Writing Retreat at the Burn

The Burn

In February, four IASH Fellows visited the Burn for a writing retreat, along with members of the School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures. The Burn is a country house set in a beautiful site of special scientific interest (SSSI) between Dundee and Aberdeen, and is regularly used by academic groups from around the UK. The Fellows offered these reflections on their experiences.

After ten days of truly the most 'dreich' Scottish weather imaginable, punctuated by the torrential lashings of Storm Ciara and Storm Dennis, the first day of our Writing Retreat at the Burn dawned bright and clear, with the bluest of blue skies to accompany us on our train journey up north. The weather was a sign of good things to come. I was working on the draft manuscript of my book, ‘Health, Healing and Illness in African History’, and I desperately needed to turn off the outside world to focus on it exclusively. The 'problem' I had been struggling with was that I had written the manuscript in discrete chapters, as one does, in no particular order until all the chapters had been drafted - that meant I had little sense of whether the disparate parts combined to make a whole, and how the chapters in their right place built (or didn't) on each other. But I hadn't been able to find the time or that magical quality - head space - to immerse myself in the work as a whole. The Burn happened to be the perfect place - at times wild, at times cultured, full of history and yet open to possibility - to finally read my manuscript from one end to the other. I am forever grateful for the lack of phone and internet connectivity there! That, and the amazing setting, gave me the license to let go of family and work concerns and to give my manuscript the attention it really needed. My abiding memory of the retreat is from our final evening. A group of us had colonised the elegant sitting room earlier that afternoon, and had figured out how to get the fireplace going. By the evening there was a steady hum of brain activity as each of us in the room got into the 'zone' with our work, and eventually the resident grand piano was tested out and played. I remember distinctly the pleasure of the warmth from the fire and the gentle piano music fading in and out, perched on a plush sofa with the full book manuscript on my lap all marked up in the margins. Thank you to the Burn and to IASH for gifting me this opportunity!

Dr Rebekah Lee (Visiting Research Fellow 2019-20)


Who would not fall in love with the Burn, a magnificent villa set in the heart of the Scottish countryside, a fascinating amalgam of natural beauty and centuries of rich history, one of those rare places where scholars can relax, reflect, work, get pampered and forget the mundane world? It was touching to learn how the last owners of the Burn, the Russells, had donated it for the cause of education to keep alive the memory of their only son Lt. James Russell who died young in the Second World War!

Many of us believe that literature is a means towards a happier, more fulfilling life. I strongly feel that one of the very important functions of a creator or student of literature is to protest injustice, to give voice to the voiceless. But this also led me into unfamiliar territory, from pure literature to social sciences. My project at IASH, which records the agency of Indian female riot survivors and their long battle to safeguard and nurture peaceful, progressive communities against the onslaught of religious fundamentalism, is a part of this challenging journey. However, my roots lie in literature and I must return to literature to rejuvenate myself. This is exactly what the writing retreat at the Burn enabled me to do! This place of extraordinary scenic beauty and peace enabled me to dwell on the ups and downs in my research journey, on the enormous human suffering and the magnificent human spirit I have encountered, and  to articulate it in the form of short poems. I found catharsis in soaking in the beauty of nature and finding symbols for human suffering, resilience and revival in the natural world. The Burn also gave me a much-needed break to take stock of my research project and frame a roadmap for the future. Above all, this will remain one of the most cherished memories of my stay in Scotland, my sunshine on cloudy days…

Thank you IASH for these magical memories!


To The Burn House

Destiny brought me from a faraway land
To your shores,
A faraway land where your only son went
To join the Great War
Never to return again;
Or rather,
To return like sunshine and thunder
In the glistening eyes and passionate voices
Of generations of fortunate students
Young and old, from every continent,
Who come here to experience your beauty
And end up discovering themselves.
I roamed your great halls and corridors
Dreamt near your ancient fireplaces
Walked with a ravenous heart on winter mornings
Haunted your gardens and meadows, your streams and hills, your fiery river
Until I heard those whispers
That rose out of the stones
Of slaves who toiled to build castles for the mighty
Of young men and grieving families cut down by wars
Of the unfulfilled dreams of ambitious soldiers and relentless traders
That we enjoy today,
Until those whispers mingled
With the eternal sounds of the countryside
And made a soothing music
A music that arose and arose,
Until it took me back to my motherland
To gather more voiceless voices
Of women waging wars for humankind
Of men fighting neo colonial demons,
Until it all became one maddening melody
And finally calming
Making perfect sense
Sprouting out as blades of grass
On your lawns
In blinding bright green
The colour of freedom, of hope,
Of Humanity.

Dr Rositta Joseph Valiyamattam (IASH-SSPS Fellow, 2019-2020)


When we arrived for the 'retreat' at the Burn, the manager of the estate asked if we wanted to hear a bit about the history of the place. I thought to myself, No, I’m here to start working. It’s the urgency I always feel at the start of a writing residency: the clock is running. I’m glad that one of the others sitting in that great room with the fireplace, a fire many of us worked in front of in the evenings, said Yes. The woman described a bit of history of the place, from its construction in the last years of the 18th Century to its donation, at the end of the Second World War to a university in London.  The fact that stayed with me was that portions of the estate were constructed by French POWs from the Napoleonic War. I reflected on that often as I walked the grounds, hundreds of beech trees and picturesque stone walls, moss dressing rocks and trees in a nearly florescent hue of green. “There’s no such thing as an innocent landscape,” writes Jared Farmer in 'Trees in Paradise: A California History'. It’s the epigraph to the essay I worked on at the Burn, an essay about nostalgia and race, about whiteness and the small town on the Eastern Shore of Maryland where I grew up. It’s an essay about the way in which history is remembered and forgotten, about the ways we’re born into a world of landscapes, none of which are innocent. I wish I could say I finished the essay while I was there. I didn’t. But I did make progress. I did have time to think about its structure and the patterns in the narrative. I did have time to read and imagine new projects. Time, too, to go for mediative walks along the River North Esk, scrambling down to the rocks and standing as close as I could to the rapids. The word retreat, comes from the Latin retrahere: to pull back.  And in a way, the possibility of a writing retreat is that — and its opposite. To pull back from the world as a way to get closer to it.

Dr Joshua Rivkin (Visiting Research Fellow 2020)

My time at the Burn writing retreat was honestly the greatest gift (thank you IASH!). The train ride up offered a welcome transition, and a few days of not having to worry about meals alongside a set of inspiring academics was ideal. The walks along the nearby riverway were enchanting and invigorating and over a few days I was able to clear my head and get some real work done on both my current research as an Environmental Fellow on artistic tools to use to create empathy in the viewer in relationship to the current extinction crisis as well as on a proposal related to an audio installation I have been working on for two years in Alaska and Panama. My fleshing-out of the proposal for this work at the Burn is towards its exhibition at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska in September 2020.

The piece Disturbance is an immersive audio/video installation focused on the dramatic recurrent audial interruptions that disrupt natural sonic environments generated by large-scale industrialized manmade machines (ships and jets) that function as part of the complex worldwide cargo network. The piece is crafted from in-field audio recordings of the thawing arctic winter-scape along the Anchorage Bay in Alaska, a sonic-scape that is rhythmically fractured by the sudden blast of cargo jets taking off from a cliff overhead. This arctic pairing is set in conversation with recordings made from within the tropical equatorial rainforest in Panama interlaced with intervals of the slow, deep, build of drawn-out bass generated by massive cargo ships moving through the Panama Canal. The manmade frequencies produced by each of these machines are so low and/or powerful that we register them first in the body before we can hear them, and the standard human biological response is to equate them intuitively with threat, as their only comparable sonic representations in nature signal danger (volcanos, severe weather, icebergs calving, stampedes, large waterfalls, etc.).

The experiential installation of the piece is designed to pull apart and draw attention to the battling experiences of sonic-scapes made up of biophony (natural sound sources) and anthrophony (manmade sound sources) in two disparate geographical locations creating a conceptual global bridge. The interplay of these audial (natural/manmade) and locational (arctic/tropical) components amplify the vastness of this manmade global network and the intensity and pervasiveness of its impacts on a planetary scale.

Professor Christina Seely (Environmental Humanities Fellow 2020)