Read All About It

08 February 2018

Peter May

Photo: I'll Keep You Safe

The long-list for the inaugural Highland Book Prize was revealed last month with the winner scheduled to be announced at the Ullapool Book Festival in May. This long overdue award is intended to showcase the depth of literary talent which can be found in the north of Scotland. The Highlands have long been an inspiration for authors and poets but contemporary writers are often overlooked by the London-centric publishing world. This prize seeks to change that by shining a spotlight on the vastly divergent crop of writers who currently live, or choose to set their work, here. The long-list features a diverse collection of styles and voices, including travel writing, history, contemporary fiction and memoir, with each in their own way highlighting a very different facet of Highland life. Here are a few of our personal choices from it.

Walking with Cattle is a fascinating non-fiction piece. It follows the author as she attempts to trace the route of the traditional cattle drovers and their cattle, from Outer Hebrides to the Highland marts. Travelling by campervan and armed with a voice recorder, a collection of archive photographs and a set of maps marked with the old market stances, she seeks out the last surviving drovers. The resulting narrative is an extraordinary insight into a lost world, told through the voices of the few remaining individuals who remember the days of walking with cattle. Ahmore on North Uist is one of the traditional market stances she visits during the course of her research and if her descriptions of the unspoiled landscape pulls you in, then check out Clachan Sands Cottage, just a few miles away. It sits not far from the beach, on a croft that once would have been used for keeping cattle as described in the book.

The landscape of the west coast is a major character in The Angel in the Stone. Set against the backdrop of the recent independence referendum, this fictional tale about grief and family ties is a gripping reflection of the times we live in. Returning to the Highlands, Calum is haunted by his past and thoughts of his brother who died in a rock climbing accident 20 years previously as he deals with his elderly mother’s Alzheimer disease and his estranged daughter. What sets this apart from the vast numbers of books published this year is the powerful, tight prose and endearing, but flawed, characters. It’s a slow burning and emotional journey with the focus on storytelling instead of convoluted plotting and surprise twists. The scenery of the Highlands plays an integral part in the story (to say any more would be to spoil it) so, to experience it for yourself,  book your stay at Star na Mara on the Road to the Isles where the first floor sitting room has been specially designed for people to soak in the amazing west coast vista.

Christopher Nicholson's first book of nature writing is a beautiful account of an unusual obsession. In 2016 he spent August searching for the remaining snows of the Scottish Highlands. Among The Summer Snows, the account of his solitary walk is by turns funny, fascinating and inspiring. A meditation on grief, walking, mountains, snow and our changing climate, Nicholson also turns his curious eye on nature-lovers themselves. What are we looking for when we walk and what is it we want from nature? What is it we see and what is it we miss? What remains when we are gone and what have we lost from the landscape forever? Also nominated for the prestigious Boardman-Tasker award this book should be required reading for anyone heading into the mountains this summer and makes for a perfect treat to read by the fire somewhere like Thyme Cottage after a long day on the hill. One notable review summed it up perfectly “By the end, I felt as if I had spent an evening in a Highland pub with a wise old friend” I could not agree more.

Published last month and so technically ineligible for this year’s prize, the new Peter May book I’ll Keep You Safe sees the writer return to the Hebrides where his bestselling Lewis trilogy was set. This stand-alone novel is a murder mystery set against the backdrop of the Harris Tweed industry and looks set to emulate the success of his previous Hebridean books. Top Tip: don’t do as I did and read the Amazon reviews - someone gives away the ending!! This would of course make the perfect accompaniment to a trip to the islands to see for yourself the landscapes so evocatively described on the page. Beach Cottage is modern and luxurious with tremendous views over Dalbeg beach and is just a short walk from Dalmore beach where a pivotal scene from the book takes place.