Words and outdoor worlds: nature writing at Moniack Mhor

Linda Cracknell is a writer of fiction and non-fiction with strong links to nature and landscape. Here she whets our senses with words for outdoor places.

Get someone to close their eyes and bury their hands and nose in a pile of last autumn’s rotting leaves. What does it prompt — memories? imagination? words?


Exploring the outdoor world can return us to childhood. Examining the creatures living in the sandy deposits of the burn we become playful, crouching children, marvelling as we poke at newts and caddis-fly larvae. Inhaling pine resin evokes for one person the memory of her grandmother’s wardrobe; for another, sweet cicely rubbed between fingers releases a scent-memory of liquorice sweets. At its best, writing feels like a kind of play too; diligent play. We arrange words to spark up images, sounds and stories, capturing them for ourselves and for others.


Moniack Mhor creative writing centre near Beauly is running a residential course designed to bring together these two kinds of play. The centre stands at about 300 metres, its gusty heights giving a commanding view into Stathfarrar’s hills and down to the green depths of Glen Convinth. But nearby are forests with mysterious corridors offering bright keyholes to loch and hill, and open moorland on a high brink above monster-deep Loch Ness. At this elevation there are surprises of chilblain and sunburn and green and the clatter of black-throated divers in a mating display. It all weaves a potent magic.


Senses are the foundation of sharp, observational writing and if we start with that pile of leaves it isn’t long before words are generated.

‘What does it smell like?’

‘Pungent, like my den in the woods when I was 10.’

‘Choose a verb for what the scent of the leaves is doing?’

‘Punging – is that a verb?’

It can be if you make it one. The rotting leaves are punging. Verbs ring against nouns: Tree sleeping, Flower staring, Morning hooting, Sweet day whispering. It’s not long before metaphors surprise us with their appeal to imagination: Light like a snake charmer piped up a wood anemone from the dark cold ground in a forest clearing.

On such a workshop even people who think they ‘can’t write’ surprise themselves. By drawing on concrete experiences and with help from the rhythm and motion of walking through a landscape, we can all enter such play. And so we walk a line of poetry to pulse it into life; create a character and take a journey in their shoes; draw maps and name our own discovered places.


A course at Moniack Mhor is permission to refresh eyes that may have been half-closed by habit and find out what words can conjure in company with others. This August myself and poet Valerie Gillies, who says, ‘open air and birdsong are the inspiration to my writing’, will be leading a five-day residential course exploring places local to Moniack Mhor in words and imagination across any written form. Well-known naturalist and founder of the nearby Aigas field centre John Lister-Kaye joins us as guest reader — a chance for a very intimate reading from this year’s book, ‘Gods of the Morning’.

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And if you fancy arriving on foot, here’s my account of one way of doing this! http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/news/the-writers-path-across-the-hills-to-moniack-mhor/0012831/

For more information about Linda visit her websiteWriting & Place , with Linda Cracknell & Valerie Gillies, and guest Sir John Lister-Kaye, takes place Monday 24th-Saturday 29th August.  All images courtesy of Linda Cracknell.

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