Monday, 7 October 2013

LORE & The Dark Room: Rachel Seiffert

Not to be missed!

This Saturday author RACHEL SEIFFERT introduces West Side Cinema's screening of LORE, the film based on her Booker-nominated novel, THE DARK ROOM. And she will be there at the end too for a Q&A.

Earlier in the day, Rachel will be leading a writing workshop in Stromness Library on Character & Story. The workshop is currently fully subscribed, but we may start a reserve list if more folk express an interest. E-mail:

Bringing Rachel to Orkney along with the film has been a collaboration between Orkney Library & Archive Reader in Residence, West Side Cinema and The George Mackay Brown Fellowship.

See details of the screening at the top of the poster.

And click on the links below for more information about the film, the novel and its author.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013


3 October 


The theme this year is WATER.

There will be an Open Mic Session

Orkney Library & Archive Foyer
Thursday 3 October
6.45 pm

Bring your own poems with a watery theme to read and favourite poems of other poets


The west flushed, drove down its shutter
And night sealed all.

Peaceful the air, the sea.
A quiet scattering of stars.

The great ocean
Makes the gentlest of motions about the turning world,
A thin wash through the pebbles.

No moon this night.
The creels lie still on their weeded ledges.

Not a sound, except far inland
The yelp of a tinker's dog.

Three days ago a storm blazed here, and drowned
Jock Halcrow among his lobsters.

There's one croft dark to-night in the lighted valley.

George Mackay Brown

from The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray

Friday, 13 September 2013

KEITH GRAY comes to Orkney

The first visiting author on the Orkney Arts Society’s Autumn calendar is Keith Gray. 

Keith is published by Random House and has 12 novels in print. He was born and brought up in Grimsby.

When he received 0% for his accountancy exams, he decided to become a writer.

Since then, he has gone on to win the Angus Book Award and the silver medal in the Smarties Prize. He has twice been shortlisted for the Guardian Fiction Prize and was shortlisted for the Booktrust Teen Prize and the Scottish Arts Council Book Award. Rave reviews about his writing have appeared in every broadsheet. Keith was a judge for the Blue Peter Book Award, the Guardian Fiction Prize and the Bookstrust Teen Prize.

He lives in Edinburgh with his partner Jasmine and a parrot called Bellamy.

Keith regularly reviews teenage fiction for The Guardian and The Scotsman newspapers, and was the first ever Scottish Book Trust Virtual Writer in Residence. 
He comes to Orkney next week at the invitation of the Orkney Arts Society to read and discuss his work. School children are welcome. For you there is a special rate of £1! Don't miss out!

Keith Gray
Tuesday 17th September
7.30 pm
Pier Arts Centre 

Tickets on the door: 
£4, £3 concessions, £1 for schools students 

Friday, 6 September 2013


Ron Butlin talks to P7 from Glaitness Primary

This week has seen the tenth anniversary of Orkney Library & Archive moving into the new purpose built library on Junction Road. Though the Laing Street premises were much loved by generations of Orcadians, the library and particularly the archive, had outgrown it.

So to celebrate, we've been having various events. 

James Oswald
On Monday we hosted an event with farmer-crime-writer James Oswald who told the fascinating story of his recent phenomenal publishing success. 

Two books out this summer, one coming out in February next year and a further three book deal with Penguin to take the Inspector McLean mysteries to six. 

James reckons he can turn out two a year. AND run his 350 acre farm in Fife. Good luck to him! We were lucky here in Orkney to see James for his first gig on his own as an author. He might be a bit harder to book in future. I imagine he will be reaping the whirlwind of his success along with his silage!

Evisceration, I said, your first book is full of it. Was this a working through of your guilt that you send some of your animals to slaughter?

Louise Graham and James Oswald
No, replied James Oswald, it arose from me and Stuart McBride trying to out-gross each other!

Ron Butlin and children from Glaitness Primary School

Ron Butlin, Edinburgh's Makar or Poet Laureate, worked with two groups of young folk - five from Wirdsmit Young Writers' Group on Tuesday and on Wednesday, 31 from P7, Glaitness Primary!

Ron was very impressed by both groups. The Wirdsmit youngsters wrote at an enviable rate and produced excellent work. And he kept the group of 31 enthralled as he told them to stop thinking and allow their imaginations full rein.

Q. What's read again and again but never bought? was the riddle one came up with.

Ron Butlin in conversation with David Lea

Ron did a reading from his work in the evening - poetry and short stories - to a good crowd of folk and generated lively interesting questions and discussion. 

Tim Morrison, Cary Welling, Ron Ferguson
When politicians and corporations fail us, all we have is our shared humanity. Poetry can put us in touch with that.

Karen Walker and Jim Bergen

Ron got a surprise when two old friends of his turned up unexpectedly for his reading. Novelists Louise Welsh and Zoe Strachan were on holiday in Orkney and came along.

Zoe Strachan, Louise Welsh and Louise Graham

Amber Connolly who runs Wirdsmit

David Drever and Liam Stewart

Answer to the riddle: A library book!

Ron Butlin's and James Oswald's books are available to borrow - again and again! - from Orkney Library & Archive.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

RON BUTLIN: The Edinburgh Makar visits Orkney

I first met Ron Butlin at Glasgow's Aye Write Festival where we were both reading from our recently published novels. His was called Belonging, a novel that captures extremes of cold and heat in the landscape and explores the turbulent weather of human relationships at the edge. I loved the book. 

Ron Butlin is one of those writers difficult to categorise. Equally successful across a variety of genres, he is an award winning novelist, short story writer, opera librettist and poet, recognised internationally and closer to home where he is Edinburgh Makar - or Poet Laureate.

And his road to this position is an interesting one. Here is an extract from a biography on his website:

"At sixteen he hitchhiked down to London where he did nothing for a while (he saw The Stones in Hyde Park, went up in a lift with Paul McCartney - such was life in those days). In quick succession, he secured the positions of valet-footman, barnacle scraper on Thames barges, computer operator and city messenger. Finally he became an associate member of a rather dismal and forgotten pop-group for whom he wrote song lyrics. In less than eight months, and on the strength of two records and a B-film, he retired for good. Without music, his lyrics did their best to become poems.

After drifting around abroad for a year or so he returned to a life of intense unemployment. This was when he began to write in earnest. Over the course of several years he did very little else. Eventually, however, the Government decided it was time he made a meaningful contribution to society and, as an incentive, stopped his dole money. Spurred into action he became a male model - for students at the Edinburgh College of Art. As well as broadening his social life, this allowed him to sit and do nothing for hours on end, leaving his imagination completely free. His earliest published poems date from this period."

"There are more people writing poetry than reading it, and precious few buying it," he says. 

Which is why he learned to 'diversify' and turn his hand to all sorts of writing. Unsuccessful as he characterises his early days writing pop song lyrics, it must have been a worthwhile apprenticeship, because he has since written several libretti for Scottish Opera. His most recent book of poetry, The Magicians of Edinburgh, has run into several reprints.

Of his book, The Sound Of My VoiceIrvine Welsh said: 'One of the greatest pieces of fiction to come out of Britain in the 80s' 

We are delighted to say that Ron Butlin is visiting us in Orkney next week.

Ron Butlin
7.00 pm
Wednesday 4 September
MacGillivray Room
Orkney Library & Archive 


To book your place 
Phone: 01856 873166

Monday, 26 August 2013

JAMES OSWALD comes to Orkney

When you think of successful writers, you don't often think about their day jobs. Successful writers don't have day jobs. Do they? Well, not only does James Oswald have a 24/7 kind of a day job, it is not the kind of job that immediately springs to mind.

James Oswald is a farmer. He runs a 350 acre livestock farm in North East Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney Sheep.

And as if that didn't take up enough of his time, he has recently become a highly successful author of the Inspector McLean mysteries.

In Natural Causes, Inspector McLean tramps the genteel streets of Edinburgh and solves a particularly grisly series of crimes reminiscent of Scandinavian noir. But look closer to home for the comparisons in the reviews: yes, James Oswald has been hailed as 'the new Ian Rankin'. Like Rankin's Rebus, McLean is a flawed but likeable character who overcomes incompetence and lack of imagination in his senior officers, survives attempts on his life and pulls all the disparate strands of the crimes together.

And there is more. Both Natural Causes and The Book of Souls were published by Penguin this summer. Like other recent publishing phenomena, James Oswald published his books first online. When they became huge sellers, there began a bidding war among the publishers that ended when Penguin picked them up for an undisclosed sum.

What did he do with the money? He bought a tractor!

Read more about his life here:

and here:

With such an interesting hinterland to his publishing success, we thought in Orkney Library & Archive that James Oswald would be the ideal author to kick off Discover it Yourself Week. Don't miss out! Get your tickets for this event while you can!

James Oswald
7.00 pm
Monday 2 September
MacGillivray Room
Orkney Library & Archive


Phone: 01856 873166

Friday, 16 August 2013

Dochan Poetry Update

The blog yesterday brought me an unusual flurry of comments - on Facebook, Twitter and by text.

Most folk were reminding me of the dochan's soothing properties on nettle stings. 

No, I hadn't forgotten that. Growing up in Orkney, this is the kind of information you absorb at your mother's knee. Probably as she's turning you pink with calamine lotion from some other assault on your skin.

Here we didn't use full-grown dochan leaves, though, as most folk describe: we went straight to the heart of the budding leaf and slimed our nettle stings good and proper with the cool, clear, sticky juice.

After my fruitless searches for poems about dochans, my cousin Rhona sent me a very nice one. 

The Dock
Come here, son: look! that leaf is dock, Beside the dandelion clock.
Wherever stinging nettle grows There, too, the healing dock leaf blows
As if to show some grand Design Of Mother Nature, all benign,
Who suffers with her children's pain And longs to make them well again:
Who cannot but provide relief As in this sting-­removing leaf.
Or are there flowers that can abate The pain when people love, or hate?
No: men and towns to dust return: The fires drink up the clouds, and burn.
Oh no, relief is never there. Come, we must go: and son, beware,
For where the balmy dock leaves stand Are stinging nettles close at hand.

The same poem was sent to me via Twitter by The Little Bookshop @1littlebookshop, who sent a link to another blog, Herbs-Treat and Taste, which gives a detailed account of the dochan's healing properties with quotes from Thomas Culpepper and George Eliot! The Little Bookshop had in turn been alerted to my quest by Zoe Toft @playbythebook, who had recently visited Orkney and been most impressed by Orkney Library & Archive. 
No author appeared on the poem from either source. Does anyone know who wrote it?
I also got some playful suggestions via Twitter:

A dock leaf soothes a nettle sting// it really is a useful thing.

There is a young dock plant named Steve Who has an overwhelming pet peeve:
Imagine the embarrassing thing Being a cure for nettle sting On your bum, that'll make him most grieve.

My sister Catherine, who recited Flying Crooked, reminded me that dochans were where we searched for - and found - 'ladybirds'. They weren't ladybirds, though: the black-spotted red beetles were unknown in Orkney when I was growing up. No, they were green beetles, green and bluey with a metallic bronze sheen. We used to collect them and keep them in a jar with holes punched in the lid. And some dochans inside of course, for them to eat.

Catherine also reminded me of another use we made of the dochan in our games. When we played hooses and cooked mince and tatties, brown dochan seeds were the mince, white curly doddies, the tatties and pineapple weed, the peas.

And look what has just arrived in my e-mail inbox from Orkney poet Yvonne Gray! This is by William Barnes who wrote Linden Lea.


The dock-leaves that do spread so wide
 Up yonder zunny bank's green zide,
 Do bring to mind what we did do
 At plaÿ wi' dock-leaves years agoo:
 How we,--when nettles had a-stung
 Our little hands, when we wer young,--
 Did rub em wi' a dock, an' zing
 "_Out nettl', in dock. In dock, out sting._"
 An' when your feäce, in zummer's het,
 Did sheen wi' tricklèn draps o' zweat,
 How you, a-zot bezide the bank,
 Didst toss your little head, an' pank,
 An' teäke a dock-leaf in your han',
 An' whisk en lik' a leädy's fan;
 While I did hunt, 'ithin your zight,
 Vor streaky cockle-shells to fight.

 In all our plaÿ-geämes we did bruise
 The dock-leaves wi' our nimble shoes;
 Bwoth where we merry chaps did fling
 You maïdens in the orcha'd swing,
 An' by the zaw-pit's dousty bank,
 Where we did taït upon a plank.
 --(D'ye mind how woonce, you cou'den zit
 The bwoard, an' vell off into pit?)
 An' when we hunted you about
 The grassy barken, in an' out
 Among the ricks, your vlèe-èn frocks
 An' nimble veet did strik' the docks.
 An' zoo they docks, a-spread so wide
 Up yonder zunny bank's green zide,
 Do bring to mind what we did do,
 Among the dock-leaves years agoo.
Yvonne also kindly sent me a link to an internet post about dock pudding, something I had never heard of, made with dochan leaves, oatmeal and onions!

And she has found these visual artists - links below - who weren't shy of using dochans in their art. I particularly like Richard Shilling's Dock Leaf Sun Squares.

Thank you to everyone who has contributed to this ongoing discussion about dochans! It seems they not only have had poems written about them, have medicinal and culinary uses, but also hold a good deal of fascination for a lot of folk. Thank you. 


Sylvia Hays sent me a lovely poem of hers in which she mentions dochans - dockweed - and has kindly given permission to print it here:


She noses into my dew-bellied fur, not knowing,
not knowing, when I catapulted into darkness
away over the dyke, towards last week’s waning moon,
not knowing that time refracted in my eyes and lit the way.

The earth was still, even vole prey curled
silent in their holes.
Only constellations moved, a starlit
scatter over dockweed, thistle, nettle.

I crept pier-wards, mindful of my territory,
rummaged softly into creel and net.
The stars were sinking, fading into dawn
as she, not knowing, slept on.

My body clock’s command pulled me back
towards the magnet of her, of home.
I howled her out of dreams
to let  me in.

She noses into my fur, dew-bellied,
but does she know, can she detect,
earth scent, dry weed ochre,
the smell of fish amongst my stripes? 

Sylvia Hays

11 February 2006