The wild sheep chase: Letter from Moniack

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The Independent Culture
THERE are no signs to lead you to Moniack Mhor, the Arvon Foundation's slice of the Highlands. A handful of miles north of Inverness, hidden away amid the picture postcard landscape, it stands high above Bolladrum Burn on the flanks of Glen Convith, face-on to the sunset, two stocky stone buildings gracing a habitat fit for sheep, or - at a stretch - for the SAS.

Yet the croft has been renovated, reopened, and is now brimming with writers, aspirant poets, from Shropshire to Pontefract, Selkirk to Stirling. There are 16 in all. 'If you step outside for a breath,' one declares, 'all you do is bump into somebody scribbling, or eyeing the sheep.'

Moniack's opening marks Arvon's 25th anniversary. In 1968 the Totleigh Barton centre opened near Okehampton, and in 1975 Lumb Bank in Yorkshire marked an expansion. Sophia Fraser, Moniack's Arvon lady in residence, is delighted. Having set the venture in motion just over a year ago, all seven weeks of courses spread across the summer are fully booked. Only the playwriting course has vacancies. 'It's fantastic,' she says, 'no one quite knows what to expect.'

It is Wednesday night, the midway point. We are in the long meeting room; writers are popping in and out, sitting in alcoves, lounging in armchairs near the big fireplace, comparing notes over bottles of Hungarian plonk. Someone slopes past, pencil poised; no one notices. Great smells drift from the kitchen.

Unrelenting informality is the order of the day, a tone firmly set by the course's tutors. Liz Lochhead, in leopardskin leggings and flashing earrings, sits in a huddle of earnest debaters; Roger McGough, a pale giraffe with a sad lion's head, saunters by in a baggy tracksuit and sits near Black Angus - Aonghas MacNeacail - the course's guest reader, here to do his one-night stand of Gaelic poems with English translations.

Alan, a primary teacher from Fife, senses an oddity in it all: 'When we head down to Beauly (the nearest town) to get a pint, the guys at the bar take half a squint and say right off: 'Ah, you'll be the writers, then, from up by.' ' Looking around, I can't spot the giveaway. No inky fingers; no stubs of pencil perched behind ears; no consumptive pallor.'

The Arvon ideal of releasing creative energy and offering mutual help guided and influenced by professionals is assented to by everyone I speak to. Each morning, communal sessions followed by workshops led by the tutors, crank the creative motor to life, after which the participants write, discuss work in progress, retreat to their rooms to tussle with words, track down tutors for personal help, or strike out across the tilt of the hill beneath the shadow of snow-flecked Ben Wyvis. For those susceptibile to the landscape, is such a setting a distraction or inspiration?

'It makes little difference where you're located,' says Roger McGough. Liz Lochhead, who has tutored in Yorkshire and Devon on 20 courses, quickly concurs. 'It's to do with the group and with its ability to seize the opportunity. They show each other their work. They are taken seriously as writers.'

The note of seriousness softly ricochets round the croft as the night wears on. Aonghas MacNeacail's readings (a buoyant litany of poems on cats, the kirk and black Angus's family), concern the potent force of minority languages and dialect - Scouse or Scots - and the tripwires or resonance they incubate in poetry. A lamp glows in one corner beneath a bookshelf, while Liz Lochhead glows in another, conducting the argument, seizing the moment to read, in tandem with Roger McGough, Edwin Morgan's The First Men on Mercury, a performance as dynamic as the language whose roots it celebrates.

I leave towards midnight. The croft lights blaze into the darkness, casting shadows and laughter into the silence. Scanning the sky for signs of the planets, I trip on a sheep, stand up, apologise, feeling sheepish, then scribble the incident into my notebook. 'This place will infect you,' someone had said. It had already. Arvonitis has landed.

Course information available from Moniack Mhor, Moniack, Kirkhill, Inverness IV5 7PQ. Tel: (0463) 83336