How was it for you?

February’s now here, so I thought I’d post a little update on how the ‘New Year, New Start’ has gone so far. Whilst the rest of the world feels like it’s falling apart thanks to the Tangerine Toddler, it’s been a creatively promising month in this corner of Fife.

First, I’m extremely pleased to announce that I’ve now got a literary agent, Jenny Brown of Jenny Brown Associates. How did this happen? Well, it’s all thanks to the magic* of Twitter – and a great little initiative called Tweet Your Pitch. Organised by XPONorth, the trade network for writing and publishing in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands, it’s a one-day open call for book pitches from writers across Scotland. The catch? Your whole book needs to be crammed into just one tweet. Mine was:

Jenny got in touch to say she’d be interested in finding out more; I sent through my proposal and a sample of writing, and a week or so later we met in Edinburgh to seal the deal. I’m beyond honoured to be represented by Scotland’s best-kent agent, alongside the likes of Kathleen Jamie, Alasdair Gray, and Gavin Francis.

Second, Tweet Your Pitch also got me in touch with Glasgow publishers Freight Books, who liked my idea for a book detailing the experiences I had nine years ago whilst living in Japan. Last week I meet with design guru and Freight head honcho Adrian Searle, who gave me a much-needed confidence boost, a reading list and several pointers regarding narrative construction – and introduced me to the weird and wonderful (?) world of Wool Fetishists. Go on, click on the link…

Third, I finished my first freelance copywriting and editing job – producing the School of Geography and Sustainable Development’s new magazine. It hits the newstands university website next week, and has helped me reach my January freelance earning target (phew). It also helped me to snare my second freelance job, copyediting a book on coastal rowing – which should keep me financially afloat through February.

On the book front, I’ve drafted the prologue and first chapter of the wool tome (you can keep up-to-date with this project over on This Golden Fleece) and am now rolling up my sleeves to crack on with chapter two. I had a great day’s research at the National Library of Scotland, combined with mornings mostly spent in the University of St Andrews library – cosy, spacious, and completely free! I’m also approaching the finishing line with January’s knitting project, a pair of intricate Dentdale gloves in Shetland wool. And my wool trivia is growing a-pace: who knew that Virginia Woolf was a literary knitter?

It’s been a busy month, but a good one – hopefully this momentum can carry me through the rest of the year…

*=reclaim Twitter from Trumped-up terror, says I

A Very Scottish Centurion

I’ve never managed to complete A Century in Books. For a start, I have gluts of books for certain years (post 2010 is particularly strong, perhaps something to do with the fact I’ve only been in well-ish paying jobs since then), but hardly anything from between 1850 and 1950, Hardy and Dickens excepted. I am also dreadful at sticking to things – or remembering to stick to them at least! books

So perhaps it is a fool’s errand to try something like this again, but The List’s list of 100 Best Scottish Books has caught my eye. I am partly persuaded by the fact my job requires me to know about Scottish literature, and I don’t. Well, I know a bit about Burns and the Blackwood’s group, and a smattering about Scott and Stevenson, but that’s about it. Everyone else in my office (both of them) is hugely well-versed in Scotland’s literary output, particularly that of the last 50 years, and I just ain’t. So I think it’s probably time I donned my reading specs (who am I kidding, I need these bad boys for everything from walking across the room to knitting) and began to address my gaps in knowledge.

Of the 100 on the list, I have aleady read the following:

The Citadel, A.J. Cronin (1937) – I seem to remember that this was set in Wales, though Google informs me the protagonist and the author were both Scots. Apparently the book helped secure the landslide Labour victory of 1945: no small achievement on anyone’s part.

Confessions of An English Opium Easter, Thomas De Quincey (1822) – a very familiar friend, Thomas De Quincey has been an almost daily part of my life since I first came to work at Dove Cottage in 2009. The manuscript of Confessions is kept in the Wordsworth Museum, heavily dewed with mysterious brown stains. Scholars had long hoped that these drops were of laudanum, but following tests they were found to be nothing more than coffee, no doubt spilled when De Quincey was writing in that most fashionable of Regency dives, the coffee house.

Electric Brae, Andrew Greig (1997) – I adored this book, the first of Greig’s novels I encountered. I read it whilst living in Ayrshire, and sought out the eponymous brae, just south of Ayr – which does indeed do strange things to ones perceptions of where roads should go. Greig does likewise with his writing.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, J.K. Rowling (1997) – I remember when this book came out: I was 11 and I was given a copy as part of our middle school book group. I hated the first couple of chapters, and gave it up as a bad job. Then, as the series became stratospherically popular, I returned to them and fell in love, reading each one in pretty much one sitting as they came out. Deathly Hallows was published just after I finished my undergraduate English degree, so I was very much of that generation growing up alongside Harry, Hermione and Ron.

Imagined Corners, Willa Muir (1931) – a friend who moved to Scotland a few years before I did recommended this book to me when I was struggling to fit in to life in a small Ayrshire town – and boy did it resonate with me, even 80 years after it was written.

1984, George Orwell (1949) – I first read this in my second term at university, struggling to write a coherent essay on dystopian fiction. It made me feel uneasy but it is quite amazing to think that it was written over 60 years ago, making its prophecies all the more remarkable.

The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith (1998) – my mum and grandma are huge Sandy fans, and I galloped through the series (eight books strong as it was at the time) in a few angsty summer weeks whilst living back at home after university. Funny, buoyant, jolly – just the tonic after an Oxford education.

 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark (1961) – I live about 200 metres from Muriel Spark’s old house (well, flat), and walk past the inspiration for Marcia Blane’s every day. I loved this book, and also adored Spark’s recent biography by Martin Stannard.

The Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg (1824) – ahhh Confessions, the book which first drew me to the Blackwood’s group and upon which I based my undergraduate thesis. I’m currently planning a pilgrimage out to Tibbie Shiel’s

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (1886) – I’ve just read this book twice, once in preparation for my recent job interview, and then again on the suggestion of my boss once I had started. Suffice to say there was plenty I had skimmed over on first reading!

Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932) – I adore everything about this book, and indeed the whole trilogy. I found the Scots surprisingly easy to read – in fact it really made the book more beautiful. Now I just need to own a copy which hasn’t been printed on something like lavatory paper in a size 8 font.

Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh (1993) – a friend from Ayrshire lent me this, and it made my stomach churn in ways both good and bad. Like Sunset Song, the Scots is such an intrinsic part of the book that it would be unimagineable in standard English.

12 down, 88 to go… I’ll keep you posted!

Bens Lomond and Ledi, Weirs Molly and Tommy

From the summit of Ben Lomond

From the summit of Ben Lomond

This weekend I doubled my tally of Munros summited. Ok, so it was only my second 3000-footer: but it really was a doubling from my previous total of just Ben Wyvis! Ben Lomond was my second, all 3195 feet of it, and it was a glorious sunny spring day as we made our way up, along with hundreds and hundreds of others, all sweating and swearing and stopping to look at the beautiful views of the sunny loch with its sparkly surface and perfect little islands. The main path on the south ridge was heaving with folk all the way up, but once we’d reached the top and started down the Ptarmigan ridge they thinned out almost to nothing, and we had a lovely stroll down this subsidiary flank in the late afternoon sunshine. We’d already pitched camp at the Forestry Commission campsite in Sallochy in the morning, so hurried back home in the evening light to make dinner on our little camp ‘kitchen’. The evening was beauteous and the shoreline sparkled with campfires glimmering in the gloaming – we hadn’t sorted out anything to burn ourselves, so walked along the shore amid the woodsmoke to keep warm before burrowing into sleeping bags and blankets for a sound night’s sleep.

Ben Ledi before me

Ben Ledi before me

The next morning dawned bright and sunny again, so we consulted the map and headed for Ben Ledi – 30 feet short of true Munro status, but a big walk none the less. We parked by the roaring motorbikes on the road between Callander and Strathyre, and set off up the unpleasantly named Stank Glen: fortunately it did not live up to its name and instead was a sunny and fairly open cleft, with plenty of forestry trails crossing the valley and some long twin-force falls at the centre. Once we’d popped up above the corrie, we skirted just to the south of the Lochan nan Corp – tarn of the bodies! Keen not to add ours to it, battling on upwards in ever-increasing wind, barely staying long enough for a summit photograph before heading for a rocky outcrop to hide behind and eat our summit snack. As with the day before, the descent was much quieter and we swiftly made out way back down, and within an hour and half were back in Edinburgh.

Now, what does this have to do with biography, you may be thinking? Apart from being a snapshot of my life, it is part of my experiment to live fully in Scotland and immerse myself in as many parts of it as possible: geographical, cultural, musical, political. I so want to enjoy my time here and want to tread in the footsteps of writers and walkers like Nan Shepherd, exploring those psychogeographical relations between places and people. So for each excursion I make into the wilds, I am going to be reading a book by a Scottish author with a connection to that place.

I love a view with my reading

I love a view with my reading

So, what was I reading this weekend? The actor Molly Weir’s Trilogy of Scottish Childhood. Hardly the obvious companion for a hill walk, but it definitely enhanced my enjoyment of being there. It was pure chance that a lovely friend of mine had bestowed on me a copy of this memoir just the day before, after I had begun to read it at her house, and that as soon as we arrived at Balmaha I spotted the new statue of her brother, the writer and climber Tom Weir, leaning brazenly in a red woolly hat placed boldly on his head by a visiting pilgrim. I have not yet seen any of the Weir siblings’ broadcasts – something to rectify – but I was so pleased that the book and the place were connected in this small way.

The Trilogy is pure 20th century memoir: it bursts with little stories of life growing up in Glasgow’s tenements and its humour and tone are warm and understated. Molly Weir was born in 1910, Tom four years later, and as children lived with their mother and grandmother in what seems like grinding poverty. The narrative follows Molly’s success at school and as a shorthand typist, and then covers her early years of life as an actor. Glaswegian Scots was the children’s first tongue, and the humour of that Springburn community is familiar to anyone who has seen Billy Connolly or Frankie Boyle: tinged with darkness, full-blooded and self-deprecating. Our narrator bounces and bubbles along beside us, bringing the Co-operative shops and the trams and the tenements back to life beside us, with a terrific ear for a smart turn of phrase or a detail of domestic life. Anyone who believes Hallowe’en as an recent American invention cannot fail to notice how important a part it played in the life of these Glasgow families at the turn of the last century – its roots are deep in Scottish culture, and it provides a platform for the performances musical, rhythmical and spoken which are such an intrinsic part of Scotland’s life. Molly WeirSomething I was amazed at when I first moved to Ayr a few years ago was how everyone I worked with seemed to have a party piece – or several! Singing, dancing, playing the fiddle or flute, telling stories, putting on a party: these talents were shared at Burns Suppers and house-warming parties alike, and I loved that these folk performances were embedded into people’s social lives. Admittedly we were working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, so perhaps it attracted a higher than average number of performers, but the standard was superb and I wished that English folk culture was still a much greater part of people’s lives.

Storytelling is a much more prominent part of Scottish culture than it is in England. The Scottish Storytelling Centre sits proudly on the Royal Mile, and there are storytelling festivals up and down the country. Storytelling is at the heart of life-writing, but I’ve always felt a little uncomfortable at the overly folksy associations that ‘storytelling’ sometimes has: vague middle-aged women drifting about in tie-dyed dresses warbling tales of birds and beasts getting damp-eyed over rescued birds and brave bold boys. Building and transmitting interesting narratives is such an important part of everything most of us do every day – being it persuading people to buy, invest or donate money, shaping partnerships for new projects, helping people find the resources which best fit their needs, whether those be physical, financial or cultural – that the skills of storytelling should belong to everyone. And no-one who has ever sat through a school lesson, university lecture or staff training day will underestimate the importance of someone who can make the story of their subject matter interesting, whether it be the life cycle of the frog, Middle English poetry or the importance of maintain accurate accounts!

Molly Weir’s autobiography will probably never rate among the literary greats, but it is a perfect example of punchy Scottish storytelling and is fascinating even if you know nothing about Molly Weir. It is peppered with the dialect of Glasgow – again, living in Ayr had helped me ‘get my ear in’ to those west coast vowels – and its central characters are engaging and strong, from Grannie with her insistence on hard work and perfect manners, to Mother with her busy life at the rail works and love of dancing. The stereotyped Scot is often dour, but nothing could be further from the reader’s mind as she steps back a hundred years into those lively and rambunctious Glasgow streets alongside her curly-headed ‘Flying Scotswoman’, racing everywhere and meeting everyone and soaking it all in.

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Edinburgh’s Union Canal at night