Readers in Residence

A programme of five residencies by professional writers, hosted by Library Services across Scotland, each one shaped by the aptitudes and interests of the Reader in Residence and the needs of the Library Service and the community it serves.


The thing about having a residency in your home town – (Western Isles Library Reader in Res.) is the threads continue after the timed period is over. Here’s a link to the John Cage centenary celebration, initiated and directed by Mr Peter Urpeth: http://

Written by Ian Stephen

When I applied to become a Reader in Residence, I had lots of ideas. I wanted to work more closely with the library service in East Ayrshire. I grew up in Kilmarnock, and much of my education came from the main library and museum there, the Dick Institute. When the Imprint Book Festival was founded in 2006, they asked me to act as one of their patrons. It seemed that not so much had changed since I was a teenager and eager to escape to the bright lights, big city of Glasgow. East Ayrshire has suffered in the way that post-industrial areas do suffer. There is a lack of jobs, a lack of confidence, a lack of access to culture. Books are a crucial part of our culture. We learn from them and we escape into them. They entertain us, and they expand our horizons. They change us, and in doing so they change the world. And one of the best things about them is that they’re free to borrow from a library.

I thought the main part of my work as Reader in Residence would be facilitating book groups and talking to readers. I wanted to make contact with schools, certainly, but I didn’t predict how lively our discussions about dystopian futures and reality television and racism and dysfunctional families would be. If I introduced the pupils of Stewarton Academy to Harper Lee and Ray Bradbury, they introduced me to Suzanne Collins and Robert Muchamore. Part of the original plan was to hold a Readers’ Day for book groups from all around East Ayrshire. I thought it would be fun, but I didn’t expect the incredible warmth and enthusiasm of the readers who came along. One woman wrote that it had given her the impetus to revisit her library and the inclination to start reading fiction again. When I visited HMP Kilmarnock I’d planned to do some simple writing exercises. Since then we’ve read Lydia Davis and discussed the differences between Marlowe’s and Goethe’s Faust. And at Hurlford Day Care Centre, I’ve joined in as adults with severe learning difficulties, who can’t read or write, constructed and enjoyed their own story of adventure and buried treasure.

All round, being a Reader in Residence has been an inspiring experience. And it isn’t over yet. We’ve still to celebrate the publication of the Kilmarnock Edition, through Scots rhymes for toddlers and new poetry and contemporary performance of Burns. One thing I’ve learned about East Ayrshire is that it’s full of people who love books and reading, and who want to take culture out into their community and share it for the empowerment of all. I think Rabbie would still feel right at home.

Written by Zoe Strachan


Some years ago I was commissioned to write a play based on the Flannan Isles lighthouse story. The more I researched the historic background, the more certain I became that there were principal characters missing from  the extant documentation. There are many traditions and stories centred on the idea of three exceptional waves.

These imagined characters entered the drama. They developed as I spoke to fishermen, surfers and sailors.  And people who simply like to look at the sea. Eventually, footage of waves, recorded west of the Hebrides, was projected onto 4 screens in many venues in the Highlands. Wherever you sat, you were confronted with the image of power in the form of moving water.

Here is another image of moving water. It was taken in the Fair Isle Gap. I was crewing on the 28ft Spirit of Rema for my friend Ed Anker. After a close look at the one possible anchorage and at the approaches to the north harbour on Fair Isle, we elected to face rising seas and a northerly gale in open sea, beating on to Shetland.

You can see the building water, before the full force of the wind hit us.  I did not take any more images until we were safe at anchor near Sumburgh.

Ed needed to call in to a port in Norway for complex legal maritime reasons. I told him I had about two weeks free. I was happy to crew for him across the North Sea or to explore a bit of Shetland’s coasts and islands. He thought it out.  On one hand it would be good to share the work in what is often a tough crossing. In another, he had to get re-used to sailing alone to continue on his solo circumnavigation of the world, in a year or so. This is the man who had sailed on, single-handed to St Kilda, in this small simple yacht, after making his landfall in Wales. That was after his crossing from New Zealand via the Patagonian canals. That’s where he bought the 5 horse-power outboard. But he only used it in now in emergencies.

He’d judged that he could not safely enter Fair Isle harbour in the prevailing conditions without the motor. It didn’t qualify as an emergency. That’s why we’d sailed on. I got used to his way of thinking, in this well-balanced craft, fitted out by himself from a bare hull moulding.


Ed asked if I’d be happy to spend the time cruising East Shetlands slow time. He had not seen as much of West Scotland’s coastline as he’d hoped.  I told him I’d already made two North Sea crossings, East to West and could live without the West to East experience for now.  Slow time cruising sounded just fine.

I got to know Ed better as I learned more about handling his very fine cutter. We each visited the broch of Mousa, taking turns to keep anchor-watch. I boiled and dressed the crabs we’d been given in one of  the several fine small-boat harbours we visited.  We sailed on past the entrance to Lerwick harbour and found a good anchorage a few miles up the road. We’d return later, when we really needed the excellent facilities and use of the library, internet and all. We got the big cruising chute flying and made a fair speed as we headed for Out Skerries. We were made welcome everywhere and Baltasound and the Unst boat museum were other highlights.

Back in Lerwick, we visited the excellent museum and I looked up some friends. We had a proper boat-ceilidh with other adventurers, moored alongside.  I knew that the experience would feed into writing and exhibtion plans but had no idea at this point that my working life would become closely tied to Shetland.

A couple of years on and Ed is moored in South Africa, waiting the season to make the crossing to Australia.  I’ve just completed a 6 month residency, developed and administered by Shetland Arts. But I haven’t left home turf. We also call our island “the rock”.  I’m looking forward to meeting the other 4 Readers in Residence. Discovering what was the main thrust of their activites. Points of comparison. Points of contrast.


This morning I called in to Isles FM, our community radio station which has so generously supported the Residency. I hope it won’t be the final appearance (can you say that of radio?) on the Donald and Janet show. These guys give you scope.  “What have you been reading, cove?” Janet asked.

Non-fiction and fiction.  I read extracts from the the chapter headed “Fishing Incidents” in “The Tolsta Townships” by Donald Macdonald (published by the Tolsta Community Association in 1984). There is a heartfelt description of the characters involved in the risky enterprise of offshore line-fishing in open boats.  This is a direct equivalent to the haaf fishing from sixerns, in Shetlandic waters.  The accounts of tragic events, rescues and premonitions have a genuine basis in oral history. Storytelling continues on the pages.


restored traditional North Lewis  line-fishing vessel: sgoth Jubilee (1980s)

You could call my next read a contrast. It’s Vikram Seth’s huge-scale novel, “A Suitable Boy.” It’s not set in the Western Isles. Shetland neither.  But it is set in a new India, a few years after Partition.  Like Macdonald’s work, it allows entry into places and times which you could not access now in any other way. Not even in Spirit of Rema (blessing be upon her and all who sail in her).

If I’ve come to any conclusion during this residency this is it. I’m even more hard-pressed to be able to explain the difference between fiction and non-fiction.  The spoken and the written.  They are all about trying to be true to our experience.

There are plans to continue the reading and writing group which now meets regularly in Stornoway library. It has had a stronger emphasis on stories and reading.  The group will probably focus more on comparing notes on territories discovered in books.

Tomorrow I’ll call in to join the Catch 23 writers’ group, in Stornoway.  It’s likely I’ll end my regular sessions with telling a Finman story learned from Lawrence Tulloch, from Yell, Shetland. We’ve been using traditional stories as a stimulus to writing in different forms. I hope to maintain contact with this long-established group.


Along with the artist Christine Morrison, I’ve been editing a new story from the huge number of drawings made by Western Isles pupils in response to classical and traditional tales. We’ve made a series of prints, in photo-gravure, from these, at Highland Print Studio. We hope these will become a touring exhibition, before long.  Now they exist as an artists’ book to be shown soon in the Art, Space and Nature postgrad degree-show in Tent Gallery, Edinburgh College of Art, open to the public from Sat 2nd June.  I would be very happy if they could form part of a future exhibition in The Shetland Museum.


Written by Ian Stephen


the painter’s sole – Mikko Paakkola at Hotel Chevillon, 1995

Now that it’s nearing the end of this residency with Western Isles Libraries, I find myself looking back to my first artist’s residency. Franki Fewkes is a Stevenson enthusiast, a Scot resident in France, in the 1990s. She realised that the former Hotel Chevillon in Grez sur Loing was being transformed into an artists’ centre by a Swedish charity because of its links to Strindberg, Carl Larsson and other important figures in Scandinavian Art. She negotiated links with the Scottish Arts Council and the National Library of Scotland.The group gained sponsorship from Christian Salvesen, a company with a long history of Scandinavian-Scottish links.

The first RLS Award was two months in 1995, living in the newly developed centre, near Fontainbleau, France. I had been working as a full time Coastguard Officer for ten years and was keen to return to pick up strands in my writing. I still wrote poems and took photographs but I think writing prose is like running. You’ve got to build up stamina. That takes a lot of hours. And a time when you don’t have to juggle family and work responsibilities.

I re-read The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde en route to the interview. I think I got on to a wee rant about how so many academics were snooty about Stevenson’s writing. I think he is a fine stylist but in a very direct way. His prose is like the great ballads – very direct plain storytelling but then a telling detail and a fine image that rings out. I also think that Treasure Island is a very sophisticated narrative and the split psychology of the two main characters in Kidnapped is full of insight but also entertaining.

On the way home, I got the phone-call. They said it was unanimous. I arranged two months unpaid leave from the Civil Service and was given a small card ticket which would allow me to travel First Class on any train as far as Paris. Scotrail were also a sponsor. I met the poet and gallerist Tom Clark on the way, taking a detour to Gloucestershire. I met the inventive poet Gael Turnbull, by chance, on the train out of London. It was as if I’d already entered another stage of my life, where writing and art would no longer have to fall down the list of priorities.

Grez sur Loing is not as prosperous as Barbizon. That was the attraction for so many Bohemian artists. That’s why Stevenson tied up his canoe in the garden of the downmarket Hotel Chevillon and stayed there long enough to meet the American woman who would become his wife and share so many further travels.


at the edges of the Loing

In the first week, I made a bonfire in that same garden. My short stories were getting too fussy, the risk run by a poet-by-trade who revises and hones again and again. I read all the drafts and burned the typescripts and manuscripts so there was no going back. Then I talked to the chunky Toshiba laptop with the nice keyboard. I did not want that early version of Windows installed because I did not want to revise and present text. I wanted to plumb-in the words so they still had the sound of spoken language. My days started with the c prompt from Word Perfect.

By the end of the first month I knew I could not return to full-time working. Job-share was not an option, so I posted my notice. I would cross the road for fresh bread, brew coffee and type out stories. In the afternoons I’d cycle to Nemours – a favourite town of RLS. Or I’d walk along the canal. Sometimes I’d cycle to the rock outcrops in the forest which are safe but challenging bouldering.

My family visited and I’d maintain my writing routine in the morning but we’d be off on walking or climbing excursions later. They drove on to Germany and I knew it was the right thing to stay and complete the last weeks of writing and thinking.

In the evenings, our group would sometimes eat together. The wonderful and witty artist, Katarina Pilgrehn (no longer with us), linked with a local man who brought a team of us on a favourite forest walk. We planned a group exhibition.

I’d work till my brain slowed. Then I’d be ready for chat and coffee with whoever was taking a break from their studio. I knew I was finding a form for the linked stories. That work became the collection, Mackerel and Creamola, published by pocketbooks/Polygon, with illustrations from workshops with Scottish children.

I’ve continued to work in the arts, but in different fields. I made two exhibitions with my former colleagues from Grez and published a series of poems, written between walks by the river and the canal near Hotel Chevillon. Three plays have been produced since then and others drafted. A libretto and several short films have happened. More poems have been published. In 2007, Adrift, my new and selected poems, was published with translations in Czech, included poems written at Grez.

But that sustained two months of focus has shaped my way of writing prose. I still talk to the computer. This week, it’s the final touches to “A Merry Book of Death and Fish”. In one sense the novel has taken over thirty years to make. In another, most of the writing has happened very fast.

It’s a great pleasure to know that my fellow Lewisman, D S Murray has won the award, this year. I wish him well in his writing and in making lasting friendships with writers and artists from Sweden and Finland. I’ve been back twice, to visit Bernadette, the kind administrator. Thanks to her and all involved in maintaining that calm place.

Stim *

(for Philip Von Schantz)

Bream, perch, smelt are fluent
in wet languages.

Philip constructs in words that lean
on each other, a bit like
the bridge at Grez.
Units of colour amass in a shoal

in stipples of still life
in herring that swell
late season pike
grown fat to thrive
when spawn spills.

*Swedish word – a shoaling cloud of fish

Written by Ian Stephen

I’ve sailed up the Sound of Jura several times. Once we had the tide belting along nicely but with a contrary wind that had us short-tacking through the narrower areas against building rips of water.  I didn’t dare look far beyond the limits of the navigable channel. Another trip, it was calm and cold with the Paps shining out with their caps of snow. I’ve been through the gulf of Corrievreckan in a seaworthy steel yacht – but you could probably have gone through in a bathtub that day.

This time I set foot on the island. My contact was Giles Perring, a musician whose work  and interests cross many artistic genres. He is on the board of a famous music Festival on Jura in autumn and this was the first attempt to extend the range of activities into the Spring. The theme was storytelling but expressed in a huge range of activities.

The festival is built on a long term storytelling residency and included the launch of a well-produced publication and dvd. This handsome production shows the process of stories being passed on.  Gary Cordingley  is a theatre practitioner as well as a storyteller. He has a gift of engaging the audience with a clear voice. The project documentation suggests that he had a real engagement with the school-pupils of the island.

We spoke about passing on stories – the bare bones and how each teller fleshes them out in their own way.  He shared the bones of tale from the Middle East but it struck  a chord, for me, with a story I’ve been studying during the Reader in Residence post with Western Isles Libraries.

I’ve told the story of a legal dispute between crofters, in these columns.  Here is another legal quandary, answered by a humane man with a touch of wisdom.

And here’s a recorded source of the story I heard from Gary. Though of course, this teller heard it from someone else and a written or recorded version is not the definitive story – simply a documentation of one version.

Smell of Bread

Back home, I spent a fine afternoon round the table with the Catch 23 group.  I told them of the exchange of stories on Jura. I left the group with a telling of the story I’d head from Gary, on Jura..

I could imagine it being told at Stornoway harbour and noted by a sensitive listener such as Morrison , a cooper in the herring trade, in the 1800s. He wrote down so many traditions. It might have gone something like this:

There was once a family of traveling people who passed through the long island. They traded as they went. They were not prosperous people but they worked hard and won respect. When they came to the town, they found a place where it might be possible to make a living. Many traders passed through. Goods had to be carried from here to there.

There was a son in the family, a lad just coming to an age where he would have to make his own way in the world. So his mother and father scraped together a few coins – enough for him to buy some shelter over his head, so he could seek work.  The family would move on to the mainland or another island. They would return. They would then see how the son had prospered, what he had made from these few coins.

The traveler boy found some basic lodgings. It was a tiny room up above a small business – a baker’s shop. The rent took away quite a few of the coins from his small stock. But it was worth it for the smells that came up from the bakery.

In the morning there would be the smell of bread. The boy would throw open the window and put his head right out so he could inhale that smell of yeast and flour and steam. It would go right into his nostrils and he would breathe it all in.

Then in the evening, there would be the smell of cakes. There might be nutmeg and cinnamon mixed in with the smells of sweet dough. Coconut and apricot. Again, the lad would breathe it all in. Bu he lived on oatmeal and water and not much else.

He had a good way about him and people trusted him. But he had to work hour after hour, fetching and carrying and seeking more work. At last he had earned a few more coins and he was able to visit the baker’s shop as a customer. It was difficult to choose but he selected a slice of cake with a milky dough. He passed over the coin and told the baker how much he’d been enjoying the smells from the shop.

You won’t have noticed me, he said, but I live up there. The small room at the top. Over your shop. I breathe in the smell of your bread in the morning and the smell of your cakes in the evening. Some days I’ve had nothing much else to live on. The thought of that bread and cake has kept me going. Now I can taste it. I’ll be back when I’ve earned a bit more.

The baker was quite surprised to hear all this. At first he felt good, that his work was appreciated. As the day wore on he thought about it more and more and he was no longer happy.

That lad has been living off my work, he thought. He’s been inhaling the smell from my loaves. He said himself, that’s what’s kept him going. He owes me.

So the next time the lad came in, this time for a part of a loaf of bread, the baker spoke his mind.

I’ve been wanting to talk to you, he said. About breathing in the smells of my baking all the time. I think you should pay me for that.

Written by Ian Stephen

You can untie the first knot for fair breeze. The second will give you as much as the boat can take. But of course there is always a third knot – like the silver cord round the neck of the dark hide sack which contains the winds that will threaten you.

Sometimes you know which story to tell. I was at The Bakehouse in Gatehouse of Fleet. This is a fine environment to share reading and writing and telling. On the way, we’d taken a small detour, to follow a snaking road by a burn to Sinclair’s farm. We met last autumn at a Scottish festival in Grasse, Provence and it was impossible to drive past the road end. He offered malt and wine but we had tea and saw his fine native beasts. With the smell of well-cared for animals in my nostrils, I told the border folk a tale recorded in Lewis. But The Wise Grieve (already told in these columns) is timeless and placeless. And so is the Odyssey of Homer, though there have been many attempts to pinpoint the islands encountered by the voyaging Odysseus. I could see the ox-hide sack used by Aeolus to contain unfavourable winds. And I could understand how the gods would seek revenge on vagabond mariners who slaughtered the cattle they’d reared with care.

The route back to the next reading group meeting in Stornoway library went by way of Lionacleit School Library and Iochdar School. And then on via Leverburgh and Seilebost schools.  I was travelling with the artist Christine Morrison who is in her final year of the Art Space and Nature masters degree at Edinburgh College of Art. We are exploring a way of using drawing as a means to fixing the key images from a story in the minds of the listeners. But we both think something else has happened.

The process began in the municipal library in Grasse. I told a story which was translated, bit by bit. I taught a figure-of-eight knot as a way of fixing an image, beyond language. Then Christine led the local schoolchildren in “blind drawing” the line of the knot, while looking at it carefully. The eye must not go to the paper. I felt that was a fair parallel to the act of telling a story. You listen and you think until the fishbone skeleton of the story is a clear outline. Then you trust your audience and yourself and let it loose.

I told the story of Aeolus and his bag of winds to a Secondary class at Lionacleit. It seemed to work so I also tried it with junior Primary in Iochdar.  To my surprise, even the youngest in the group engaged with it. Their blind drawings of the angry forces in a bag are expressive.

Seilebost school had built an astonishing detailed half model of a Stornoway-registered fishing boat. I thought of a tradition recorded by J F Campbell. The Kings of Scotland and Norway hook the same dogfish – now also known as the kingsfish. The pupils covered their eyes and  drew the shape of the fish that was in their mind.

We found the library and school environments full of a sense of friendship and care. That was a main factor in the fluent results – the conversations and the drawings.

It was straight into Stornoway library on return. The reading and discussion (and sometimes writing) group has fallen into a pattern. A particular story usually drives the discussion. This time a version of The Three Knots linked back to the story of the bag of winds, the gift from Aeolus to Odysseus, to help him on his way home.

But it also led into a broad ranging discussion. We compared fiction with the telling of a story as detailed history, in Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands, which also quotes from many first-hand survivor’s accounts.  Marina and Beth, from Stornoway Library, contributed and I found that it was Marina who had pointed me to the great work of Snyder’s history. Marina also made a crucial point in a comparison with The Odyssey.

In Homer, human beings are affected by the whims and designs of the gods. They are caught up in calamities  or assisted for a time as part of a complex set of alliances and quarrels from these beings which wield great power over the earth. Now think of all these peoples, of all these nationalities and ethnic origins, living between the shifting borders of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.  From the planned starvation of millions in the Ukraine to the invasion of Poland from East as well as West, so many people suffered from the actions of empires headed by tyrants with unlimited power.

So I told that story from the Odyssey –how a silver cord was loosed and chaos was unleashed from the ox-hide sack. It is possible that the story was told long before a poet wove it into a huge-scale tapestry of ringing language.

Written by Ian Stephen

…to do sound poetry sessions with the four pupils of the Fetlar School, and join a community Poetry For Tea Session. Nothing happens in this short video of a ferry crossing…thankfully…

Watch it here.

Written by Jen Hadfield


Written by Jen Hadfield


Written by Jen Hadfield

I did my first schools session of the Residency today. Jo Anderson, the Whalsay School’s librarian, suggested we work together with a group of P4s and P5s on their Treasure Island topic. Appropriate that I should undertake a voyage to get there, and that I should while away the 20-odd miles to the ferry terminal at Laxo listening to Melville’s Moby Dick on audiobook. Audiobooks, like my electric blanket, have changed my life. I’m one of those who finds it hard to sit still to read, something that Jeanette Winterson, in this week’s Radio 4 Book of the Week, would have something to say about…

I try not to indulge the impulse to multi-task too much (I’m not sure the ability to do so is such a virtue after all – more a grim necessity or an unfortunate habit, depending on your lifestyle), so if I can keep it to two things at once I’m quite pleased. So while I drive, knit, cook, clean and work on my porcelain limpets, I’m catching up on the classics I’ve been afraid to tackle all these years: Moby Dick, Great Expectations and Ulysses (Joyce).

It was an early start for the 8.25 ferry and I got there earlier than I meant to, struggling to keep my eyes open, while the harpoonist cannibal Queequeg, and Ishmael fought over a blanket. Still dark; I could just make out the two crows that passed over the car. The ferry curved in past the pier, the crescent of yellow light from the rising hull fattened on the dark water. I stayed in the car for the half-hour crossing, which more or less took care of the sermon on Jonah. Was disgorged less violently than Jonah at Symbister Pier and drove up the steep hill to the school, blinking and yawning.

I’d had a bit of a debate with myself about which edition of Treasure Island to work from. I knew the class were working with the ladybird version, but scanning through it, I missed the descriptive power and lush vocabulary of the unabridged; its ‘doubloons and double guineas’; Bones as the ‘tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man’. So I put together a very slightly composite portrait of Billy Bones and of Poor Ben Gunn; and tried it out on Jo, who thought the pupils could handle the harder vocab if the passage was read it to them. I did the voices as best I could – that woke us all up – invited them to draw portraits of Bones or Gunn as I read (some excellent scars; peglegs and ragged trews), and asked them if they knew the meanings of the more difficult words. Sabre? Check. Cove? Check. Rum? Obviously. Doubloons and double guineas? Check. Weevils? Check. Tarry gaskin? Well, none of us are quite sure about that one.

A bit of a quiz on some of the details then, and I was educated in many matters: the dire consequences of receiving the Black Spot, the consequences of alcoholic poisoning, (they said it, not me) and then I set each group a writing task. The P4s were to imagine that Billy Bones had given up pirating, and had come to retire in their kitchen. What did he want for his tea? How was such a stew – of weevils and eyeballs – to be concocted? How did he spend his days?

The P5s had to pretend that like ‘Poor Ben Gunn’, they were marooned on a desert island. They’d to write about how they had survived, describe their island and their treasure. Such conditions they survived: one boy was deposited on his island by a tornado; another’s island was ‘as hot as a vindaloo.’ Most of them managed to avoid having to drink their own pea (sic), subsisting on coconut milk, prunes (prunes?!), haddocks and scallops; one boy asked how to cook a pineapple. I told them to think hard about how Ben Gunn spoke, or what Billy Bones song was like, and to try and recreate that style in their poems, something they did to hilarious effect…

We’re going to make posters of the poems and pictures to stick up in the classrooms; and voted favourites may go on the back of the loo-doors (Bards in the Bog and the captive-audience principle). This raised the stakes a bit. Several P5s were compelled to start another page for their rapidly lengthening island-based dramas. Many thanks to Jo for her ideas for reading/writing sessions and her insights on the age-group. She’s going to run another session with the students to help them tidy up their poems and finish off their pictures. I’m really looking forward to seeing the result, and may post our favourites here..

PS did you know the map in Treasure Island is based on the Shetland island of Unst? I didn’t. Apparently so!

Written by Jen Hadfield

something to cheer you up if you’re feeling wan and weary with the return to work and have already broken all your New Year’s Resolutions.

Rhoda Bulter reading her poem Clearin Oot Da Haandbag, with handy mouse-over gloss for non-Shetland-dialect speakers!

Written by Jen Hadfield

Last day in the office before Christmas. Have survived a record number of library-related Christmas events including the Bookbug Christmas Party (in excess of fifty bairns with percussive instruments singing Jingle Bells) which I attended as an elf. Despite the terrific number of chins I’m sporting I post the following photo to prove it…

Other than that, a few new projects have been launched and I’ve been fulminating on what looks like it will be an incredibly hectic New Year in partnership with school librarians. Inspired by the Scottish Poetry Library’s Read Aloud sessions, I’ve run a similar pilot in Taing House (Lerwick carehome) for daycare clients, and visited North Haven Care Home in Brae to read with residents there. One staff member gave an great rendition of ‘Tam O’Shanter’.

My favourite session by far was the one in which members of the Shetland Dialect society Shetland Forwirds came along as guests, to read dialect poetry and prose to clients. They gave excellent performances of works by favourite Shetland writers, many of whom the clients had known personally. I managed to squeeze some romantic poets and a bit of singing in between the bannocks, tea and gossip.  I’m grateful to the clients and staff for their warm welcome, and for joining in with the readings. Looking forward to taking more events to rural care-homes in the New Year.

‘Poetry For Tea’ – (playlist) of which it was said ‘I haven’t been this relaxed all week’ – has finished for the time being but will be replaced by an eight-week Books Buffet in the New Year. We’ll have guests to introduce their favourite works from dialect and Nordic literature and run sessions celebrating long/epic poems, horror, Shakespeare and comedy…

Meanwhile, the Shetland Times has been running the ‘Readers Recommend’ column in the paper, featuring the reading habits of the Shetland public. We’ve had book recommendations from a samba-playing janitor-joiner, an archeological illustrator, a mother of two and textile design student, the three-times winner of the Shetland Young Writer prize and the Head of English at Brae High School. On a tip-off that Whalsay ferrymen and fisherman are insatiable readers, I’m trying to track down one willing to actually speak about it…

Bards in the Bog entries have been streaming in, and I’ll be making my selection over the next week or so. New poems due up in public toilets throughout Shetland in the New Year, promoted – all being well – by subtly anarchic events.

Happy Christmas from me and from the Shetland Library: I wish you a new year rich in literary fodder!


Written by Jen Hadfield

Having a lovely time as the Shetland Library’s Reader in Residence, with the first of our weekly new columns appearing in the Shetland Times this week. ‘Readers Recommend’ is all about getting the Shetland community to chat about the books they love and the literature they live by. Unbelievably, the first month is already almost up. I’ve spent it getting to know the library and its staff: haring all around Shetland to the beautiful schools libraries from the North Isles to the South Mainland, getting introduced to lots of new books by folk of all ages, and setting up many of the projects and reading groups that will run for the duration of the residency.

We had our third ‘Poetry For Tea’ session last night. This is an hour devoted to reading poems for pleasure – folk bring along their favourite poems and read them aloud. I’m enjoying keeping a list of what we’re reading, the diversity of which is delicious. One member has been bringing along her own ‘anthology’ – a notebook of her poems that she’s been keeping since the 1940s: a beautiful thing. We advertised the group with a photo of a fish supper, which caught the eye of the ‘The Black Hole’ (comedy and culture on Radio Shetland’s late spot) team, Roberto Getto and Amy Fisher. Beto and Amy came by in the hope of cadging a chip; we had to explain to them the fish supper was largely metaphorical. They took the news well and took part in our session, contributing poems in Spanish and Shetland Dialect to our eclectic set list. Our sessions are rich in strokes of serendipity, of the kind that sees Tom Leonard’s ’100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose’ (from his new ‘Selected Poems’ CD) followed by Basil Bunting’s ‘What the Chairman Said To Tom’. This contains my new favourite quote, which describes poets as ‘reds, addicts, delinquents’ who waste the time they should be spending on real work on ‘nasty little words.’ Excellent!

‘You’re’ – Sylvia Plath
‘Journey of the Magi’ – T.S.Eliot
‘Angle of Vision’ – Robert Rendall
‘Following a Lark’ – George Mackay Brown
an untitled poem by William Blake, from his letter to Thomas Butts
‘Stopping By Woods On a Snowy Evening’ – Robert Frost
‘The Sterling’ – George S. Peterson
‘The Black Hole’ – Roberto Getto
’100 Differences Between Poetry and Prose’ – Tom Leonard, from his new ‘Selected Poem’ CD
‘What The Chairman Told Tom’ – Basil Bunting
‘The Wild Swans at Coole’ – Yeats
war poems by Krzysztof Kamil Baczyński, in Polish and English

Written by Jen Hadfield


Zoë Strachan is an award-winning novelist who also writes plays, libretti, short stories and essays. She was born in Kilmarnock in 1975 and is now a Patron of the Imprint Festival in East Ayrshire. In 2003 The Independent on Sunday listed her in their top twenty novelists under 30, and the Scottish Review of Books selected her as one of their new generation of five young Scottish authors in 2011. She has been awarded a Hawthornden Fellowship, the Hermann Kesten Stipendium and a Robert Louis Stevenson Fellowship. Her latest novel is Ever Fallen in Love, which has just been longlisted for the Green Carnation Prize, and in autumn 2011 she was British Council Writer in Residence on the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Glasgow.

Written by Shetland Arts


Maureen Sangster is a writer and poet in Scots and English. She was shortlisted in the Second Annual James Kirkup Memorial Poetry competition 2011 and won The Callum MacDonald Memorial Award for pamphlet poetry publishing in 2007. Her poetry collections are Menopausal Bedtime Rhymes, The Unseen Hospital, and Out of the Urn. Collaborative work can be seen incorporated in The Beadle’s Stone, a poetry stone at Auchtertool Kirk near Kirkcaldy and in filmpoems Echoes of Voices and Timeline.

She’s communicated her passion for reading and the written/printed word as a writer, workshop facilitator and tutor in schools, care homes, community centres, art galleries and hospitals. Via Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature programme she has delivered creative writing sessions.

She lives in Fife. She’s a member of Edinburgh based Pomegranate Women’s Writing Group. Other interests are singing and art. She exhibited in Scrapbox Challenge St Andrews 2010.

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Margot Henderson is a Scots -Irish Poet, Storyteller and Community Artist. Much of her work is site specific, celebrating our connection to the natural environment. She was Artist Educator for the Tate Galleries for many years and was Storyteller in Residence for Coral Arts, a site-specific participatory arts theatre company.

Since returning to Scotland in 2002 she has been storytelling Fellow for Aberdeen and Writer in Residence for The Cromarty Arts Trust. She leads creative writing workshops for LAPIDUS Words for Wellbeing and currently teaches expressive writing at Maggies Highlands. She practices Mindfulness meditation in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh.

The central themes of her work as a Community Artist, developed over the last 15 years, are: encouraging creative self expression, exploring roots and heritage, deepening connection to place, developing community and generating a sense of belonging. Much of her work is environmental, site specific, participatory and intergenerational, using story, poetry and the performing arts to bring older and younger people together in ways that are mutually satisfying, stimulating and beneficial, where elders are valued as an essential community resource whose life experience is invaluable to young people to help develop a sense of and belonging in a rapidly changing world and young people provide a sense of continuity and regeneration.”

Margot Henderson is a nationally acclaimed poet, storyteller and community artist. Her uniqueness lies in her ability to draw on her range of skills in poetry, storytelling, movement and voice to work with people of all ages, abilities and cultural backgrounds to create and inspire. Her work takes place in diverse settings ranging from schools, hospitals, community centres, prisons and homeless shelters to museums, theatres, galleries and international conferences.

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Ian Stephen was born in Stornoway and still lives there. He studied Education, Drama and Literature at Aberdeen University graduating with a B Ed (hons) with distinction.

Ian worked for the Coastguard Service for many years but has been a full time writer and artist since winning the first Robert Louis Stevenson Award in 1995. His project of navigating through the settings of traditional maritime stories was funded by a Creative Scotland Award and this has remained a key element in his work. He travels widely to tell stories.

Work in drama includes the play Seven Hunters – a touring production, directed by Gerry Mulgrew for Communicado, The Highland Festival and Tosg. His first collection of poems Malin, Hebrides, Minches was published in Aarhus Denmark, in 1983 and his new and selected poems Adrift were published in the Czech Republic in 2007. Poems and short-stories were gathered in the pocketbooks/Polygon series in Green Waters (with Graham Rich and Ian Hamilton Finlay) and  Mackerel and Creamola (with Donald Urquhart).

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Jen Hadfield has published two collections of poetry with Bloodaxe Books. Her second, Nigh-No-Place, was shortlisted for the Forward Prize in 2007 and won the T.S.Eliot Prize for poetry in 2008. She lives in Shetland, working as a writer and writing tutor and sometimes artist. She has recently completed the first draft of a fiction, Tied Island, which is set in Depression-Era Canada.

Audio samples of Jen reading her work are available at
She also blogs intermittently at

Written by Shetland Arts

Shetland Arts Development Agency (SADA) is delighted to announce that following a rigorous selection process, it has commissioned five Readers in Residence for the Creative Futures – Readers in Residence programme.

The five residents are Ian Stephen, Jen Hadfield, Margot Henderson, Maureen Sangster and Zoe Strachan. Each one will take up a residency with a library service in Scotland.

Ian Stephen will work with Western Isles Library service based in Stornoway; Jen Hadfield will be resident with Shetland Library; Margot Henderson will work with Highland Council Library Service; Maureen Sangster will be Reader in Resident a mental health facility in Scotland; and Zoe Strachan will work with East Ayrshire Libraries.

Gwilym Gibbons, Director of Shetland Arts said: ‘What is particularly exciting about the people we have selected is that as well as being highly talented in their own field, as novelist, poet or story teller, they all have exceptional talents as communicators and in working with people, and a profound understanding of the importance of reading, to individuals and to communities. We feel sure that each Reader in Residence will make a difference and we look forward to seeing their projects evolve.”

Venu Dhupa, Director of Creative Development at Creative Scotland, said: “It’s great news that the Readers in Residence are now in place. The residencies will bring an enabling and creative dynamic to the successful communities and their libraries. Reading is an essential skill for learning, life and work; it expands knowledge and sparks imaginations. Not only will the Readers in Residence develop the work of both individual library users and a wide range of reading groups it will also enhance their own creative development.”

In each case the Reader in Residence will divide their time equally between working on behalf of the library service and the communities it serves, in order to encourage reading and enhance the experience of library service users.

SADA selected the five residents from a short list of thirteen. It received a total of 137 applications from across Scotland.

SADA Literature Development Officer, Donald Anderson said: “There has been an amazing response from would be Readers in Residence and Library Services alike, which has led to a highly competitive selection process. We understand that there will be some disappointment for applicants who were not successful and for the Library Services who supported them. We appreciate the time and work they put into preparing their applications and thank them for their interest in the Creative Futures – Readers in Residence programme.”

Written by Shetland Arts