Ullapool delivers another book festival to cherish

Val McDermid                                           Photograph: Charlie Hopkinson

MICHAEL RUSSELL attended – and was part of – this year’s Ullapool Book Festival. Here are just a few of the highlights…


Crime writer Val McDermid, arguably the top draw at this year’s Ullapool Book Festival, likened last week’s General Election result to the Reformation.

Bringing the festival to a close, she said the “schism” that now divides an SNP-dominated anti-austerity Scotland from a uniformly-blue south of England really is on that scale.

“You have to wonder where we are going and how we get there,” McDermid added. “But that is one of the exciting things about being in Scotland right now. In England, people there are amazed at what has happened here because they don’t have the same sense of control over their lives or the same sense of political engagement. And it’s not just the chattering classes in Scotland who have this level of engagement — everyone is interested in it.”

McDermid, along with Ian Rankin, was the first to follow in William Mcilvanney’s bloody footprints (the creator of Laidlaw himself being a beneficiary of the revitalisation of the genre pioneered by PD James and Ruth Rendell). McDermid’s 28th novel, ‘The Skeleton Road’, starts with human remains discovered at the top of a Gothic tower in Edinburgh and, as is her wont, links recent events — in this case, the Balkan wars — with the dreaming spires of Oxford. Documenting social history is as important to her as creating gripping crime fiction.

A more intensely personal novel, hot off the presses in the UK, is Canadian author Michael Crummey’s ‘Sweetland’.

Since a moratorium on cod fishing was imposed in 1992, the isolated settlements along the coast of Newfoundland — many of which can only be reached by ferry — have become unviable as working communities. Consequently, the Canadian government decided to offer resettlement packages, now set at $270,000 per household, in an attempt to lure the inhabitants to the cities and towns. However, the local ballot to accept such an offer had to attract 100 per cent support from the affected households. This is the premise upon which Crummey’s novel is based.

Sweetland is the name of an island. It is also the surname of the book’s central character, first name Moses. In this case, Moses Sweetland does not lead his people to the Promised Land; rather he finds himself at odds with them. He already lives in the Promised Land and sees no reason to leave. He refuses to sign up for the government package.

With a sub-Arctic climate and little topsoil, Newfoundland makes the Highlands sound like the tropics. But Crummey said he found it easier to explain the problems of his homeland over here than he does in north America. Newfoundland and the Highlands share the same challenges in terms of service provision, I suppose.

Sub-Arctic becomes frozen tundra in Kerry Hudson’s second novel ‘Thirst’. Researching this book took her to Siberia, mainly to Omsk, which the 34-year-old Aberdonian described as the roughest place she’d even seen.

With sex trafficking and internet fraud rife in the city, Hudson gathered plenty of source material during her month-long stay. In the novel, Alena is trafficked from Siberia to London; Dave, a security guard, catches her shoplifting but lets her go. And so begins a love story, of sorts, featuring two ordinary, yet complex, working-class characters, which are notable by their absence from modern literature, according to the author.

Hudson shared the stage with Chiew-Siah Tei, who was born in Malaysia but has lived in Glasgow since 2002. Her second novel ‘The Mouse Deer Kingdom’ tells the story of the relationship between a recent Chinese immigrant to Malacca and the indigenous forest boy he adopts. It is a tale of the “invisible umbilical cord” that links a person to the place they are from, steeped in betrayal and misfortune.

Two debut novelists — myself and Lewisman Ian Stephen — shared the stage in a session chaired by Stuart Kelly, literary editor with ‘Scotland on Sunday’.

Ian’s ‘A Book of Death and Fish’ gives voice to a unique protagonist, Peter Macaulay, through a series of vignettes that takes us from birth to death, across and under the sea, while showing us, in the form of Epicurean asides, the many ways of catching and cooking fish.

My own debut is ‘Lie of the Land’, published next month by Polygon, which takes place in a near-future post-apocalyptic fictional Highland village. Seen from the point of view of a Glaswegian journalist, the novel dissects the psyche of the outsider while attempting to place the world-building aspects of  my technological catastrophe in the background. This, at least, is what I hoped to achieve, and I am extremely grateful to the Ullapool Book Festival committee — who last year asked me to read some published short stories — that I found myself in the position of taking part in my first-ever public discussion of my first-ever substantial piece of writing. If you can detect a note of trepidation there, you are correct.

Can something be both scary and enjoyable? The answer, for me, is a resounding yes.

Galway’s Nuala Ni Chonchuir worked in Ullapool as a barmaid/waitress some 20-odd years ago. After eight months she got pregnant and returned to Ireland, under a cloud.
But whereas Nuala chose to keep her child (she now has two others) the central character in ‘The Closet of Savage Mementos’, Lillis, chooses termination. It is this decision that forms the heart of a confessional exploration of loss and motherhood.

Her next book, ‘Miss Emily’ (about poet Emily Dickinson) will be published in the US this summer bearing the Anglicised name Nuala O’Connor.

“Every name is Gaelicised in Ireland but the publishers said no one will be able to say it or spell it, so they wanted the English version. At least I’ll be able to pretend I’m Sinead O’Connor’s cousin.”

Louise Welsh is also in post-apocalyptic mood with her novel ‘A Lovely Way to Burn’, the first in her Plague Times trilogy. The second one, ‘Death is a Welcome Guest’, is out next month.

“The Sweats” is the colloquial term for the lethal pandemic burning its way through humanity, making the investigation of what might be a murder, in a torrid corpse-strewn London, all the more problematic.

Inspired by such staples of the genre as the 70s TV series ‘Survivors’ and TV drama ‘Threads’, about a nuclear war, Welsh’s novel predicts the return of slavery in such a situation and highlights the inability of most city dwellers to fix anything required for basic living — the exact opposite of the self-reliant frontiersmen in ‘Sweetland’. Perhaps Newfoundland will be better placed than most to survive a global pandemic.

Linda Cracknell ventures into some wild places in ‘Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory’.

As well as Rannoch Moor, she also took a trip into the Alps to climb a particular mountain as a tribute to her late father, who climbed the same mountain. As it turned out, she got her Alpine peaks mixed up — the one she climbed was not the one conquered by her father. In any event, tracing long-established routes that bear the marks of long-dead fellow travellers — right down to the wearing-away of stone steps in the narrow closes of Edinburgh — represents far more than just nature walks.

Walking helps Christopher Brookmyre resolve plot points and the like. He told us that he is often seen “prowling around his neighbourhood” muttering to himself.
Presumably he doesn’t drop the C-bomb in a public place too often in case he falls foul of the constabulary. His books, though, are littered with the word. One reader said she had enjoyed all his books, but was offended by the use of that word in his new one ‘Dead Girl Walking’. So Brookmyre proceeded to tot up the number of times it had been used in all his novels to date, sent the totals back to his erstwhile fan, asking why she was only now, 18 books in, horrified. It was a gloriously expletive-ridden opening to yet another superb weekend.

I say the same thing every year: The Ullapool Book Festival is fantastic. Every writer who goes there agrees. If you disagree, then I suggest you seek urgent medical attention.