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26 September 2023

Life at Moniack Mhor – a special haven for writers

What happens when you put 16 writers together? Every week we have a new group of writers arrive at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s national writing centre in the Highlands. Each week is fascinatingly different. For the last 18 months, I have watched as groups of writers, most of whom have never met before, arrive, mingle and bond as a group. Some release the stress of the past few years. For some introverted writers, it is their first intensely sociable period for the first time in years. “People think it’s going to be this quiet lonely time sitting at your desk looking out at the wilderness, but it’s not, it’s so sociable,” said Genevieve Carver, this year’s Jessie Kesson Fellow and one of our International Residents this summer.

I love seeing people’s reactions on their first encounter with Moniack Mhor. Ostap Slyvynsky, our poet in residence from Ukraine, compared our Straw Bale Studio (affectionately known as “the hobbit house”), and the whole experience of being at Moniack Mhor, to being on a boat. “Here are the portholes, there is the wide horizon stretching out below us. Even the landscape is in waves, and here we are all together,” he said.

A unique and inspiring place to work

For me, the sociable nature of my job as Centre Manager is what drew me here in the first place. I had longed to go on a course at Moniack Mhor, and had occasionally seen jobs crop up, but since I didn’t have a driving licence, I was never able to apply. Then, after lockdown, I was working from home, yearning for a more sociable job and one connected to the world of books, when this opportunity popped up. I edged my way northwards from Edinburgh getting to know the wonderful bunch of people who work there. Six months later, I took the plunge from remote working and moved to the Highlands, where I grew up and where I never imagined returning.

I have worked at magazines and publishers, and organised literary events, but nothing quite prepares you for the intimacy and friendliness of Moniack Mhor. It took me some time to settle into a more public-facing role again, and now I love it.

“Working for Moniack Mhor is like trying to stuff an octopus into a wardrobe,” as our Director, Rachel Humphries, said recently. This image aptly describes the myriad challenges and sometimes bizarre nature of the job. I enjoy the hosting and looking-after-people elements of my job the most. Best of all is when a person has a problem and I need to solve it. One guest requested a weighted blanket, but, given our remote location, such things aren’t always easy to find, so I invented my own using a large cushion cover and some wood from the woodshed. She was delighted with it.

A place of extremes – from cosy kitchen to seasonal challenges

The kitchen is the heart of Moniack Mhor, where some of my favourite conversations with writers have taken place. Guests have described the nourishment that helps them get their writing done by stripping away all the hard work. We staff all share in the house tasks, including working in the kitchen. It has its quirks: the “cupboard of chaos” and “drawer of doom” meld into the mix of chatter, cakes and a feeling of delicious sociable warmth. The lunches are nothing short of joyous thanks to our talented cooks and the quality of our locally sourced food.

Moniack is a place of extremes. In winter, we pull the food delivery down the steep track on sledges. I have had to go out and rescue lost guests in the snow and the dark. I have been stuck in the snow myself and was lucky to have had the help of Graeme Macrae Burnet and other guests to push my tiny car up the hill.

The Monday night arrival meal is my favourite time of the week. Laughter and hubbub emanate from the dining room as the group get to know each other. People bond so much they often want to come back in the same group. I try to have lunch with guests and tutors as much as possible. Then, at the end of the week, we have to say goodbye and hope they will come back.

My only regret is that I didn’t come here as a guest before I worked here. But next month I am going on my first course at Moniack Mhor. I can’t wait to experience it from the other side, to burrow myself into the sofa by the fire, where I have rarely sat before. I will try my best to ignore the tentacles of my to do list reaching out to me, and I will write.

Claire Daly

Claire Daly is Centre Manager at Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s national writing centre. You can follow the centre on X (formerly Twitter), Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.