Beat This Retreat

I’ve never retreated anywhere – unless you count retreating to the sideline in PE class in the eternally optimistic view that the teacher wouldn’t notice my absence (really, I was doing them all a favour). So when a wise and encouraging writing friend suggested a writing retreat to Moniack Mhor in the Scottish Highlands, I’ll admit I was in two minds.

Would I be locked away in a cell-type room with a narrow bed and room only to swing my pants?

Would everyone be earnestly writing away 24/7, too preoccupied to pass the time of day?

Would there be an enforced vow of total abstinence (from the sauce, I mean; I certainly didn’t go on a writing retreat for anything else)?

Answers: yes; no; definitely not.

My accommodation was indeed a cell-type room.img_20180507_181524775_hdr202652813.jpg

And I know it was big enough to swing my pants because I tried, – in lieu, you understand – of an actual cat. Although I doubt I could have swung my jeans. But here’s the thing: despite Moniack Mhor having numerous other writing spaces – communal lounges by wood stoves; a straw-bale hobbit house where a writer can go the full Tolkein and forge works of wonder to throw into the fires of publishing;img_20180507_205347522177698084.jpg

a stone, story-telling circle – I found that I gravitated back to my little room. It was here that I wrote the most words (9310, if you’re counting. I was). It was here that I found inspiration to begin a first draft. It was here I felt energised to keep going. I was content in my confinement. Ideas seemed to expand beyond the constriction of my four looming walls. There might not have been space on my desk for more than a laptop, cup of tea and pack of regulation Tunnocks caramel wafers (these are essential for Scottish-based writers who include them in their retreat riders), but, I reasoned, if Oscar Wilde could turn out great literature from Reading Gaol, then I could turn out a first draft of something that might or might not escape my laptop one day.

And, to be fair, I doubt his view could match this:

And although my room was next to one of the communal bathrooms (actually useful when you’re waiting, towel over arm, ready to pounce when vacated), I’d imagine Oscar was required to ‘powder his nose’ somewhat less comfortably.

Of course, folk were there to write, as was I. But my fears that my fellow inmates retreaters would be locked away all day, every day, were unfounded. There was always someone to chat with over a cup of tea (at least ten sorts of tea – and I love tea inclusivity…or inclusivitea, if you will), or to take a stroll in the forest with, or to stoke one of the log-burners with.  And it was this aspect of the retreat that I most appreciated: the community of writers.


A tribe of scribes. (Flyingscribbler: top row, right)

We were all there because we love to write, love to share our writing experiences, and love to support and encourage each other in our writing endeavors. It was a joy to meet such a diverse group of writers; between us we had most genres covered: children’s, YA, adult, crime, script, memoir, plays, poetry…Writers don’t always get out much, but when they do, they like to talk.

Which brings me on to point three.

When the cat’s away, as they say…

Moniack has an arrangement that the writers cook dinner for each other in teams. This means, at 4pm, after a quick briefing on what/how/how much to cook, the staff leave the building. We only realised the significance of this on the final evening, when, after an astonishingly delicious Haggis dinner (OK, I was on Team Haggis), washed down by most folk with wine, and a wee dram, and whisky sauce with the haggis, and whisky in the cranachan dessert, we all realised we were home alone. Did we polish off the single malt? No, we did not. Did we dare each other to read aloud from our hard-earned word-smithing? No. Did we turn in for an early night? No, of course not.

We toured the site, room-by-room, on a giddy comparison quest. Whose room was largest; whose desk the widest; whose view the most panoramic. Childish? Yes! Writerly? Who cares! What a laugh. And, dear reader, I won. Not the largest, widest or most panoramic room prize. No. To the delight of a fellow writer who had laboured all week under the impression that she was installed in the least commodious room, I proudly showed off my small, perfectly-formed, and highly productive cell room.  “Lady Bracknell herself,” I didn’t say (but wish I had), “couldn’t have swung her handbag in here.” My new writing friends concurred, and I won the smallest room sweep stake.

And so we returned to the lounge to celebrate our week of writing, community, and celebration.

Moniack Mhor is a glorious place in a wonderful location with amazing staff and an atmosphere that inspires. I’m going back, and if the only room left is what I shall henceforth call “The Oscar Wilde Suite”, then so be it.

Although the double bed with ensuite would be nice too.



The Devil’s in the Detail.

Part of the writer’s work in creating believable fiction is to include just enough detail to make a setting or scene believable. Details add interest, but too many, and your story becomes swamped; too few, and your story feels empty. Details can bring a story to life; they can add authenticity; used well, they can transport the reader onto the page, and beyond.

Like any good writer, I’m always on the lookout for a detail I can scribble down in my notebook. I might not need it now; I might not need it next year. But the detail is there, waiting for its turn to be used.

I currently have no plans to write a story set in the medieval Scottish Borders (historical fiction authors have nothing to worry about just yet), but on a day out last week to expand my acquaintance with Scotland, I found myself swamped with exciting snippets of history to hoover up and empty out later into my notebook.

Melrose Abbey is a fantastic old ruin. It gains bonus points for having a sole surviving spiral stair to the top of a tower which offers dizzying views and close encounters with pained-looking gargoyles; it gains more for the absorbing details it shares about the life of its medieval retinue of Cistercian monks.

Spoiler alert: the rest of this post goes a bit lavatorial from here….

Folk – by which I mean me – always seem fascinated by the ins and – mostly – outs of an astronaut’s personal needs. It’s one of those questions you can guarantee someone will ask an astronaut giving a talk: “How do you go to the toilet?” I imagine its got something to do with nappies.

Likewise, people – ungallant, treasonous people – often wonder how the Queen deals with those prolonged visits and royal functions. I mean, at her age… you know… things don’t always function as well as they once did. I’m not suggesting the monarch’s solution has anything whatsoever to do with nappies; but she must have some means of dealing with the royal ablutions.

So imagine my joy when I discovered that the Cistercian monks of 14th century Melrose Abbey had an ingenious solution to servicing their bladders, and, more importantly, one which wouldn’t impinge on their duty in servicing their Lord. Not only is this snippet of medieval history utterly fascinating, but it also gains entry into the “intriguing details to be used (or not) in a piece of writing sometime in the future” section of my writer’s notebook.

Reader, follower, lover of fine historical detail, I give you the medieval, male, portable urinal:


Hidden beneath their monk’s robes, this handy, totally portable peeing pot, would enable the abbey’s residents to maintain their composure, and a comfortable bladder, throughout their long daily devotions. And there were a lot of those. Eight trips to the hassock in all, beginning at 2am with matins, following which came lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers and compline, after which the monks would retire for the night. With that many devotions to attend, imagine how grateful they would be to have to hand a convenient, transportable, personal urinal. Although I’d imagine they would have required a certain degree of skill, not to mention dexterity, to hit their target with 100% accuracy, all the while communing with God and definitely not drawing attention to the activity beneath their robes. Still, probably preferable to the communal latrines.

Who would have thought a wee trip to the Borders would have turned up such an intriguing and interesting item?

I’m not intending to write a historical novel at the moment, but if I can’t find a way to insert a monk’s portable urinal into a middle grade story – especially a comedy – then I’m not the writer I hope I am.

Remember writers, the devil’s in the detail. But hopefully not inside a monk’s pot; because then they’d have been spending rather too much time peeing, and not nearly enough praying.

Happy detailing!


Inspiration is everywhere…if you can see it through the fog.

Apparently, the UK has been basking in record-breaking September weather. At least, it has if you believe the front pages of the, as ever, London-centric press.

Mid-week last week as the headlines sweated…

…the reality in the east of Scotland, as was the reality in much of the UK, was somewhat different…

As a person who likes to think they’re in tune with the forces of nature, who has some connection with the elements and who tries to see beauty wherever and however it appears, I kind of pretended to say that it didn’t matter what the weather was trying to do to us…I quite like the dankness; the darkness; the can’t see the end of the garden-ness

But come on! A deck chair and a slathering of factor 30 would have been nice. I might even have put some shorts on.

However, I determined to make the best of what the North Sea was offering. And as it happens, I’m currently working on a story in which the fog, or haar, as they call it round here, plays an integral part. So the atmospheric conditions (and that’s called putting a spin on it) spurred me to make a research road trip to see more haar. When the haar closes in, everything changes: the view, obviously, but also sounds, the taste of the air, the touch on your skin. People stare out to sea and wonder…what if? Especially if they’ve seen The Fog.

By the time I got to my destination, in this instance the lovely East Neuk fishing village of Pittenweem in Fife, the haar was in retreat somewhat. For about an hour. But you still have the impression of there being no division between sky and sea. A fishing boat went out of the harbour and was quickly swallowed by the haar. And by the Kraken for all I know. It’s possible. It happened to Captain Nemo.

It’s the endless possibilities that weather conditions like this offer the writer that I find so intriguing. Mystery, secrecy, danger…things hidden and things appearing, words absorbed into the fog…people sucked into the fog. Anything can be hidden on a day like this…if you’ve something to hide.

35 degrees of blazing sun suddenly loses its appeal. It doesn’t offer nearly so much intrigue.

And if that’s not putting a positive spin on the weather, I don’t know what is.

Entering the Forth Dimension

Entering the Forth Dimension

I’ve just become a government statistic, albeit one which won’t be noted until the next census in 2021: I am now an English (well, quarter Welsh) migrant living in Scotland.

We have moved, lock, stock and smoking dishwasher (the machine is currently protesting against its enforced displacement) to what is possibly The Best House In The World. Our new home was once a Georgian signal house and sits atop a stone pier on the banks of the Firth of Forth, bang in between two of the world’s most iconic bridges: the Victorian wonder that is the rail bridge, and its more modern (and soon-to-be-replaced) sister (are bridges always female, like ships?), Forth Road Bridge.

flyingscribbler nervously ponders the cost of repairing a crumbling crenellation.

flyingscribbler nervously ponders the cost of repairing a crumbling crenellation.

It is stunning.

It is (I hope) inspiring.

It is a place which is constantly moving: ships sailing under the bridges; trains, cars and bikes rolling over; and the weather whipping through as the winds funnels it down the valley and out towards the North Sea.

A View From (the other) Bridge

A View From (the other) Bridge

It might even be a dream from which I am yet to wake.

I am not an economic migrant; nor political. I am fleeing neither famine nor persecution. I am simply one of the many who have thrown in their lot with someone from Scotland; someone who could no longer resist the call of their ancestral land. Either that, or he could bear no longer the way English fish and chip shops insist on leaving the skin on the fish.

So I have joined what the 1861 census referred to as ‘this numerous class of aliens’, and will henceforth be commuting 500 miles by air to the airport. Yes, flyingscribbler will still be flying around the world to earn his living; he also hopes to resume scribbling. There’s nothing like moving your life (and mother: did I mention she’s coming too?) from one end of the nation to the other to curtail your creativity and leave your writing withering by the wayside.* And it’s just taken me two days to find the printer; I assume my muse is hiding in one of the yet-to-be-opened boxes.

I’m sitting at my desk in my new writing space. My view from here of the rail bridge is naturally awe-inspiring.

flyingscribbler's new view

flyingscribbler’s new view

How my new location affects my writing remains to be seen. I wonder how writers cope with an uprooting of this magnitude. I know some say they can write anywhere; others need the security of their regular ‘space’ in order to produce their work. But as I look out at the tide ebbing away, at the shore-line wading birds searching for lunch, at another train ferrying its compartments of travellers across the bridge and beyond to who knows where and who knows what adventures and intrigues, I’m beginning to be convinced that inspiration won’t be so very hard to

The Forth Dimension feels good. I think you’d like it here too.

*Predictably poor excuse for deserting my blog for over a month.

© flyingscribbler 2013

Castle in the Clouds – a new flash fiction story.

Returning from Uganda on Wednesday, I didn’t have time to write a story based on my trip (and still haven’t), before dashing up to Scotland to celebrate A’s birthday with his family.

Fearful of disappointing anyone, (myself actually), here is a story based on this trip to the Fife coast. Uganda inspired tale to follow…

Castle in the Clouds

The castle seemed to float between the clouds and the shore, shimmering mirage-like upon the glistening sand.  Surveying their kingdom for the first time from this vantage point, the royal couple finally appreciated their achievement.

‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ whispered the King.

‘Beautiful,’ answered his Queen.

Linking hands in a reassuring gesture of kinship, they continued to take in the scene.

As the evening sun continued to fall away into the ocean, the castle walls became framed in a golden halo, reflected in the moat wrapping itself around the castle like a jewelled ribbon.

The Queen sighed.

‘It won’t be long now,’ she said.

‘Can’t we do anything to stop it?’ asked the King, forlornly.

The Queen quietly shook her head.

‘It’s too late,’ she replied gently, ‘look.’

The King followed her gaze beyond the castle, out to where the waves were breaking against dark rocks.

‘I don’t think it’s coming any closer,’ he said, bravely.

‘Of course it is,’ snapped the Queen, ‘it always does.’

They watched silently for a few minutes until there could be no doubt.

Once released, the deluge gathered momentum, pounding back and forth up the beach, ever closer to the towering outer walls of the castle.

Finally, inevitably, the waves breached the moat, flooding it with cold, dark water; as the first tower collapsed, a single tear fell from the King’s eye.

‘That was the best castle we ever built,’ he sniffed.

‘I know,’ said the Queen, ‘but tomorrow’s will be even better.’

Copyright: flyingscribbler. 2010.

Whilst in Fife, we built the best sand castle I have ever been involved with, following a design offered by our niece and nephews. Ours, like the King and Queen’s, is now consigned to the waves.