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Moniack Mhor - a Highland haven for writers

Moniack Mhor (photo: Nancy MacDonald)

Situated just a few miles north of Inverness, Moniack Mhor has been supporting writers from its picturesque base in a refurbished Highland croft for over 20 years.

Communications Coordinator, Ruth Tauber, explains how the creative writing centre's 2015 programme is focussed on helping writers of all levels achieve their ambitions.

Tell us about the history of Moniack Mhor?

Moniack Mhor was established by siblings Kit and Sophia Fraser over 21 years ago. Following a poethon in London, where poets read aloud for 24 consecutive hours in many different venues in Edinburgh and London, the funds were raised to convert a long dilapidated cottage and steading into a residential creative writing centre.

In partnership with Arvon (formerly the Arvon Foundation), the first course was tutored by Roger McGough and Liz Lochhead and welcomed 15 aspiring writers. This course signified the beginning of a tradition that has become a staple in the literary landscape of Scotland. Many writers who have come through Moniack Mhor have gone on to become well recognised talents in their fields.

The croft itself sits on the site of an ancient Baron’s house, commanding panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. Scottish writer Jessie Kesson was born within a few miles of the centre, and themes in her stories are joined by the stories brought by the many aspiring and established writers who visit, in the broad conversation about writing that surrounds the centre.

What are your aspirations? Why do you do what you do?

In 2015 we've launched our very first programme of creative writing courses under our own name. This first year as an independent writing centre will see significant changes in our artistic programme including our pricing structure and the range of support we can offer to writers. The programme will continue our mainstay of residential courses but will also expand on what we can do for those based more locally by hosting evening events, running shorter courses and having the freedom to be able to adapt to the needs of the writers we meet. 

We recognise that often, all a writer needs is time and a space in which to write, so building low-cost retreats into our programme has been an important move in our transformation.

Our Youth Programme Manager has also been working hard to expand our young writers programme, and last year we were successful in gaining funding through Cashback for Creativity, so we are looking forward to planning lots of activity to help young people get the opportunity to experience the creative writing process. 

Everyone who works at the centre is passionate about helping people towards their writing ambition, no matter how great or modest. All the work we do: from the practical side of running the centre, preparing recipes and filling the fridges, and stoking fires to running bursaries, awards and fellowships, is to help any writer who visits us to achieve their target.

We'll continue to work with some of the finest writers in the UK and beyond to provide the opportunity for our visitors to learn industry skills from professional and experienced tutors.

  • A workshop in the sun at Moniack (photo: Nancy MacDonald)  
  • Sitting room in the main house at Moniack Mhor (photo: Nancy MacDonald)  
  • Moniack Mhor (photo: Nancy MacDonald)  
  • Moniack Mhor (photo: Nancy MacDonald)  
  • Moniack Mhor in the snow (photo: Nancy MacDonald)  
  • Inside the Straw Bale studio (photo: Nancy MacDonald)  
  • The community garden at Moniack Mhor (photo: Nancy MacDonald)  

    What kinds of courses and opportunities do you offer to writers?

    Our 2015 programme sees a wider choice of course than we have previously offered. There are short courses, which run from Thursday until Sunday, inspiring a short burst of creativity. We continue to run working week courses, and we also have a one day workshop and several evening events, which are designed to shed light on areas of the publishing and agency side of writing. Genres of courses have been expanded and this year we are offering courses in playwriting, songwriting, nature writing, and science fiction alongside poetry and fiction to writers working at varying stages. We screened our first film at local theatre Eden Court in January, followed by a talk by Claire Keegan. We are keen to do more events like this that inspire conversation about writing.

    A key part of our programme is the low cost retreats we are offering, which provide writers with uninterrupted writing time, inspired by stunning views, hill and forest walks and the option to come together with other writers over a hearty dinner in the evening.

    We are also hosting a residency month throughout March, to offer established writers the chance to spend an extended period of time at the centre. The two fellows we are hosting this year, the Gavin Wallace Fellowship and the Jessie Kesson Fellowship, will use some of this time to develop their own work.

    We are offering wider opportunities for young writers this year including residential courses, outreach workshops, mentoring, online networking and work experience. Much of our work will be with writers who may have barriers to experiencing the writing process. Moniack Mhor will continue to offer a bursary scheme to assist where course fees are problematic. The centre will also continue to offer retreat weeks to partner organisations enabling organised groups to benefit from the immersive writing experience.

    Can you tell us a bit more about what’s involved in hosting the Gavin Wallace Fellowship?

    We’re delighted to be working with Creative Scotland to provide Shetland poet, Jen Hadfield, a package of support throughout 2015. This support will include retreat space at the centre and any other input that Jen deems useful to support her project coming to fruition. Jen’s project focusses on the idea of flotsam and jetsam and what washes up on the shores of Shetland, where she lives. Jen has just returned from a research trip to Mexico and we are all looking forward to hearing about what she discovered on that trip.

    What are your plans for the future?

    This is an incredibly important time for Moniack Mhor. For the next couple of years, our energy will be focused on raising the identity of the centre and our work more widely to ensure a strong sustainable programme of courses.

    We intend to continue offering high quality tuition to writers from all walks of life through our open programme. We want to continue to build audiences for literary performance and spoken word by working alongside book festivals and through outreach events. Moniack Mhor sees the huge benefit of working in partnership to support literary activity and will continue to nurture new relationships and share skills and resources. The centre will expand its work with writers who may experience barriers by developing the strand of its programme that focuses on using writing therapeutically. We hope to make mentoring a part of the programme to allow us to support individual writers out with the residential setting.

    In 2013, with the help of the Beechgrove Garden, we built a community garden around the centre, so we’re looking forward to seeing how that grows, and improving the productivity of our gardens. We’re looking forward to the day when we can serve up Moniack Mhor potatoes to our guests! For the longer term, we would like to develop the space at the centre by expanding single room provision, enlarging some of our smaller rooms and extending by building a conservatory on the back of the main house.

    As always, ensuring that the centre is welcoming and a home for all, no matter how long or short the visit, is paramount in our work. Plus, if it keeps snowing, we’d like to invest in some cross country skis for guests!

    More info

    For more information on Moniack Mhor and their work visit moniackmhor.org.uk. Follow them on Twitter @moniackmhor and find them on Facebook here.

    Moniack Mhor is one of 119 organisations receiving Regular Funding from Creative Scotland across 2015-18.

    This article was published on 24 Mar 2015