Wednesday, 28 November 2012

The Crocodile, the Orangutan and ...

Patsy and Louise do the Orangutan Shuffle with P1 bairns from Papdale

Meanwhile, upstairs, the Book Bug room is buzzing today as always, parents, babies, toddlers bouncing to the songs and rhymes. 

In the corner Johnny proudly introduces me to his baby sister, Carys. 

While outside the door, the buggies are parked, waiting for their passengers to return. 

Louise Shows the Primary 1 children a display case in the Archives and explains what the straitjacket was used for. The little girl in pink tries to imagine what it might be like to have her arms tied behind her back!

But there's no need for arm-twisting for the children from P1 in Papdale and Glaitness Primary Schools. They are already a captive audience, captivated by the tour of the library and the stories and songs from Louise and Patsy. 

Some of the boys have a good look down into the library from the upstairs corridor.

And when they all leave - happy - to return to their classrooms with their goody bags of three free books from Scottish Book Trust for Book Week Scotland, they form a highly visible crocodile to cross the Kirkwall roads.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Orkney Children & the Monsters

The Branch Eating Monster
Louise and Patsy have let loose a whole wheen of monsters in the library today. Or at least they were on the loose until they pinned them to the wall. 

These were pictures drawn by P1 pupils from Papdale Primary. Louise and Patsy read them stories from the books in the family packs being given to every child in P1 in Scotland as part of Book Week Scotland.

Here they are telling the story of The Day Louis Got Eaten by John Fardell. They also read Jack and the Flumflum Tree by Julia Donaldson and Solomon Crocodile byCatherine Rayner! All three are shortlisted for the Scottish Children's Book Awards. The bairns were spellbound and produced a variety of very scary monsters themselves. 

Here are some more of the monsters below. The children themselves were very very good!


There are more events with children planned for this week. Read the blog to find out.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Orkney Mobile Library - Dawn to Dusk

It was a day that threatened gale force winds and heavy rain. I'd lain awake most of the previous night trying to figure out a convincing excuse not to join Betty Stanger on her regular mobile library trip to Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre! I could call in sick, but Betty was leaving at 7.30 am - there would be nobody in the library to call. I could sleep in, plead sea-sickness, a flat tyre or just plain FEAR! But I gave myself a severe talking to and made my way in to Kirkwall for 7.30. Betty had the van all set, engine running. Nothing else for it but to hop aboard.


I needn't have worried. Betty was calm and reassuring as we set off for Tingwall pier. She told me there had been very few times she had been unable to make the journey. Once, though, a snowstorm came on so suddenly that she was nearly stranded. But the boat, instead of returning to Tingwall - the roads were blocked between there and the town - put in at Shapinsay, so that she could make the short hop back to Kirkwall across the bay. 

There was a beautiful sunrise. We were to sail to Rousay first, stay on the ferry for the extra five minutes to Wyre where we would see our first customers. The crossing was surprisingly easy. A bit up and down but nothing to cause seasickness even in this rookie!


Wyre is the island Edwin Muir made famous in his Autobiography, a vision of Eden that stayed with him all his life through the tragedies that beset his family when they left Orkney to find work. Industrial Glasgow where they settled was for Muir akin to hell.

I didn't see much of the island. The van was rocking in the wind, so I stayed on board. Only one islander of the nineteen who live there managed to brave the weather to borrow some books.

The men on the boat told us it was unlikely they would sail that day to Egilsay. The stretch of water between it and Rousay is rough at the best of times. On Thursday it would have sent the books flying off the shelves! So that's another Orkney island I've never set foot on. It is the island where Magnus met his death in 1117 from an axe-blow to the head, the starting point of his final journey towards sainthood. The men were right: the weather was too rough to cross to Egilsay.


By the time we got to Rousay, the wind was up. First stop was the school. All the children and their teachers came in and browsed, picked their books and headed back to the classroom. After that, every customer who made it to the van expressed their surprise to see us that day. We swayed in the wind like a boat on a heavy swell. Still, it was lightsome. Everyone who came in was glad to see Betty, glad to get in out of the wind, return the books they'd read and choose new ones. Some kindly plied us with welcome cups of tea and homemade cakes!

We had had to watch for the boat from Edith's window as we sat having a yarn with her. Unusually even for Orkney these days, Edith has lived all her days in Rousay. She is eighty eight, still getting her bag full of books every month. Her family used to run a shop and a bakery on the island. It's long gone, but Edith still bakes a mean cake!

Betty and the other drivers of the vans, Simon and John, provide more than a library service to the folk in the outlying parishes and islands. You can see it's a lifeline for people.

Back to Kirkwall

Edith spotted the boat tossing about on Eynhallow Sound on its way to the pier, so we left her and climbed back into the van for the journey to Tingwall and then Kirkwall and the main library. Betty organised and reshelved all the returned books on our way across. 

I watched the sun set from the warmth of the library van which was lashed to the deck with reassuringly strong cables! But the wind that had tossed us earlier had died down and the journey was smooth enough. 

When I finally stepped down from the van late that afternoon, I headed home with a great sense of admiration for Betty and the work she does. I look forward to joining her on a trip to Stronsay or Westray in the future - if she'll entertain such a wimp on her travels another time!  

Book Week Scotland in Orkney

It's here! Book Week Scotland has finally arrived and excitement is mounting in Orkney Library. The Queen of Noir, Val McDermid, joins us on Thursday at 7.00 pm to talk about her life of crime and especially her new book The Vanishing Point. Those of you lucky enough to have bagged a ticket, come with questions at the ready. You will be frisked at the door to make sure you have them!

Victoria Campbell will be here on Friday 30 November at 2.00 pm with Viking Gold, 'a tale of sixteen-year-old Redknee, a Viking lad with a quick temper who has to become a man in a dangerous world of epic sea voyages, natural disasters and ruthless murders. Viking Gold is action packed with wild adventures, danger, loss, bloodshed and moral dilemmas. Everything you need in a good book!' 

There are still tickets for Victoria's session. Drop in or phone Kirkwall Library for yours: 01856 873166.

Rosie Wallace will be with us on Saturday 1 December at 3.00 pm to talk about her latest book, The Trouble with Keeping Mum. 'Witty and hilarious', the book is poignant too, as it takes an unflinching look at how a woman manages the demands of a political career, men, and family troubles with the generation either side of her, mother and son. As it says on the cover: When you are juggling life, love and career, the last thing you need is more balls ... !

Come in to the library or phone for your ticket: 01856 873166. 

Orkney Readers

The Reader in Residence will be loitering about in the library with intent. No, not within tent, but with the intention of nobbling readers and asking them about books and reading and libraries in Orkney. So if you see this woman, come and talk to her. (That's me - Alison Miller - lurking behind a shelf!)


Book Week Scotland is Scotland's first national celebration of books and reading and is organised and promoted through Scottish Book Trust. Find out all about what's on throughout Scotland by clicking the links here. 

Come and join us this week to celebrate books and reading! 


Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Orkney Library's Short Story Reader

Who Likes Short Shorts?

Steven Gough of Kirkwall Library has put together this handsome display of short stories on the coffee table beside the sofa, a favourite spot for library users. It will be interesting to see if readers take up the offer. Usually short stories are dispersed throughout general fiction or are not on display at all. This experiment will help us see if there is any appetite for a short story reading group. I like the idea of a group where you can read a shorter piece in depth. 

We Like Short Shorts

Here Majella Waters, also from Kirkwall Library, tells the blog about the origins of her love of the short form:

I first became a fan of short stories when I read “The First Confession” by Frank O' Connor (pictured below) while still at school. This story is narrated by the seven year old Jackie, who is preparing for his first confession before he can receive his First Communion. It tells about the young boy's experience of growing up in a Catholic family in rural Ireland and how he overcomes his fear of making his first confession. 

Seeing life through the eyes of Jackie has plenty of humour for the reader as we witness the way in which he copes with what seems to him like insurmountable problems: his annoyingly pious and hypocritical sister Nora who never misses an opportunity to tell him off; the embarrassing and often disgusting habits of his grandmother who has come to live with his family; the absolute terror and guilt instilled in him by the formidable Mrs Ryan as she prepares his class for their much-feared first confession; and his fear of confessing his sins to the priest for the first time in the dark daunting confession box.

The story ends with Jackie confessing to the priest his desire to murder his grandmother. Instead of receiving a severe penance, Jackie is given sweets and some reassuring words from the understanding priest, much to the annoyance of his sister Nora, whose treatment of her brother Jackie is in fact the real transgression.

The pivotal moment of the story comes with the sympathetic words of the priest. The weight of fear is lifted from Jackie's shoulders as he realises that in order to conquer fear one has to confront it.

When I read this story it reminds me of my own schooldays in Ireland during the 60s and 70s. The first confession figured very prominently in our young  lives filling even the most courageous with fear and trepidation which is why this story has a resonance for me and I suspect for everyone who has undergone this experience.

I had a look on the library shelves and in the back, and we don't seem to have a copy of Frank O'Connor's stories at the moment. But you can read The First Confession here. And we do have plenty of other short stories apart from the ones on the stands. Just ask.

Who Likes Peedie Breeks? We Do!

A peedie red headed dynamo barrelled into me today. At only fifteen months, Cole Mitchell was managing to cover the whole floor of the library at some lick! His granny was hard pressed to keep up with him. But, she told me, when things go quiet, she usually finds Cole at a book. As long as it has tractors in it! Cole attends Book Bug sessions here with Louise and Patsy, so is already used to the idea that books are fun and a source of singing and rhymes as well as tractors. Looks like Cole will be a good all rounder: farmer, sportsman and avid reader!

Twitter and Facebook

For those of you who make it to this blog, you can also follow us on Twitter:; and Facebook: 

And you can see what else is going on In Orkney Library and Archive here: 

Monday, 19 November 2012

Orkney Mixter Maxter

Monday Night Murders

The library reading group, alias Monday Night Murders, have been reading Val McDermid's, A Place of Execution. I'm looking forward to the discussion, not least because I share a first name with the murder victim: Alison!

Book Week Scotland

Val McDermid heads the line up for Book Week Scotland (Thursday 29 November at 7.00 pm). Tickets for her event are all spoken for, but you can put your name on a waiting list if you're still keen. I'm told that folk sometimes do get in at the last minute.

There are still tickets for: 

Victoria Campbell 
at 2.00 pm on Friday 30 November


Rosie Wallace
at 3.00 pm on Saturday 1 December

Golden Twits

Stewart Bain will never retweet me again if I don't remind you to vote for OrkneyLibrary in the Golden Twit Awards! I'm just jealous of course. Orkney Library has well over 7,000 followers on Twitter, including many famous writers. More followers than the British Library even, and well worth logging in for the famous Westray wit of the tweeter!

Bannockburn Rotunda Beam Inscription

And while you've got your voting fingers flexed, why not also follow the link below and vote for the poem you'd like to see etched onto the beam at Bannockburn Rotunda. Ten of Scotland's foremost poets were asked to come up with a poem commemorating the place, the battle, the history, the landscape. You can read them all by opening the link above.

Readers' Views

I've been accosting library users again today. So far nobody's done a runner when they see me coming!

Sean McFadries told me, I like reading special books about the castles of Scotland and the clans. I like a good browse and I go for history and wildlife books too. I come to the library because you must enjoy your life. It's nice and new. I like the building and the staff.

Mark Wildman arrived in Orkney about a year ago and started with Orkney writers. He enjoyed reading George Mackay Brown. Wherever he goes, he joins the library and finds Kirkwall Library very well stocked and the staff always helpful. What does he read now, I asked him. 

I've just finished Rupert Everett's autobiography. I enjoyed it; it was very well written. I have spells of reading crime novels, when I need a good page turner. The last writer I read was Val McDermid. Sometimes it reaches overload and I have to have a break and read other things. I've got Parade's End on the go, but it's a bit dense!

Not everyone comes to the library for the books, though. Here are Matthew Aim and Megan MacGregor taking advantage of the free internet: 

We use it for Facebook and to look for jobs. It's cosy in here and I like the hot chocolate too! The staff are good; they basically let you get on with it.

Apart from me, that is! But I promise I won't accost you again, Matthew and Megan. 


Thursday, 15 November 2012

Orkney Monster

I met Tom Muir yesterday. No, he's not the monster! But he tells monstrous tales of witches and storms and pirates and the gigantic MESTER STOORWORM, killed by Assiepattle with a smouldering peat inserted into his liver. Assiepattle is the Orkney equivalent of Cinderella. Except he's a boy - no glass slippers or handsome princes - just a feckless youngest son's derring do as he defeats the monster. In the end he wins the hand of the princess too of course. The stone at the side here is not the monster either, but could be! 

Tom talked to me about his involvement in international storytelling, about the recent Orkney Storytelling Festival and about the uneasy relationship between the oral tradition and the printed word. You can listen to it here. You may need earphones. Here is Tom in full flight in Ljubljana, Slovenia. (Photo by Katarina Juvancic) 

Dawn and the Hare

A beautiful dawn again this morning, all pearl and rose followed by dazzling sun. And a hare lolloped down the golden field towards me as I stood at the back window. An auspicious sign. Like seals, they have such big intelligent eyes, it's easy to see why they were associated with magic, why they were often believed to be humans in disguise. To me they conjure creativity and fecundity.

On a recent visit to Tam's book shop in Stromness, I picked up a copy of Simon Carnell's Hare. A fascinating history of the hare through art, legend and literature. Here is a picture of another Orkney hare taken by my sister, Maggie Miller.

Book Week Scotland

Remember Book Week Scotland 26 Nov - 2 Dec. Check out the website for events in your area. We're excited in Orkney to be hosting events with Val McDermid, Victoria Campbell and Rosie Wallace. Get your tickets from Orkney Library: 01856 873166.

Happy Reading! 

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Book Week Scotland

No sooner had the dust settled from the Orcrime Festival, than Orkney Library was gearing up for Book Week Scotland which runs from 26 November - 2 December. The line up begins with the wonderful Val McDermid
@ 7.00 pm
on Thursday 29 November 

Victoria Campbell will be talking to Orkney's children about her book Viking Gold
@ 2.00 pm
on Friday 30 November

And to finish, Rosie Wallace will read and talk about her work
@ 3.00 pm
on Saturday 1 December

All events take place in Kirkwall library and are FREE but TICKETED. Reserve your tickets from the Library. Tel: 01856 873166.

(Val McDermid's event is already sold out, but it's worth putting your name on a reserve list if you'd like to see her.)

Every Writer Must Have His Day

Today is Robert Louis Stevenson's. Happy RLS Day! What kind of a Supper would we have for RLS - if we had such a thing? Readings from Kidnapped & Treasure Island? We could brew up a potion that turns mild mannered Dr Jekylls into raving Mr Hydes. A One Million Dollar Idea! Phone up the Scottish Book Trust! What's that? We already do that for Burns Suppers? Oh well ...  

National Short Story Week

To mark National Short Story Week, we've taken over two display stands and set out some of the library's stock of leading short fiction writers: Anton Chekhov, Katherine Mansfield, Alice Munro, Bernard Malamud, Raymond Carver, George Mackay Brown, to name a few. Majella who works in the library reminded me too of the marvellous Frank O'Connor. She is going to tell the blog about her love of short stories on Thursday. 

One idea we're floating is the possibility of a short story reading group. Something nice about the thought you could read and discuss a complete piece of fiction in your lunchtime. 

Orkney Storytelling

Tomorrow I interview Tom Muir about storytelling ...      


Sunday, 11 November 2012

I HEART Orkney

There has been a good deal of sun in Orkney since I got back. A good deal, I'd say! Orkney. November. Sometimes, with the fall of light between cloud, the Hoy Hills have looked transparent. A strange experience to see such solid masses look so delicate.  

A huddle of blue shoulders 

That's what George Mackay Brown called them. 

This morning at 6.30 there is a brilliant Venus keeping track of a sliver of moon in a clear sky.

Gunnie Moberg

I've been wandering about the shore, taking photographs of stones, wishing I had the skills of Gunnie Moberg, the beautiful Swedish photographer who lived and worked in Orkney till her death a few years ago. She photographed the minutiae of the shore, the seams and clefts in the rock, as well as Orkney's landscapes from the air. With George Mackay Brown she collaborated on a beautiful book, Orkney: Pictures and Poems. Here are a poem and a photograph from it. 

© Gunnie Moberg
     Stromness, Orkney
Pebbles in Ice
A glacier dragged us
     All the way from the north.

Did he dump us like a dustman?

No, he dropped us
      Here, from his hand, like a

© GMB 1996

Orkney Readers

Some more comments from readers who come into the library regularly.  

I’m addicted – always have been!  This library is brilliant because they have a huge variety of new books every time I look.

I was encouraged to read as a child & that love of books has never left me. Reading helped expand my vocabulary.  It’s relaxing. It takes you away from everyday things into new & exciting situations.

It broadens the mind.

It taught me how to write and spell. I used to struggle with all reading and writing but through reading (starting with Harry Potter). It has developed my understanding of nearly everything else.

Do you like them short?

This is the week for you then. It is National Short Story Week. Short fiction is still published fiction's Cinderella form: not unless you are already famous for writing long fiction, are you likely to find a publisher for a collection of stories. For the most part. Check out the website for what's on all over the country and for recommendations of short stories, competitions and encouragement.

In an article in the Herald on Saturday, author David McVey puzzled over the resistance to the form because, '... short stories are so suited to modern living: you can read one during the bus or train commute or in the gaps betweenwork and study, child-rearing and socialising.'

One of my favourite stories from one of my all time favourite writers in any genre is The Bear Came Over the Mountain  by Alice Munro. Read it here on the New Yorker website.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Seal on the Slipway

The other day, walking along the shore at Houton in Orphir, I came upon a seal on a slipway basking in the November sun.  He was a young seal, going by the size of him and he rolled about like a puppy, soaking up the rays.

I tried to come closer to him to get a decent photograph, crept along the shore slowly. I could see when I reached a certain point that he was interested in what I was doing, and a bit wary.

So I sang to him – as you do – the only seal song I know, The Great Selkie of Sule Skerry. This is a song that originated in Orkney, travelled all around the world and came back to me via Joan Baez. It’s about an earthly woman who has a child with a selkie man – “Oh little ken I my bairn’s father, nor yet the land that he bides in ...”

The seal on the pier was having none of it. Two verses in and he was offsky; slipped off the slipway and dived; surfaced again a bit further out; surveyed me solemnly for a minute or two before disappearing altogether.

Well, who can blame him!  The Baez version of the song ends with the selkie father’s prediction that the mother of the human/seal baby, will ...

“... wed a gunner good
and a right fine gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And the very first shot that e’er he shoots,
will kill baith my young son and me.”

But the seal on the slipway dived to bask another day ...

Magnus Pirie and the Seal’s Slipway

The other literary connection with my young seal friend is that the slipway belongs to a house, built below the high water mark to avoid paying for the land at the time, which features in the novels of Lin Anderson as the house of her forensic scientist, Magnus Pirie.

Here, Lin talks to me on her recent visit for the Orcrime Crime Writing Festival, about her time in Orkney and how it insinuates itself into her books:

Robert Rendall

Saturday saw the launch of the long awaited Collected Poems of Robert Rendallthe draper turned poet and naturalist. He could read the Orkney skies and seas and tell them in the words of of the local dialect:

The winter lift is glintan doun
Wi’ tullimentan stars besprent,
As were the very heavens abune
Clean gyte wi’ frosty merriment

(from Celestial Kinsmen)

Tullimentan, a word that means twinkling, sparkling, is also the name of the monthly Arts Programme on BBC Radio Orkney. Watch out for the book group featured every month through the winter.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Reading the Stones - Backwards

Written in stone

On a visit to Orkney Museum the other day, my eye fell on a postcard of the stone opposite. It’s a spindle whorl from Buckqoy in Birsay from the seventh or eighth centuries AD. Ian Smith from the museum was very helpful in supplying information about the ancient language carved on it. For many years scholars believed it was inscribed with an unintelligible non-Celtic Pictish.  They were perhaps reading it backwards! Once it was recognised as Old Irish Ogham, the inscription became clearer:

A blessing on the soul of L

And on the other side – May the road rise up to meet you and the wind be always at your back ...

No, not really! But fascinating to think the early settlers in Orkney were writing and reading in stone, even if we can’t always decipher it today. Interesting  too, to speculate about where they came from.

You will find a great chapter on the Picts in William P.L. Thomson's The New History of Orkney available to read in the Orkney Room beside the Archives.

Today’s Orkney Readers

The brief forms I handed out during the Orcrime Festival are still coming back to me. People were asked to comment on READING, BOOKS and LIBRARIES. Here are some of the things people said about why reading is important to them:

It opens many new worlds and allows me to leave every day life

It is a source of information, education and enjoyment far better than film, TV or ven radio

It keeps my mindactivetrying to solve mysteries in crime books and I love the language used by classic authors in their novels e.g. Jane Austen

It’s a silent escape

Well it just IS, even more so since I am trying to write. It always has been since I was passionate to read from the age of three.

I’m addicted – always have been!

It’s breathing for the brain!

The Library

The good thing now is that we no longer need things written in stone. There are books and e-books available to borrow from Orkney Library. The forms returned show an overwhelming appreciation of what libraries in Orkney offer. I’ll be quoting some of the comments in blogs to come.

Ann Cleeves on Libraries

Meantime, you can listen here to this podcast of the Reader in Residence receiving a passionate response from Ann Cleeves when I asked her about libraries and their importance. Here she is at the Orcrime Festival with Stewart Bain of Orkney Library and champion tweeter @OrkneyLibrary!