30 July 2021
SoA in Scotland member Moira McPartlin talks about writing in dialect.
You can read plast blogs by members of the Society of Authors in Scotland below.
On the Trail of the Lost Shepherd
By Merryn Glover
We found the abandoned lamb at the edge of a field, bleating plaintively as it trotted towards us on wobbly legs, its mother nowhere in sight. The farmer scooped it up and tossed it into my arms as we climbed back into his four-wheel-drive. The little creature was all soft fleece, wet nose and warm wriggles as it burrowed into my lap, and it reminded me of cuddling baby goats when I was a child in a Nepali village. It also reminded me how much more fun research is than writing.
It was all in a day’s work for me as I developed my recently published novel Of Stone and Sky. It’s the story of a Highland shepherd, Colvin, who disappears and leaves a puzzling trail of his possessions leading up into the Cairngorm mountains.
The idea began in the middle of the night on a summer solstice, but as soon as I began to write it, I realised I knew precious little about what a shepherd does all day. This state of affairs had prevailed despite being surrounded by sheep.
Where I live in Badenoch, the upper strath of the River Spey, it’s farming country. In fact, the flock from across the road not uncommonly breach their fences and colonise the neighbourhood, even raiding my garden. But apart from the legendary straying of wayward sheep, I didn’t know much about shepherds. Fortunately, several of the ones around me were only too happy to answer my many questions and let me trail around after them like a clue-less lamb.
An unfailingly kind source of information was the Slimon family of Laggan, who – like many locals - have farmed here for several generations. I have rarely been as excited by a literary discovery as when I fell upon Campbell Slimon’s book Stells, Stools, Strupag: A personal reminiscence of sheep, shepherding, farming and the social activities of a Highland Parish. (It’s all pacy, racy thrillers for me!) Even better was meeting Campbell and his wife Sheena and their son Archie and daughter-in-law, Cathy, and learning first-hand what the shepherding life was like.
On a surprisingly cold day in May, I joined them in their draughty shed to watch the previous year’s lambs being sorted and processed for their various futures. At the juncture of their destiny, Archie heaved them one by one onto a wooden platform and pinned them into place to prevent kicking, while Campbell and Cathy delivered various ministrations.
If you’re squeamish, look away now. Out came an enormous syringe for vaccination, a sharp knife for the docking of tails and a nifty tool for castration. The ones staying on the farm were also ‘keeled’ with a daub of blue paint on the bum, and got ‘lug-marks’ cut into their ears, a distinct pattern linked to each farm which dates back, in some cases, for hundreds of years.
"I have rarely been as excited by a literary discovery as when I fell upon Campbell Slimon’s book Stells, Stools, Strupag: A personal reminiscence of sheep, shepherding, farming and the social activities of a Highland Parish."
In the summer, I watched Cathy clipping, impressed by the deft handling of disgruntled sheep and the speed of the shearing. Farmers here still help each other out, but community clippings are rapidly giving way to hired contractors.
The Slimons gave me a copy of a beautiful film by Jill Brown Media of The Clippings in the Laggan valley, one of the last of its kind. It features local families, and the little kids bouncing on the wool bags grew up into teenagers that I taught at Kingussie High School. The first minute of the film became the opening for my Zoom book launch.
Then in a bright day in September, I went up the hills above Dalwhinnie for a gathering. Puffing my way up the tussocky slope behind Archie, I marvelled at how the slightest word from him had the dogs rippling out and back, as if joined by invisible threads. At the top, he sent me ahead to wait at the first burn while he prised some sheep out of a gully.
Unfortunately, the dogs are not so good at rounding up lost writers, so Archie had to come trudging back to find me, at which point I discovered the trickle I had stopped at was not, in fact, The Burn. Whatever it was, the Slimon’s now call it Merryn’s Burn.
Another September, I met the family again, this time at the Kingussie sheep mart. Although it’s directly across the road from the high school, I’d never really paid it much heed. At one time one of the busiest livestock markets in the Highlands, it is now half an acre of outdoor pens around a low, weather-beaten, wooden building.
From the outside, it looks little more than an oversized, round shed, but inside there was a bustling auction in full swing. Wizened farmers in dun-coloured jackets and tweeds leaned over the railings around the edges as bolshy sheep were herded into the ring, bid for and bought, and herded out the other side. Here was a whole industry, a whole way of life, a whole world, happening right under my nose that I’d never known about.
Learning something of its story and characters was one of the great joys of writing Of Stone and Sky. The account of sheep in Scotland is complicated and fraught with divergent perspectives. When I began writing - knowing from the beginning it was a story about the land as much as the people - I walked in blissful ignorance where angels fear to tread.
Now that I know more, I acknowledge the difficulties but also realise that, perhaps, that is what the book has been about all along. It is the story of struggle, of relationships with the land that are as much wrestling as embrace, and of a people forever marked by it.
Early in the novel, my shepherd Colvin’s mother, who grew up a Highland Traveller, learns the sheep farming life from her father-in-law. My own learning is captured through her eyes.
“She witnessed his bond. To the sheep and the dogs and the land, to the seasons and the weather, to the neighbouring shepherds in time of need, but mainly to this solitary walk; this ancient herding windblown way.”
Of Stone and Sky is available in hardback and ebook wherever you get your books. You are warmly invited to an evening called The Shepherd’s Tale at the Badenoch Heritage Festival on Friday 24 September in Kingussie. It will include readings from the novel, conversation with the Slimons, a showing of Jill Brown’s Blaraigie Clippings film and live music by traditional musician Hamish Napier. Sign up here for further news of that and Merryn’s other events. See: www.merrynglover.com
Pictured top right: Merryn Glover above the strath where Of Stone and Sky is set, with a shepherd’s crook, made for her by a local friend.
Golf and writing: where’s the common ground?
By Mac Logan
What on earth do writing and golf have in common?
‘You name it, and I’ll write it,’ I said. Talk about cocky.
‘Has golf and writing got anything in common?’ Claire* said. ‘Write me around 500 words, please. By the 25th of April… this year.’ She smiled her challenge.
No pressure? Did my confidence wobble? Of course! How else do you get Writers’ Block? And that’s where I’ll start, at the beginning, before anything happens.
A writer sits down and stares at a stark, blank sheet of paper, its emptiness a scary yet seductive invitation. At that moment, her creative potential is unlimited. For instance, she could produce a best-selling novel, a poem of inspiring power and insight, or a play to rival Shakespeare.
Then, as the quill is dipped in the ink-pot and a charged nib glides over parchment, a creative spark takes tangible form for better or worse.
Meanwhile, on the teeing ground, a golfer follows his personal ritual of preparation, gripping and swishing a club. Traces of anxiety betray their presence on his pale face and blinking eyes. Name called, he glides on to an empty rectangle of grass and tees up his golf ball. With (aspired to if not actual) poised athleticism, he takes his stance, readies his club and whacks his ball.
Creative or what?
Words flow on to a page. A golf ball bounces down a fairway. Two people dare to begin an imaginative journey.
A piece of writing may take years of diligent endeavour or less time than playing a round of golf. In every case, the care, thought and skill of producing a coherent work is undeniable.
Golf is time-pressured. Creativity happens all the time. Imagine a ball landing forty metres from a tree standing between a golfer and his target. A thick trunk and well-leafed branches await an error of judgement or execution. Under pressure, the player must decide how to overcome the obstacle without delay. Three creative options are open. He can play his shot over, under or around the oak. Decision made, the ball is struck.
The Common Ground
I don’t know about you, but when I put pen to paper, the words flow out of me with an almost-tidy spontaneity. Before long, sentences, paragraphs and chapters fill pages and await the shaping caress of an editing hand.
With golf, a creative opportunity arises with every shot. The golf ball rockets forth with sometimes disappointing and often disconcerting outcomes. Yet, every now and then, the intended result happens, and someone says, ‘good shot’.
A writer and a golfer’s common ground is creativity, the application of developed skills and a willingness to stay the course. Then, after a good day, a warm mug of something burnishes the satisfaction of a job well done.
The only thing missing is a golfer’s ability to edit a poor score.
*That’s Claire Watts, the SoAiS Committee member responsible for finding content for these occasional pieces.
Mac Logan is Chair of the SoA in Scotland and author of the Angels’ Share series, the up and coming Reborn Tree saga, a couple of business titles, and many business-related articles and blogs. He lives in the beautiful East Neuk of Fife, Scotland. His website is: https://maclogan.online
The Society of Authors in Scotland Spring Social
By Tita Berredo
I am a Brazilian in my early thirties and I write and illustrate for children. One way of settling myself into the publishing industry after moving to the UK was joining the SoA, which has been utterly helpful in many ways. However, when it came to social events, being surrounded by so many – and more mature – established authors could be a little intimidating. So I was happily surprised by how this year’s Spring Social was organised in a dynamic and personal way.
First of all, instead of sitting quietly amongst an ocean of small screens, the hosts broke into small chat rooms. This allowed us to get to know each other and to have a space for an actual conversation.
Secondly, we got to express our present concerns and share thoughts on how the SoA could help us move forward.
Last but not least (at all), we all got to share a little bit of our talent, which I thought was a really nice touch. We were invited to finish some limericks in our ‘own inimitable style’. So I did it, but my own inimitable style was illustrated.
A wee Glasgow dog with a bone
Was frightened of taking it home
For the butcher was missing
A whole free range chicken...
That not only surprised everyone but also appeared to widen the space for creative solutions when it comes to writing and sharing one’s work. That was the high point for me because it showed that my work was taken seriously despite where I am in my career or what genre I write for. I felt included.
In a single afternoon, authors and hosts got to know each other, express issues and ask for help, and also exercise and share our skills in a fun and personal way. This social was an example of everything that I expect, hope and wish from a community like the SoA. I couldn’t be happier and look forward to the next one!
Find out more about Tita Berredo at her website or on Instagram and Twitter.
The next SoAiS social will be held in June. Watch out for more information.
Writers on the Edge
By Donald Murray
The last flight home (inevitably diverted or delayed). The twelve hour long ferry journey (inevitably stormy). The long and winding road (inevitably clouded by fog)…
These are just some of the problems often experienced by writers who live on the country’s edge. It affects them at all times – when they are attending book festivals at their country’s centre; when they are researching topics for a book or article; when there are meetings with agents and others to be arranged.
Just as important is the lack of contact with others who might be able to assist in some aspect of the work that knots a writer’s forehead and tangles thought. There is, too, that sense of being disregarded when others make short visits to familiar aspects of their surroundings, the visitor always (seemingly) possessing greater expertise about a particular locality than those who live there full-time.
Peculiarly, for those of us living in so-called ‘remote’ parts of these islands, some of these issues have lessened during the current lockdown. During the last year, we have been able to attend book festivals and meetings without stirring from our homes.
Instead of feeling alone in our situation, we now share the same dilemmas as everyone else. We are all ‘isolated’ with everyone just a ‘zoom call’ away. The issues that used to trouble writers living on the edge of the country have disappeared. In their place are similar concerns to those that affect everyone everywhere. One could even argue that, during this period, matters have ‘improved’.
The Society of Authors arranged a meeting in which three writers, Kerry Buchanan from County Down in Northern Ireland, Christopher Meredith from mid-Wales, and SoAiS Committee member, Donald S Murray (pictured), who lives in Shetland, discuss the issues that affect those who live on the edge.
As both Christopher and Donald are respectively speakers of Welsh and Scottish Gaelic, they spoke about how being bilingual influences both their lives and writing.
Among other issues, they discussed the minority status of Gaelic, Irish and Welsh within these islands and how those who communicate in these tongues sometimes feel sidelined in discussions that involve the communities from which they come.
Watch a recording of this online discussion, which took place on 23 March 2021.