What an enthusiastic woman is Gerda Stevenson! Sitting alongside Herald journalist Jackie McGlone, she describes the inspiration for and selection process of, and reads excerpts from her new book Quines in the Writer’s Retreat at the Book Festival. Quines is a Scots word meaning a lass; a woman; sounding like ‘queen’, thereby lending an “aristocracy of the spirit”.

McGlone’s eloquent introduction describes Stevenson as “a woman of a thousand skills”: she is an actress from the popular Shetland TV series, poet, writer, lecturer, singer and songwriter. Stevenson, in turn, describes the noble, reconstructed and ancient head of a young woman on the cover of her book: “she could have been my daughter… Does history really separate us, or does it reveal how much we have in common?”

In her book (“it feels like their book,” says Stevenson in that familiar way many women have of humbly attributing praise to others), she presents poems of deceased Scottish women such as Isabel Emslie Hutton, psychiatrist and doctor; Tessa Ransford, founder of the Scottish Poetry Library; Mina Ray, one of Scotland’s first interpreter trainers; and Betsy Miller, ship’s captain. Standing to deliver poems in Scots and English with an open countenance, she also includes work which honours the Gaelic, using its syntax and lilt.

In the course of her research she unearthed women from all walks of life, an all-female football team, and many fascinating women from Dundee. She gives them a voice, manages to get inside them. For example, in Demerara, a slave girl from the plantations brought to “the Black Isle of white people”, she writes: “her spine stiffened in her corset when I declined the sugar”; and after her twins were stillborn, Mary Stuart’s (Queen of Scots) voice tells us, “tho milk’s ae buckin frae ma breists unner ma lace an steys”.

In a relaxed and sisterly way she laughs with McGlone, sharing personal information: “I’m a Hibs supporter”, and “I’m very interested in Robert Owen‘s Utopian thinking”. She is also serious about slavery (tackling it, for example, in Terpsichore about Maud Sulter, “I’m your morning’s sport, a clandestine delight… but I’m only marking time; one day… you’ll be dancing to another’s tune.”  Most of the information Stevenson gives us is in the introduction of the book, but she brings it alive with her erudite charm.

For other women’s literature events, see also the Revolting Women theme at the Edinburgh International Book festival. This year’s Thomas Muir Memorial Lecture will be given by Gerda Stevenson, details of which can be found here.