IT turns out that books are not all that easy to burn. Bending over the ashes of a place I’ve called a home, a refuge, I find the pages of one or two books still intact, fragments of ash-flaking pages surrounding discernible text. It’s a moment bright with sadness, or perhaps sad with brightness. I’m still not sure, for the feelings are new to me, and still settling in, making their home in my life, as something which has happened to me too.

I am someone who lives life sharing a home with those whose own homes have been lost to fire and fear and fighting. Consequently, I have often wondered what it might be like to lose everything or have to leave all behind. Until very recently, I have only known something of it at one step removed. I remember bringing out a black terracotta earthenware casserole dish which we’d been given as a wedding present, and those living with us exclaiming in delighted recognition of its smooth, hand-thrown surfaces.

“This is what we cook in at home! Where did you get it?” For their Christmas present that year we trawled the internet for a supplier and ordered one for our friends, a small gesture of trying to reconstitute what had been home, of bringing back the everyday, ordinary tactile possibility of connection, for their new home here in Scotland. Then there was the moment when a great scarlet, black, beaded and golden hanging appeared in our house – another gift from “back home” which now hangs in our hallway, making our home into her home too. Or the Students’ Companion to English I found in a second-hand book shop to give to a friend from Zimbabwe who had had it as a school textbook. And oh, the exclamations at the sight, in Scotland, of a school book from “back home”. “Ahhhhhhhh”, “Awwwwwww”.

Gifts do this for us in life. They show us that we are bound together in relations of gratitude and giving, of debt and deliverance. The objects we have, which are precious to us, come with stories of thoughtfulness and love, of connection and gratitude, of kinship and kindness, and these accompany our lives at various stages, and in various housings, nesting in to us, settling us down, telling us what home is now, today.

News of the fire came as I was about as far from home as it’s possible to be, standing outside on the street having just been evacuated from a hostel in Hamilton, Aotearoa, New Zealand, by an early-morning fire alarm. As it went off, I’d been calling home, where it was late afternoon. “Is that a fire alarm?” came the concerned voice, thousands of miles away. “Yes, I’ll call you back when I’m safely outside.”

Five minutes later – in one of those strange moments of coincidence of time and space – home is calling me back: “You will never believe this, the police have just called. There has been a fire. There is nothing left.”

We’ve owned a small cabin in the Perthshire hills for 15 years now. It’s been a place to “rest and mend”, as Karine Polwart puts it so eloquently in Wind Resistance. The life I lead and work I do is not always easy and every now and then I, too, need to lick my wounds, as everyone does.

As a thinker, I need to spend time in thought and with difficult thoughts. As a writer, teacher and researcher whose work is bound up with the lives of refugees, the quiet of trees and hills and rivers helps me feel my way into a world of both complexity and simplicity, and of pain and pressure.

Our cabin has had many affectionate names – variously known as “the little brown house”, “the shed”,”the cabin”, “the lodge”. A modern-day hermitage, it nestled into a bank under great Scots pines, and beneath a spreading hazel. The burn ran by ever-present, swelling in the regularity of rain. It wasn’t just for us. It was a community asset, shared and enjoyed by so many people, who wrote in the three volumes of guest books which we had there; stories, poems, pictures, children’s diaries, tips and memories.

For some, those pages contained 15 years of family accounts of holidays. For others, it was a place of sadness and stillness – those who had lost a child, a partner, a friend, a job, a home, would go there for a while; those whose lives were ripping in torment and the chaos of broken relationships, breaking homes, displacements, home-sicknesses – the cabin was just a place making possible the finding of a firm footing once again.

And then, all the delight of honeymooning couples and writers, of students and walkers of heaths and hills. Ashes were scattered here; poetry composed; games of gladness played for hours in the rivers and around the trees. “Was anyone staying?” was the first question, and I fumbled for my diary of bookings. “No.” Relief. Silence. And then: “It’s only stuff.”

AS we’ve shared the news among our people, the mantra has been “Thankfully no-one was hurt” and, again, “it’s only stuff”. We’ve said this, and others have said it time and again. There is a truth to it and the words are steadying, as memories of things encircled with emotion rise up.

My grandmother made a small coffee table in woodworking classes just after the Second World War. It’s gone. There was my collection of poetry books, and the knowledge that it was there that my best poetry was written; a tent and sleeping bags for nights out in the high glens; books of flora and fauna returned to time and again for remembering the names of plants and animals we’d seen – speedwell, melancholy thistle; eyebright, sun dew, butterwort, cloudberry; the roe and red deer; the merlin and harrier, the plover and dotterel and snow bunting. The gold-winged eagle from the far, lonely hills up the long glen. A bottle of single malt.

This is a small sadness. It’s no tragedy for a middle-class couple to lose a caravan to fire. There are some who would rejoice – and do so – at our loss, for it is, of course, a mark of the privilege of our lives and now it’s gone. Within the bindings of our drearily unequal society, where many are homeless, and many have no money, we do our best, and as imaginatively as we can, try to offer some respite, relief, repair and refuge and have done for many years now.

I don’t believe that a world of justice and restoration is going to be delivered to us on a plate by governments, or any other agency, any time soon. While working for structural change and for the wheels of government to turn, I firmly believe I also need that world to be made, in part, almost experimentally in the life I try to live too, in the struggles against systemic injustice and small acts of what I hope is kindness.

We are lucky. Unlike refugees, we can restore some of what was lost, and offers of kindness and thoughtfulness have been generous from round about us. Insurers, inspectors, loss adjusters and the readers and evaluators of our filled-out forms are doing their work. “It’s only stuff. No-one was hurt.”

And these words are the ones I also hear in refugees and asylum seekers speaking of “back home”. What is precious is the connection to family; what aches is being away from them in times of pain and pressure; what aches, too, is the loss of what was ordinary and everyday – the casserole pot, the picture that hung on the wall, the way a cloth might be spread, or a beloved and well-studied book. Homes are held in these familiar objects, suspended in a meshwork of memories, storing stories of safety in the places which make up our own touchstones of rest and recovery.

Kneeling in the cold, damp ashes of what had been a place of refuge, I turn over a damp blacked lump. It falls apart, acrid with smoke, and there it is – the poem that has survived the fire. I think it’s from the Anthology of Modern Scottish Women Poets edited by Dorothy McMillan and Michel Byrne. It’s called The Living Fire – a beautiful hymn of praise to the hearth, the flames which warm with an offer of hospitality, the flickering of light which tells you of greetings and smiling welcomes, of open doors, the work of making a refuge.

Alison Phipps is Unesco Professor for Refugee Integration through Languages and the Arts, University of Glasgow, and Ambassador for the Scottish Refugee Council