A Highland writers’ retreat where guests learn to bring the outside in … and onto the page
James Morgan, Deputy Sports Editor of The Herald
THERE is the beginning of a grey mizzle, and the scrunch of autumn resonates underfoot as a few cars park up, their lights briefly illuminating a house in the distance. There is a figure in the doorway then it disappears into the warmth inside. And, now, I am that figure outside the front door of Moniack Mhor, a writing retreat of some renown whose luminaries include Liz Lochhead, Carol Ann Duffy, Val McDermid and Christopher Brookmyre, just a tentacle-length from the banks of Loch Ness.
It took me almost four hours driving north to reach this converted steading near Kiltarlity in the Highlands. And looking back now, a fortnight later, I can’t quite remember what that door looked like. In any case, it has far greater symbolism than the mere components of its form. I took my clothes off on the step outside and stood naked in front of it, the late October chill nipping at my shoulders. Figuratively speaking, of course. Inside I found the marrow-warming embrace of fellow men and women, who had similarly left their inhibitions on this doorstep. It was not what I had expected from a five-day residential course in business writing. But then this wasn’t just any business writing course, this was a Dark Angels production.
Formed in 2004, Dark Angels was the brainchild of John Simmons, Stuart Delves and Jamie Jauncey, a trio of writers who were alarmed at the growing tendency to tangle up words in jargon-infested webs. The latter is the author of five books, a natural storyteller and an inspirational figure who will guide us during the week.
“On one hand we think management speak is, at its very worst, toxic,” Jamie says. “It’s bad for people’s emotional health. Yes, it’s a crusade against that but we prefer to laugh and throw stones at it. The biggest sin of management speak is that it alienates rather than connects.”
Jamie is joined by Neil Baker, a former Fleet Street journalist who fell out of love with newspapers, if not crafting words themselves. Today, he says he writes what he wants to write and for whom he chooses.
There are six students: John, another Jamie, Lana, Sarah, Cameron and myself. We will bare our souls to each other as we pick over parts of our lives like scavengers searching for untold treasures. I find myself asking what all this has to do with business writing but it is clear Jamie and Neil are following a tried-and-trusted formula.
Our first day begins in what Jamie refers to as “the hobbit house”, a white rotunda propped on stone bricks and adorned with a grassy roof. It is straight from the pages of Tolkien and will be our writing base for the week. Our eyrie provides an astonishing vista, overlooking the mountain ranges of Ben Wyvis and Strathfarrar. In the foreground Highland cattle and sheep graze on the surrounding moorland.
A Red Kite rises and falls on the wave of a northerly wind. We are encouraged to bring the outside in. The great philosophers understood that if we can empathise with our habitat we can come to know truth and truth is not found in the mangled wreckage of a soul-crushing press release or company mission statement. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, however, were strangely silent on the nuances of tone and clarity in business communication. And that’s where the Dark Angels, who take their name from Milton’s Paradise Lost, step in.
The Angels set a frenetic pace as they chuck ideas at us: from discussing our favourite books to writing the introduction to someone else’s. A pattern is established: one emphasising verbal gymnastics, quick-thinking, impossible deadlines. The key is not to overthink things – overthinking leads to ambiguity, to contrivance and self-censorship.
The tasks become quite personal. We are mining the deposits of memories long since forgotten. Under duress, it is disconcerting to rediscover those lost truths. And yet, it is cathartic, too. There are tears, most suppressed to the rims of eyelids. Others are unable to withstand the flood. This feels unsettling but it also feels necessary. We are unburdening ourselves and relearning what it is to feel empathy in what we write.
Neil quotes the poet Robert Frost’s thoughts on writing: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.”
After a hard day’s craft, the wine and beer is brought out. Dinner is cooked by the students. I have been paired with Lana, who works for a community foundation in London. She wants to enliven her writing in a way which contrasts with my efforts to spruce up some cod in breadcrumbs. With enough wine in their bellies, the rest of the group graciously admit that dinner has been a success.
Nights follow a familiar pattern: a log fire and a dram, ghost stories, life stories, travel adventures in far-flung corners and sing songs until the early hours. John even hosts a wine-tasting evening.
After a day of fresh Highland air, I retire to my Spartan chamber. It is monastic: a tiny bed, one table, two lamps. But this is a place for reflection and, crucially, sleep. On most nights, the former triumphs over the latter but there is a simplicity to life here that is as reassuring as the blanket that is too short to cover my feet.
The next day, the deeply personal recollections are locked away in tea chests and the Angels focus on business. There is a realisation that the navel-gazing had to occur. There has been a cleansing of the mind, a silencing of the noise in order that we can be more attuned to the task at hand. And, there is a new-found sense of what it means to appeal to the reader’s emotions.
The other Jamie, a recent graduate, has come to Dark Angels for some direction on where he might go next in his career. It is clear from the off that he has a great gift for words. During one task, he replaces a vast tract of tedious copy about the environment, waste disposal and its impact, with the word “rainforest”.
Sarah, a public sector employee, says she has become stale in her work because of the constraints it places on her writing. She wishes her employer would give thought to sending people like her on a similar course. John, a former senior officer with a local council, continues the theme.
“Everything came to be seen through a single lens and reports all came to read like each other,” he adds. “It is unconsciously Orwellian. I think people have been clogged up in the machine. It ultimately affects the way you think.”
In the afternoon we are free to stroll the single-track roads or hire bikes to traverse the surrounding area. We are on the edge of a forest; to the east, a llama farm stretches out before us.
I am suddenly aware of how little I know of the flora around me. My companion, Cameron, a former journalist and now a translator, agrees that it would be beneficial to know the names of the trees we see. There are certainly fir trees but others are yellowing, some are brown, and they appear to be dying. I’m struck by the idea that I have been hearing but not listening to the world around me, looking but not actually seeing it.
As the week ends, I sense I have changed. There is a resolution to adhere to the principles the Dark Angels live by: to write more, to think more, to breathe more cool air and to fly high above the trees I will soon know the names of.
I have been given wings, after all.
Also published on Medium.