The town of Callander, not far from the city of Stirling, is one of those places often referred to as ‘gateway to the Highlands’. It’s a busy little place, and scenic, with great big wooded crags behind it, from which the rain (when it’s raining) comes rolling down. It has a wonderful second-hand bookshop (more of that later).
It has significant history too. In 1645 about 80 Campbells (of Argyll), while retreating fast from a siege, were polished off by the Atholl men while fording the river. It was a fierce time.
And then there’s Helen Duncan – also known as ‘Hellish Nell’ and hence a bit of a connection for me. But although Helen Duncan was born in Callander, that town cannot be blamed for her adult pursuits as a spirit medium, with ectoplasm allegedly involving the regurgitation of cheese-cloth (there is an ‘official’ website that sues, quite rightly for her pardon, since whatever she was, she was not a witch). According to Wikipedia, the poor woman was the last person to be imprisoned under the Witchcraft Act of 1735 – in 1944.
But all of this is equalled by something no less extraordinary that occurs usually the first weekend in September in and around King’s bookshop. This is, of course, the Callander Poetry Weekend. You can find the programme for this extraordinary grassroots festival, if you don’t already know about it, on Sally Evans’s website, DesktopSally.
Sally is half of King’s bookshop, and Ian (King) is the other half. From that shop they run Diehard Press which has been publishing from the early nineties, first from Edinburgh (Old Grindles Bookshop) and then, as the twenty-first century rolled into action, from Callander. Diehard, among its other publications, is the source of the broadsheet magazine, Poetry Scotland. And Ian is also a book-binder.
Yesterday, for just one enriching afternoon, I was in the Kirk Hall in Callander with the poetry community that assembles for this special weekend. It is a real community, not just one of those ‘community’ references that surround us these days. On the page for ‘diehard publishers’ on the Scottish Poetry Library website, you will see this statement under ‘Submission Guidelines’:
We are ceasing to publish submission guidelines as we get to know poets through the community and readings. We do not accept online submissions.
The Callendar weekend is a community. Anyone can come. No money is involved (unless you choose to buy books). It isn’t competitive. There are lots and lots and lots of readings, and some high quality listening.
The atmosphere is friendly and supportive. You can feel like you belong, just because you’re interested in writers and writing. It doesn’t matter what nationality you are, or what shape or size or gender or colour or age.
Some of the Callander weekend poets have well-established, and well-deserved reputations. Some are newbies. Some are somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t matter. It reminds you that we are all part of the same thing, the same scribbling and trying, the same footering and listening. The listening is especially important – and at Callander the poets (and sometimes musicians) really listen to each other. They don’t arrive just for their own five minute reading and then bugger off. This is a community, like the bees that Sally keeps behind the shop.
Rilke leaps to mind: Wir sind die Bienen des Unsichtbaren – ‘We are the bees of the invisible. We plunder the honey of the visible in order to gather it in the great golden hive of the invisible.’
Doing away, as we say here. Doing away.
You don’t have to be famous. You don’t have to be published. You can come along with bits of paper. You can come with the poems in your head. You will fit in. There will be time.
And there are provisions: Sally magically summons them (though her magic is of the practical kind, including a basket of real, not plastic, cutlery), and the poets and helpers and friends bring more. This is a poetry community in which you will not starve.
That's if you can get there – a bit late for this year unless you set off right NOW, but there’s next – you should go, you really should. Add it to your bucket list.
I am absolutely certain there is nothing else like it anywhere in the world.