Mhor chances to be creative

21st June 2013 at 01:00
The Scottish and Russian winners of the Pushkin Prize competition have plenty to write home about this year, says Diana Hendry

At Moniack Mhor - Arvon's Centre for Creative Writing in the Scottish Highlands - the tutors are given rooms in a cottage just down the track from the main house. My room has all the charm of a log cabin, with a view of snowy mountains and a library on the floor below. Gerry Cambridge - poet, editor, photographer and amateur ornithologist - and I are here to tutor 10 Scottish and two Russian children, all of whom are winners of a Pushkin Prize.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the Pushkin Prizes, a writing competition for Scottish children aged between 12 and 14, twinned with a parallel competition in St Petersburg.

So why Pushkin? And why this Scottish-Russian literary alliance? The idea was the brainchild of Lady Myra Butter, a great, great granddaughter of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837) who lives in Perthshire, as a way of perpetuating her ancestor's memory. It began in 1988 as a small creative writing competition for children in Tayside and within 10 years had expanded to include all secondaries in Scotland. By 1993, it had made the connection with St Petersburg.

This year, the 10 Scottish finalists were chosen from more than 200 submissions by 60 Scottish schools. Children submit a folio of three pieces of prose or poetry. Judges in previous years have included some of Scotland's finest writers - Norman MacCaig, Douglas Dunn, Edwin Morgan and Anne Fine - and past prizewinners are now teachers, medics, politicians, writers, vets, physiotherapists and parents.

The Russian coordinator Natalya Ushmanova deals with submissions from the 37 English language specialist schools of St Petersburg. From a shortlist of 10, two were chosen to join the Scottish children at Moniack Mhor for a week as the main part of their prize.

The aim is to allow the students to improve their writing skills and to expand and share their ideas in a week immersed in reading, writing and talking about books. It's about friendship and fun too. As Lindsey Fraser, one of two Scottish directors of the prize, says: "Our prizewinners establish friendships that we hope will last a lifetime."

Tuesday morning and Gerry takes the first workshop, in which he talks about list poems, personification and kennings. The students can all have a go. David has been sick twice during the night, but he does his best with a list poem.

My workshop is on points of view and I ask the students to write 200 words about someone special to them. Then, for a bit of fun, I give them an exercise based on why the chicken might cross the road. (Point of view: chicken and one other.) They produce bandit chickens, chickens on a metaphysical journey and a weasel up for chicken abuse.

In the afternoon, Gerry and I do six one-to-one tutorials. Afterwards, Gerry takes the students for a walk.

That night, we're all to bring a favourite story or poem - either current or from early childhood. We get The Hobbit, some Harry Potter books, Enid Blyton and Norman MacCaig. One of the Russian girls, the extrovert Apollinaria, reads Pushkin's poem Winter Morning, first in Russian, then in an English translation. (Her English is impressive!) The other, Maria, chooses to tell us why she loves Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull. One Scottish student, Alisa, scores a hit with a reading from the picture book Where Are You, Blue Kangaroo? Very soon we're all regressing and joining in the refrain.

Over the week, there is an outing to Urquhart Castle, and later a tools- of-the-trade session in which Gerry brings out his amazing collection of fountain pens. Their names make a lovely litany: Mabie Todd Swan, Wahl- Eversharp Skyline and Namiki Falcon.

Then there is his workshop about "ways of seeing". For my workshop, I pair up students and get them to discuss each other's pieces. I'm pleased with what David (now fully recovered) has written about Andy Murray and what Laura has written about her grandad. Gregor struggles with a piece about his father, who died when Gregor was just seven years old. Apollinaria writes about her mother, who sounds incredibly glamorous.

The last night is ceilidh night. The girls have dressed up. Alisa, her hair in plaits, plays her flute. Apollinaria sings Katyusha with passion. Maria, who has been more introverted, relaxes at last, puts on a Harris tweed cap and sings a hippy song. Natalya reads Burns' My Bonie Bell and three of the girls sing You Belong to Me. It's 1am before we get to bed. The mist has rolled in over the mountains as if to say "show's over".

And tomorrow it really is. There is a last morning workshop with all the students reading or performing something they have written that week. Lindsey collects poems and stories for the website ( Hugs and email addresses are exchanged. No one wants to leave. But the coach has arrived to take the rest of us back to Edinburgh.

Will the students all carry on writing? Will they remember the advice of Lady Butter - "You must have passion. Reach deep down." Here's hoping. Next year's Pushkin Prizes will be launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

Diana Hendry is a poet and children's author. Her recent young adult novel, The Seeing, was shortlisted for a Costa Award and has been shortlisted for a Scottish Children's Book Award.

Photo credit: Gerry Cambridge

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