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Old meets the new at hi-tech book launch on Lewis

By Barbara Henderson

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Barbara Henderson at the Callanish stones with The Chessmen Thief.
Barbara Henderson at the Callanish stones with The Chessmen Thief.

What exciting times these are. The opening up of travel across Scotland was something I had been eagerly awaiting.

I couldn’t wait to venture beyond the local area again. In these last days, I have been on my way: visiting my daughter in Glasgow for her 21st, for example, and heading to my Scottish Book Trust residency school for the first in-person author visit for so long.

Best of all, I got to travel to Lewis for the most unconventional of book launches! This is what happened...

February: I chatted to my publishers and contacted the Western Isles Libraries. Would it be possible to launch my Viking children’s book The Chessmen Thief on the island, I wondered? Perhaps in collaboration with the museum where some of the figures were exhibited?

March: The Western Isles Libraries offer to fly me out for an event to be live-streamed via E-Sgoil, an organisation specialising in creating digital content for the use of schools. It will be accessible to any school wishing to tune in. Best of all, they have agreed to pre-record a session in the Museum nan Eilean where some of the famous Lewis Chessmen are kept.

These priceless 12th-century treasures inspired my book and I am beside myself with excitement – the museum is still closed to the public, but I will be allowed to record right in front of the chess pieces carved by Viking hands!

April 28: I get on the plane in Inverness for the short flight to Stornoway. I generally prefer the ferry, but with recent upheaval on the ferry route, it is deemed best to err on the safe side. I come off the plane and am whisked straight to the museum where the archivist and I chat, only interrupted by the cameraman with exclamations like: ‘Stop! Your hair has fallen over your face!’ or ‘Your microphone is crackling – let me adjust that…’

Inside the museum with the Viking chess pieces that inspired the novel.
Inside the museum with the Viking chess pieces that inspired the novel.

April 29, publication day for The Chessmen Thief. The publishers and I rise early – we are hoping to take in some of the locations in the book before heading to the livestream recording in the E-Sgoil studios.

We make it to Bosta Beach, bathed in glorious sunshine. I pose with my matching dress, holding the book up, the wind whipping the hair into my face, my dress billowing in the breeze.

We stop by at the Callanish Standing Stones, carefully pointing the camera away from other visitors. More Instagram-worthy pictures fill the camera roll.

We hurry to the studios and I force a hairbrush through my matted mane. Three cameras are pointed and focused, sound is checked. My presentation is uploaded, and we are live, a mix of readings, my images and interview questions from Western Isles schools. It feels as if I am simply having a booky chat with the librarian.

In the evening, we hold a digital live launch from the publisher’s office on the island, taking care to distance and wear masks, and taking our bubbly to the terrace. I fall asleep in a cabin with the waves of the Atlantic rolling in like a heartbeat.

April 30: The Isle of Lewis disappears beneath me behind the clouds as the plane ascends. I reflect on the limitations and on the possibilities of these strangest of times.

May 6: Martin, the lovely man from E-Sgoil contacts me. The event was watched from 481 devices across the United Kingdom and beyond, each one most likely a teacher’s computer hooked up to a smartboard for a class to watch.

Mind blown!

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