Case Study: Moniack Mhor

For their Radical Care project, Moniack Mhor provided two retreats with integral childcare in August 2022 and October 2022.


Moniack Mhor (MM) is Scotland’s National Writing Centre. Based in the Highlands, it runs tutored courses in a range of genres offering workshops and one to one tutorials and the opportunity to for full immersion in writing. The centre also offers writing retreats providing time and space, free from distractions, where writers can be part of a nurturing writing community. Other support offered by Moniack Mhor includes awards, bursaries, professional residencies to develop works in progress and a programme for young writers.

The team at Moniack Mhor were aware that participants and tutors with caring responsibilities faced significant barriers to engaging with the MM programme. This was both the cost and availability of childcare as well as the separation of their work as a writer with their family. Many writers expressed an interest in bringing their children, or young people that they care for, to reduce the barriers between providing care and work. There were also applications to the discretionary fund for childcare (at home) to allow people to attend.

MM ran a pilot residency with childcare provided in 2019 and attended the Radical Care research trip in Birmingham that year.

The Radical Care project

MM provided two retreats with integral childcare in August 2022 and October 2022. Each retreat ran from Monday to Saturday. The first was during the Scottish school summer holidays and the second in the October break for many local authorities in Scotland.

The first retreat was open to established Scottish (UK based) writers with caring responsibilities working in fiction, poetry, non-fiction or playwriting. To be eligible, applicants were required to have at least one major piece of work published by a UK publishing house or equivalent (for example, one novel, one short-story collection, one poetry pamphlet or had one professional production of their work staged). There was an application and selection process with the application including a covering letter explaining what the residency would mean for the applicant and a sample of their work.

The second retreat was a tutored retreat which was open to emerging Scottish (UK based) writers with caring responsibilities, working in poetry, fiction or non-fiction, with a writing project in development. Applicants may have had excerpts or articles published in the past, but not have published any major body of work. Applications were encouraged from those who had experienced barriers to the writing process. The application included a CV including showing writing experience, a summary of work in progress and a sample of work. The tutors for the retreat were Hannah Lavery, Alan Bissett and Cynthia Rogerson.

At both retreats there was a dedicated evening (with childcare provided by MM) at the end of the week where participants shared their work.

For both retreats childcare was provided by Abriachan Forest School from 10am – 3pm. Childcare was offered to children aged 3+ (with no upper age limit specified) with people with younger children encouraged to contact MM before applying. Bus transport was provided from Moniack Mhor to the forest school using a local school taxi provider. Additional activities were provided by MM after children returned from Forest School. As with a typical MM residency, accommodation and catering was provided including packed lunches for children. In a difference from the usual model, participants were not required to cook any meals. Children tended to be accommodated within their parent’s room with an additional room provided for writing.

There were 28 applications. Applications were assessed by the MM team. There were 8 participants for the first retreat and 7 for the second. 23 children attended. 14 successful applicants were female and 1 was non-binary (Only 1 male applied and was offered a place but had to turn it down.)

Impact of care responsibilities prior to Radical Care

The majority of writers do not receive advances for their work and therefore the writing time is not paid until the work is complete and accepted by a publisher. Emergent writers need to invest their time in creating a body of work that they can submit for prizes, funding or residency programmes in order to further develop their careers.

This means that the initial creation time is unpaid and undertaken at financial risk. For writers with caring responsibilities to have time to write means paying for childcare. Participants reflected on the lack of availability of ad hoc childcare which is compounded in rural areas.

This means that without financial or family support, writers lack access to regular childcare until they can access free childcare (aged 3). Lack of childcare also impacts on their ability to engage in wider activity such as networking and evening performers. One participant reflected that this:

“Makes it a difficult time to maintain your career; you stop being an active member of the community and that makes it hard to have a high profile and be visible.

The other solution for writers is to write in the evenings and weekends, for writers with caring responsibilities this comes with guilt.

“I often feel I am not doing well at either role (as a writer or a parent)

“When you are not being paid, it is hard to justify coming away from your time as a parent – there is real parent guilt.

Writers talked about the challenge writing at home in terms of the distractions (Lego, clutter, noise, the emotional care for children) and how that is a barrier to their work

“The other thing that is harder to explain, I have a lot of stuff in my head – there is a lot of life admin. One of my problems in writing is getting that all out of my head and being able to concentrate and focus.

The biggest issue that the writers with caring responsibilities identified was about sustained time to write. Others highlighted the need for time where they could just have ‘open ended thinking’ and the ‘space to let my subconscious start doing the work’. Those writing novels talked about it being a ‘marathon run’ requiring ‘gigantic amounts of head space’.

“Writing gets squeezed to the corners. I never really get to make writing my focus. It is really hard to good work that way.

The appeal of the Radical Care residency

The writers identified the importance of retreats in writers’ practice but that they are typically inaccessible for those with caring responsibilities.

“When you see a residency advertised you are immediately looking through to see when it might be and what the parameters are –most of the time I just assume that you are not going to be able to do it because you have got kids or other caring responsibilities – it’s just not possible – you go oh wouldn’t that be nice and move on.

The provision of childcare was identified as being essential in the ability to participate in the Radical Care residency. Having the childcare provided meant that the participant could make the decision to apply (not work out how they could manage the childcare gap) and this was empowering. It was beneficial to have children also being resident as it lessened the concern the participants would have about leaving them for an extended period.

An alternative model was discussed with participants of a bursary for childcare at home and accessing MM in a standard retreat which would allow more time for writing. Participants identified the barriers this alternate model would present:

“Being able to access ad-hoc childcare, in particular in rural areas

“The labour involved in managing logistics and the concern whilst away which would impact their work

“Children being too young to leave for the week of a typical residency.

Impact from participation

Participants were very positive about what they had been able to achieve in terms of output with participants meeting the targets they had set themselves and saying that it would not have been possible without Radical Care.

“I achieved what I set out to do – would have taken months at home. I did it – I really did! Not just achieved the word count – it was better quality than I could do at home!

“Both the direction and quality was good– it’s not words that are not going in the bin!

One of the biggest factors was having a longer period of time for sustained thought and momentum:

“I had a massive breakthrough in something I had been worrying about – having the sustained focus gave me a better understanding of the work which makes future writing easier

“I don’t usually get consecutive days to work – I was able to get into a rhythm and push through a block

In the tutored retreat there was a positive impact from the discussion with tutors. This impacted what people were working on, their writing technique, their direction of travel and their confidence. Participants mentioned that the tutors had different perspectives and there was value in this not least in showing that there was not one single ‘way’:

“Chatting with the tutors was phenomenal – so helpful to get feedback from respected people who know what they are talking about

“Having a conversation with someone who had actually done it & understood the importance [of being a writer with a child] was really key for my confidence building

“I knew it was a good idea – hearing others say it was validating - I feel I am on the right track.

What make a positive difference to success?

As identified by participants, having to make their own care arrangements would have been additional work and mental load which would have put them off applying. There was a positive response to the care provision.

One of the factors that influenced confidence in advance was information and planning. Participants generally felt that MM had planned the residency well and taken a consultative approach. Information was gathered through a detailed questionnaire with follow up emails and conversations. The planning was recognised as having gone into an appropriate level detail including travel arrangements, lunch, snacks, games and welcome gifts. Participants generally felt well informed in advance of arriving.

“The communication beforehand was good. They had considered care needs well, from timetabling to food. The most important thing was their warmth and can-do attitude. Nothing was too much trouble.

“The staff were very keen to express how they would adapt during the retreat to any further needs that may arise. Beyond that, the thoughtfulness of provision of games, activities, food, and the attention spent on my children was consistently incredible.

There were some issues (particularly in the first residency) but that did not relate to an oversight in planning. Some participants observed that their child had not behaved in the way they had anticipated.

They had thought carefully – they had a plan – I never felt there was stuff they had not thought about. That being said it was a bunch of kids with different personalities and age groups – certain things would suit some and not others – that can’t be helped.

Most participants were reassured because Abriachan Forest School was an established childcare provider which they could scope out in advance. The forest school model was also a recognised one with some of the children already having experience of this.

“I was a little trepidatious about my child but reassured by Forest School, I looked up before coming and saw they were an experienced provider with a good ethos.

Despite this there was still a residual concern about how individual children would behave when in the new environment of MM and whether they would attend Forest School. Participants talked about having a plan for this eventuality.

“I was anxious on the first day that it might not work –but the minute he got there he had a ball.

There was positive feedback about the experience of forest school with many saying their children thought about as their time at MM as a holiday. The majority of parents felt that they had good information from their child’s day at forest school and reported the stories that their children shared about their time. One parent said they would have liked more information on each day including photographs.

“The quality of care was excellent - my child was happy, confident and settled from the very first day at Abriachan Forest School, despite it being a new place with new staff and children. The activities were stimulating, age-appropriate and varied, and made the most of the forest location. My child came back keen to share her new skills and experiences, as she learned how to pollinate sweetcorn, use plants to dye cotton fabric, rest in a hammock, and saw both a mouse and a snake!

The wider care for children was also important in terms of activities and food. Some change was required in the scheduling and nature of activities (see learnings) but there was other positive feedback. The environment of MM was a positive aspect of the experience with parents talking about the freedom their children had and how they formed good friendships. The MM team were considered to have put effort into the care for children and thinking about this holistically:

“MM really thought about what the children would like & would be beneficial & enriching – thought about for their benefit as well as mine.

The ability to focus while children were on site was discussed with participants to understand how this impacted their writing work. Participants identified the importance of the forest school and the children being off site for an extended period. Having the children looked after on site for the full day would have been ‘more disruptive’.

“Having him there was reassuring – I was not thinking about him & phoning home. My time was more focused because I knew my child was away being happy & then coming back.

“I did concentrate better than usual - it felt so amazing that no-one was going to put their head around the door and bother you.

Participants identified that they would have achieved more output and had more opportunity for networking If they had attended without their children. Despite understanding this, there was a general acceptance that this was not an option open to them.

In addition to the direct impact on the participants’ work, there was also a wider impact associated with being cared for with words such as nourishing, nurtured and care being repeatedly used. Being cooked for personally and having the children’s needs met was one aspect of this – this was summed up as a relief from the general ‘mental load’.

“I was not having to solve all the problems – food, shopping, tidy up – the wider parental burden not just the childcare was all taken in hand –someone else worrying about.

One of the factors that participants mentioned was the fact that they had allocated both a bedroom and a writing room. This added to the efficiency of their time meaning they did not need to clear their writing away at the end of the day or tidy-up in the morning to be able to focus on their work.

“Having my own writing room – this was my own time which was understood in every way.

Some participants talked about how they felt isolated as writers with caring responsibilities so creating a shared community was valuable. Both residencies continue to have active WhatsApp groups and there were plans to meet up following the residency,

“I met writers from different fields that encouraged me to consider new avenues. The sharing night brought me together with people I wouldn’t normally share with and this was crucial, validating, supportive, and reassuring.

There was an importance to the retreat being specifically for parents with this being relevant to participants’ experience of being a writer in terms of the ‘shared struggles’. People learned practical tips about how to write with caring responsibilities:

“It was helpful listening to people talk about their routines – makes me think about what works best for me

“I got the advice that you will always find time to edit so just get stuff down, don’t finesse. Before then I was agonising over every sentence, so I never got the flow. Now I making more chunky progress and am able to use my time in a more efficient way.

Participants talked about how quickly the community was generated based on mutual understanding.

“There was an understanding between us, a shared guilt, there was no need to explain. To be around others and be understood and not be judged. I’ve not had that before. Understanding & empathy is precious.

"They get it - about the impossibility of the thread of concentration you need to do any kind of creative work and how it feels when that is disrupted

“I feel part of a community of writing mothers; it was so good to be allowed space to have both of those parts of my identity, which are usually in conflict, co-exist

“It made me feel like I could be a good writer and a good mother, and that keeping the voices of working parents in the creative industries is not only desirable but essential.

What learnings are there for Moniack Mhor and others considering this model?

Both participants and Moniack Mhor identified areas where change was required and where there was learning. Participants provided feedback that MM was responsive and quick to implement change within the residency. MM also reflected on the feedback after the first residency and made changes for the second.

“Everything was beautifully child-centred, and approached with openness, enthusiasm and a willingness to learn. Where there were tiny issues, they listened and made immediate changes.

There were practical learnings about how the typical model for MM needed to be adapted. An example was food choices with alternative options provided following feedback from children. The use of space was another learning. MM understood the value of having a separate writing room from the first residency and wanted to provide this for the second residency.

This put pressure on the accommodation at MM (especially with tutors also in residence) which meant one fewer place could be offered. In addition to the main house the cottage was used to provide accommodation. This made it harder for people with rooms in the cottage to participate in activities after their children were in bed. Having a writing room and bedroom in separate sites was more difficult for participants.

Neurodiverse participants and children found some aspects of the residency more challenging. Having a group of people and all space being shared (family bedrooms) can create an overstimulating environment. There can be tensions where people have different requirements and expectations for example for bedtime or quietness. Some children were over programmed and there was a need to provide quiet space and screen time for some children as a calming activity with some children not wanting to participate in group activities after forest school.

The biggest issue from the first residency was a need to change the planned structure of the day. This had a twofold motivation: children were too tired to enjoy the activity provided and it made them too ‘hyper’ before bedtime; participants also wanted extra writing time after forest school to wrap up their work for the day. This meant moving dinner earlier and having the activity (provided by MM) between forest school and dinner time (rather than after dinner).

Clearing up after dinner is a typical responsibility of participants in a MM residency – this was hard to achieve for parents of younger children who needed to have a hands-on bedtime routine immediately after dinner. For the second residency MM provided additional staff to clear up after dinner to remove this issue.

There was another learning related to the activity provided in having a greater clarity about who is responsible for childcare outside the forest school period. MM provided additional activities in the evening, but this was not the same designated childcare as the period of forest school.

On discussion with parents of the first residency, it was decided to control the amount of publicity around the residencies to ensure safeguarding of the children. The children who attended the residencies ranged in age from 23mths to 9 years old. The group dynamics of the children seemed to benefit from the difference in ages, with some of the older children enjoying taking a leading role with the younger children.

There were also learnings about networking and sharing. Some participants would have liked more opportunity to network in the evening. This was not the case for all people with some preferring to write and others to be with their children. To support social time, additional childcare would need to be provided as it was on the ‘sharing evening’. Timing was a factor for the sharing evening which was held on the final night. It was felt that this left no opportunity to follow up.

It was suggested that the first evening could have a light touch introduction to what people would be working on during the week so that this could be used as a prompt for individual conversations. This was planned for the second residency but delays to arrivals changed the schedule. One member of staff was present throughout the residency which provided a constant for participants and allowed the MM team to identify and address issues.

The first residency was draining for staff, the second less so; indicating that as the learning builds and changes are made to the model it becomes more effective. This indicates the importance of continuing to deliver and developing staff experience. The Radical Care residencies were resource intensive with additional staff added for the second residency. This model, particularly the staff time, would make it impossible to provide the residencies without additional funding.

There were fewer applications for the tutored residency which may relate to this not being fully funded or the focus being on emergent writers. It is important to note that the Radical Care residency was subsidised which was important for the participants. Several mentioned that they would not have been able to afford a typical MM residency.

A full week and ideally an extra hour in the day after forest school was requested by participants. Leaving was defined as a ‘grief’, ‘heartbreak’ and ‘feeling bereft’ with not being able to envisage attending again particularly as a family.

“The ongoing work of being a creative parent is one that continues to be a challenge. I hope that this work expands, so that people can at last see how the voices of predominantly mothers are lost for years, but this does not need to be the case.