The genesis of The Croft – Ali Milles

Picture Credit Charlotte Graham


The Croft has had various titles in the 3 years it has taken to write. From the slightly hard to pronounce original title of Coillie Ghillie to the already taken Ghostland to The Highland Queen which was rejected (according to the producer) for sounding like a Scottish drag act. But what has never changed is what inspired it. Where it came from. That starts with my memory of a road trip whilst studying at university in London to my friend’s holiday home on the remote Applecross peninsula in the Highlands of Scotland.


Coillieghillie is a real place. But it’s not an easy place to get to or find. Access is by foot or boat and neither of those are straightforward. I remember vividly the experience of arriving in the November dusk and walking ladled with bags along a 2km muddy track which undulated across a barren landscape and through ‘spirit’ woods to finally revealing a deserted former crofting community with one solitary place to stay. I vividly recall cresting the hill and looking down at the village for the first time bathed in darkening twilight, the water heard but not seen through the low-lying fog. It wasn’t a warm welcome. At best darkly beautiful at worst something more foreboding.


I’ve always had a complicated relationship with ghosts and the supernatural which oscillates between playing the arch sceptic and in turn the ardent believer. Perhaps it comes back to my childhood growing up in a very old house in the Suffolk countryside. It’s a house that throbs and hums with history through its timbered beams. Village stories abounded about its past inhabitants and the ghosts of those who remain. I could fill pages with slightly off kilter experiences growing up in that ancient house, experiences than I now either dismiss as an overactive childish imagination or alternatively a little glance as through a half-opened door into an ‘other’ realm.


That imagination and those experiences at home meant that the 48 hours I spent in Coillieghille remain printed on my memory and which in turn led me to write the play that has become ‘The Croft’. I couldn’t point you towards any specific experience or encounter more than that – I remember the eerie isolation and dark atmosphere that permeated the place. The village was full of ruins of former crofting cottages, long deserted and hemmed in by the sea to the front and behind a desolate and forbidding landscape. A landscape which didn’t invite much exploration in the November rain. On the second day a heavy mist descended on us and we were pretty much marooned without safe access to the car. There was no escape, no phone signal and no other human life for miles around. It was as removed and cut off from the world as I have ever found myself. I recall the horror of being left alone with my own imaginings and the ever-darkening atmosphere creeping in from the corners of my mind.


I couldn’t wait to leave and vowed never to return.


When in 2016 I picked up my pen and started tracing the idea for a play I was drawn inexorably back to Coillieghillie which has in some ways haunted me ever since that first visit in 2003. The rational part of me wanted to try and tap into that experience, to understand what was really happening and the believer in me wanted to share it. Just before picking up my pen I had finished a first draft of another very different play in which the wife of the protagonist was having an affair with the (female) babysitter. That relationship was slightly in the background to the main drama, but I soon realised that it was these characters who were the real story fighting for their place in that play which wasn’t meant to be ‘about’ them. That relationship was very loosely based on the experience of two friends who were facing the challenges of a new relationship between an older and younger woman.


I felt that these vibrant women needed their own story, needed to breathe a different air and thus they left Letchworth for the Highlands and I took them with me back to Coillieghille. Thus Suzanne and Laura gradually came into focus and took life within the world I remembered from that lonely visit in 2003. I began exploring their relationship in a place full of ghosts and myth and history. We are all effected by places, consciously or unconsciously – the bricks and the mortar somehow conspire to produce an atmosphere which some of us seem to feel more than others. I left Laura and Suzanne to react to the small isolated hut in Coillieghillie and then allowed the past to start dancing around them, to start weaving into the cracks in their relationship and then to start bleeding between the past and the present. Real life experience fused with the history of the village and a bit of imagination which after 2 further years of wrestling has resulted in The Croft being born as a stage play.


As with all ghost stories, it’s not really about the ghosts. I think possibly ghosts are as much the outer manifestations of our inner fears and personal traumas. Ultimately love, life and death are all inextricably linked together and form the helix of a shared human experience – and just possibly places share those experiences with us. Anyone who has lived in an old timbered house will testify to how they breathe as much they creak, quietly witnessing and absorbing, listening in some way. Alive.


I’m now excited and a little apprehensive in equal measure to re-visit The Croft. There is a power to the real story that I hope is contained well for the stage, I also hope it doesn’t extend its reach. Some things are after all best kept behind closed doors.


The Croft tours until April. Find all the details here.