Monthly Archives: August 2011


Guilty Until Proven Innocent

Helen Percy: spat out by the Kirk

This is at once a terrible and a beautiful book. Terrible, because it describes, admittedly in an episodic and soft-focussed way, a shameful story that besmirches contemporary Scotland. Beautiful, because it is a testament to the resilience, poignantly and quietly described, of a woman who as she herself notes, has no great reserves of courage and strength. It is also a beautiful book because it is infused with the noble quality of hope.

Helen Percy was abused by her father when she was a child. Later, she went to St Andrews University, and she describes graphically her early days there. She presents herself as desperately shy and almost helpless. Then we fast-forward to her leaving the university, when she has won various prizes. She is now, in worldly terms, a success. What has happened in between? We’d surely like to know, but that is one of the many gaps in this piecemeal narrative.

Although she does not write much about her faith or her personal beliefs – her version of Christianity seems to be more social than spiritual – Percy goes on to tell us that she is ordained as a Church of Scotland minister.

She ministers for a time in Paisley, and then, when she is still young, moves to the supposedly lovely context of deepest rural Scotland, serving several parishes in the Angus glens.

Here she is raped by one of the most senior men in her flock. The rape was of course bad enough in itself; but what followed was almost worse – a protracted saga of institutional bullying, legalistic nastiness and bureaucratic obfuscation which was devoid of compassion and replete with puffed-up pompous sanctimony. Through this demeaning and deeply unpleasant process Percy, the victim, somehow became the culprit. The minister herself forgave the rapist; she even, at one point, wants him to join the general ‘merriment’ in her kitchen – but her church does not forgive her, the innocent party.

I hate to write this, but the Church of Scotland comes out of this book very very badly. Among the many senior personnel who are indicted in this book are two men who are well known to me and whom I respect. I thought of contacting them to hear their side of the story, but then that would be to revisit the whole tedious and religion-destroying process of legalistic claim and counter-claim which Helen Percy had to endure.

Meanwhile I know that in many ways our national church is still a caring and compassionate organisation that manages, despite its rapidly dwindling resources, both human and monetary, to achieve a great deal of practical good, in Scotland and beyond. I am pretty certain that there remain in it far more good people than bad. But it is also, these days, a grievously divided church, indeed a broken church that is barely fit for purpose, and this devastating book gives at least some indication of how that has come about. There is far too much forensic fiddling about, far too much narrow-minded control-freakery and backroom bossiness, while the fires that destroy faith and charity burn ever stronger.

At its worst the Church of Scotland is a bloated bureaucracy and its complex, adversarial forensic procedures were always going to militate against pastoral decency and basic human compassion, although I for one would have hoped that even legalistic processes could potentially be used as an instrument for care rather than oppression.

There is also the problem that the church’s sovereign body, the General Assembly, is a gathering totally lacking in any meaningful continuity. Its large membership changes from year to year (it is difficult to determine exactly how and why the commissioners, as they are portentously called, are chosen) as does its leadership. The moderator of the assembly, new every year, takes charge of this vast and ramshackle assembly for a week in May as the first of his year’s duties. No wonder that the new moderators sometimes seem lost and overwhelmed as they confront the most important task of their moderatorial year at the very start of it.

In the overall experience of Helen Percy, the Church of Scotland was wholly unable to provide the kind of consistent pastoral succour required by a young minister who was desperately in need of loving support. Instead she was subjected to humiliating, bruising inquisitions and a ludicrously overstretched legalistic process.

It is salutary to learn that it was in another church – the Roman Catholic Church – that she was able to find at least some evidence of the blessed qualities of tenderness, redemption, hope and love. She knew a local priest, ‘a man with the heart of Christ’. She discovered that the Catholic Church could triumph over institutionalised malice. When she is spat out of her own church, treated as someone dirty and shamed, when she is subjected to systematic condemnation and to vile gossip, she is, thank God, welcomed in another church.

In her own simple, straightforward words: ‘I go to mass in the local Roman Catholic Church. The priest knows my whole story. He is prepared to offer me the Bread of Life that the Church of Scotland withholds. Strictly, he should not give it to a non-Catholic. In his book, pastoral need takes precedence over ecclesiastical law.’

At times I am not certain of the precise accuracy of Helen Percy’s witness. She can and often does write beautifully, but there is an evasive and elusive quality about her prose which is not always suited to a tale which, like it or not, is often about the detailed minutiae of institutional procedures. So it might have been better to tell it in a more documentary, matter-of-fact manner.

Yet for obvious reasons I hesitate to suggest that the book would have had more authority had it been written in a more focussed and dare I say masculine style; in this context, such a suggestion would be crass. On the other hand the careful reader notes that Helen Percy leaves out a great deal. But if this book comes down to Percy versus the Church of Scotland, as it probably does, then I am completely and unequivocally on the side of Helen Percy.

It might seem simplistic to present this terrible tale as a black and white case: Helen Percy good, Church of Scotland bad. Of course it is more complex than that. But at the heart of this sorry scarring saga is the inescapable fact that the Church of Scot-land chose, quite unnecessarily, to make an extended adversarial point. Having sought to make that point, but ultimately losing it, the Church of Scotland can then hardly wonder if this entire affair is presented in terms of a confrontation: The Kirk against Helen Percy.

I still cannot understand why our national Church was so doggedly determined to pursue a very long and desperately expensive – for a body that is sorely strapped for cash – sequence of tedious and dispiriting litigation. This surely cannot be God’s work on Earth.

It is not only the Church of Scotland that comes out of this book badly. Our Scottish press – and in particular the Scotsman – does not emerge at all well. But at least there’s a balancing goodness here; certain individual journalists have written sympathetically and supportively about Helen Percy.

Apart from the critique of the Church of Scotland at the core of the book, there is a secondary lingering and in a way horrifying theme. Helen Percy loves the countryside and animals, as she makes abundantly clear (almost too clear for my personal taste), and she writes with a special poetic sweetness about the rural context in which her nightmare unfolded. Her descriptions of upper Angus make the heart sing. Reading some of her passages, I was reminded of that fine Angus writer Violet Jacob.

But nastiness and evil can occur in idyllic rural contexts just as much as they can in the slums of inner cities or the wastelands of bleak housing estates; and in some ways an abused woman is further from help and succour in a so-called close-knit rural community than she is in the badlands of urban Scotland.

I have not described at any length the infuriating and consistently petty legal process which Helen Percy had to endure. It would take more than Helen Percy – perhaps a Charles Dickens – to achieve the levels of eloquent literary indignation required to deal with this disgraceful spun out saga.

Suffice to say that the verdict of the courts of the Church of Scotland was endorsed by the Scottish Court of Session, and it took the House of Lords – the House of Lords – to overturn them. So much for any residual trust we may have in our Scottish institutions. Not just as a member of the Church of Scotland, but also as a long- serving Scottish journalist and indeed as a Scottish citizen, this book makes me hang my head in shame.

I have certain residual doubts about Helen Percy’s testament, but I repeat: overall I must be on her side. For it is inescapable that she was bullied without mercy as she was put under pressure to confess to culpability when the real culpability lay elsewhere. The hounding of this vulnerable woman scars and shames contemporary Scotland.


Helen Percy
ARGYLL PUBLISHING, £9.99, 384PP ISBN 978-1906134747

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Volume 7 – Issue 3 – Editorial

Anyone who knows anything about the birth of public libraries is aware how difficult it was. As with so much of what we now take for granted, libraries are a gift from the Victorians, born of the recognition that self-improvement was the route to prosperity. The early public libraries were not places to which one went for pleasure. Rather they were extensions of an education system which was itself in its infancy.

The books one borrowed were carefully selected and designed to edify rather than to entertain. Nothing frivolous was on offer. History, religion, philosophy and other such high-minded subjects dominated. Where novels were available they were not of the shocking or subversive or saccharine variety. Devotees of the 19th century equivalent of chicklit and tartan noir were doomed to disappointment. What public library advocates and benefactors, such as Andrew Carnegie, hoped was that library users would become informed, responsible citizens able to participate in an evolving democracy.

Inevitably there were many opponents to the idea of a library service free at the point of use. Among them were the owners of commercial libraries who were understandably (and rightly) worried about the consequences for their business. Other Jeremiahs included national politicians who were wary of the over-education of hoi polloi and local panjandrums who feared that libraries would become a burden on taxpayers. Ultimately, though, the defeatists, pessimists and scaremongers were silenced and town by town libraries came slowly into being, becoming as much a part of the British urban landscape as banks and post offices.

Or so we naively thought. Daily, it seems, libraries are closing, staff laid off, opening hours curtailed, budgets cut, victims of public spending cuts. Asked to explain their decisions, councillors affect a wistful tone, professing regret and sorrow in equal measure. Their hands are tied, they protest, hard choices must be made. If there was an alternative they’d like to hear about it. What would you rather closed: a library or an old folks’ home? By the time they have stopped talking one begins almost to feel sorry for them. Who among us would like to be put in such an invidious position?

What irks us at the SRB, what raises our ire to fever pitch, is the ignorance that many of our elected officials exhibit when talking about public libraries. Have any of them, we wonder, visited one lately? Listening to these tribunes talk you could easily get the sense that libraries are empty, devoid of patrons, their role redundant, their services unwanted. The truth is rather different. When we visit libraries, which we do often, they are humming. But you wouldn’t think that from the comments of those we trust to protect them. At best, the impression is given that a library is like a larger version of a charity bookshop which, moreover, may provide a model of how libraries might operate in future. It has been suggested, for example, that libraries no longer need be housed in custom-built buildings and that they could be staffed by volunteers. What professional librarians think of such nonsense is easy to imagine. It’s like saying that buildings do not need to be designed by architects or that doctors are unnecessary in hospitals. Yet again what this displays is ignorance. Do the people who are charged with managing the public purse strings know what they are doing? Have they a clue what libraries are for?

Of course no one with a healthy brain cell underestimates that we live in fiscally challenging times. That much is taken as read. What these require, however, is not mindless cutting or the abandonment of a service such as public libraries because, politically-speaking, it is a relatively painless thing to do. It seems to us that, far from having outlived their usefulness, libraries are more necessary than ever and are likely to be even more so in the tough months ahead.

Not everyone, for example, can afford to buy books, let alone download them on to a Kindle. Indeed, not everyone wants to buy books even if they can afford them. Nor does everyone have access to the internet. In some constituencies in some of our major cities less than half the population has internet access. Nor does everyone feel happy that Google is the gatekeeper to the global library. Apart from anything else, just imagine what would happen if Google suffered a fate similar to that recently experienced by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. At their best, public libraries are the opposite of the internet where credit cards have replaced passports. In a library you are free to go where you please. The possibilities are infinite, but for how much longer? We are in danger of jettisoning our heritage; the Victorians would not be amused.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


Volume 7 – Issue 3 – Classifieds


The Roost
Neil Butler
Thirsty Books £7.99 PB 9781906134778
Spectacular first fiction from young Shetland writer. Lucy Ellmann: ‘It’s wonderful.’

Singing I’m No A Billy He’s a Tim
Des Dillon
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-908373-05-2
What happens when you lock up a Celtic fan and Rangers fan together on the day of an Old Firm match?

The Wicker Tree
Robin Hardy
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-61-9
From the director of The Wicker Man comes the dark, captivating story of an American couple arriving in Scotland, unprepared for the horrors that await them. The UK film premiere is scheduled for 27 August.

The Dear Green Place and Für Sadie
Archie Hind
Polygon eBook
Now available as an eBook, Archie Hines novel is truly a modern classic. Mat Craig is a young working-class hero and would-be novelist, whose desire to define himself as an artist creates social and family tensions in 1960s Glasgow. Also available as an £8.99 paperback.

This Road is Red
Alison Irvine
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-81-7
A powerful novel based on the real life stories of some of the former residents of Red Road flats in Glasgow– once the tallest and largest high rise estate in Europe. The residents’ lives are all unique but all connected, in quirky, funny and gritty ways.

Da Happie Land
Robert Alan Jamieson
Luath Press £8.99 PB 978-1-906817-86-2
An experimental novel on a grand scale, beautifully carried through. A Perth minister takes in a traumatised stranger calling himself the ‘son and heir to being lost’, who then disappears and leaves a bundle of papers behind.

Adam Blair
J. G. Lockhart
Saltire Society £7.99 PB HB/PB/eBook 978 0 85411 096 4
When Adam Blair was published in 1822 its portrayal of a Church of Scotland Minister’s fall from grace caused a sensation in a society where absolute moral standards were completely at odds with overt expressions of physical desire. A fascinating study of a tormented soul at the end of the 18th century

An Old Pub Near the Angel
James Kelman
Polygon eBook
New eBook edition. Set among the tenements and bedsits of Glasgow, James Kelman’s debut collection of short stories shone a fiery light into everyday life and revealed him as the master of the form. Also available in paperback as part of an extensive backlist published by Polygon.

The Busconductor Hines
James Kelman
Polygon eBook
New eBook edition. James Kelman provides a brilliantly executed, uncompromising slice of Glasgow life in the form of a bored busconductor cursed with an eccentric, anarchic imagination. Intelligent, funny and humane. Also available in paperback as part of an extensive backlist published by Polygon.

Agnes Owens: The Complete Novellas
Agnes Owens
Polygon eBook
Now available as an eBook, this complete collection of Agnes Owens’ novellas is darkly deadly, dangerously spiked with humour and pathos throughout. Agnes Owens: The Complete Short Stories is also available now as an eBook.

Bertie Plays the Blues (A 44 Scotland Street Novel)
Alexander McCall Smith
Polygon £16.99 HB 978 1 84697 188 4
The story of Bertie, his dysfunctional family and all the residents of 44 Scotland Street continues, in this the seventh book in the series. Domestic bliss, it seems, is in short supply even in Edinburgh! Out in August.

Stealing Fire
Craig Sterling
Leamington Books £7.99 PB 9780955488597
Someone has stolen the world’s most advanced missile, and only one man can stop them – but he’s too busy smoking, drinking and eating pizza. Meet Andy Harris and his drunken boss, Bob Stone, who get mixed up in a nightmare that could mean death for millions.

The One O’ Clock Gun Anthology
Leamington Books £10 PB 9780955488559
Celebrating Edinburgh’s One O’Clock Gun Periodical and featuring RA Jamieson, Alasdair Gray, Kevin Williamson, Lucy McKenzie, Rodge Glass and many others. ‘This book is testament to Robert Alan Jamieson’s claim that “the mob is out there. And still kicking”’, Gutter.

The Blockade Runners
Jules Verne
Luath Press £6.99 PB 978-1-905222-20-9
From Scotland to the American Civil War, a daring blockade and a courageous rescue, all in an excellent new translation which does justice to Verne’s original.


Scunnered: Slices of Scottish Life in Seventeen Gallus Syllables
Des Dillon
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-908373-01-4
From award-winning author and playwright Des Dillon comes a book of Haiku. A collection of philosophical and humorous observations on about love, nature, science, Scotland and more.

A Clamjamfray of Poets
Stanley Roger Green
Saltire Society £9.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 0 85411 098 8
Stanley Roger Green was a member of the circle of poets and writers surrounding Hugh MacDiarmid in the howfs and halls of post war Edinburgh. Sydney Goodsir Smith, Norman MacCaig, Tom Scott, George Mackay Brown and Robert Garioch were among them and the author here recounts many amusing and informative incidents from this modern hotbed of genius.

A Choosing – The Selected Poems of Liz Lochhead
Liz Lochhead
Polygon PB £9.99 978 1 84697 207 2
This stunning new collection of selected works from Scotland’s Maker is guaranteed to delight and inspire. Also available, The Colour of Black & White, Dreaming Frankenstein, Collected Poems 1967 – 1984 (also available as eBooks) and True Confessions and New Clichés. Published in September 2011.

An Cuilithionn 1939/The Cuillin 1939 & Unpublished Poems
Sorley MacLean, edited by Christopher Whyte
ASLS £12.50 pp336 PB 9781906841034
This major new edition of MacLean’s epic work includes 400 lines never before published, along with MacLean’s own English translation, and an extended commentary. 45 other previously unpublished poems by MacLean also appear here for the first time, with facing English translations.

Caoir Gheal Leumraich/A White Leaping Flame – Collected Poems
Sorley Maclean, edited by Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock
Polygon £25.00 HB 978 1 84697 190 7
All the poetry of Sorley Maclean, the most significant 20th century Gaelic poet, is gathered together in one volume for the first time. Over 150 poems, some never published before, are given in Gaelic alongside their English translation. Introduced by a biographical essay on his life, influences and impact. Published in October 2011.

Blind Ossian’s Fingal
Collected and Translated by James Macpherson. Edited by Allan Burnett & Linda Andersson-Burnett
Luath Press £15.00 HB 978-1-906817-55-8
James Macpherson claimed to have discovered a great work of Scottish literature in the Highlands, Ossian’s poems. But debate raged about how much the poems were genuinely historical, and how much was Macpherson’s creative input.

Collected Poems
William McGonagall
Birlinn eBook 978 184158 477 5
Now available as an eBook, William McGonagall’s poetry is Scotland’s alternative to Robert Burns, and as every bit engaging in this comprehensive collection. Also available as a £9.99 paperback.

Thi 20:09
Mark Thomson
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-75-6
Written in colloquial Scots, Mark Thomson’s new poetry collection finds Scotland’s most iconic figures, from Mary Queen of Scots to Sean Connery, together on a night bus, travelling through present-day Glasgow.

A Map for the Blind: Poems Chiefly in the Scots Language
Rab Wilson
Luath Press £8.99 PB 978-1-906817-82-4
In the tradition of Robert Burns, poet Rab Wilson writes a new and inspiring collection of modern Scots poetry. This sharp and humorous collection speaks of everyday Scottish life, friends, politics, the future and history.


Inspirations – a new series of introductory biographies of people of
achievement from past and present.

Bob Dylan
Colin Waters
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134518

Nelson Mandela
Marian Pallister
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134525

Robert Burns
Bronwen Hosie
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134532

The Williams Sisters
Hugh MacDonald
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134549

Charles Dickens
Alan Taylor
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 97819906134679
Out in June.

Muhammad Ali
Hugh MacDonald
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 97819096134662
Out in June.

JK Rowling
Lindsey Fraser
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134693
Out in June.

John Lennon
Chris Dolan
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 97819906134686
Out in June.

A Traveller in Two Worlds – Volume One: The Early Life of Scotland’s Wandering Bard
David Campbell
Luath Press £14.99 HB 978-1906817-88-6
The enigmatic biography of Scottish storyteller Duncan Williamson. The narrative chronicles Williamson’s life from a wee ‘tinker’ boy to the celebrated author.

Labour of Love – The Story of Robert Smillie
Torquil Cowan
Neil Wilson Publishing £14.99 HB 978-1-906476-61-8
The first biography of Robert Smillie (1857-1940), the Labour and Trade Union activist who changed the social fabric of Great Britain through his work as President of the Miners’ Federation and in setting up the Save the Children Fund, the National Council for Civil Liberties, and the Industrial Triple Alliance. An eBook is also available for £9.99 (978-1-906476-62-5). Published in September.

An Experiment in Compassion
Des Dillon
Luath Press £8.99 PB 978-1-906817-73-2
One of Scotland’s most relevant modern writers, Des Dillon, confronts alcohol addiction in this uplifting story exploring love, family, and the true meaning of compassion.

The Glamour Chase – The Maverick Life of Billy MacKenzie
Tom Doyle
Polygon £12.99 PB 978 1 84697 209 6
The Glamour Chase is the colourful – and frequently hilarious – life story of Billy Mackenzie, hugely talented and exotic front man of The Associates and a singer who tried to take on the music industry on his own whirlwind and free-spirited terms. His life and career would end tragically early, at his own hands. Also available as an eBook. Out in September 2011.

The Last Laird of Coll
Mairi Hedderwick
Birlinn £6.99 PB 978 1 78027 019 7
Kenneth Stewart is the last of the old Lairds of Coll, one of the loveliest of all the Hebridean islands. In this book Mairi Hedderwick – who first came to Coll at the age of seventeen, and has lived and worked there most of her life – explores the laird’s lifelong connection with the island and its people. Out in September.

The Silent Weaver – The Extraordinary Life and Work of Angus MacPhee
Roger Hutchinson
Birlinn £9.99 PB 978 1 84158 971 8
Scarred by his experiences in WW2, Angus MacPhee was institutionalised for 50 years. During that time he endlessly created works of art from many materials, only to destroy them. A rich, moving and enthralling exploration of mental health and the creative process from the author of Calum’s Road. Published September 2011. Also available as an eBook.

The Soap Man – Lewis, Harris and Lord Leverhulme
Roger Hutchinson
Birlinn eBook
Roger Hutchinson brings to light a little known civil war between crofter and laird, lower and upper class, when Lord Leverhulme bought – lock, stock and barrel – the largest Hebridean island of Lewis in 1918. From the author of Calum’s Road. Also available as an £8.99 paperback.

James Colquhoun Irvine, St Andrews’ Second Founder: A Life
Julia Melvin
John Donald £30.00 HB 978 190656 631 9
A devoted servant of St Andrews University for over fifty years, this fully researched biography by his granddaughter recounts the life of James Colquhoun Irvine, KBE, FRS, DSc in fascinating detail. Out in September 2011.

The Man Who Gave Away His Island – A Life of John Lorne Campbell of Canna
Ray Perman
Birlinn £12.99 PB (& eBook) 978 1 84158 929 9
This is the inspirational story of John Lorne Campbell, a remarkable man who wanted to preserve the traditional Gaelic culture of the island of Canna, finally giving it to the National Trust for Scotland.

Salmond – Against the Odds
David Torrance
Birlinn £12.99 PB 978 1 78027 066 1
The only book available on Scotland’s First Minister. This enthralling biography, new in paperback, also provides a thorough and perceptive insight on the changing face of Scottish politics. Also available as an eBook. Published in October 2011.


Be Silent or Be Killed: A Scottish banker under siege in Mumbai’s terrorist attacks
Roger Hunt
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-76-3
Trapped inside the flame-swept Oberoi Hotel, Roger Hunt’s life is turned upside down as he becomes a pawn of international terrorism.


The Flight of the Turtle: New Writing Scotland 29
Edited by Alan Bissett & Carl MacDougall
ASLS £7.95 pp256 PB 9781906841065
New Writing Scotland is the principal forum for poetry and short fiction in Scotland today. Every year it publishes the very best from both emerging and established writers. The Flight of the Turtle is the latest collection of excellent contemporary writing, drawn from across Scotland.


Renewing Old Edinburgh – the Enduring Legacy of Patrick Geddes
Jim Johnson & Lou Rosenburg
Argyll Publishing £14.99 PB 9781906134495
Original research into the structure of Edinburgh’s Old Town. The same issues in Patrick Geddes’ era still resonate today in the field of modern development.

To Have and To Hold: Future of a Contested Landscape
Edited by Gerrie Van Noord
Luath Press £15.00 PB 978-1-908373-10-6
In an innovative 21st century conservation project by NVA at the Venice Biennale, great minds of many different disciplines explore the fate of Scotland’s iconic modernist building St Peter’s Seminary.


Return to One Man’s Island – Paintings and Sketches from the Isle of May
Keith Brockie
Birlinn £25.00 HB 978 1 84158 974 9
Return to One Man’s Island will be the publishing event of the year for those who loved Brockie’s original Isle of May book, as well as a whole new generation of readers and lovers of wildlife painting.

Never Mind the Captions: An Offbeat Guide to Scotland’s History and Heritage
Alistair Findlay
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-89-3
Scotland’s iconic works of art are given their own voices in this unique, amusing and thought provoking book.

Shetland Rambles – A Sketching Tour Retracing the Footsteps of Victorian Artist John T. Reid
Mairi Hedderwick
Birlinn £20.00 HB 978 184158 998 5
Shetland Rambles is a beautiful, poignant and entertaining journey through the islands by one of Scotland’s best loved authors and illustrators and packed with incidental detail and charm. Published in October 2011.


1314 And All That
Scoular Anderson
Birlinn eBook
Now available as an eBook, Scoular Anderson’s inimitable drawings and lively text make you wonder how history could ever be considered boring. Also available by Scoular Anderson – 1745 And All that. Both titles available as eBooks and as £4.99 paperbacks.

Bonnie Prince Charlie And All That
Allan Burnett
Birlinn eBook
Now available as eBooks, the And All That series by Allan Burnett is Scottish history at its most wickedly entertaining. These books are stuffed with superb illustrations by Scoular Anderson. Books in the series include: Robert The Bruce And All That, William Wallace And All That, Mary Queen of Scots And All That. All titles also available as £2.99 paperbacks.

Scottish Tales of Adventure – World War II
Allan Burnett
Birlinn £4.99 PB (& eBook) ISBN: 978 1 84158 933 6
Acclaimed children’s author Allan Burnett turns his attention to the Second World War in a book of explosively exciting and emotionally charged tales of bravery and adventure.

More Granny Porage Stories
Jean Marshall
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134341
Three more cleverly illustrated stories for the under-eights.

Send for Granny Porage
Jean Marshall
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134556
The latest picture book in the Granny Porage series for the young.

The Boy Who Wouldn’t Swim
Kenneth Steven
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 97819906134730
Another adventure story from this successful and thoughtful author. For 2 to 8-year-olds.

Murdo’s War
Alan Temperley
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-34-3
February 1943. The world is at war. In the remote Highlands of Scotland, 14-year-old Murdo Mackay begins a dangerous adventure that will shape history.


Saturday’s Child
Ray Banks
Polygon eBook
It’s criminal up north . . . Cal Innes is fresh out of Strangeways, playing PI and running from a past muddied with ties to local gang lord ‘Uncle’ Morris Tiernan. Also by the same author: Beast of Burden, Donkey Punch and No More Heroes. Available as both eBooks and in paperback.

Testament of a Witch
Douglas Watt
Luath Press £8.99 PB 978-1-906817-79-4
Set in the 17th century, John MacKenzie investigates the murder of a woman accused of witchcraft and he must act quickly when the same accusations are made against the woman’s daughter.

Current Affairs

The Scots Crisis of Confidence
Carol Craig
Argyll Publishing, £9.99 PB 9781906134709
A new edition of Carol Craig’s successful exposition of Scots’ attitudes to and predilection for negativity. She offers a refreshingly different analysis of the big themes of Scottish culture. Rewritten in parts and brought up to date.

The Trial of Helen Percy
Helen Percy
Argyll Publishing £9.99 PB 9781906134747
In 1995 Helen Percy, a young Church of Scotland minister in an outwardly idyllic rural parish was raped by one of her congregation. This book is her revealing, remarkable and candid story – a beautifully and powerfully written testament to the strength of the human spirit and a burning indictment of conservative forces in Scotland’s national Church and among popularly held attitudes. Out in August.

Food & Drink

The Sprouters Handbook
Edward Cairney
Argyll Publishing £4.99 PB 9781906134754
New editions of bestselling and on formative guide to sprouting seeds. David Bellamy: ‘A must for every kitchen and a bonus for all who crave a healthy diet.’

The Whisky River
Robin Laing
Luath Press Ltd
New, updated edition of Laing’s excellent travelling history of Speyside whisky, with a dram or two and a few songs along the way.

Gaelic & Scots

A Gaelic Alphabet – a Guide to the Pronunciation of Gaelic Letters and
George McLennan
Argyll Publishing £4.99 PB 9781906134334
Like its companion volume Scots Gaelic,¬ an introduction to the basics, this handy book is of great help to learners and speakers.

Scots Gaelic – an Introduction to the Basics
George McLennan
Argyll Publishing £4.99 PB 9781902831886
A new reprint of the successful Gaelic primer.

Slogans Galore – Gaelic Words in English
George McLennan
Argyll Publishing £4.99 PB 9781906134488
A reference guide to Gaelic-derived words in common use.

Scotspeak: A Guide to the Pronunciation of Modern, Urban Scots
Christine Robinson and Carol Ann Crawford
Luath Press £12.99 PB 978-1-906307-30-1
An articulatory reference guide for actors and anyone fascinated by the modern Scots language, focusing on the dialects and accents of Aberdeen, Glasgow, Dundee and Edinburgh. The book pays attention to the pronunciation and sounds of modern urban Scots, and includes downloadable recordings of native speakers.

Luath Scots Language Learner
L Colin Wilson
Luath Press £16.99 PB 978-1-906307-43-1
The Scots Language Learner is a comprehensive and fascinating guide to the Scots language and also provides valuable insight into Scottish culture.


The Makers of Scotland – Picts, Romans, Gaels and Vikings
Tim Clarkson
Birlinn £14.99 PB 978 1 90656 629 6
The remarkable story of how the ambitions of powerful warlords turned ancient North Britain into the medieval kingdom of Scotland. Out in August 2011.

A History of Everyday Life in Medieval Scotland
Edited by Edward J. Cowan and Lizanne Henderson
EUP £24.99 PB 978 0 7486 2157 6
This book examines the ordinary, routine, daily behaviour, experiences and beliefs of people in Scotland from the earliest times to 1600. It’s publication completes the four volume series ‘A History of Everyday Life in Scotland’. Available now.

Scottish Medicine – An Illustrated History
Helen Dingwall, David Hamilton, Iain MacIntyre, Morrice McCrae and David Wright
Birlinn £30.00 HB 978 1 78027 018 0
The first fully illustrated history of Scottish medicine since 1932 tells the dramatic story of how medicine in Scotland developed from its origins in prehistory. Published in October 2011.

Scotland Mapping the Nation
Edited by Christopher Fleet, Charles W.J. Withers and Margaret Wilkes
Birlinn £30.00 HB 978 1 84158 969 5
A history of Scotland told from the innovative perspective of maps and map-making, beautifully illustrated throughout with full-colour plates. Published in September 2011.

Edinburgh and the 45
John S Gibson
Saltire Society £6.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 085411 067 4
Early one September morning in 1745, Edinburgh’s city gates were stormed by Charles Edward Stewart’s Highland army. For the next six weeks the City lay under Jacobite occupation, the Prince holding court at Holyrood Palace. Here is the story of that interlude, told by those who were there.

Scotland the Brief ¬ a short history of a nation
Christopher Harvie
Argyll Publishing £5.99 PB 9781906134617
A beginner’s guide from prehistory to the new Scottish Parliament.

Empire of Sand – How Britain Made the Middle East
Walter Reid
Birlinn £25.00 HB 978 1 84341 053 9
A timely and detailed exploration of Britain’s role in the creation of the modern Middle East and the rise of Zionism, from the early years of the twentieth century to 1948, when Britain handed over Palestine to UN control. Published in September 2011. Also available as an eBook.

Edinburgh’s Colonies – Housing the Workers
Richard Rodger
Argyll Publishing £11.99 PB 9781906134785
A well-illustrated narrative of the distinctive and charming ‘Colonies’ housing of Edinburgh. Of interest to Edinburgh citizens but also to students of social and housing history.

A Time of Tyrants – Scotland and the Second World War
Trevor Royle
Birlinn £25.00 HB 978 1 84341 055 3
A stunning exploration of Scotland’s place during the Second World War and the role she played both as a strategic outlay but also as a humanitarian haven. From Trevor Royle, the author of Flowers of the Forest: Scotland and the First World War, now available in paperback and as an eBook. Published in October 2011.

Exploring Environmental History – Selected Essays
T. C. Smout
EUP £19.99 PB 978 0 7486 4561 9
Now available in paperback, this volume brings together the best of T. C. Smout’s recent articles and contributions to books and journals on the topic of environmental history. Published August 2011.

The BBC in Scotland: The First 50 Years
David Pat Walker
Luath Press £20 HB 978-1-908373-00-7
Former BBC Scotland Assistant Controller David Pat Walker delves into the history of Scottish broadcasting and Scotland itself, through the eyes, lens and microphone of the BBC.

Scottish Family Legends
Various Authors
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-93-0
A charming and touching collection of true stories by ordinary people about those colourful family members who have become real-life legends.


Glenlee – The Life and Times of a Clyde Built Cape Horner
Colin Castle & Ian MacDonald
Brown, Son & Ferguson £20.00 HB 978-0851745091
In the ten year period beginning in 1882, 271 barques and full-riggers were built on the Clyde during which time the yards of Russell, Stephen, Connell, Lithgow and Rodger established a world-wide reputation for the construction of large sailing ships of outstanding design, quality and durability. 71e three-masted barque Glenlee was one such vessel. This is her story.

Bill Cumming
Brown, Son & Ferguson £55.00 HB 978-1849270137
Based on real people and events this is a gripping factual account of the background events and repercussions of the milestone launch of the world’s first 4-masted iron merchant ship in 1875. The phenomenal success of this large square rigged sailing-ship, named County of Peebles, prompted R & J Craig of Glasgow to launch a further eleven fabulous jute clippers.

Half of Glasgow’s Gone
Michael Dick
Brown, Son & Ferguson £9.95
Glasgow, until recently, was a major European port and this publication describes its heyday, decline, neglect and subsequent redevelopment. Glasgow’s Harbour’s significant contribution to the 1939-45 war effort is also covered in some detail. The book records an important part of Glasgow’s heritage and a similar pattern of change, redevelopment and regeneration can be seen in other British ports whose roots lay in the 19th century.

The Last of the Windjammers (Vol 1)
Basil Lubbock
Brown, Son & Ferguson £30.00 HB 978-0851741130
The book was planned to take in every sailing ship of any note from the year of the opening of the Suez Canal to the present day, but in practice vessels of a very much earlier date have often been included, especially when sketching the early history of shipping firms.

Last Dawn – the Royal Oak tragedy at Scapa Flow
David Turner
Argyll Publishing £7.99 PB 9781906134761
A new (3rd) edition of the WWII story of the Royal Oak. Already the subject of a TV documentary, Last Dawn in now a text for the study of WW2 in schools.


Prelude to Everest: Alexander Kellas, Himalayan Mountaineer
Ian R Mitchell and George Rodway
Luath Press £20 HB 978-1-906817-74-9
A fascinating account of one of the great innovators of Himalayan climbing, Aberdeen-born Alexander Kellas.


Fuzz to Folk: Trax of My Life
Ian Green
Luath Press £14.99 PB 978-1906817-69-5
Ian Green, former policeman and founder of Greentrax, chronicles his rise to the top of the Scottish folk music scene, including details of his involvement in the careers of Brian McNeill, Dick Gaughan, the McCalmans, Eric Bogle and many others.

Natural History

The Clydesdale – Workhorse of the World
Mary Bromilow
Argyll Publishing £20 HB 9781906134655
A lovingly compiled story of this unsung Scottish export, the magnificent Clydesdale horse. Lovely photos, beautiful book.

The Great Wood – The Ancient Forest of Caledon
Jim Crumley
Birlinn £9.99 PB 978 1 84158 973 2
In this passionate and poetic appreciation of the Great Wood of Caledon, Jim Crumley thoughtfully explores the past myths, present remnants and future prospects of the historic native forest of Highland Scotland. Published September 2011. Also available as an eBook. From the author of The Last Wolf.

A Lone Furrow – The Continued Fight Against Wildlife Crime
Alan Stewart
Argyll Publishing £9.99 PB 9781906134792
Britain’s foremost investigator of wildlife crime returns to the many crime scenes that still cover the countryside. First hand accounts of fascinating police investigations. Scottish Field: ‘Britain’s foremost wildlife detective.’


The Importance of Being Awkward – The Autobiography of Tam Dalyell
Tam Dalyell
Birlinn £20.00 HB (& eBook) 978 1 84158 993 0
Insightful, witty and urbane, this is a fascinating book which offers a unique perspective on many of the key moments in Britain’s politics and the role of Tam Dalyell in them over the last fifty years.

Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination
Edited by Gerry Hassan and Rosie Ilett
Luath Press £12.99 PB 978-1-906817-94-7
This book seeks to open up possibilities for real development in Scotland’s future. With contributions from Pat Kane, Will Hutton and others, this book is not just a critique — it offers an alternative: namely how Scotland shifts from self-government to self-determination.

A Nation Again: Why Independence will be good for Scotland (and England too)
Paul Henderson Scott
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-67-1
With contributions from authors such as Neil Kay and Tom Nairn, this collection of essays forcefully sets out the case for Scottish Independence. Each author tackles the subject in a different way – personal, political, historical or academic – but the key
denominator is clear: Independence Must Come.

The Poor Had No Lawyers – Who Owns Scotland and How They Got It
Andy Wightman
Birlinn £9.99 PB (& eBook)
ISBN: 978 1 84158 960 2
Andy Wightman updates the statistics of landownership in Scotland and takes the reader on a voyage of discovery into Scotland’s history to find out how and why landowners got their hands on the millions of acres of land that were once held in common.

Trident and International Law: Scotland’s Obligations
Edited by Angie Zelter
Luath Press £12.99 PB 978-1-906817-24-4
Raising key points as to why possessing nuclear weapons is no longer justifiable, Trident and International Law brings to light new information, particularly some harrowing facts surrounding child deformities in the Bikini Islands where nuclear tests have been carried out.

Scottish Interest

A Window in Thrums
J. M. Barrie
Saltire Society £6.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 085411 084 1
The second in Barrie’s series of portraits of rural life. There has been a revival of interest in the work of Barrie whose modern reputation has rested largely on his plays and especially in the persistent popularity of Peter Pan.

George Buchanan’s Law of Kingship
Translated & Edited by Roger A Mason & Martin S Smith
Saltire Society £8.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 0 85411 099 5
The constitutional theories of George Buchanan, Scotland’s greatest Renaissance poet, remain fresh and necessary five centuries after his birth. Written during the turbulent times surrounding the overthrow of Mary Queen of Scots, and twice banned by the State, Law of Kingship is at core a mediation on humanity’s longest-standing constitutional conundrum: who rules the rulers?

Why Scots Matters
Derrick McClure
Saltire Society £8.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 085411 103 9
Derrick McClure’s 1988 analysis which has been revised and updated explains the origins of the language, discusses the importance of Scots in literature and makes the case for its protection and development in our own day.

300 Hundred Years Ago Today
Paul Riddell
Saltire Society £8.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 085411 104 6
Based on the acclaimed series of articles published in The Scotsman by Paul Riddell. As well as day by day reports on the actions inside and outside the Scottish Parliament, the book includes biographical details of the major participants and key commentators and illustrated by a number of Graham High cartoons.

Why Scottish Literature Matters
Carla Sassi
Saltire Society £9.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 0 85411 082 7
An examination of Scotland’s literature from the earliest times to the late 20th century and offers new and fascinating insights into the nature of nationhood and identity, and the way in which these are reflected in literary output at various periods.

The Age of Liberation
Paul Henderson Scott
Saltire Society £9.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 0 85411 101 5
A collection of essays, reviews, speeches and articles on Scotland and Scottish cultural life. It covers the recent period when the nation made rapid steps towards reclaiming control over its political, social and cultural affairs while at the same time marking the 300th anniversary of the Union of 1707.

Scotland Resurgent
Paul Henderson Scott
Saltire Society £9.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 085411 083 4
A collection of essays, articles, letters, speeches and reviews covering the last two decades when the political and cultural resurgence of Scotland was at its height.

The Saltoun Papers
Edited by Paul Henderson Scott
Saltire Society £9.99 HB/PB/eBook 978 085411 081 0
15 talks in commemoration of Andrew Fletcher, including those by historians Gordon Donaldson, Geoffrey Barrow, Bruce Lenman and Murray Pittock, politicians Neil MacCormick and John Home Robertson, philosopher Alexander Broadie, writers Arnold Kemp, Billy Kay and Sheila Douglas, and the businessman Sir Iain Noble.

Spirits of the Age
Edited by Paul Henderson Scott
Saltire Society £11.99 HB/PB/eBook ISBN: 978 0 85411 087 2
This book brings together many who have helped to build this better nation through literature, painting, sculpture, music, ideas and science. The contributors give an account of their experiences, influences and objectives giving us a clearer sense of their personalities than any subsequent biographer is likely to achieve.

Jules Verne’s Scotland: In Fact and Fiction
Ian Thompson
Luath Press £16.99 HB 978-1-906817-37-4
Jules Verne was highly influenced by his visits to Scotland. This book recreates the magic and mystery of Scotland and why Verne remained fascinated with our country.

Great Scottish Speeches
David Torrance
Luath Press £16.99 HB 978-1-906817-97-8
Great Scottish Speeches charts Scotland’s history through its greatest oratory moments, including contributions from Jimmy Reid, Donald Dewar and many more.


We are Hibernian
Andy MacVannan
Luath Press £14.99 HB 978-1-906817-99-2
A collection of real supporters, including Irvine Welsh and Dougray Scott, talking about their real life experiences all with one thing in common— the team they love!

Hands on Hearts: A Physio’s Tale
Alan Rae and Paul Kiddie
Luath Press £14.99 HB 978-1-908373-02-1
As the team’s longest serving employee, physiotherapist Alan Rae spent over 20 years tending to the injuries of the players at Heart of Midlothian. He has put his experiences during those years on paper, revealing never told before stories.

The World History of the Highland Games
David Webster
Luath Press £25 PB 978-1-906307-48-6
The largest and most comprehensive publication on the history and development of Scottish Highland Games, tracing their ancient roots right up to the current day, including numerous colour photographs.

Hibernian: From Joe Baker to Turnbull’s Tornadoes 1961 to 1980
Tom Wright
Luath Press £20 HB 978-1-908373-09-0
Official curator of The Hibernian Historical Trust, Tom Wright takes an honest look at Hibernian F.C. He narrates the highs and lows of one of Scotland’s best loved teams, hoping one day they’ll be resurrected to their former glory.


Laurel and Hardy
Tom McGrath
Fairplay £8.99 PB 978-0-9551246-0-0
Scenes from the lives of comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. ‘What elevates McGrath’s fluid dreamlike play from being just a chucklesome wallow in nostalgia is the sense that this powerhouse is about to crumble. Behind the laughter lies a tremendous sadness that speaks for the passing of this act and for all sublime art.’ Mark Fisher, The Guardian.

The Hard Man
Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle
Fairplay £8.99 PB 978-1-906220-41-9
From the Introduction to the new edition by Phillip Breen: ‘As McGrath worked on his new play, he began a correspondence with Jimmy Boyle, an inmate at Barlinne, serving a life sentence for murder. The fascinating correspondence between the two formed the basis of the extraordinary and influential play-cum-bloody cabaret The Hard Man.’ TLE

The Journey of Jeannie Deans
Judy Steel
Fairplay £8.99 PB
ISBN 978-1-906220-39-6
Based on scenes from Heart of Midlothian by Sir Walter Scott. From the Author’s Introduction: ‘Scott, that master-storyteller, gives us a tale whose themes are contemporary: that includes teenage pregnancy, child abduction, the pressurising of a witness to commit perjury, and unsafe convictions.”

Willie Wastle
Judy Steel
Fairplay £8.99 PB 978-1-906220-40-2
From the Author’s Introduction: ‘My researches led me to ‘Willie Wastle’s Account of His Wife’, which sprang from its dusty pages with a vivacity that belied its age. It was a riposte to Robert Burns’ ‘Willie Wastle dwalt on Tweed’, where the unfortunate wife of Willie is described in unflattering terms. Wilson’s story was Willie’s defence of her.’


The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh
Chiang Yee
Birlinn eBook
Exiled from China in 1933, Chiang Yee produced some of the most evocative travel books ever written. He was “dazzled” by the Scottish capital and paints an unforgettable picture of Edinburgh in the 1940s. Also available as a £9.99 paperback.

Cycling around Scotland
Nick Fairweather
Argyll Publishing £9.99 PB 9781906134570
Light-hearted and informative travel writing at its best. All on a bike, on his own.

The East Highland Way
Kevin Langan
Luath Press £9.99 PB 978-1-906817-91-6
Fort William to Aviemore: 78 miles (125km) of Scotland’s unspoilt Highland wilderness described in the first and only guide to the East Highland Way, including stunning photography and detailed maps.

The Tree that Bleeds: A Uighur town on the edge
Nick Holdstock
Luath Press £12.99 PB 978-1-906817-64-0
Whilst living in a riot torn region of China, Holdstock discovered the horrors of the Urumqi massacre.

Walter’s Wiggles
Walter Stephen
Luath Press £12.99 PB 978-1906817-68-8
A series of quests taking the reader to locations near and far, obscure and tourist-trodden, at the author’s whim, to give his impressions of art, music, literature, wildlife, science, history and sport.

Pilgrims in the Rough: An Unreliable History of St Andrews
Michael Tobert
Luath Press £7.99 PB 978-1-906817-96-1
A humorous history of St Andrews.

Festival Classifieds

Book Fringe
11-25 August 2011
Held in and around, Word Power Books – a leading independent bookshop in Edinburgh since 1994.

Edinburgh International Book Festival
13-29 August 2011
The largest public celebration of books in the world. Every August Edinburgh International Book Festival brings writers and thinkers from across the planet together to rub shoulders with you, the audience.

Inverness Book Festival,
10–14 August 2011
Expect the usual mix at the 8th Inverness Book festival of local authors, Scottish and UK writers and surprise guests. Add to that, even more stuff for kids, including the brilliant Bookbug Rhymetimes and daily activities run by our Arts Ed gang and you’ve got a recipe for happy, contented readers, big or small.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories


The SRB Interview: Alan Warner – Extended Version

Alan Warner has been at the forefront of his generation of Scottish novelists since his debut, Morvern Callar, served notice of his talent. Morvern Callar is narrated by its eponymous heroine, a young woman who deals with the suicide of her boyfriend in a memorable and unexpected fashion. The novel was set in “the Port”, a fictionalised version of Oban, the town he grew up near. Warner was born in 1964 and spent his childhood in the hotel his parents owned and ran. His interest in reading wasn’t ignited until he was fifteen when, in a fit of boredom, he bought from the local John Menzies three novels whose covers suggested a sexual dimension to their plots: The Graduate, The Immoralist and The Outsider. He moved to London, where he studied at Ealing College, before returning to Scotland and Glasgow University, where he wrote a thesis on Joseph Conrad and suicide. After leaving education, he spent some time on the Spanish rave scene, before working in a series of blue-collar jobs in Scotland: train driver, musician, bouncer, and bar man. When Morvern Callar was published in 1995, he found himself reluctantly bracketed with Irvine Welsh and his peers as a “drug” or “rave” writer. Since then he has written five more novels, including These Demented Lands (1997), which won the Encore Prize, The Sopranos (1998), The Man Who Walks (2002), The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven (2006), and The Stars in the Bright Sky (2010), which is a sequel to The Sopranos. Currently, he is writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh. Colin Waters interviewed Warner by email over the course of a week in late July, a hectic period for the author spent calming the nerves of creative writing students submitting their final pieces. He spoke about airports, Antonioni, and what might have been in the novel Morvern falsely claims authorship of.

Scottish Review of Books: All of your novels have been structured around a journey or journeys of some sort. Is that because it’s makes for a pretty flexible plot device or do journeys themselves speak deeply to something in your imagination?

Alan Warner: Perhaps its something to do with the small town origins? Of author and characters. The fear of claustrophobia for myself and for the reader. When I started to write I was fired up to prove – to myself at least – that a novel or novels could be forged out of the community I knew. It really was very important to me to try to force the social reality I knew into the novel form. Also, in Oban when I grew up you were always traversing the countryside in a very real way. As children, gangs of us would walk many miles through uninhabited country, playing at soldiers and commandos. Then as adolescents we used to walk the most outlandish and fabulous distances to and from country dances. Fifteen or twenty mile walks home as a teenager were not questioned. I think that moving through landscapes – the physicality of it – became for me, perhaps sadly (laughs) a concept of drama itself! Those journeys to a small village guy like me really did seem like huge adventures and doubtless this has sunk in my provincial psyche.

SRB: Place is obviously important in your novels. Some critics I’ve read say Ballard and Kafka were an influence on the airport-bound-setting of The Stars in the Bright Sky. I wondered – is Antonioni an influence on that novel, and perhaps earlier ones? The Passenger is mentioned in Morvern Callar and some of the events of that film are echoed in your debut novel. I also think – correct me if I’m wrong – the narration of your debut has something of the tone of an Antonioni movie.

AW: I think you are right but I’m not too sure about the narration in Morvern Callar. I don’t admire all of Antonioni’s movies. Blow Up and Zabriskie Point seem particularly bloated and sluggish now. But the first half of L’Aventura and The Passenger specifically – which I found a haunting thing. That strange sense of characters vanishing into landscapes or suddenly escaping their identities is surely there in Morvern Callar – if that doesn’t sound too grand? It always seems if you compare your own work to that of great artists, you are claiming an equality. I’m not. I am sure there was a much bigger influence of Camus on the narration of Morvern Callar. Oddly you tend to think of L’Etranger/The Outsider, but I recall reading that earlier version of the same book, published as A Happy Death. I was reading that again and again in my youth. But there is also a Scottish pragmatism in Morvern’s narrative voice – a sort of practical, getting-on-with-it, no nonsense approach to life – no matter how strange or disturbing what she is narrating might be. I find that voice a very Scottish thing. And of course there is an element of satire in that; of attacking the ability of “commonsense” to deal with these events. I believe I was crashing Scottish commonsense into the surreal to see what particles would result from the collision! I also recall Morvern Callar being compared to Rohmer’s films which I also used to watch and enjoy – that Cartesian logic, slowly working out as figures swapped partners for perhaps more suitable ones; always struck me as ingenious – if cold! Going back to The Passenger, I don’t mention that according to my recall, Morvern watches that haunting, gruesome cinema verité scene in that film of a real execution – actual footage of another forgotten political victim shot on a beach. She is clearly un-nerved by it. Doesn’t she wind back the tape and watch it again? Something about her boyfriend’s self-execution seems to be at work and I believe a certain revulsion Morvern feels toward the horrors of this world around her. A horror I share.

SRB: Still on the subject of place – airports are recurring features of your plots. Gatwick is the setting for The Stars in the Bright Sky and there’s a holiday resort of sorts based in a converted airport in These Demented Lands. An incident in Morvern Callar where she gets drunk in an airport bar waiting on a delayed flight prefigures The Stars in the Bright Sky. What is it that excites your imagination about such places?

AW: The way they take their place in a geographical topography fascinates me; they lurk outside great and small cities, their alignments and architecture dictated by runways and prevailing wind. They are functional but sometimes ostentatious: like some teapots. They are huge presences but very specific and for all their huge self importance they fall useless when you are not using them. In The Stars in the Bright Sky this is the state the girls keep falling into and out of. The airport around them becomes highly significant when they are about to travel, then deeply incongruous when they are not able to travel. Airports are portals to a promised transformation one moment, then horrible communal detainment areas the next. I wonder if there is a reflection of modern capitalism there?

SRB: How do you use Scots in your work? It’s not a straightforward phonetic transcription like Kelman, is it? You mix English words with vernacular and, I think, Scots spoken rhythms. How did you arrive at that style?

AW: I use it with both feet in realism but I like to let one stray onto the fanciful now and again. Sometimes I make characters repeat phrases just for my joy at the sound of it. Much of it is simply listening to the Argyllshire west coast Scots and trying to use that. Of course when I was eighteen I was very impressed by Hugh MacDiarmid’s “Synthetic” Scots in those early poems of his. I was very struck by the concept that nobody actually spoke like that, yet each word had a wonderful history and by combining them together in short poems, this huge and very complex power was created. I mean in the shorter lyrics of Sangschaw and Penny Wheep. Before A Drunk Man. It was like a new language. It was very exciting to me to think you could synthesise language to your own pleasure. There was the Beckett Trilogy as well from which you get a huge feeling of liberation regarding narrative as well as language. Then there was Kelman. In the mid-eighties I would have been reading everything by Kelman, Beckett and McDiarmid at the same time. Trying to work them out. And Kelman seemed and seems very alive and immediate. Those concrete scenes (rather than “chapters”) in The Busconductor Hines. Some tender and beautiful scenes between husband and wife, others very funny and sharp between working Glasgow men. All so very vivid; so measured and perfect. As a young guy you were reading Hemingway’s early stories as well, so you could connect that very directly to the crafted and careful word placement in Hines. Beckett, Kelman, MacDiarmid and I should say Emily Bronte too. Very different worlds but the same skill and attention to what was actually on the page. To qualify though, The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven of course was written in a strange English with no Scottish influence. In that novel I was thinking of Spanish sentence structures forced into English to make them seem strange. Nothing new in that; Hemingway was doing it in 1940.

SRB: In Morven Callar, you write, ‘The hidden fact of our world is that there’s no point in having desire unless you’ve money. Every desire is transformed into sour dreams… There’s no freedom, no liberty, just money.’ Am I right in thinking that money, what it can do for a person, how it oxygenates the class system, is a theme that still interests you? For example, in The Stars in the Bright Sky Kay tells Ava, ‘I think you can afford any failure,’ after Ava describes how ‘There are two sets of drug laws in this country. One for the rich and famous and one for the people in the housing estates.’

AW: I am not sure it is a theme at all so much as an inevitable trope of writing about contemporary society. Especially in such a socially divided Britain – which is becoming more divided. The drama exists in the class difference alone. There’s nothing to write! (laughs). Also these are views expressed by characters – and characters don’t necessarily express themes, or of course, the author’s views. In the first quote by Red Hanna – Morvern’s foster father – he is essentially expressing the process of Thatcherism – that there are few societal goals and achievements remaining for people – apart from cars and houses and the things we fill them with. Values and experiences of solidarity and happiness outside of that are diminishing. Of course he’s an old socialist who has seen almost all he believes in withered away. He and his wife Vanessa have fostered Morvern since she was little. They’ve taken in other female kids too, who Morvern mentions. Kids who have been sexually abused and their stories have – I believe – traumatised Morvern in some deep way. So I find Red Hanna and his wife very admirable in many ways. They practise what they preach despite their faults. There are dramatic and plot reasons why he makes that statement as well – since later in the narrative Red Hanna is suspended from work for drinking in a pub “on duty”. His words are prophetic as he is going to see his own full pension threatened. But it’s also wildly irresponsible of him that Morvern’s foster father has a sexual relationship with Morvern’s best friend. I do think Red Hanna is cracking up at this point and I do think Lanna does things just to test Morvern, but it seems to me Morvern is betrayed again and again by those closest to her, which adds to this terrible loneliness she seems to embody.

SRB: You were saying that when you first started writing you were fired up by wanting to see the life you’d known growing up represented in fiction. Was the fact that it hadn’t been seen until then an oversight, a book waiting to happen, or was the omission cultural or political? If it was political, should I take it as read that something of the same thing goes on today? I’m thinking of the paragraph you wrote that concluded your recent review of Ross Raisin’s Waterline: ‘There is a sly, unspoken literary prejudice at work in Britain today, and it is not against how the novel is written, nor what happens in it. The battleground consists of who the novel can be about, with a reluctance in a certain readership to accept that profundity can be found in working-class as well as middle-class experience.’

AW: I wonder now if the “oversight” was largely personal and familial? It always stuns me how invisible literature and specifically Scottish Literature was to me, until one or two specific days when I was aged 15. And I’ve never known who to lay that at the feet of other than myself. It feels pompous and self-important to be pointing fingers and moaning about the majority culture of the late 70s, the programming at the BBC, etc. I wanted for nothing as a child in an affluent household. But my parents had both left school at age 15 and there was no history of reading or art or further education in any branch of our family or relatives. Everyone was a grafter. Except me. We didn’t have many books in our house and certainly no fiction – that is true – but we did have some books and it was me who didn’t read them, nobody else. I’ve talked before in interviews about how, shortly after I started to read a great deal – when I was 15 and 16 – I saw a first copy of Lanark in an Oban art shop and actually turned to my friend and stated, ‘So is there actually a Scottish person writing novels today, in Scotland?’ How could that happen in a culture? How did I grow up in a vacuum like that? I guess that was my Oban in 1980/1; culture and art was not on everybody’s lips! I had presumed novels were an art form which only happened elsewhere and had died out in Scotland around the time of Walter Scott. What a very curious but genuine assumption. On the other hand, I could argue this was because local bookshops were stuffed with Scott and not a single work of modern Scottish literature or otherwise; not even Compton McKenzie or Buchan. It was only when I reached Glasgow independently when we went to rock concerts that I found a wonderful surfeit of books. Ach well. I can’t lay the blame of my cultural impoverishment on the stock-taking policy of John Menzies newsagent. Fifteen is a good age to discover the whole world has a literature. I might have been turned off at some younger age.
What was it Melville wrote about whalers before Moby Dick? ‘Theirs was an unwritten life’? There are still so many unwritten lives and I greedily and expectantly wait for writers to bring these forth. When I spy men in harnesses working at the top of electricity pylons, I immediately want to read a great novel about these guys. Novelists are going to emerge in disparate and unpredictable ways, geographically, culturally, ethnically. We can’t make a demand that so many novels must emerge per-hundred square miles or per-thousands of our population! Yet simultaneously, I would argue that in Britain today there is an overpopulation and overexposure of what I would call the Oxbridge novel. I think the definition of an Oxbridge novel is extremely obvious.

SRB: You’ve written two “sequels” of sorts now, although they don’t feel particularly like sequels. Taking the first one, These Demented Lands, which is a “sequel” to Morvern Callar – or is it? The Morvern who appears here has a distinctly chattier tone, less “blank” (or perhaps I should say “practical” following on from your earlier answer). Is it the same Morvern? And why kill off a character (as The Man Who Walks confirms) you and her readers were clearly fond of?

AW: I am very fond of These Demented Lands. I wanted to do a novel completely outside social realism at that juncture. Morvern Callar had been a “big success” in publishing terms and I think I was perversely looking for my own Reichenbach Falls moment for the poor lassie. I was being kept up late with too many telephone calls from film producers! When I sat down to write it, I clearly recall saying to myself: ‘Alan, you can go anywhere and write exactly what you want, so just let rip.’ That’s exactly what I did. That novel seemed to just come out of my dreams. Of course it is surely clear it is set in some antechamber to Hell? Thus the glaring references to Golding’s Pincher Martin. But many critics seemed to take it not as a fever dream (possibly a dream Morvern is having, safe in her bed, pregnant?) but as a work of pure realism! I think that dreamlike quality accounts for Morvern’s more proactive nature. I am very heartened as there is a fine Irish writer called Sean O’Reilly who once told me reading These Demented Lands just freed him up to realise he could proceed writing his own stuff with no need to be bound by hard realism. It’s odd. I can’t believe I’ll write in that manner again but I’ve learned you never know where you will be stylistically – if you are blessed enough still to be breathing – ten years further down the line.

SRB: Going back to Morvern Callar, there are a good number of unanswered questions in the book. Unanswered and even unraised by Morvern. I don’t want to rob the book of its mysteries, but I wondered if we could hover over one or two of the more intriguing aspects of the plot. The book for example she claims credit for. Would one be right in deducing that the reason she gets away with it is that the novel is in some way about her, which is also why the unnamed boyfriend also tries to cut his hand off; some sort of extreme authorial guilt? On which subject, many of the stories that feature across your “Port” novels have the feel of great yarns told in the pubs. Have you ever felt a throb of authorial guilt over borrowing from local myths and stories?

AW: I’m jumpy that there is something pejorative about the term, “pub yarns” – and also I believe it’s a chicken and egg scenario. But to answer the first part of your question, I agree. One imagines the novel Morvern’s dead boyfriend has written isn’t about pylon repair men. Those publishers (I’d never met a publisher then) seem to accept without question that Morvern is the author. Possibly a certain wryness seems to be apparent in that mysterious, unseen work? You are correct, it must have some “female perspective” – which is of course, doubly ironic. I also have the feeling the boyfriend’s novel is rather beautiful, in some subtle way. It is pretty much apparent that Morvern doesn’t bother to even read “her” book which I think is wonderfully arrogant. Or has she read it at some later date outside the temporal scope of her text, and she has been deeply moved? Are we now reading the text she has written in response; is it a form of correction, a search for grace and redemption, a guilty true confession in reaction to the conceit of His fiction? Because it’s obvious we are reading a text, with pasted-in maps and illustrations which Morvern herself has written down and knowingly epigraphed. Has she too become a reader? I recall the actress Samantha Morton, who played Morvern in the film version, told me that when she auditioned for the part, she read the opening sequence of the novel, ‘As if it was a confession to the bloody cops.’ I thought that was very interesting. But for me it’s a definite written text. I think Morvern Callar is a very angry first novel. It is a subversion of the “first novel” concept, because of course I wasn’t confident enough to believe it might ever get published – like Morvern’s boyfriend seems to be. I think Morvern Callar grew out of those insecurities and that cultural isolation in a very smart way which still surprises me today. It is very much a “manuscript found in a bottle” which was designed to be discovered long after my own demise. A first novel about a ghost first novel which is appropriated by a cold and sometimes chilling voice, hostile to pretence and to artifice. Of course all my sly moves were left-footed when the bloody thing was quickly published!

I’m concerned your suggestion about the severing of the boyfriend’s hand is straying into The Symbolic Use of Colour in the Work of Marcel Proust territory. I have had a hundred academics tell me how I was playing with concepts of the Death of the Author – and I guess they are correct. The boyfriend died for sure! I wanted the boyfriend’s suicide to be very savage and without doubt, thus the very decisive, violent attack on himself which seems to suggest a real self-hatred which is sad. Is he guilty about his own privileged upbringing and this is why he passes all his money on to Morvern? Suicide has always disturbed me and I have lost friends to it. But to be pedantic, is it not his left, non-writing hand he has almost severed, with the weapon in his stronger right hand?

Pub Yarns. I do solemnly confess, too much of my life was once spent in pubs and I still convince myself there is a noble literary tradition attached to this. I hardly drink at all anymore but I believe that I’m using fiction and imaginative tales in the FORM of a pub yarn or a local myth. I think it is that roving, versatile structure I am attracted to. I have used tales and stories from family and from friends; things that have happened to me, to others, all mixed up with invention. I find as years go by I forget the sources of many of these anecdotes. Many are invented, some I believe happened to so-and-so but actually happened to such-and-such – and even more bizarre, I genuinely have believed certain things have happened to me whereas I’ve been corrected and they definitely happened to someone else! Such are the dangers of too many pubs and a fantastical if meagre imagination. But there’s something else more significant.

Since my parents ran a hotel, as a kid I spent long summer holidays with a Gaelic speaking family on Uist and Barra. I am the last type of personality to claim membership of some kind of ersatz culture here. We did not cluster round a two bar electric fire swapping fabulous stories of the islands. (Though Tales of the Toddy was one of the few books always sitting in our house – and I later read it with delight). But among the adults on Uist and Barra there were drams and tales swapped at night – in English and Gaelic – and we children often listened with absolute fascination before we were sent up to bed. I used to have a wee bit of childish Gaelic that has since been nudged aside in my storm-tossed mind. Often tales were translated for my benefit alone, as I was the only non-native speaker there. So I have heard stories from an early age from Gaels and a good few of them put shivers up my spine. Also, my mother’s family is a very large farming one, of brothers and sisters and cousins galore on Mull, and tales would and still do fairly fire round the scullery there. In a completely unpretentious way, my mother, father, sister, uncles and aunts were often relating wild and very funny stories and I was exposed to that long before I was a reader. It’s inevitable this was a big influence.

SRB: I wanted to ask a question about the narrator’s voice in your novels, the ones with a third person narrative. The voice narrating appears in parts older than the girls. There are a couple of nostalgic statements that begin ‘Once…’ in The Stars in the Bright Sky: ‘Once upon a time, people looked and evaluated the face of a stranger, nowadays they first noted clothes, handbag and your wristwatch when you got to the top of the queue in MacDonald on a Saturday night’, ‘Once, architecture spoke of permanence and a future; here it was always ready to do a runner, like those huge moulded warehouses which now lay across this part of the kingdom.’ The girls themselves are generally un-nostalgic except for their shared schooldays. Similarly, the voice, as it was in The Man Who Walks, breezily refers to authors of classic fiction: ‘old Heraclitus of Ephesus’ (‘old Art Schopenhauer’ and ‘wry Suetonius’ in TMWW). But then there are parts that are closer to free indirect speech which capture the girl’s excitability. How did you hit upon that voice? Is the narrator, as Muriel Spark suggested narrators should be, a character in his (her?) own right?

AW: Absolutely. The narrator is not for a moment “my” voice. In The Sopranos for instance, I am convinced the third person narrator is actually a female voice, whereas in The Stars in the Bright Sky it is a male voice for sure – but not me; he’s a sort of jaded metaphysical student who is conversely wearied by the characters but also protective about them. In writing a novel told in close focus and pulled back to third person, I am not just discovering the characters, I am discovering the tone and moral position of the narrator too. I could never write a third (or first) person novel in “my” voice, in the assumption of a rationality, a unified personality, presuming a certainty that has evaporated. The 19th century novel assumed a rationality and reason which has been destroyed by the 20th century novel. After reading Kafka, Beckett and Kelman, a third person “voice of god”, or worse, Alan Warner, would be impossible for me. And the voice of god which remains is limited, it only has finite access, its signal is breaking up – but most importantly it is not an “improving” voice of moral superiority as in much 19th century fiction. In The Sopranos and I feel The Stars in the Bright Sky, the narrative voices might assume a superiority over the characters initially, but they are finally won over by the characters, who perhaps are in many ways more admirable than the initial narrator.

Interesting you mention Spark. That author who seemed so uncomfortable and touchy with her Scottish identity. One Scottish-set novel out of all that she wrote. It has struck me that critics have never once – to my recall – mentioned The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Girls of Slender Means as possible “influences” on The Sopranos – or The Stars in the Bright Sky. I thought that schoolgirl/young lady group milieu would be obvious. That to me displays a social class distinction in criticism. Of course we need to be careful about the term “influence”. I think The Sopranos is more a vociferous objection and reaction to the Brodie novel. Allowing much that was repressed in Spark to break free. Alas, I take little pleasure from Spark’s work generally, though Girls of Slender Means is my favourite. I find her to be an immensely cold and cruel writer. She reminds me of Hitchcock who is also a cold fish. Surely Hitchcock would have made an interesting adaptation of The Drivers Seat? Seems to me James Kennaway was a far more supple, versatile and skilled writer of the 1950s and 1960s (and Tunes of Glory a better movie adaptation than Brodie). But Kennaway has been bafflingly lost to the Scottish consciousness in a way the rather superficial and unexamined cult of Jean Brodie has not.

SRB: The Stars in the Bright Sky strikes me as a portrait of an unsustainable way of life. The amount of luggage alone speaks of a society with too much for its own good. Is that something that concerns you? Or is it merely a wry observation?
AW: Maybe it is just youth, the vanities and the uneasy innocence which are – of course – unsustainable?

SRB: ‘They all waited to see what would happen next.’ Touch of Godot there? Is The Stars in the Bright Sky essentially a Beckett-esque comedy? Is Beckett a recurring influence? You mention him in The Man Who Walks.

AW: Absolutely. I recall vividly my first reading of the Beckett Trilogy. Novels so full of hilarity and distinctive voice; Beckett wasn’t the first, but he perfected the destruction of the whole concept of narrative in the novel. He attacked the prime function of the novel as a “story-telling” medium but instead of a nihilistic, destructive act, this comes across as a triumphantly generous creative breakthrough. His aesthetic says, ‘To hell with all these bloody stories… I could tell this one or that one but to hell, instead, here is a human voice, tender with suffering.’ It’s almost a definition of the English novel of the 1940s to early 1960s that Beckett and Joyce were denied and not taken on board as influences. I believe the TLS never reviewed Ulysses. Then when Beckett and Joyce do start to become influences on the English novel it is awkward. An odd fusion of sensibilities. You get things like Bridgit Brophy’s (she was Anglo-Irish) In Transit, which I read of course, because it’s about an airport! I’m sure Brophy is about to be “rediscovered” in London, the way Elizabeth Taylor was some years back.

Beckett is so wonderful because his struggle has given us so much as writers. There are whole spectrums of possibility we can draw from his work. I made another pilgrimage to his old apartment on the Boulevard St Jacques in May, and I posted a single flower through his letter box.

SRB: Do you think independence would benefit or disadvantage Scotland’s writers?

AW: A non-textual question! I’m always suspicious that Scottish writers should have any more special priority given to their opinions that Scottish plumbers, farmers, shop employees or indeed the mighty PYLON REPAIR MEN! These are very interesting times for old Scotland and anyway, what do we mean by “advantage” or “disadvantage” for writers? It is fascinating to see the status quo uneasily squirming at the possible implications of Scottish political independence. What convulsions are beginning for unquestioning Anglo-Scottish/unionist mind sets? Post-election conditions have flipped the dialectic so that for the first time, rather than Scottish independence, it is the unionist, Anglo-Scot position which has to begin justifying – if possible – itself. You can feel the uneasiness. I find it all very interesting; and it will be.

SRB: You’re currently the writer in residence at the University of Edinburgh, lending teaching support to creative writing students. What’s your take on creative writing? What lessons do you stress to young writers?

AW: For many years I’m not sure I understood what “creative writing” was. As someone who grew up with a huge sense of privacy and insecurity about my own attempts to write, I was always amazed that other folk had the nerve to “come out” in public, so to speak. To admit they were writing and trying to achieve something with it seemed almost wrong in my odd view. I was very much from the teeth-grinding, solitary bedroom typing school. In some way I regret a lot of that loneliness and isolation and I now feel it’s a very positive thing that people can gather together and announce they are writing. Sounds bland, but it can be a good thing to be in a supportive network of other scribblers. I never found that community until the earlier 90s in Edinburgh, around the time of Irvine publishing Trainspotting. That was more pub based culture than University of course!

My advice to students is what it always has been: Read, read and read and define to yourself why you like some stuff and not other stuff. You’ll find all your answers come from other books – books of fiction and short stories and poetry – not from me or Creative Writing manuals!

SRB: I believe you have two books already completed. Can you talk about them yet?

AW: One is published in April next year by Jonathan Cape. It is called The Deadman’s Pedal. It’s about a kid, just a child really, up in The Port in Argyll in 1973. He’s only fifteen and sixteen in this novel. I find those years very dramatic and interesting and moving. For young people; society is trying to demand fifteen-year-olds abandon childhood imagination and move into this world of adulthood and employment (or unemployment). Hormones are active, and in many ways the decisions and events of those years – for kids who don’t go to university – define the rest of their lives. This kid, Simon, drifts into a job on the railways in the early 1970s and he manages to get mixed up romantically with two very different girls of his own age. It’s also a novel about social class placement. I’ve tried to write a kid from the sort of artisan middle class, a girl from the council house estate and also Anglo-Scot characters from The Big House, and I’ve tried to do it objectively. I see it as an ongoing story. In a sense all my novels form a sort of nexus but this one is a straight ahead Sequence. I’ll write the next section soon.

I’ve another novel under my desk here, called Their Lips Talk of Mischief that I’m editing and I’ve started another. It is like a curse. I have to keep writing them.

Related Articles

Popular Articles

Other Stories