A week at Moniack Mhor

Rattling along ever narrowing roads in Gordon’s minibus with six strangers, I’m slightly apprehensive about what lies ahead. A week in the middle of nowhere (The Scottish Highlands) with twelve writers who are surely more experienced than I am. We round yet another bend and finally Moniack Mhor is revealed, white and nestling at the bottom of the track. We are 1000feet up and the wind tries its best to knock me over. And then we are absorbed gratefully into the warm farm-style kitchen, welcomed by Angie and Rich. We settle in, awkwardness melted away by the wine, snapping logs in the burner and the embrace of squashy sofas. The last few participants are blown in the door and we are complete – a very appropriate 13, ready for our Crime Writing Week.

Around a long refectory table warmed by candlelight, we get to know our tutors, Stuart MacBride and Allan Guthrie, over a delicious moussaka. I tell Allan that our paths have crossed before – as youngsters on the inaugural National Youth Orchestra of Scotland course. And I produce the photograph, him clutching a bassoon and me, a cello. Our careers have since taken us in very different directions, but music was there at the beginning.

After dinner, we find our way through the darkness to the Hobbit House, a straw bale studio. There is irresistible charm in its circular structure and smoky log cabin smell. The tutors lay out the schedule of our coming week and what it entails. The excitement ramps up a notch. I can’t wait to begin.

As I’m in a twin room, I’ve been based down in the adjacent cottage where the tutors occupy the upper floor. I’ve struck lucky with my roomie, Charlotte, who is here from Edinburgh. It turns out that we get on well, and our residency of the ground floor proceeds in light-hearted and friendly co-ordination.

With a nine thirty workshop start, I’m up early, curious to explore. The ferocity of the wind has calmed somewhat, although the lines of daffodils are still bobbing and dancing a frenzy. There’s something special about the Moniack air. At first, the silence is thick and absolute – a deep peace that drops the shoulders. Then one by one I hear the curlews, the contented sounds of the horses in the field. The nearest one looks up and considers me, still chewing. He tosses his head at his companion. “Lookit. ‘Tis another of ’em. And no’ even a carrot tae be seen. Prrrrrrh!” I am clearly found wanting.

Snowy peaks still stretch above the early mist. But Spring has certainly arrived, despite the chill. Banks of gorse blaze an impossible yellow as I trudge up the path for breakfast. A cup of tea warms the body and puts my brain into gear. I’m going to need it. We potter around between toaster and stove. Heather arrives with more fresh eggs from her chickens – they taste glorious. We ponder the unfamiliar stove top. Why isn’t this ring reacting? Remembering my frustrations with computers, I remark darkly “Error. Pan Not Found!” Charlotte and I giggle as we discover our mistake and set the eggs to boil. We start to match names to people – and discover a lot of us start with J. This could be tricky. Some have travelled a short distance – others have come as far as from New York. And I of course made the trip from Norway. We’re all at different stages of our journey as writers, but we’re here with common goals. To learn. To improve. To be inspired.

It’s the start of an incredible, unforgettable week. A week of eagerness, intense brain activity, blankets, giggles, weather, emerging friendship – and achievement. We work hard. Workshops until lunch, followed by individual tutorials, then time honing our work in progress (WIP) and homework, followed by evening workshops. Total immersion and few distractions. And opportunities to wander off down the road and chat with the Highland cows. Who seem equally unimpressed with me. I can’t really see their eyes under the gingery fringe, but something about the tilt of their horns tells me all I need to know. Yup. Another writing student. Pish. Charlotte, by contrast, seems to have locked onto their wavelength. She informs me that communing with the cows has produced an inspiring new direction for her WIP. There’s inspiration to be found around every corner. I feel coccooned from the current harshness of the world, transported to another, gentler reality. There is clarity of thought here. I’m gaining tools, absorbing so much.

Stuart and Allan are gifted and compelling tutors. Humour is never far away and sometimes I ache from laughing. But we have also become a solid group. We listen to, encourage and applaud each other. We share our anxieties and questions. And we have no need of a clock. As morning coffee break approaches, our noses twitch – home-baking smells reach out from under the kitchen door to reel us in. We fall upon Jillian’s shortbread and scones. Such a welcome treat. And back to work. We cover a lot of ground. I feel my brain expanding with all that I’m learning. I’m excited, in heightened awareness and so very glad that I took the steps to come here. I feel alive and curious about everything. More enticing smells herald lunch – a giant farmhouse spread which includes baked potatoes or quiche, salad, cheeses and fresh bread.

We each have two one to one tutorials throughout the week. These prove enormously helpful, rich in advice and reality checks. Every writer has to learn not to be precious about their work – to be willing to chop and change and even scrap huge chunks. It is painful but healthy. Choosing to have my sessions earlier in the week gives me plenty of time to get my brain whirring, re-thinking and re-drafting.

After the first night, we take turns in teams to prepare dinner. The recipes and ingredients are laid out already – all we have to do is cook, serve and clear up. The Wednesday Team, with Yours Truly on board, set to work and produce (we reckon) superlative Balsamic Roasted Sausages with veg and sweet potato mash. Fruit crumble rounds off the meal. Cooking in a team proves to be good fun, particularly in the later stages when we feel an accompanying glass is in order.

On Wednesday evening, we are joined by our guest speaker, forensics expert Professor Dave Barclay. His presentation is so fascinating that we forget about bedtime. Here is the perfect opportunity for 13 crime writers to discover how best to kill off their fictional victims and leave little or no trace. Having consulted on cases all over the world, Dave is a mine of information. Forensic science is an area that intrigues me – I could sit there listening and watching all night, but another early start is approaching. Dave keeps us on the edge of our seats, a speaker with a natural humour yet practical approach which eases a raw audience through some fairly gruesome scenes.

Our final night dinner is memorable – haggis, neeps and tatties with whisky sauce. My ears catch faint sounds from outside as we wait…..could it be?….yes! To everyone’s great pleasure, our haggis is piped in expertly by young Mitch. I admit to a tear in my eye as the haunting pipes skirl around the table. Zigurds does the honours with an impressive delivery of To a Haggis by Robert Burns. After which we raise a wee dram and toast “Slàinte!”

Following the haggis dinner, we file into the Hobbit House to each give a reading of our work. Reading aloud for up to five minutes feels like a long time. I’m nervous. I have radically changed my work, bearing in mind the tutors’ advice and all that I’ve learned – but will it work? What will they think? One by one, we read. I’m enthralled and impressed by my fellow writers, the scenes they conjure up and the talent in the room. So much variety. When the tutors tell us they are impressed by how much we have improved in a few days, I feel relief and pride in our achievements. It’s early days but we have put new knowledge into practice, been boosted and given confidence to continue learning the craft. What a week!

The weather has improved throughout our week, sun making the white walls sparkle. I’m up early, unwilling to miss a moment of my last morning. Fat bees buzz in the gorse, and a large hare lollops without haste down the hill. The horses are too busy grazing to bother with me. I breathe in the warmth, squinting out at the mountains, now a blue-purple haze. It feels like a piece of paradise and I don’t know how to leave.

The staff at Moniack Mhor are treasures. Nothing is too much for them. It seems as though they have thought of everything. There’s always a roaring fire in chilly weather, advice on hand, help when you need it. All delivered with warmth and generosity. Many thanks to Rachel, Heather, Angie, Rich, Laura, Jillian – and Nicky, who led us on a beautiful walk up above Loch Ness. Special mention also to the various dogs – Mac, Koko and the lovely Cashew.

And last but by no means least, a huge thank you to Stuart, Allan and Dave. I’ve gained so much from this week and I’m determined to get cracking and keep working on my writing. As for Moniack Mhor – I will be back just as soon as I can!

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