Helen and Alex Walters – Plockton High School

Helen and Alex run a writing retreat on the Black Isle in the Highlands of Scotland. Helen is mainly a short story writer with many of her tales published in magazines such as the People’s Friend while Alex has written eleven novels.

Their workshop was slightly different in that writing tools/toys were used to produce various takes on the subjects formed with interesting results from the writers attending. Our workshop clashed with a parents evening at the school so a bell went every ten minutes to advise parents to move on to the next teacher. I remarked that this was rather like speed dating and, as a last theme, I decided on a man stumbling into such an event believing it to be an invitation to a new romance!

These are the writing cubes we used and we also used The Writer’s Toolbox which can also be found on Amazon.

Fiona Rintoul – HighlandLIT

Fiona is a writer, journalist and translator. Her novel, The Leipzig Affair, was shortlisted for the Saltire Award and she has also written Whiskey Island – a celebration of the distilleries of Islay and Jura. Her workshop was entitled ‘Giving Voice to Views.

Fiona gave us three pieces of advice about writing:-

  1. Making the most of dialogue meaning getting the point across and being aware that censorship is everywhere. Use dialogue to make a point rather than trying to fit it in with the story.
  2. Let the reader make their own mind up. Show don’t tell and don’t judge. Use your own experience not that of others.
  3. Use research mindfully. Be authentic if you’re writing about history but, don’t overdo research.

We were then given a choice of events to write about – one of which was the Charlie Ebdo tragedy and the other a piece regarding a prominent university’s female employee who had voiced anti transgender views. I wrote a pice of dialogue re the latter – surprisingly I was the only person to choose that one! I just thought it a more fluid subject as is transgender itself.

‘So what do you think Tom?’ Asked his good friend and flatmate Alice. ‘I think she should have kept her views to herself’ he replied.

‘Isn’t it better that we know how she feels and shouldn’t she be allowed to have free speech?’

‘Not if it’s hurtful and makes people stand out in a negative way’ Tom argued. ‘After all she could say something about a person that isn’t actually true – rather like being accused of a crime that you haven’t committed. I think there is no need to know if someone is transgender – people should be taken for what they feel and say, not for how they are made up. It’s only a matter of chromosomes after all which can be made up in any manner of ways,’

‘I’m so glad you think like that’ Alice replied ‘for I was once a man!’

Barbara Henderson – An Crubh, Sleat

Barbara is a writer of historical and eco fiction for children whose books are widely used in schools. She is also a teacher of drama and English as well as a puppeteer delivering workshops in schools all over Scotland.

This was a really great workshop as Barbara gave us so many good ideas. first of all we were asked to describe what we could see, hear, smell and how we actually felt. Once we had completed those in short paragraphs we wee asked to describe how we felt and what you could imagine in a place to do with it’s history. I chose Culloden Battlefield as I often go for a walk then when I’m in Inverness and wrote;-

As I walk on Culloden Battlefield I sense the sounds of the battle. Hand to hand combat with crashing swords and shields then the screams of the soldiers as they fall to the ground gravely injured. The squelch of soldiers boots in the field as it becomes soaked with blood. Then I think of the silence when the battle is finally over broken only by the moans of the dying and the differing feelings of loss and victory.

The next piece is in answer to Barbara’s request to imagine we find something unusual:-

As I walk on across the battlefield I come across a piece of long, white material protruding from the ground. I can’t resist and feel I must try to get it out of it’s burial place. It takes a while with a good deal of poking and scrabbling in the cold earth before it finally reveals itself as a lady’s bonnet edged with lace in which the initials EM are embroidered. I wondered who had owned the bonnet and what would a lady be doing in the middle of a battlefield? After much research I found that the bonnet had probably belonged to lady Elizabeth Macleod wife of the great chieftain. She did not want her husband to go into battle but, stood on the sidelines watching the tragic scene unfold. When it was all over and her husband had not returned she went to search for him among the dead and dying. She was begged by others to get away and some survivors even tried to hold her back but she refused to heed any of them and trudged on through the the blood sodden mud. She sometimes sank almost to her knees but, went on until she found what she was looking for and knelt down weeping beside her husband’s maimed and battered body. Her beloved’s ostler found her there and gently rose her to her feet. Her bonnet, which fell to the ground, was left in the mud to be trampled by those who followed to retrieve the dead and injured.

Lastly we were asked to sum everything up so I decided on a piece of prose:-

She found him lying there
Her beloved bloodied, maimed
Still him in death
Weeping she knelt
Her tears fell salty, silent
Cold earth seeped into her very soul
You must leave Lady
Came the voice
I cannot she wailed through her tears
Come lady come he pleaded
In finality she took his hand
In grief she stumbled away
Who would watch over him now

Mo MacQuarrie - August 2019