If you head to the northern tip of Loch Ness, then west to The Aird, you’ll encounter the usual Highland terrain: brown heathery slopes, patches of boggy crofting land and dark green squares of conifer plantations. Above Glen Convinth, near the village of Kiltarlity, however, there is a small croft that over the last twenty-five years has not been used for farming.

Instead, it has hosted some of Scotland’s finest writers. James Kelman, Carol Ann Duffy, Andrew O’Hagan, Edwin Morgan, and Jackie Kay, among others, have all trod down its muddy track, stayed in the converted cow byre or cottage and looked out to the distant mountains.

Moniack Mhor fashions itself as “Scotland’s Creative Writing Centre”. Many authors I’ve met talk about it in hushed, reverent tones. In mid-December last year, I drove north to find out what all the fuss was about. Most modern writers are, of course, romantics. They yearn for a country retreat where, a la Wordsworth, emotions can be recollected in tranquillity. But why choose Moniack? When I set out, I was full of scepticism. I have taught and taken creative writing classes. They have their merits, but the best writers are autodidacts.

All they need is talent, determination of will, a library card, and the tools for the job. Anything else is surplus to requirements. Once I arrived at Moniack, however, it was difficult not to be impressed: the beautiful location, the dedicated welcoming staff, the facilities and courses on offer. In the early dusk, Rachel Humphries, Moniack’s energetic Director, showed me around and talked me through its history. In the early 1990s, siblings Kit and Sophia Fraser wanted to start residential writing courses in The Highlands. The croft at Teavarron, “knee deep in cow dung,” hadn’t been farmed since the 1960s. The Frasers brought Ted Hughes up and showed him around. Hughes was involved in setting up the Arvon Foundation, which started creative writing courses in Devon in 1968.

Arvon agreed to fund courses at Moniack, but they didn’t have the money to buy the property. So, the Frasers organised a “Poethon,” a 24-hour fundraising poetry reading in London, on Arthur’s Seat, and in The Highlands. The first writing course ran in 1993. The teachers included Edwin Morgan, Alan Spence, A.L. Kennedy, and Liz Lochhead. In 2018, the centre’s 25th year, many of the first teachers returned to teach again. The origin story dovetails nicely with the oral traditions of Highland culture, something the centre wants to keep alive. There is now a straw bale roundhouse on site where writers tell stories, old style, around the hearth.

In 2014, the centre split with Arvon. “Mostly, we wanted more freedom over the course programme,” said Humphries, “but also to appeal to more Scottish writers.” Since then, Moniack has grown exponentially. It used to operate for 15 weeks every year; it now only closes for three weeks. You can take a course in anything: novel writing, poetry, travel writing, journalism, song writing, all taught by some of the best teachers in the trade. Recently, there has also been increased demand for retreats.

More than ever, writers are craving “protected time and space.” Ironically, their schedules are crammed with teaching contracts. One suspects the book festival merry-go-round has something to do with it too Last year, the centre administered the inaugural Highland Book Prize. Kapka Kassabova won for her book Border. Kassabova lives a couple of glens away and often teaches at Moniack. The prize is so important, she told me, because it “celebrates the imaginative power of the Highlands and islands as a literary place, a place that inspires, produces, houses, and attracts stories…it's a timely reminder that our culture is not solely an urban phenomenon, and that nature and culture are indivisible.”

The same could be said of Moniack, “locally run, with a strong Highland identity, and at the same time with an international reach.”

This local and global aspect is expanding. It has a local schools programme, hopes to open a book shop, and in March 2019 will launch its first International Writer’s Residency. Nigerian poet Efe Paul Azino will write and teach at Moniack, then go on a reading tour around The Highlands.

As for staying at Moniack, the centre aims to give writers “a sense of a home from home”. It’s certainly true for some. The UK poet laureate Carol Ann Duffy visits annually with family and writing students. The title-poem of her latest collection, Sincerity, ends with the poet looking up “from the hill at Moniack, / to see my breath/ seek its rightful place/ with the stars, / with everyone else who breathes.”

That evening, I stayed in the one of the modest bedrooms in the farmhouse. It was a perfect space for a writer: a bed, a table, a chair and a good view.

Still, I wanted to know more about the courses. Do they really help writers, or are they just confidence-boosters? I asked Kassabova.

“They really do work. It’s partly the physical setting, which is non-institutional, and that’s essential for creativity, partly the structure of the week and partly the supportive environment and proximity of the two tutor-writers.”

Humphries also told me about success stories. Gail Honeyman wrote parts of her best-selling novel, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, in the cottage. Jamie MacRae, a fisherman from The Western Isles, has a recording contract after going on a song writing course at Moniack.

The following afternoon, I walked around the tranquil paths of Glen Convinth. I thought, do writers really need Moniack, or is it just more of that cleverly marketed baggage that comes with “being a writer” in the 21st century? I decided the cliché is true: increasingly, in our frenetic, media-saturated world, writers do need spaces for deep thought. To its credit, that’s what the centre provides. Moreover, if writers must go on courses - and it seems they must - there can be few better places, including university, to go than Moniack Mhor. Its charms have, more or less, converted this sceptic.