From March 13 to 15 I, along with historical novelist Margaret Elphinstone, am teaching on a residential creative writing course at Durhamhill, in a converted coaching house in the village of Kirkpatrick Durham, Dumfries & Galloway.
During spring and summer it is a very popular holiday let but outwith the season owner Juliet Caird has been hosting writing courses in March and November. There is a lovely paragraph on the Durhamhill website which reads: “When the weather is good, the courses can be conducted outside the house, in the inspirational surrounding countryside, perhaps at the giant stone circle seating area with views to the hills, or in the sunny, but more sheltered, orchard.” Not in Scotland in March or November, I’m afraid – though the countryside around is truly inspiring at any time of the year.
It doesn’t snow very often or very much here in south west Scotland so it was a surprise when the day before that first course towards the end of March 2013, it snowed heavily. It was a bigger surprise – shock even – to wake the next day and find the snow was still lying and even more had fallen overnight.
I drove very tentatively along un-cleared country lanes, not certain if I’d even make it through to the village, and slithered to a halt beside a car, half buried in a snowdrift at the foot of the single, uphill track to the venue. Juliet’s partner Alan appeared to transport me and my teaching materials the rest of the way on the back of his quad bike. I felt the tutor’s arrival was perhaps slightly lacking in dignity – but her feet were dry. Alan ferried several participants up the hill. We did not make use of the stone circle or the orchard.
Two to three workshop sessions are held on each of the three days covering all manner of writing topics. We’ve had sessions on the need to pay attention to detail – which involves props which can be eaten afterwards – poetry, life writing, plotting, beginnings and endings. Time for one-to-one meetings so the participants can have feedback on their own writing is also included.
Margaret and I try to provide something for everyone attending, whether they are complete beginners or more experienced writers. We must be doing something right because we often have returnees. This is reassuring and flattering but does mean we constantly have to revise our workshops to avoid repetitions. What is also lovely is the feedback both immediately after the course and later when past participants let us know of their successes whether it be finally completing the novel or having a play produced or articles published.
Everyone works hard during the sessions but there is always a lot of fun and laughter, too. Participants eat together at the big oak table which ensures the discussions and fun continues into the evening – often aided by wine. Another converted building houses a studio which can be used as a games room or even a mini cinema.
There is something special about the Durhamhill writing courses (not only being taught by us – the M&Ms as we have been dubbed). Where else are you likely to learn about dialogue in the morning then have the chance to chat to some llamas? Or, go for an adventure in a motorbike sidecar or have an impromptu jamming session with drums and guitar.
Juliet’s llamas are a major attraction to the people who come on holiday in the summer, especially children who are allowed to help feed them and take them for walks – and of course writers find them irresistible. Last year she wrote to tell us how many people had signed up, adding: “The llama shed is getting a new surface outside. Alan woke me up in a panic at the crack of dawn to say a lorry driver delivering stones had let the llamas out through the gate. I staggered from bed to the drive with a migraine and fell flat over the load of stones – then had to finish sorting out my last year’s accounting stuff for the last minute dash to my long-suffering accountant but a hired hot tub for the hen party who were arriving this evening wasn’t heating up properly and Lettie [she’s a llama] was shivering because she had to be shut out in the wind while the builders sorted the stones around the llama palace. Fortunately she loves hot water and drank half a bucket and stopped shivering.”
Are you, as I am, wondering if it was the hen party’s hot tub water the llama drank? And don’t you just know a creative writing course hosted by this woman is going to be a wonderful experience?
For more information check out the Durhamhill website: http://durhamhillcourses.co.uk
Juliet may not have changed the dates for this year yet! But the next course is March 13-15.