A vast sweep of heather, forests behind, a solitary cottage with whitewashed walls and yellow chimney smoke drifting up from the chimney. This is Moniack Mhor, the Arvon Foundation writers' centre near Inverness, home to the Pushkin Prizes winners and chaperones for five days.
In May, eight Scottish and two Russian children visited there as their reward. The group was as diverse as the topics and styles of their writing, yet within hours of meeting at the prize-giving ceremony in Edinburgh, the banter was unstoppable. Within two days even the shiest had taken a leading role in game sessions, thanks to the ambience and the session leaders, poet Anna Crowe and children's author Alan Durant.
At Moniack Mhor everyone was equal. Students and adults alike lit the fire, cooked, washed the dishes and entertained. There was no television set or radio, but some brought out portable CD players at times. Otherwise, the air of creativity prevailed.
Each morning writing sessions were delivered by Anna or Alan. Generously and expertly they shared their knowledge. We experimented with different styles, looked at each detail in photographs and each other and challenged our safe boundaries. Each intensive two-hour session finished with readings of our writing and as a reward for our hard effort we were later sent a printed booklet of written work from Moniack Mhor.
Free afternoons allowed us time to wander around the awesome scenery, chat or work on our own quietly. In very little time, we were trying out the basic niceties in Russian. We sang together, talked politics, showed each other work nobody had seen before, giggled and forged friendships.
The dark nights were spent around the living room fire. Anna and Alan read their work and we shared our favourite passages from books and poems. One night a guest speaker, writer Keith Gray, entertained us with his stories and then joined in a storytelling game session. Another night we shoved the furniture aside for a ceilidh with a guest fiddler. Ruth Armstrong (Royal High, Edinburgh), the Scottish second prize winner, and Alex Buskie (Banchory Academy; highly commended) performed on their instruments and we danced and sang. It was magical.
The value of the Moniack Mhor experience is immeasurable. Most of us are still in contact with at least one member of the group and most of the children are still writing. As a chaperone teacher it was satisfying to work with such dedicated young people and to see them flourish. None of us will forget that week we shared and some of us will, in the words of the Russian first prize winner and our friend Sacha Almazova, "meet on the shelves".
Pauline de Koning teaches English at Banchory Academy, Aberdeenshire