In March we’re taking a Dark Angels group to the Highlands to see if we can write a collective novel. It’s a slightly mad idea but we’ve reached the point now where we have a group of people who’ve been through all the available courses and still, amazingly, want more.
What can we offer beyond Masterclass level? We certainly don’t have anything to teach them any longer, they’re all skilled writers. So we came up with the idea of taking a dozen people away and, over the course of a weekend, setting them up to write a chapter each of a story which we will have very loosely plotted in advance. The weekend will be for character development and further plotting. The actual writing will happen after.
This time John, Stuart and I will be equal participants, each writing a chapter. The creative endeavour may be a dismal failure; even if it is, the journey will have been an interesting one and we’ll all have had another opportunity to flex our writing muscles in a new and challenging way. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
We’re going to a place that’s rich in stories. It’s a large Adam house on a hillside overlooking Strathspey and the Cairngorms and it belongs to another friend from my university days. Allan inherited it from his aunt when he was in his mid-twenties and he and his wife Marjorie have run it for the last thirty-five years, taking in guests from all around the world who come to shoot grouse and stalk deer on the estate that runs seven miles back into the Monadliath hills.
It’s a beautiful place, the house sheltered from the wild moorland beyond by pine woods and tumbling burns. The present house was built in the late 18th century by James Macpherson who published what purported to be the lost poems of the Celtic bard, Ossian. He was challenged by many authorities, including Samuel Johnson, and never produced the originals from which he said they had been ‘translated’. But they became a literary sensation throughout Europe and made him a wealthy man.
From a house built in stories to a tale of destruction – and another mystery – at the furthest reach of the estate, seven miles back into the hills. Here the remains of a World War II Lancaster bomber are scattered across the heather. Seven young Australian airmen and one Scot died when the plane came down on a training mission in 1944. The cause of the crash has never been established but it may have been damage caused by anti-aircraft fire, or freezing conditions, on a bombing run to Germany the previous night.
Throughout their custodianship of the estate Allan and Marjorie have done what they can to protect the site from souvenir hunters. They have also been instrumental in bringing together ‘lost’ branches of the family of the Scots airman who died. The repercussions from events such as this continue to ring on.
And then there are the stories that swarm around the house itself. Balavil, or Belleville as it was once known, has witnessed births, marriages and deaths, family celebrations and tragedies. It has resounded to voices and the tread of well shod feet from as far afield as Texas and the Urals, Cape Town and Helsinki, Hong Kong and Dubai. Over 30 years a steady stream of sportsmen and women have added theirs to the great colony of tales that flit like bats through the shadows when the fire is lit and the whisky poured.
How could one live in a place like this and not become a raconteur? Allan and Marjorie both are founts of stories, many of them hilarious, all reflective of what it’s like to run a large family and make a living within the curious timewarp of an 18th century sporting estate in 21st century Scotland – a fact that was gleefully observed by the producers of the TV series, Monarch of the Glen, who went on to cast Balavil as Kilwillie’s Castle.
I stayed there on Wednesday night to chat through our plans. Driving home yesterday morning through the Drumochter Pass in a blizzard, I thought that even if none of the stories of Balavil make their way into our book, we will at least have planted it in the most fertile ground we could find.