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Jack Reid and Robert Davidson both share international outlook from a Highland base

By Barbara Henderson

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I remember. In fact, I recall them clearly – the S2 class I was given when I began teaching English at Culloden Academy a decade ago.

They were a handful, to be sure, but one particular pupil stood out.

He had a gift of seeing the world in unusual ways (pretty much the key prerequisite for a storyteller). His writing prompted discussions in the staffroom.

"Have you come across this boy?" I asked. "He’ll go far."

After one lesson, I quipped: "I wonder which of us will get published first, Jack!" It was no secret that I had begun to submit fiction to publishers and agents, while he was only in his early teens. He probably doesn’t even remember that conversation.

Jack Reid
Jack Reid

What an utter privilege it was to stumble across him last summer and to meet up with him last week, as equals, as adults and as fellow writers. Jack Reid is in the final stages of his drama degree at UHI now, but the same determination and the same pro-active and inquisitive mind still shine through. Here is a young man of exceptional calibre who has chosen to make his art in the Highlands.

Gently-spoken, thoughtful and self-deprecating at every opportunity, Jack talks me through his current project which he has written, directed, produced and in which he is also the sole actor.

Frame 34 centres on the mysterious deaths of a group of nine Russian hikers in the Ural mountains in 1959. Conspiracy theories about the real-life Dyatlov Pass tragedy abound, but in the year of the 60th anniversary of the incident, Jack’s interpretation alternates between a modern-day researcher and a young Russian hiker who is the main character of the play.

It’s hard not to be impressed – both with this young Highland theatre-maker who will be touring the Highlands as part of the UHI Swansong Tour, but also with the team at UHI drama who nurtured and supported his creative journey. He cannot praise them highly enough. We should all get behind people like this courageous young man.

Now, let’s look at the other end of the artistic spectrum for a moment, because the Highland publishing scene has been the news this month, has it not?

Nurturing underrepresented voices is a core value for the established Sandstone Press, a Dingwall-based publishing company which this month secured its THIRD Booker longlisting and surely its greatest achievement yet – a longlisting for the Man Booker International Prize.

A small company located in the Highlands and yet famed for its international outlook and progressive and varied output, it was also allocated a two-page spread in The Bookseller, the industry’s most respected publication.

The longlisted title, Celestial Bodies by Omani author Jokha Alharthi and translated by Marilyn Booth, tells the story of the history and people of modern Oman, told through one family’s losses and loves.

Celestial Bodies, Sandstone Press
Celestial Bodies, Sandstone Press

When I spoke to Sandstone Press director Robert Davidson this week, he could not praise the book highly enough: "It is the story of a culture very different from our own – a Middle Eastern culture where slavery is a living memory."

Is he proud of the nurture Sandstone Press has given young authors such as this one? "Oh, yes!" he enthuses. "It was submitted by an agent in London, but here was a young woman, an author whom we wanted to encourage. We have a reputation of taking a risk, and to publish a wide range of pluralistic fiction."

Robert Davidson and Jack Reid may differ in terms of experience but they have much in common – Highland nurture, an international outlook and the courage to take risks.

Are these things exclusive to the Highlands? Perhaps not, but they are certainly defining characteristics of this region and its arts scene.

Long may that last!

Look out for:

Jack Reid’s Frame 34 , which visits Inverness, Elgin, Wick and Kirkwall in April and May.

Also, get your hands on Celestial Bodies as soon as you can! It will be in huge demand – I’m told it is reprinting as I write.

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