‘If you want to see literary Scotland at its egalitarian best, Ullapool Book Festival is a great place to start.’
This month our columnist David Robinson looks at what makes the Ullapool Book Festival special including its unique mix of cherry blossom, egalitarianism and longstanding Canadian connections.
Around now, the cherry and plum trees are starting to blossom on Market Street, and for those of us who love Ullapool, this can only mean one thing. It’s book festival time.
Some years – when a hot late spring hazes into summer and the sun planes Loch Broom into Mediterranean laziness, the Village Hall can be almost hidden by blossom: you could drive past down Quay Street and not know that anything was happening.
Even in a normal Scottish spring, that would be a big mistake. Because although I haven’t yet visited every book festival in Scotland, the one that takes place in Ullapool Village Hall must be hard to beat. If you want to see literary Scotland at its egalitarian best (no green room, no signing queues, every event £8, and everyone up for the Friday night ceilidh), it’s a great place to start.
There may be other, bigger gatherings of Scottish writers at other, bigger book festivals, but Ullapool’s begins with the simple aim of getting together the best Scottish writers the organisers — led, as they have been since the start, by festival chair Joan Michael — can find. This year that objective has once again been well and truly met in a programme that includes Denise Mina, Bernard MacLaverty, Jane Harris and Douglas Dunn.
But Ullapool does a lot more than just celebrate Scotland’s own literary culture. It’s open to the world too, and often it manages to do both things at once. On Saturday 12 May, for example, there’s an event with Gaelic and Catalan writers with simultaneous translation into English through individual headsets. Which other book festival have you ever heard doing that? Me neither.
Then there’s the Canada connection. It started a decade ago, when the great Alistair MacLeod visited the festival, then in its third year. Really, though, the link was first forged in 1773 when the flat-bottomed ship Hector sailed out of Loch Broom to Nova Scotia and the Highland emigrant trail there began. (The MacLeods themselves followed not too long after, settling in Cape Breton — the subject of so much of Alistair’s own fiction — in 1806).
Because the Ullapool book festival has been so assiduous about keeping up that connection by inviting a Canadian author, that audience in the Village Hall on Market Street may well be the best-read in Canadian literature in Britain. And when it comes writing from Newfoundland, they could all probably go on Mastermind.
Why? Because they’ve seen the best. Even before the independence referendum, for example, they’d heard Wayne Johnson read from The Colony of Unrequited Dreams – about Joey Smallwood, a politician not unlike Alex Salmond except that he campaigned against Newfoundland independence and for a union with its larger neighbour. They’d heard Johnson talk about his family memoir, Baltimore’s Mansion, and how his father had hoped that one day above the island’s capital, St John’s, they’d see the Pink, White and Green proudly flying — pink for the rose of England, white for the St Andrew’s Cross, green for Ireland — as the flag of an independent country. That dream died in the 1948 referendum (it was close: just 7,000 votes), but Johnson still has the flag tattooed on his upper arm as a symbol of what might have been.
With both Johnson’s books as a spine of historical knowledge, even those of us who have never been to Newfoundland could half-imagine ourselves into the island. In The Colony of Unrequited Dreams, Smallwood, the fisherman’s union leader, assiduously worked his way round even the smallest outports — coastal hamlets that were all but impossible to reach overland. In 2015, Johnson’s fellow Newfoundlander Michael Crummey, reading from his novel Sweetland showed us those places in the near-present, just as isolated as ever but, because of the collapse of cod fishing, economically withering away, with their inhabitants queuing up for resettlement. This, too, was a story with strong Scottish resonances, and those who held out against resettlement did so for reasons that we can also understand — because, for all the hardship of their daily lives, they were still in thrall to the land’s harsh beauty.
They seem at home by Loch Broom, these visiting Newfoundlanders and Cape Bretoners, and maybe it’s no surprise. Apart from the extent of uncleared forest and the presence of indigenous peoples (and yes, we’ve had a former chief of the Potlotek First Nation on stage at the Village Hall), there are few great differences between Auld and Nova Scotias. Our minds find it easy to snake off into their land, their stories to fly back into our imaginations. In 2016, for example, Lisa Moore read from her novel February, about the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster off the Newfoundland coast in which an oil rig was lost. It’s not too hard to see this as the great Piper Alpha novel we’ve never yet had — one which loops round the decades as mourning finally sinks into ordinary family life and the possibility of love begins again.
Last year, another Newfoundland novelist, Michael Winter came to the Village Hall to talk about his book Into the Blizzard, his first non-fiction book, about the destruction of the all-volunteer Newfoundland Regiment on 1 July 6, 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme (of its 780 members, only 68 were able to report for duty the following morning). His book gets its title because one watching officer noted that when the men came under machine-gun fire, they instinctively tucked their chins into their advancing shoulder just as, back home, they would have advanced into a snowstorm. And if there was ever proof about the interlinking of their island story and ours, consider this: after being the only non-Scots ever to guard Edinburgh Castle, the Newfoundlanders left Scotland to fight only because so many Royal Scots were killed in the Gretna Green train disaster of 1915.
I have been privileged to chair all of these authors on their visits to Ullapool, yet I always will recall something the first of them told me. Alexander MacLeod spends his summers in Cape Breton, and his father’s short stories and solitary novel are all rooted there, but when he came over in 2012 he pointed out that such places have an altogether disproportionate influence on Canadian literature. That, he said, is why he made a deliberate point of including stories from the Canadian rustbelt in his own book Light Lifting (whose opening story “Miracle Mile” is one of the best I have ever read in a debut collection).
“We’re the most urbanised country in the West, but you’d never know it to read Canadian literature,” he told me. “You’d never realise that 70 per cent of the population lives in just five cities. But this country is just so huge that the landscape exerts this amazing pressure on all writers.
“It’s the same with the weather. If you took plots that involve extreme weather out of Canadian literature, that would decimate it. Yet it’s real enough: as dad always used to say, this is a country in which, for four months of the year, if you have to spend a night outside, you will die. That’s not like Miami or Greece. Other things will happen, but you will not die of exposure.”
David Robinson will be interviewing Canadian writer Ann-Marie MacDonald at the Ullapool Book Festival at 10.15am on Sunday 13 May.