Creative Writing and Archaeology – Guest Blog

Clachtoll Broch. Photo: Bob Cook

Every now and then, the University of the Highlands and Islands Archaeology team invite a guest to write a blog post.

Writer, Mandy Haggith from the UHI Creative Writing Degree Programme team kindly volunteered to write a piece that talks about her experience writing for archaeology. 

Mandy continues…

“From September 2018, the University of the Highlands and Islands will be offering a BA degree in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands. The students on the programme will be the only Creative Writing undergraduates in Scotland, and those of us involved in the degree are hugely excited to meet them and get underway with helping them to develop the skills they’ll need for a writing career.

What might such a career look like? The stereotype of a writer is someone alone in a garret, chewing on a pencil, gazing out at the moon, before scribbling down a few lines, or scratching furiously away on their great work of literature. The reality is far from this, and, I’ve found, far more fun.

Since I qualified in Creative Writing, in 2005, I have penned five novels, three collections of poetry and an anthology. However, it’s hard to make a living from poetry and fiction, so I’ve also written non-fiction for a huge range of organisations on a wide variety of topics including forests, mountains, the sea, land management, paths, industry, politics, art, music, crafts and history. This creative non-fiction writing has brought me into contact with fascinating people from all walks of life and the research for it has taken me all over the world.

Yet one of my favourite writing jobs has been right on my doorstep, in my home parish of Assynt, on the north west coast of Sutherland. For several years, I have been working with Historic Assynt and a team of archaeologists on a series of community history surveys, excavations and conservation projects. My role is to write press releases, notices and poster texts, and particularly the ‘dig diary’ on the project website featuring a weekly, or more frequent, blog of the latest news.

distant crowd at broch march 18
Photo: Chris Puddephat

This means that I get to hang out on digs, chat with archaeologists, even push a barrow or join in with some trowelling, but everyone knows that I’m really there to pick people’s brains in order to write up what’s happening. I ask dumb and nosy questions, encourage the archaeologists and volunteers to speculate about who may have lived in the place, and of course, because I’m a fiction writer, I get to make stuff up! I try to stick to informed guess work, of course, but my job is to let my imagination run riot, to conjure people up out of the past and create stories that can bring the ruins and remnants of the past to life.

Recently, Historic Assynt has been concentrating on Iron Age monuments, particularly the broch at Clachtoll, and this has given me the chance, while earning a few pounds writing the dig diary, to research a trilogy of historical novels inspired by Pytheas of Massalia, the first Mediterranean to circumnavigate Great Britain. The first novel, The Walrus Mutterer, has just been published by Saraband books. Its opening chapters are set in the broch, then the characters roam with Pytheas up into the northern ocean, via Orkney and Shetland. Writing this novel trilogy has fuelled my interest and fluency in the archaeological project, thus my fiction and non-fiction writing have been completely symbiotic.

I frequently say that studying Creative Writing back in 2003-5 was the best thing I ever did. It kitted me up with the tools of a trade that has enabled me, like an itinerant bronze smith, to roam about, making my living by crafting pieces to meet the needs of each client, while gathering material for the artworks that allow me to express my own view of this baffling but often wonderful world. I am so looking forward to helping another generation of Highlands and Islands writers to embark on their own unique writing lives.”

If you’re interested in the BA in Creative Writing in the Highlands and Islands, find out more here:


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