaur, Patricia Duncker, Amy the administrator, Thomas E. Kennedy and yours truly. Also, a shot on Calton Hill with the Dugald Stewart Monument in the background, and a picture of Edinburgh Castle, thanks to Wikipedia.

Hawthornden Castle International Retreat for Writers, Lasswade, Midlothian EH18 1EG, Scotland, United Kingdom, phone 44 (0) 131 440 2180, fax 44 (0) 131 440 1989, contact the Administrator


  1. Hi Ramon,
    Congratulations.It sounds like a beautiful place! Thanks for sharing. Tony said it's impressive and he likes your writing.

  2. Hi, Mon,

    Thanks for getting in touch, and I'm glad you're doing well. It took me a while to write back because I hardly open my Hotmail now--twice a month, at most, just to keep it active. Please use my gmail next

    Thanks too for mentioning me in your blog, although I don't remember anymore what my idea of an American home was, at the time we talked about it (when was that?)

    Your blog entry on your Hawthornden stay made me salivate. It's still a dream for me, and you've just rekindled it. It sounded like heaven on earth, the way you described it. What did you write while you were there?

    Sara is such an angel! And you are obviously so in love with her. Have you brought her to the Philippines? And does she like Jollibee?

    Best regards,