Am Bratach No. 319
May 2018

First John o’ Groats book festival draws the crowds

Review by Kevin Crowe

Caithness was the birthplace of one of Scotland’s greatest novelists, Neil M Gunn, and is the home of dramatist, poet, historian and novelist George Gunn,
historian and festival organiser Ian Leith, novelist and biographer Catherine Byrne and poet and novelist Sharon Gunason Pottinger, all of whom have had their work reviewed in Am Bratach. Caithness is also home to many other writers, both new and experienced.

It is therefore fitting that the county now has its own book festival, based at the county’s most famous village, John o’ Groats. Such was the success of this first festival, I have little doubt it will become a feature of the literary calendar.

Four of Scotland’s best writers, covering the whole literary gamut from children’s books to poetry, were persuaded to travel to the far north, and all of them gave the enthusiastic audiences both entertainment and food for thought.

Theresa Breslin is an award winning children’s author whose books never underestimate the intelligence of children and young people and their willingness
to engage with serious and often difficult topics. In Divided City she looks at racism and sectarianism in Glasgow; Remembrance is about the horrors of the first world war; her latest book, Rasputin’s Dagger, deals with events leading up to the Russian Revolution. Elsewhere, she has written about the Spanish inquisition, abuse, homelessness and much more. If anyone is qualified to run a workshop on writing for children and young people and on avoiding the pitfall of patronising
them while producing age-appropriate work, it is Breslin.

The word polymath could have been invented for Andrew Greig. He is equally adept at writing poetry, fiction, biography, memoir and travelogues. He is also a musician with a repertoire consisting of traditional music, songs from the likes of Bob Dylan and the Incredible String Band and has had his own poetry put to music. He is an exponent of the five string banjo, an instrument popular in both country music and the blues. His Return of John McNab is a wonderfully entertaining contemporary take on the John Buchan original. At the Loch of the Green Corrie is part tribute to the poet Norman MacCaig and part description of a fishing expedition. Preferred Lies is ostensibly about golf but is also about reconnecting with his own past. Fair Helen is a reworking of the traditional ballad about the sixteenth-century tragic
heroine. In his session, he concentrated on poetry, reading from his collection Found at Sea, in which he uses verse to describe his journey by boat from Orkney
to the now uninhabited island of Cava. He interspersed his readings with some fine banjo picking and singing, finishing with a rendition of Dylan’s “Buckets
of Rain”. The poetry itself ranges from the amusing to the descriptive to the reflective. I can get seasick travelling on a millpond and some of the descriptions of life on the sea, particularly “In Irons” and “This Liquid Field”, demonstrate why I prefer to be on land. The collection also includes poems about the last two people to live on Cava, the eccentrics Miss Woodham and Miss Peckham, known in Orkney as The Woodpeckers. “Life on Cava”, one of my favourites, begins by telling what is not
there before listing the beauty to be found on the island.

James Hunter is one of Scotland’s most prominent historians, having written extensively about crofting, the Clearances and the Scottish diaspora, among much else. His session featured his major work on the Sutherland Clearances, Set Adrift Upon the World. He began by crediting English historian and socialist EP Thompson for developing his interest in history, citing Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class as a major influence. Thompson’s concerns were the lives of ordinary working people, the organisations that came out of the working class and the relationship between them and those who governed them. It seems to me that, over the years, Hunter has done for Highlanders what Thompson did for the English working class: making their lives and experiences visible to us all and in the process creating a history of the people.

In Set Adrift Upon the World he has researched the lives of individuals, families and communities cleared from Sutherland, looking at how they fared after being removed from their homes and lands. In his talk, as well as reading extracts from the book, he also criticised those who see Sutherland as wild land that should be conserved as it is. He argued that it is only in the past two hundred years that Sutherland has been empty of people and that those who argue it should remain that way are being unhistorical and ignoring the thousands of years before that when the land was populated and worked by communities who grew crops, reared cattle and other
livestock and made whisky.

If Chris Brookmyre ever stops writing novels, he could make a living as a stand-up comedian. From the moment he stepped to the stage, he had the audience in fits of laughter with his often X-rated humour. Many of his earlier novels, such as Boiling a Frog and Quite Ugly One Morning combine laugh-outloud humour with macabre storylines. Though his later work dispenses with the jokes, they remain explicit and dark. His last novel,Want You Dead, explores the world of computer hacking and his
latest, Places in the Darkness, is a futuristic murder thriller set in space.

Four great writers from different genres talking to audiences in a relaxed informal setting, and a warm sun shone all day long. What more can anyone ask?

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