Where is your perfect place? Writer and broadcaster Sally Magnusson has edited a new book which asks 30 prominent figures to name their favourite location in Scotland

Sally Magnusson only needs to take a few steps to travel a million miles.
“It’s really interesting to become more self-aware about what is happening to you,” says the presenter and author, pondering the impact of the everyday voyage to the bottom of her garden.

“It has forced me to think about what happens to me in a place, why I value it so much. And I realise that it’s not about emptying my mind or escaping thought, but a different kind of thinking, not about what I’ll be doing in the newsroom, or the many domestic tasks waiting, but instead an opportunity to think about ideas, book plots, the kind of thing that being out there lends itself to. It’s an escape to a different kind of thinking.”

What forced the writer to think about the effect of the landscape on her journey into the inner terrain, was her contribution to a new book entitled My Perfect Place in Scotland. She writes the foreword, and contributes her own entry about the joy she finds taking the path that runs from her home into the East Dunbartonshire countryside.

The collection is a collaboration with the charity SAMH – Scottish Association for Mental Health – and features contributions from 30 prominent figures in Scottish society, each one extolling the merits of the places they prize above all others. For Sally, who lives in the countryside just outside Glasgow, helming the book’s content brought with it an understanding that not everyone’s sweet spot involves fresh air and birdsong.

She says: “What came across to me most clearly from all the contributors was the importance of having a place, or places, at least one place where you think you can be yourself, have the space to be quiet, think, or not think. Sometimes that might mean fresh air and beautiful views, for other people it’s familiarity, community, happy memories. What I loved about the book, as I saw it developing, was the diversity and the breadth of the way people respond to different places. 

“What they all had in common was that it was somewhere that they felt themselves. The deepest part of themselves could be accessed there, they could feel at peace. Sandy Stoddart, the sculptor, chose Paisley, where he has lived all his life. All he wanted to do was to be in Paisley, wrap himself in the sounds and smells of that place. It’s the same sense of accessing his ‘self’ as someone else might get from being on a beach.”

The Covid pandemic triggered an unexpected reappraisal among many of us for the splendour in the prosaic, with travel restrictions forcing us to appreciate nature’s virtues closer to home. The Reporting Scotland presenter came to understand the value of time in the outdoors more gradually.

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“It’s something that has become more and more important to me in recent years,” she says. “When I had children, especially young children, I never moved at any pace at all. I’d almost forgotten what it was like to walk fast. As they grew up I began to have more time for all sorts of things, reading, thinking, walking. I began to realise how much walking in the fresh air invigorates and enlivens me and helps me think, so if I ever have something to puzzle out, that’s what I do. My husband does it for three hours, steaming away in a bath. But I need the opposite, to let the thoughts come to be in that sort of environment.”

As a writer, Sally has her name to more than a dozen books, the most recent being her third novel Music In the Dark, a love story set amid the Highland clearances, released earlier this year. In his memoir On Writing, Stephen King extolls sensory deprivation as a key technique for creating the optimum environment for writing. For Sally, the opposite is true.

“A windowless room would drive me round the bend, I would feel trapped,” she says. “I need light and a bit of a view. An ability to leave it and get out. I want light and access to fresh air. An awful lot of writing is about the thinking, the working out of plot and character. If I’m really stuck, staring at a windowless wall would be hopeless, it doesn’t drive my imagination, it drives me to despair. I need beauty.  I’m very fortunate, I live out in the country. With the royalties from The Sealwoman’s Gift (her 2018 novel), I was able to build a little writing room at the bottom of the garden where I can go and have a view of the fields. That’s what I need.”

For Music In The Dark, the author spent time on the Isle of Mull, following in the footsteps of her ancestors, imagining their relationship with the landscape where they lived their lives among the cottages of sheltered Ardmore Bay.

“My mind is inspired by place as much as anything else,” she says. “I feel a great affinity for the place. I like to walk among the sad ruins of the black houses, those ruined cottages that very poignantly evoke the generations that aren’t that many generations back from us. Music in the Dark started from my feeling of affinity with these lost empty places in the Highlands, where I feel I belong, and feel that sense of the spirit being liberated but in quite a sad way.It doesn’t take a huge act of imagination to see why they chose that place to live.”

Sally points to ancient Gaelic poetry as evidence that perhaps her forebears and their ilk were also minded to commit their ruminations on their environment to paper.

“I read in translation, a lot of it is very aware of nature, beautifully depicting the details of the song of a bird in springtime, the waving of the grass. It’s very obvious that these people were aware of the land and loved it a lot of the time.” One wonders what they’d have made of Sandy Stoddart’s eulogy on smell of petrol on a Paisley street, or a curry and a whirl along Leith Walk with chef Tony Singh.

“People have opened themselves up to public gaze, they’re being candid about not just the places but what the places bring out in them, what they say about who they are,” she says. “You get a sense of the breadth and diversity of Scotland itself, and that’s what I love most.”

My Perfect Place in Scotland, edited By Sally Magnusson, is published on October 19.