Travel: Literary breaks - In the Highlands for the write stuff

In a croft in Scotland, a group of wannabe Bruce Chatwins gathered for a travel-writing course. It almost proved too much for Ann Noon - but she did record the event
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The Independent Culture
WE WERE, it had to be said, a motley crew. There was Jackie, a graphic designer who was studying the art of sheep castration at evening classes; Judith, a one-time famine adviser in war-torn Eritrea; and Tony, an ex-lawyer and now a fledgling New Age mystic. They weren't even the half of it. There were 16 of us in all - 16 wannabe Bruce Chatwins clustered round a smoky log fire in a croft house deep in the Scottish Highlands.

Moniack Mhor (pronounced vor) lies 14 miles outside Inverness. It is a postcard-pretty farmstead which has been converted into a writers' retreat by the Arvon Foundation. Established to offer "a creative break from routine life, and the company of other writers", Arvon numbers among its patrons such literary luminaries as Salman Rushdie and Doris Lessing, and has two other schools in Yorkshire and Devon. Courses range from comedy scriptwriting to performance poetry and the art of songwriting.

Guided by prize-winning authors William Dalrymple and Philip Marsden, we had five days to find out how Bill Bryson does it. "Writing about travels," Malcolm Muggeridge once carped, "is nearly always tedious, travelling being, like war and fornication, exciting but not interesting." Our globe- hopping tutors, being firmly of the travel-broadens-the-mind school of writing, debunked the old humbug in no time.

I had come to Moniack Mhor to cut loose from the purgatory of commuting, to trade the stale stench of the London Underground for the clear, pine- tinged air of the Great Glen and, thus inspired, write the first four chapters of a best-selling travelogue with advice from the experts.

But to my shame, at the end of the week I found that I was only 2,000 words better off - 2,000 words of purple prose waxing adjectival about blood-red sunsets over gently swaying palm trees.

Writer's block can strike at any time. But, if at all possible, it is best avoided when you are booked on a writing course. Dalrymple and Marsden did their best with me. At the daily group read-in of our embryonic scribblings, they applauded in all the right places. During one-to-one seminars they praised and prodded.

Looking back on it, the view from the bedroom window might have had something to do with why I was suddenly writing a la Barbara Cartland. To the right, straddled by silver birches and flecked with purple heather, the woods of Glen Convinth. To the left, on the horizon, the table plateau of Ben Wyvis, its summit obscured by smudged clouds and a streaky sky. In front, a huddle of Aberdeen Angus, lowing softly. Everywhere, a blanket of calm.

Each afternoon, while the others sat engulfed in torrents of words, I would slouch at my desk and drink in the landscape like a marathon runner slaking his thirst. I was going to finish the course with a C minus for effort. But frankly, with such a bonny new world before me, I didn't give a damn.

Moniack Mhor offers a generous helping of the good life in more ways than one. You won't have to harvest organic vegetables or collect eggs for supper, but you will be expected to knock up at least one three-course dinner during your stay - with a little help from your new-found friends.

All three Arvon schools are big on bonding. Sociopaths and general reclusive types needn't apply. With its low ceiling, striped orange curtains and squishy sofas set either side of a crackling fire, Moniack's library is the perfect setting for an after-dinner group hug. As the wind shrieked down the chimney and driving rain lashed against the window pane, out came a bottle of Laphroaig whisky and, as one, we all curled up in outsized bobbled jumpers and thick socks.

When the writing gets tough, the tough can always go and bag a neighbouring Munro - there are several in the vicinity - or strike out along the Reeling Glen, a ravine walk capped by giant Douglas firs. More contemplative souls can sit on the shores of Loch Ness watching for bubbles in the water.

Perhaps the Arvon Foundation should consider relocating to somewhere like Clapham in London. That way, I might have got a whole travel trilogy written. But then, with its uncluttered beauty and simple pleasures, Moniack Mhor prescribes a dose of the right stuff as much as the write stuff.

Moniack Mhor, Teavarran, Kiltarlity, Beauly, Inverness-shire IV4 7HT (01463 741675; http://www.arvonfoundation.org). For details of other Arvon centres call 01647 281 286

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