Next week I’m going to Moniack Mhor, the Scottish writing centre in Inverness-shire. It will be the twelfth time I’ve been since 2005 when we ran what was the second-ever Dark Angels course there, and the first one I took part in. I loved the place the minute I set foot in it and have had some of my most memorable experiences there.
This time I’m not going as a tutor but as writer-in-residence for the week. I’m looking forward to it for many reasons. Autumn, up on the exposed hillside where the centre sits, can be spectacular, with clear days and long views north to the big snowy summits of Ross-shire, or westerly gales that scatter the high-flying geese and rattle the house like a ship.
Inside, it’s basic but cosy with small single bedrooms, each with a writing desk. Downstairs there are log fires and deep sofas. The fairly recent addition of a circular, turf-roofed eco-house provides a friendly space for performances or group gatherings.
I’ve always found the whole place tremendously atmospheric, a retreat in the true sense of being somewhere to withdraw into from the world beyond, a cocoon of reflection and creative expression, where stories are for sharing and bonds develop quickly with other like-minded people.
My two fellow Dark Angels, the tutors, Neil Baker and Gillian Colhoun, are good friends. I’m looking forward to spending time with them without the responsibility of having to teach; though I admit that once we’re there it may feel strange to know that those oh-so-familiar exercises are working their magic in another part of the house.
But I’m there mainly to focus on my own project. I’m trusting that the Moniack Mhor effect will help me close my ears to the insistent clamour of the current political crisis; though since the subject of my project was both the co-founder of the Scottish Labour Party, and later the founding president of the Scottish National Party, it may be a little difficult.
Still, I will do my best. Having spent the last six months reading and researching, I vowed that I would start writing the week following my 70th birthday, now four weeks ago. I’ve managed to keep to my vow. I’m covering the ground and I fully intend to put in some good mileage next week.
It’s some time since I last wrote a book and I’d forgotten the satisfaction that derives not only from completing a task one has set oneself, but from the feeling of inner connection that comes from self-expression, the sense of an unfolding as the channels to the sub-conscious open up and unanticipated thoughts and ideas start to flow.
I’ve always loved the question attributed to EM Forster: ‘How do I know what I think till I see what I say?’ For me it captures something fundamental about the process of writing. It describes a way of linking the interior and exterior worlds we simultaneously inhabit, a way of taking us to a place of deeper understanding, not only of the world around us but of ourselves.
I’ve seen that happen so often for other people at Moniack Mhor over the years. Under Neil and Gillian’s expert guidance, I’m certain it will happen for our participants this week. The prospect of it happening for me too—in congenial company and a place I love—is the thing I’m most looking forward to.