They all meet for the first time at the prize giving ceremony at the Archers’ Hall in Edinburgh, our ten Scottish prize-winners from all over Scotland, and our two Russian prize-winners from St. Petersburg, all a little wary of each other, and yet, by the end of that short week they will spend together at Moniack Mhor they will have become friends for life.
I’m lucky enough to be one of the tutors for the week, and I make a point of introducing myself to the parents of the prize-winners on that first day. I want them to know their children will be safe in my keeping. I don’t know whether it is the right thing to do. Would you trust your children with me?
The other tutor is Gerry Cambridge, poet, raconteur, the David Attenborough of Scotland.
Kathryn and Lindsey are the course leaders, and they don’t stop the whole week. Sitting in on all the workshops, supervising the cooking teams (yes, we make them cook their own food!) up with the first students in the morning, and never to bed until everybody else is settled.
And there is also Natalya, Director of the Pushkin Prizes in St. Petersburg, who accompanies the Russian students every year.
We had a wonderful teacher with us too this year, Craig Aitchison, who joined in every workshop, and produced some terrific work. In fact, he was so popular the students crowned him King!
Even on the journey north we make them work. I ask them to observe and listen. Ideas can come from anything, a snatch of conversation, a sign on the road. Gerry gave them riddles to solve.
Our destination is Moniack Mhor, Scotland’s Creative Centre, situated high on the hills above Loch Ness, totally isolated. Here we spend a stimulating, creative and most of all, fun week. Monday night was ‘getting to know you’ night. So, what did we do to get to know each other? We told lies about ourselves and had to guess which was the truth, which the lie. Surprisingly, everyone guessed right off I was not a cycling champion. We discovered Holly always wears odd socks, so you can imagine her feet were checked every morning to make sure that was the truth. But that night broke the ice, and we knew a little more about each other. Connor is the rock climber, Kirsty, an artist, Beth has a bizarre imagination (bit like myself really).
Each morning there were workshops, with both me and Gerry sitting in on each other’s. I love his workshops. I learn so much from them, about imagery and rhythm and language. And of course, nature. I think he knows the name of every single insect, bird and flower. (Big show off.) But what wonderful poems the students came up with from his workshops.
As for me, I wanted to show them how to build a story, from beginning to middle and end.
In the afternoons we have one to one tutorials, and that is really when you get to know each of the students, and find out their interests. That was when I discovered our lovely Russian girl, Kseniiea, (and I still can’t pronounce her name!) that she and I had a mutual passion for Jane Austen, and Darcy and Captain Wentworth in particular. Kseniiea was so looking forward to her trip to Loch Ness, couldn’t Nessie have put in an appearance just for her? Needless to say, Nessie didn’t oblige.
Both the Russian students were amazing, speaking several languages, reading and writing all that week in both English and Russian.
Before we knew it was Wednesday, ghost story night, and you haven’t lived (or died) until you have heard Gerry’s ghost stories. Just imagine, all of us gathered round a log fire, in a candlelit room, in an isolated house on the moors, and something is scratching at the window...
But the highlight of the whole week had to be the Thursday night ceilidh. These students worked so hard at it, and all performed in the little round house on the grounds we called the Hobbit House. Every one of them had a part to play. What a talented bunch they were. Alex on his chanter, Kirstin our gymnast, Rudi and Niamh on their ukeles, Cara and Niamh and their spectacular light show. Alex also gave us a great rendition of Bohemian Rhapsody. But the showstopper had to be our Russian boy, Evgenii, who, resplendent in his kilt, brought us to our feet singing a song from the Rocky Horror Show.
Did we enjoy ourselves? You bet we did. Did we learn something? I certainly did. Gerry’s poetry workshops made me want to be a better writer. The insight into life in St. Petersburg made me want to visit that remarkable city.
Some of these students I am sure will become writers, but whatever they do, they will be a credit to their families, and to their countries. I am so grateful I was a part of Pushkin Prize-winners’ Week.