Creating from the edge of a Scottish commuter town

Fife beach

I will be a writer living in London.

In an old diary, that’s where 12-year-old me imagined I would be in a decade’s time. Despite the fact London didn’t become a reality, there was still a part of me that held onto this prophecy. A particular element of it, at least.

The pandemic intensified the part of the vision I’d held onto, the faint whisper of it. I was mostly at home in Fife, working during the week, and finding no inspiration for my writing in the same four walls. I repeated the nearby hill walk most days, and hungered for the Highlands as lockdown continued.

The vision that grew louder was that of the ideal writer’s life — or so I thought. There was a desk, perhaps second-hand. It was heavy, wood, marked with cup circles. A computer, many notebooks, and pens. In front of the desk was a large window, one single pane of glass, and on the other side, a view.

A Perthshire loch

The view would change. Some days I imagined it was a forest in the distance, mist moving through the pines. Then I saw a bare mountainous landscape, the scree-dusted scenery of the Cairngorms, and I heard the wind. Maybe I would watch the waves, so familiar to me in my vision that I would feel rather than see the tides turn.

It was a beautiful daydream, kindled by lockdown and childhood memories. I can’t say I no longer aspire to that some day. But my vision was problematic.

Internalising it, I had convinced myself that I couldn’t write or create my best work — any work, really — unless I was sitting at a desk looking out at some sort of inspirational view. In other words, I had accepted the idea that I needed to be living in a specific location in order to create something meaningful.

Then several things happened, all around the same time, and the dream began to dilute.

Antlers of Water book

The first was words on paper. Not my words, but the words of Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie. In her introduction to the Antlers of Water anthology, Jamie notes that “many of these writers live in urban settings; most Scots do.” She goes on to say, “We have space, but the ‘wild’ is actually hard to find. Human intervention is everywhere… The writers in this book do not pretend Scotland is pristine.”

The same month, the second thing happened. I came across a video on Instagram by an artist I’ve followed for years, Ellis O’Connor, who had recently left the Scottish island she lived and worked on. In a blog post where she reflects on this, Ellis says, “I can see now how heavily I romanticised the place and my narrative as an island artist.” A recurring thought in her mind was that “maybe my art was only popular and successful because of where I lived.”

Her words echoed in my mind long after the video finished.

Rocks at a Fife beach

It seems to me that for creative people — especially nowadays, when social media is often part of your public, visual ‘brand’ — so much is tied up in where we live. Our immediate environment can both inspire us and give us writer’s block. It is the literal backdrop to the words or images or paintings we produce, even if our art isn’t directly about it. In its closeness, it can’t help but influence us.

As someone who writes and takes photographs of travel and nature, I enjoy creating things about beautiful places that bring me back to myself. Quiet places, places where I feel in tune with the environment. Often that involves escaping from my daily life, multiple laptops pinging on the kitchen table, the commuter town I call home.

That is the contradiction, the emotional barrier: escape. We escape rather than see, notice, appreciate what is on our very doorsteps.

Across the Forth to Edinburgh

I identified with the former island artist. I too have built somewhat of a ‘brand’ that reveals more about the places I enjoy than anything about my immediate environment in Fife. I write about beauty spots, quiet hill walks, forgotten history. But often, for reasons of privacy or pretension perhaps, these places are almost always elsewhere.

Ellis continued speaking in her video. She looked straight into the lens and answered her own monologue. “I am my art, my art is within me, it goes wherever I go.” Like the writers who had contributed to Kathleen Jamie’s anthology — creatives inspired by post-industrial towns, suburban streets, tenements, city pigeons, all the things that make up the ‘normal’, un-romanticised Scotland — Ellis rejected this notion that your location is your only inspiration.

Yes, it can be the fuel, but the machine is your mind.

The third thing that happened is that I made a choice to let that vision slip away and appreciate exactly where I am now.

An island in the River Forth

My life — as Jamie points out in her introduction to Antlers of Water — is widely similar to most people in Scotland. It’s relatively suburban, on the edge of a commuter town, in one of the most populated and post-industrial areas of the country. I work a day job from my kitchen table. I used to commute, a lot (albeit over the iconic Forth Bridge). I live with my long-term partner — who also works, a lot — and many books. My fixed point is not desk-calendar Scotland. It is not a quaint cottage surrounded by countryside or a remote bothy framed by misty mountains.

But it is mine and it is true.

Because if I was looking out over an empty and perfect Scottish scene, my view would be so unique as to be disconnected from what real life in Scotland is for most people. Even I, at times, buy into romanticising the rural places of our country — and this is sometimes to their detriment. Anywhere you go, life is more complex for the locals than a social media post could ever convey.

The Scotland that most people experience — with almost 1.2 million people in Greater Glasgow alone — is multifaceted. My part of the country, Fife, is especially so. It’s the fossils of mining and holiday homes in the East Neuk; it’s petrochemical plants, forest plantations, stunted hills and sprawling commuter towns; it’s food banks and prosperity; the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is a county surrounded and shaped by the sea.

A bluebell wood

I forget that my part of Scotland is inspiring me in ways I have sometimes been too quick to dismiss. In its contradictions, there is so much to write about, even the bits that aren’t so beautiful. I don’t need to wait for the perfect place, that scenic backdrop, to inspire my words or give them legitimacy. They are already starting to flow.

Now I sit at my desk, listening to the birds call from the wild strip of land beside the window. The hill I can normally see has disappeared in the late-afternoon haar of the east coast summer. Far beyond, the sea moves, pulling back the huge spit of sand we enjoy at spring tide.

It is something to learn to love a place, slowly, as it becomes a fixed point, an anchor, a place to create. A home.

2 thoughts on “Creating from the edge of a Scottish commuter town

  1. I really enjoyed reading this. As someone who is struggling to understand the root causes of my own recent lack of inspiration, your words gave me a lot to think about.

    1. Thank you Francesca! The lack of inspiration is a tough feeling isn’t it, especially when it continues for a long time. Have you found any answers or ways to feel more creative? I find it difficult not to be harsh on myself if I’m struggling with writer’s block. Trying to do the whole “accept and wait for the inspiration to come” thing but patience has never been my strong suit! Haha. Hope you are doing OK! x

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