It is an early start to this trip to Ullapool Book Festival, but the four shortlistees for the inaugural Highland Book Prize reading from their respective works are worth the early rise. As the blue sky opens up the view onto the little whitewashed village at the mouth of Loch Broom, Ullapool’s unique selling point becomes clear once again. Scenic and compact, it is a place for meeting, for connecting, and for mingling. Despite the 9 o’clock start, people are walking towards the village hall from all directions, chatting like old friends as they file in.
The event is opened by honorary chair of the book festival Chris Dolan before the first Highland Book Prize author takes to the stage. Dion Alexander reads from The Potter’s Tale, detailing his arrival on the Isle of Colonsay (and the male gaels’ fondness for stories he encountered there) in his boathouse-turned-pottery. Intricately woven sentences reflect the rich layers of island life.
Fellow shortlistee Kapta Kassabova is unable to attend, so Eilidh Smith from Moniack Mhor steps in to read an entertaining and evocative extract on longevity from the shortlisted novel Border on the author’s behalf, showcasing the poet’s lyrical style.
RL McKinney’s The Angel in the Stone explores themes of mental illness and Alzheimer’s. Rebecca McKinney’s chosen extract describes a mountaineer’s world, full of bravado and banter but also of considerable burdens.
Next up is James Miller, recently interviewed for The Wee Review, who reads a chapter on drovers from his anecdote-rich history of transport in the North of Scotland, The Finest Road in the World. Peppered with interesting snippets and surprising statistics, it is immerses us in facts but is far from dry.
The winner won’t be announced until the evening, but the session serves as a springboard, toning the minds for the rest of the day.
The next event gives a solo platform to James Miller once again who is at his best and most charming when left to ad-lib. The flexible and free format, expertly chaired by Mark Wringe, suits Miller much better than the rigid timekeeping of the previous session. He delights the audience with letter descriptions of Lord Lovat’s coach (carriage) journey to Edinburgh, which features more mishaps than a Laurel and Hardy sketch, talks knowledgeably about public funding for infrastructure past and present and the early history of motor rallies in the Highlands, and, on several occasions, jumps up a little from his chair: ‘That makes me think of something in the book. Wait till I find it…’ The audience wait. Flicking through pages, he mumbles audibly: “Time passes…people want their money back…” to much hilarity in the hall.
A half-hour break is followed by another session, this time with historical fiction author Jane Harris who, for me, is the star of the day. A trained actress, she reads from all three of her novels, switching with ease from Irish accent in The Observations to received pronunciation in Gillespie and I and French Creole in the Sir Walter Scott Prize shortlisted Sugar Money. The discussion at the end of the session centres on the variety of her narrative voices, delving into the rich historical and linguistic heritage which has inspired her characters. An outstanding, and often hilarious, performer, I am not surprised to hear that she has in the past turned her hand to stand-up.
After lunch, chair and journalist Ruth Wishart begins the Open University-sponsored discussion with her trademark wit, swiftly putting features writer Peter Ross and investigative journalist Peter Geoghegan at their ease. A thought-provoking discussion of the challenges and triumphs of journalism in these times follows, touching on the demise of quality newspapers in Scotland, the need for kindness and empathy in the industry, and a plea for journalistic writing to aspire to aesthetic style rather than merely conveying information. Both young men are quick-fire minds and Wishart more than holds her own – a thought-provoking and enjoyable hour. As Wishart puts it eloquently: “These two are in danger of giving journalism a good name!”
The sun is low in the afternoon sky when the whitewashed buildings around the pier disappear behind the hill once more. It has been a long day, but a refreshing one, as if the tired and clogged mind has been laundered by fresh impressions and flushed through with a wash of new ideas.
Later, the news breaks that Kapta Kassabova has won the Highland Book Prize for Border.