Silver in the hills, gold in the hearth fire
Moniack Mhor turns twenty-five
by Kenny Taylor
The track to Moniack Mhor is crunchy with snow, as squalls of sleet whirl in from the east. Fast-moving clouds smudge charcoal across the sky, over nearby fields and a forest half-obscured in the glen below. Blue-grey smoke rises from a glint of stove pipe poking from a cluster of small buildings. Thank goodness they’ve a fire lit, I think, as I knock at the door.
Minutes later, there’s also warmth from mugs of coffee shared at the kitchen table with Rachel Humphries, Director of the writing centre and Richmond Clements, Moniack’s resident ‘Cyber-Wizard’. The glow widens as we chat, through tales of what once was here, what it became and what is yet to be.
People have worked the land and lived on this hilltop for centuries, says Rachel. So there’s a long tradition of meeting and sharing stories here, she reckons, going back much further than the start of Moniack Mhor as a residential centre in the early 1990s. Inspiration for that development came from a dynamic brother-and-sister duo, Kit and Sophia Fraser
“Kit had connections with the Arvon Foundation,” Rachel tells me. He brought Arvon founder Ted Hughes up here and suggested that this spot, with its inspirational hilltop views, would be a good place to run an Arvon course.
“Ted agreed. He thought the place was fantastic and said that Kit should do it, but that Arvon didn’t have the money for it at that time. So Kit and Sophia arranged a ‘Poethon’ – a big, UK-wide, 24-hour, fundraising poetry reading. They had readings on Arthur’s Seat, in London, in the Highlands.”
The Poethon raised enough money to contribute to the purchase and renovation of the property. Support also came from The Highland Council and the Scottish Arts Council. Moniack Mhor became an Arvon centre at that point, and ran 14 or 15 courses during the summer. In winter, everything closed.
Facilities were basic back then. “When Ted Hughes came to look around, this kitchen didn’t exist. The long building beside us was a cow byre – knee-high in manure – and the cottage was derelict. It hadn’t been inhabited since the 1960s.”
But although there was a gap between that last resident and the opening of Moniack as ‘Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre’ in May 1993, there’s a sense of previous occupants giving the place a ‘long thread’ of oral tradition, says Rachel.
“When I first came here (this is now my eigtht year) it felt like there were voices in the walls.”
There’s also been a remarkable link between past and present quite recently. The mother of Jamie MacRae, a young participant in a songwriting course in 2017, used to deliver milk to the last person to live in the cottage. Jamie performed his song ‘Wolves’ at Abriachan Hall, just down the single-track road from here towards Loch Ness, as part of that course. It was the first time he’d sung in public. The work impressed course tutors, Kathryn Williams and Roddy Woomble, so much that they helped Jamie to record it.
“He’s now on his way to becoming a recording artist,” says Rich, “and has performed at the Iona Music Festival and Belladrum since then.”
A participant in another songwriting course, Heather Fyson, has just released her first album ‘Shift in Time’ this year, thanks to advice at Moniack from tutors Karine Polwart, Findlay Napier and Mike Vass. Now That’s What I Call Mentoring (2018...).
Further strengthening of local connections to Highland writers and the Abriachan community comes through both the Jessie Kesson residential fellowship and the new Katharine Stewart Award. Jessie lived at Abriachan for a while, early in the 20th century. When I visited, the 2018 Jessie Kesson Fellow, Ryan Van Winkle (whose work featured in Northwords Now 34) was ensconced at his writing desk in Moniack’s cottage, staying snug as the snow kept falling.
Katharine Stewart, best known for her books based on her running ‘A Post in the Hills’ and working with her family at ‘A Croft in the Hills’ at Abriachan, was also an astonishingly prolific writer of further non-fiction titles in her nineties, including her last book ‘Cattle on a Thousand Hills’, published just three years before her death in 2013, aged 98. Much loved, both locally and as a figure in the Scottish literary scene, I know she’d smile with pleasure (as she often did at things she liked) at how the award in her name will provide a place for a Highland-based writer on a nature writing or historical non-fiction course at Moniack this year.
But what were the courses like in the earliest days here? The very first was led by Liz Lochhead and Roger McGough, says Rachel.
“We’ve a lovely photo montage of people involved in Year One. There was Jim Kelman, Iain Crichton Smith and Edwin Morgan among them – so, huge support. This year, we’ve got some of our original tutors, including Liz, Tom Pow, A. L. Kennedy and Janice Galloway, coming back. If it wasn’t for the support of writers of that calibre back then, I don’t think we’d still be in existence.
“Support from the Arvon Foundation was also huge. We worked in partnership for 21 years; and the Scottish Arts Council also helped a great deal.
Coming to Moniack in those early years must have been a bit like visiting a hill bothy, I suggest. Rachel and Rich agree, but reckon that, in some ways, it’s still rather like that.
“Even though you’re only twenty minutes from town, it feels isolated here,” says Rich.
“And everyone still cooks together”, adds Rachel. “People cook in teams of four, so that they can get to know each other. It’s a great formula, so we’ve been careful not to change it too much.
“Writing can be quite a solitary process. So being able to connect with like-minded people is worth its weight in gold, really.”
The major change in the centre’s recent history was in 2014, when it decided to go it alone, independent of Arvon. A strong driving factor for that move was that Moniack wanted to further strengthen its connections to both the local Highland community and the wider community of Scottish writers. Despite sleepless nights leading to independence – “It’s the most stressful thing I’ve done in my life”, laughs Rachel, it’s paid dividends.
In some ways, the move to independence seemed to make no business sense, she says. “We reduced our prices, reduced the number of people we could get on courses.
“Then we appealed to all the writing clubs in Scotland and Scottish literary organisations, everyone we could, to get behind us. And it was incredible, because they did! When we started marketing Moniack in Scotland and tapping on those doors, they opened, and we were welcomed with open arms.
“Thanks to Creative Scotland, it was a measured risk. They gave us funding to take us through the transition. Now they’ve given us a three-year funding commitment until 2021, which will allow us to experiment more with courses and try new ventures.”
Although the first year of independence was ‘emotionally, physically and mentally tiring’ some of the statistics since then show the success of the move, including a steady rise in occupancy of courses, with 96 per cent of places filled last year.
“So, no pressure!” quips Rich.
Among new work, three-year funding from the Life Changes Trust from this year will support programmes of activity for young people between 14 and 26, from anywhere in Scotland, who’ve had experience of the care system. That will include taster writing sessions and working with individuals to discover what kinds of writing most appeal to them. The young people will also play a key part in how the work is steered.
“Another exciting thing that’s happening is that we’re going to launch a small programme of Gaelic arts activity. This year, Bòrd na Gàidhlig are supporting us to deliver immersive courses in Gaelic songwriting and poetry, which will include all participants coming together for a public performance in Abriachan Hall. Heather Clyne, our administrator, is a fluent Gaelic speaker and she’ll be doing the delivery.”
Then there’s the inaugural Highland Book Prize, launched last year with support from the Highland Society of London, for a writer resident or once resident in the Highlands or whose book is set in the Highlands. More than 70 readers volunteered to read the 56 titles submitted.
“We’ll announce the winner at the Ullapool Book Festival in May,’ says Rachel. “It’s great to be working in partnership with them, as we’re also now doing with the Scottish Poetry Library and the Scottish Book Trust.”
Meanwhile, interest in Moniack from some very notable literary figures, evident from the outset in 1993, continues to be strong. “The beauty of Highland community is that we can welcome famous and very successful writers here simply as human beings,” says Rachel, “who can join in with life at Moniack, including through cooking or unloading the dishwasher.
“Whether you’re a participant or a teacher, there’s a connection through a common goal. It brings us down to earth.”
And back to the tales around the fire. That’s where the magic can happen, as it always has done and will continue to do, while havens like this thrive. Happy 25th, Moniack Mhor. Lang may yir lum reek.↑