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A dash for the Ullapool Book Festival and celebrating Queen Victoria's 200th birthday

By Barbara Henderson

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It’s a Saturday. Oh my goodness, is that the time?

I clamber out of bed, sprint the dog round the block and gulp down a hurried cuppa. Go, go, go. The Man and I get into the car and pretty much keep the foot on the accelerator. Our 7.30am start to get to the Ullapool Book Festival, now in its 15th year, pays off.

Small-scale writers and readers like me are outnumbered by literary royalty. It seems that for a single weekend in May, Ullapool has no trouble attracting some of the biggest names in Scottish literature as well as those from further afield.

Lindsay Littleson and Barbara Henderson on the Queen Victoria bicentenary tour.
Lindsay Littleson and Barbara Henderson on the Queen Victoria bicentenary tour.

We begin with readings from the four shortlisted writers for the Highland Book Prize. Later the same day, one of the four hopefuls will be named as the winner, and Neil Ansell gets the audience off on a reflective start, writing movingly in The Last Wilderness about a reclaimed connection with the natural world, and about his own progressive hearing loss. Next up is Andrew Miller, whose novel Now We Shall be Entirely Free follows the journey of a cavalry man who flees from Spain to the Outer Hebrides in the early 19th century, pursued by assassins.

Former journalist Judith Ross Napier and her non-fiction book The Assynt Crofter remembers covering the ‘winning of the land’ by the Assynt crofters for the Northern Times. It is a wry and entertaining behind-the-scenes look at the local press. The fourth shortlistee is Mallachy Tallack, who is shortlisted now for his novel The Valley at the Centre of the World. His insightful portrayal of the voices within a small community in Shetland is poetic, a place where ‘stories cling to stories, love clings to love’.

The next event is a historical account of a railway that never was between Ullapool and Garve, lovingly researched by historian Andy Drummond. Drummond is at his best when imitating the voices of posh Lairds and London politicians, and chronicling epic fiascos and botched campaigns. Failure is fun to write about, and it shows.

Afterwards, Shetland poet and film-maker Roseanne Watt wows the audience with her sharp passion for words and footage, together and apart. A dynamic champion of Shetland dialect, she introduces us to the percussive of a language at the periphery. I must admit that I was most unsure about her session, but it was the unexpected highlight of my day, her haunting voice lingering in my mind long past the drive back down to Inverness.

She is followed by Times Journalist Melanie Reid, who gives an unflinching account her accident and subsequent new identity as a tetraplegic journalist. Thought-provoking, but uplifting too, thanks to the warmth of rapport with her chair and ex-colleague, journalist Ruth Wishart.

On arriving home from an inspiring day, amplified by sunshine, I refresh my Twitter every few minutes. Eventually, I find the announcement I am looking for: The Highland Book Prize 2019 has gone to Andrew Miller for Now We Should be Entirely Free, the novel of a man’s journey to find solace of mind in the Highlands.

You all probably know that this week sees the bicentenary of the birth of another who sought solace in the Highlands. This Friday, May 24, would have been Queen Victoria's 200th birthday.

The occasion is likely to be marked by events up and down the country. As authors of the only two Scottish-set Victorian children’s books we are aware of, my friend and fellow author Lindsay Littleson are going to visit locations across Scotland which feature in our books. Punch, my Victorian boy-on-the run story, is set in Inverness, Perth, Edinburgh and Balmoral (which I am especially excited to visit) and there will be school events in the Victorian Market in Inverness on Friday and a free, Victorian fun session for kids at Waterstones Inverness, at 2pm on Saturday, May 25.

I wonder if Victoria, a prolific diarist, would have been a candidate for the Highland Book Prize. She should! But do you know one sentence she is never on record as having said or written?

"We are not amused."

No, me neither.

Sonny and Me book cover.
Sonny and Me book cover.

Look out for: Sonny and Me, written largely in Scots, is a blend of crime and comedy for young adults by Saltire-shortlisted author Ross Sayers.

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