We interviewed Ruth Tauber of Moniack Mhor, a picturesque creative writing centre based in the Scottish Highlands. Ruth, a writer and communications co-ordinator at Moniack Mhor, told us about the centre’s history, available support for writers and her three favourite books of all time.
1. Moniack Mhor is a writing retreat, a literary collective, supporter of writing competitions, fellowships and awards and, finally, a writing school. How did this all come together in this remote setting in the Scottish Highlands? Does the centre’s location have a beneficial effect on people’s writing?
Moniack Mhor was established by siblings Kit and Sofia Fraser in 1993. The remote croft house was transformed into a house to welcome writers. Since then many of the finest writers in the UK have paid us a visit, as tutors, guests and even as students in the early stages of their writing careers. In the 23 years we have been operating as a writers’ centre, our principle programme of writing courses has expanded to include partnerships with other writing organisations and universities, a full youth programme, competitions, awards and a fellowship. It has been a long process to get to where we are now, and has involved the input of many dedicated individuals, and, most importantly, huge support from the writing community, locally, nationally and internationally. For two decades, we worked in partnership with Arvon (formerly the Arvon Foundation) and since 2015 we have been operating our own programme of creative writing courses with the support of Creative Scotland.
When writers visit Moniack Mhor, the first thing they see is an expansive view across the glen to the mountains to the north-west. Most rooms look out on this view and, together with the hill-top location and a plentiful supply of food, an atmosphere is created, which is productive and inspiring. Most students leave with renewed vigour for their writing endeavours.
2. What types of writer does the centre primarily attract, and where do they come from?
Throughout the year we welcome writers from all over the world. There is not a typical Moniack writer, though often what draws people to the centre is the sense of community in what can be a lonely endeavour. Writing is a solitary act, so to come together over dinner or a guest reading in the evening is something that I think appeals to many writers. As our courses cover many different genres, we meet writers working on all sorts of interesting projects, from those turning their own life experiences into fiction, to poets, children’s writers and novelists. Through our grant programme we support writers who may not otherwise be able to come on one of our courses, so we are fortunate to welcome writers from all sorts of different backgrounds. Over the last couple of years, we have also seen an increase in both local writers coming on our courses and those who have come from overseas. I am always so impressed when we have writers visiting who are working in their second language.
3. What resources can visiting writers take advantage of at Moniack Mhor? Does the centre’s guidance extend through to publishing advice?
The primary aim of Moniack Mhor is to offer time, space and inspiration to write. That said, the professional experience of our tutors often means that advice on other aspects of the writing life is available. We also run events that aim to shed light on other aspects of the writing life. In October, we are looking forward to a visit from Francis Bickmore of Canongate, who will talk about what publishers are looking for. Often, between the tutors, the staff and the other students on the course, writers go away with a long list of ways they can improve their writing and opportunities for getting their writing out there. Both in the house and through our social media channels, we share as many opportunities, competitions and awards as possible. It’s so satisfying when shortlists come out with familiar names on them.
4. As we mentioned before, there appears to be a strong support structure in place for writers who traditionally would have less access to writer development resources than most. Tell us a bit about Moniack Mhor’s work with young people, fellowships and bursary schemes.
Our location in the Scottish Highlands means that we fully understand how it can be for writers who might feel isolated from events and opportunities, and we work hard to make sure everyone can access the ones we provide. We aim to support those who might face other forms of isolation by offering a grant scheme that is open to writers who do not have the means to pay the full course fees. These bursaries have supported over one hundred writers in the last two years. We also support professional writers, who need time and space to write, through the annual Jessie Kesson Fellowship – which gives a published writer a month to spend at the centre, concentrating on creating new work and helping to raise awareness about Jessie Kesson through community events.
Our youth programme, which is supported by CashBack for Creativity, and managed by my colleague, Eilidh Smith, means that writers under the age of 25 in the Highlands have access to a programme of workshops, residential courses, mentoring and support which takes place at the centre and in schools, libraries and community centres around the Highlands. We target our efforts, making sure we reach out to those who don’t usually receive access to this kind of activity. Much of our delivery is in partnership with other organisations, providing rich, multi-disciplinary experiences. Young writers also get the chance to visit and stay at the centre on youth programme writing courses, as well as on any open programme course if they are over 16. As well as benefiting from the creative writing aspects of the course, young people make new friends, work together, cook together and get a taste of independent living.
5. Finally, what are your top three favourite books of all time (non-fiction and fiction)?
This is a tricky one; it’s like choosing between friends! I would have to say Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon is one, as it inspired me to study Scottish literature and was the beginning of an enduring connection with Scottish writing. I also love The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver and am currently very much enjoying the poems in Gold from the Stone by Lemn Sissay.