Last weekend, I was lucky enough to attend a workshop run by Moniack Mhor, on Words in the the Landscape. The workshop was part of the Jessie Kesson Centenary, and although I’d heard of Jessie, I wasn’t familiar with her work. I am, however, familiar with the work of Linda Cracknell, who was running the workshop. Her novel Call of the Undertow* is set in Caithness, and is hugely influential to my own writing, so I jumped at the chance of going along.
Jessie Kesson isn’t nearly as well known as she should be. She was born in a poorhouse in Inverness, and ended up in a mental hospital in her teens. She was clearly very talented but was encouraged not to pursue this and instead become a domestic servant. She eventually married a man from Abriachan, near Inverness (where she had been sent to stay after leaving hospital), and eventually became a writer, a producer for Radio 4 Woman’s Hour, and an advocate for mental health care reform. Not bad for a repressed, fatherless girl from the Poorhouse, back in the days when women were only just beginning to step up and take their place in the world.
Jessie was hugely inspired by the landscape around her, and indeed, it became another character in her stories. The aim of the workshop was to look at the area Jessie drew inspiration from, and learn how we can incorporate the landscape into our own writing, and bring it to life.
Unusually, I didn’t take many photos, as we were encouraged to take notes instead. As a writer, I always carry a notebook, but my first lesson of the day was that I don’t use it enough! I tend to take photos or try to remember things and then write them down later, but this was a reminder that I can walk with notebook in hand and record snippets of things before I forget them (which I often do, with the best will in the world).
Highlight of the day was a fun exercise in which we led a partner blindfolded around a field and used other senses to describe the landscape to them. Other senses matter as much as sight, and give the landscape a more three-dimensional quality. The rough yet smooth texture of a rusty barrel; the smell of clover; a distant sound that could be traffic or the sea, or something else.
We walked to the house Jessie stayed in when she came out of hospital: a lovely old cottage high on the hills with a view over Loch Ness. It had previously been used as a holiday home (not sure if it still is), and what a place to stay! Solitude and miles of Highland landscape. It would make a great writing bolt hole, and it had a wonderful, creative energy about it. Not sure if that was what inspired Jessie, or if she left a bit of her own spark behind.
Back to Moniack Mhor for an amazing lunch and a doze of nostalgia as I longed for the company of the people I went on retreat with. Then an afternoon in the hobbit house, where we drew maps of a place that meant a lot to us (I chose the big forest), marked it with memories, then we created a character and placed them in that setting. My piece of writing wasn’t what it should have been – I shifted from setting into dialogue, as I often do when throwing a first draft together, so I didn’t volunteer to read it out. But those who did had written some wonderful prose and brought their landscapes and characters to life, which was the aim.
In the aftermath….I’ve taken a short walk up Holborn Head, which is the inspiration for the setting in my novel, with my notebook in hand, and come back with pages of observations that I didn’t have before. The headland in my story needs to become a character in it’s own right. It’s almost there, but when it comes to my second draft, I’ll make it richer. I now understand just how to do that.
Huge thanks to Moniack Mhor and Linda (and indeed Jessie herself), for a magical, inspiring day. I’ll end this with a picture of one of the creepy horses we saw on our walk, which I’m sure has inspired at least one horror story….