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Book recommendations: Reads to take Pride in

As Pride month for 2022 draws to a close, here’s a list of some brilliant LGBTQ+ books and voices from Scottish authors and publishers for you to dive into, or indeed look forward to this year.

★ Denotes a book published by a Publishing Scotland member.

Duck Feet by Ely Percy
★ Monstrous Regiment

Duck Feet is a coming-of-age novel, set in the mid-noughties in Renfrew and Paisley, Scotland. It’s also the indie sensation that went onto scoop the top prize at the Scottish National Book Awards.

Following the lives of 12-year-old Kirsty Campbell and her friends as they navigate life from first to sixth year at Renfrew Grammar school, the book is a celebration of youth in an ever-changing world. It uses humour to tackle hard-hitting subjects such as drugs, bullying, sexuality, and teenage pregnancy. But moreover, it is a relatable and accessible portrait of figuring out who you are, plunging into the currents of life, and most of all, finding hope.

Gears for Queers by Abigail Melton and Lilith Cooper
Sandstone Press

Partners Abi and Lily got on their bikes one day and started peddling, keen to see some of Europe. Bringing together Lili’s childhood of cycling around their hometown of Cambridge, and Abigail’s desire to travel the world, the book captures their journey along flat fens and up the Alps, meeting new friends and exorcising their demons as they push themselves to undertake these brilliant and varied journeys.

Deep Wheel Orcadia by Harry Josephine Giles
Picador

Journey into a science fiction world through the Orkney dialect. Deep Wheel Orcadia brings together a rich and varied cast in the original Orcadian alongside an English translation, allowing readers to fully breathe in the magic of the original. Exploring a range of topics through the lens of the space station Deep Wheel Orcadia, it blends Giles’ prowess for poetic language with an ambitious, engrossing tale.

At Least This I Know by Andrés N. Ordorica
404 Ink

Ordorica’s collection starts neither here nor there, a liminal space between two states of being. Exploring his own story of ancestry, nationhood, activism and queerness, to tales of love and loss and more, it’s a vivid portrait of the poet on his own journey, exploring a sense of belonging of immigrant bodies in new countries, or that of the queer self within found families and safe spaces.

Re·creation: A Queer Poetry Anthology edited by Éadaoín Lynch & Alycia Pirmohamed
Stewed Rhubarb

Inspired in name by Audre Lorde’s poem of the same name, the anthology contains new work from many writers from the LGBTQ+ community including a few featuring in this very list – Dean Atta, Harry Josephine Giles, Andrés Ordorica, and more brilliance beyond, such as Jack Bigglestone, Mae Diansangu, Kira Scott, Patience Agbabi, Jay Gao and Andrew McMillan.

Polaris by Marcas Mac an Tuiarneir
★ Leamington Books

Named for the North Star, the collection builds on the intersecting notions of ‘northness’ and linguistic and cultural identities, which includes reimaginings and reworkings of the original works in many of the minoritised language of these islands: Scots, Irish, Manx, Welsh and more, contributed by brilliant translators and poets.

A collection indebted to feminist and post-colonial thought, while navigating folk narratives, historical accounts and current affairs of islands, there’s a lot to dive into within its pages.

Tamlin by Aven Wildsmith
Knight Errant Press

Aven Wildsmith’s Tamlin is a beautiful retelling of the classic Scottish folk ballad written in verse and with accompanying illustrations to bring it to life. A magically atmospheric tale is told through a queer lens, creating new room for queer love and heroes within the folklore. A really lovely reshaping of a classic.

Young Mungo by Douglas Stuart
Picador

The highly anticipated follow-up to the Booker-winner Shuggie Bain, Young Mungo follows two young men on opposite sides of the Protestant-Catholic divide, living in a hyper-masculine and violent world. Though they should be sworn enemies, they become friends and find love against a backdrop that says it cannot be. For fans of his debut, this is another lyrical book following characters whose lives you fall wholeheartedly into.

The Bi-ble: New Testimonials
Monstrous Regiment

The second book in Monstrous Regiment’s Bi-ble anthology series brings together a range of people to discuss and engage with bisexuality through a range of lenses, whether coming out in Southeast Asian Culture (Vaneet Mehta), considering Janelle Monáe’s Black queer femme representation through the lens of Audre Lorde (Jessica Brough), bi students’ experiences of invisibility, marginalisation and more (Jayna Tavarez), or pansexual awakenings (Robert J. Holmes), there’s many brilliant essays to dive into.

Bessie Smith by Jackie Kay
Faber & Faber

Born in 1894 in Tennessee, Bessie Smith sang on street corners before making a name for herself, recording for the then-start-up Columbia Records in 1923. Hundreds of thousands of copies later, she was a star. The blues great’s life is punctuated with many stories of highs and lows: stardom, fist fights, passionate love affairs with men and women, spent huge amounts of money. As a young black girl growing up in Glasgow, former Makar Jackie Kay found in Bessie someone to idolise, and it feels there’s no more fitting a person to document such a tremendous life through a mix of biography, fiction, poetry and prose. A perfect pairing and extraordinary life documented..

None of the Above by Travis Alabanza
★ Canongate

Travis Alabanza explores seven phrases people have directed at them regarding their gender identity which have stayed with them over the years. Whether deceptively innocuous, deliberately loaded or offensive, or celebratory – words have power and these sentences speak to the broad issues raised by a world insisting that gender must be a binary.

From some of their most transformative experiences as a Black, mixed race, non binary person, Travis turns a mirror back to the reader and society, asking us to question the frameworks in which we live, and how we treat each other.

Only on the Weekends by Dean Atta
Hodder Children’s Books

Fifteen year old Mack is a hopeless romantic – hooked, like many of us to the films he’s grown up on. He is ecstatic when Karim, who he has like forever, becomes his boyfriend, but when his dad gets a job in Scotland and they have to move, he finds their love moving to only on the weekends, as the distance isn’t all that’s keeping them apart. When he meets actor Finlay on a film set, he experiences something powerful and new – but who will he choose? And will it last forever?

Unspeakable and Unthinkable: A Queer Gothic Anthology edited by Celine Frohn
Haunt Publishing

Unthinkable collects nineteen original Gothic tales primed to unsettle and entertain. From a Southern Gothic tale of destruction and revenge, to haunted houses and cursed lovers, to an eco-Gothic saga, Unthinkable’s tales present undying themes of love and tragedy, life and death, all suffused with queerness. Following on from the success of its predecessor Unspeakable: A Queer Gothic Anthology, Unthinkable features stories from a fresh batch of authors, showcasing the depth and breadth of queer Gothic literature. Another great addition to the brilliant Gothic output of Haunt.

Carrie Kills A Man by Carrie Marshall
404 Ink

Carrie Kills A Man* is about growing up in a world that doesn’t want you, and about how it feels to throw a hand grenade into a perfect life. It’s the story of how a tattooed transgender rock singer killed a depressed suburban dad, and of the lessons you learn when you renounce all your privilege and power. When more people think they’ve seen a ghost than met a trans person, it’s easy for bad actors to exploit that – and they do, as you can see from the headlines and online. But here’s the reality, from someone who’s living it. From coming out and navigating trans parenthood to the thrills of gender-bending pop stars, fashion disasters and looking like Velma Dinkley, this is a tale of ripping it up and starting again: Carrie’s story in all its fearless, frank and funny glory.

*“Spoiler: That man was me.” – Carrie

HellSans by Ever Dundas
Angry Robot Books

The ultimate control device: a typeface. HellSans is ubiquitous, enforced by the government; most experience bliss when they see the typeface, but those who don’t are persecuted, forced onto the outskirts of the city. Jane Ward is a CEO with fame and fortune, she has everything, until one day she falls ill with the allergy and is thrown into the government’s internal power struggles, losing everything in the process. A story of corruption and power through a fascinating new lens – one to savour.

Be part of the Year of Stories with #TalesOfScotland and #YS2022.

Publisher spotlight: Black & White Publishing

Across 2022, the Year of Stories, we are spotlighting Publishing Scotland members, who will share their own story in their own words. Get to know Black & White Publishing, the Edinburgh-based publisher behind a vast range of non-fiction titles, YA sensations and the Scots children’s book imprint Itchy Coo.

What’s your story?

Black & White Publishing was founded in 1999 by Campbell Brown and Alison McBride and we’re both still running the business. Campbell had been running another publishing business before that and Alison had worked in sales, marketing and publicity roles for several publishers after working as a bookseller at John Smith & Son and Waterstones. So we started the business with a fair bit of experience of the book trade, from different perspectives, and we had a clear idea about what we wanted to publish. That said, one of the great joys of publishing is that you never know what direction it might take you and it’s a business that’s constantly changing and challenging – usually in a good way. Most recently, in 2021, after our best-ever year, Black & White became part of Bonnier Books UK. Campbell and Alison remain as directors but we now have the backing of Bonnier’s resources which is already proving to be hugely beneficial for our authors. And we’re looking forward to this new alliance going from strength to strength in the years to come.

Tell us about some of your key stories

Having published somewhere close to 1,000 books over the years, it’s not easy to pick out just a few. There have been prize-winning books, commercially successful books and books that deserved to be published, but one of the first books we published at Black & White was Rikki Fulton’s autobiography, Is It That Time Already?  Rikki was one of Scotland’s biggest entertainment stars, and his book was a huge bestseller, giving us a solid platform to grow the business from year one. We published mainly non-fiction initially, but when we published Andrew Nicoll’s beautifully written novel The Good Mayor, we also discovered how vital the rights market could be, as it sold into more than twenty territories around the world. Then, when ebooks took off, we published Watch Over Me by Daniela Sacerdoti, which sold more than 500,000 copies and became one of the most popular ebooks sold on Amazon at that time. Another big highlight has been seeing our brilliant Young Adult author, Estelle Maskame, become an international bestselling author, with global sales now in excess of 1.5 million copies. Estelle started writing when she was still at school and hers is a fantastic success story. And since 2002, our Scots language children’s imprint has produced new work and translations in Scots, including Roald Dahl titles, The Gruffalo and Harry Potter, becoming the leading Scots language imprint. Most recently, Andrew Cotter’s huge lockdown bestseller Olive, Mabel & Me, touched so many people and helped them get through an incredibly difficult time with his witty and brilliantly written tale of life and adventures with his two globally famous Labradors. There have been so many more key titles over the years but this small selection gives an idea of the range of work Black & White has published over the last twenty years.

What draws you to a story? What makes a good story?

There are so many factors that can draw you into a story. The writer, the premise, the quality of the writing, the potential market or simply a story that’s unusual or intriguing in some way. It can be a new take on a well worn theme, or something totally new that you haven’t seen before. Or something that resonates with you or you can see connecting with others. Above all, we need to care about the characters and the story, whether it’s fiction or non-fiction. And you always know when you have a story that makes you want to keep reading and keep turning the pages.     

What stories should we look forward to or check out this year?

Lots to look out for in 2022, from MP Wright’s republished Windrush Noir detective series featuring JT Ellington, to Aesop’s Fables in Scots, Mairi Kidd’s brilliant We Are All Witches and more recipes and stories from Coinneach MacLeod, the Hebridean Baker, who gives us a flavour of the food and culture of the Outer Hebrides in his new book My Scottish Island Kitchen. Bestselling poet Donna Ashworth brings us three new collections in Love, Life and Loss, which will connect with everyone’s stories, and in Inside F1 Lee McKenzie tells the stories of some of the legendary Formula 1 drivers she has worked with over the years and gives us a fascinating insight into events on and off the track during her amazing career. And there are lots more stories to enjoy at www.blackandwhitepublishing.com.

Learn more about Black & White Publishing at @bwpublishing and blackandwhitepublisghing.com.

Interview: A Silent Voice Speaks

SANCTUARY | A Silent Voice Speaks: The Wee Indian Woman on the Bus tells the story of Trishna Singh OBE, born in Glasgow in the 1950s as a first generation Scottish Bhat Sikh, through her life and journey battling against community traditions and setting up the Sikh Sanjog, aiming to provide support for women in the community. We talk to Trishna to learn more.

Can you tell readers a bit more about your own story as detailed in A Silent Voice Speaks?

I wanted readers to understand what it was like to be a Sikh woman growing up and living in two cultures.

Why did you want to tell your story via memoir?

I thought it was the only way my story would be told. I always kept diaries and couldn’t see anything in print that related to me personally. Our stories were hidden – other people’s stories have been told. I thought ‘why is nobody writing about us’, so I decided to do it. I started writing the very original version of this book about 1991.

“I think I was mostly very overwhelmed [when I found out about receiving an OBE] – it was very surreal. It made me think of how proud my parents and grandparents would have been.”

What brought you to set up the now Sikh Sanjog in Scotland? What have been some stand out moments in terms of your work, and the community, found through it?

The empowerment of other women from the same culture as myself. Stand out moments are women who have come to Sikh Sanjog now being part of mainstream culture.

All the milestones – reaching 10 years, 20 years, 30 years of helping Sikh women.

Setting up our social enterprise – Punjabi Junction – the only one in the world set up and run solely by Sikh women. When we started Sikh Sanjog 35 years ago one of the goals for me was that it would have  women from within the Bhat Sikh community employed as youth workers, community development workers. The aim of social enterprise, Punjabi Junction, 12 years ago was that it would have a ‘manager from within the Bhat Sikh Community’ and we have achieved both goals.  

The biggest stand out moment so far was last year – 2021 – when we were asked to host the Royal Family,  and another was the first official report launched at the Scottish Parliament in December 2021, highlighting issues faced by Sikh women in Scotland – we are hoping it will feed into policy, but there are really are too many to mention here. Anyone interested in what we do can look at our website: sikhsanjog.com

You were awarded an OBE for your work – though you mention in the book you initially thought your siblings were playing a prank, how did you react / find the experience once you realised it was in fact real? 

I think I was mostly very overwhelmed – it was very surreal – I think when it was announced in the media was when it became real. It made me think of how proud my parents and grandparents would have been.

“I hope to see more Sikh women writing and accepted as writers, perhaps helped by writers in mainstream culture.  I know there are women who have important stories to tell and they should be told.”

You note that the ‘real history’ of the women from the Bhat Sikh community hasn’t disappeared, because it had truly never been recognised, and that you hope your story can change the narrative. How do you hope to see this change?

I hope to see more Sikh women writing and accepted as writers, perhaps helped by writers in mainstream culture.  I know there are women who have important stories to tell and they should be told.

Your book is dedicated to “a community of women who have lived in two cultures for over half a century”, “the hidden heroines who left everything in India” – why do you feel it’s particularly important to shine a light on these women and their stories, who often just quietly go about their lives, considered – as you say – “the observers, never the participants”?

Because they shouldn’t just be observers – they are entitled to live their lives freely. My mother, if she was still alive, would have lived here for 75 years with no-one knowing she existed.

What do you hope readers take from your book?

I hope that they understand that, even in 2022, not all women in Scotland are equal but they should be – internally within their own communities and externally within the mainstream.

A Silent Voice Speaks: The Wee Indian Woman on the Bus by Trishna Singh OBE is published by Fledgling Press.

Interview: Plant Magic

THE GREAT OUTDOORS | Plant Magic is a book that explores why various plants have been used in magic and what that tell us about people, plants and the world around us. We talk to Gregory Kenicer to learn more.

Can you tell readers a bit more about your book Plant Magic?

Plant Magic is a tour through the botanical Kingdom looking at the myriad ways in which people have tied plants in to magic and the otherworlds. From curses to charms, from local beliefs to much more widespread ideas, the focus is mostly on European and near-Eastern magical traditions.

“Plants are the fundamental basis for our existence.”

What draws you to plants as a subject? What is your own background within the area?

Plants are quite simply utterly fascinating –that’s one of the reasons I became a botanist. Another is that plants inspire people – any teachers I’ve met who studied botany always had an extra twinkle in their eye when talking about their beloved botanical topic that I didn’t see so often in other professions. I’ve gone on to teach at he Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh myself and hope I can convey even a fraction of the Plant Kingdom’s wonders.

My research looks at he evolution of peas and their relatives, as well as traditional uses of plants in Scotland and further afield – Plant Magic was a natural extension of this (in part because I couldn’t quite imagine the public appeal of a book on the incredible, but humble pea – but watch this space).

Plant Magic touches on just one facet of why plants are so appealing. I love the inventive and imaginative ways people have used plants in magical traditions. Some of these traditions found mainstream and widespread acceptance – going on to become the foundations of modern medicine and chemistry.

There’s a resurgence, or a boom, of writing around magic and the connections with nature these last few years, why do you think that is?

Magic and the supernatural have always been one of the ways we try to explain the intriguing and complex world around us. Even in the present day, with scientific, evidence-based approaches looking to rationalise everything, most people can’t help looking at the intricacies of nature at work and see it as almost magical. With the rise of urbanisation and technology, people are maybe further than ever from a close connection with nature and it may be that folk are yearning to rediscover this, particularly in the shadow of the climate emergency and the Covid-19 pandemic. Interestingly, in the UK, people did have a chance to reconnect with nature through parts of lockdown and perhaps everyone out on their daily walks had a chance to see quite how quickly an untended, untamed nature resurges when we stop constantly mowing, weeding and trampling – that in itself was almost magical.

You touch on how plants bind all human life together, and it evolves and changes across cultures; can you summarise what this connection to the natural world and why it is so significant in its many forms?

Plants are the fundamental basis for our existence – from oxygen they make available, mopping up carbon to make the sugars and proteins they produce, they enable us to breathe and feed us. Beyond even these necessities for life, plants provide materials for clothing and building a huge array of medicines and even more stories, myths and beliefs.

Plants have been inextricably linked with human society, and as cultures have evolved and moved across the globe, the plants we have encountered and the ways we use them have changed and adapted – growing with humans.

“Plants inspire people – any teachers I’ve met who studied botany always had an extra twinkle in their eye when talking about their beloved botanical topic that I didn’t see so often in other professions.”

Do you have any particular favourite plants, in terms of what they’ve come to mean, their respective history, or how they are seen within magic’s traditions and history, and why?

There are, of course too many to list – and that sheer diversity of plants and their use in ancient magic systems is part of the appeal. If I was pressed, then maybe moonwort – the little frond of this tiny fern looks just like a key, so was believed to open locks or even cause horses to cast their shoes. Oh, and broad beans are interesting too – believed to be more human than plant according to Pythagoras, and the ash tree is great as well – particularly useful in everything from warding off snakes to curing all manner of diseases.

If someone was interested in starting out within the subject, what would be your advice?

Explore – there’s a host of interesting sources out there, with snippets of plant-lore hiding in all kinds of corners. We’re lucky that people began recording oral traditions about plant magic as early as the Epic of Gilgamesh, well over three thousand years ago. I’d recommend going to the original source material wherever you can – or at least translations. Of course, lots can be lost (or gained) in translation ,but again that’s part of the appeal – how these stories change.

What do you hope readers take from your book?

A sense of the versatility of human ingenuity and imagination and, of course, the magic of plants.

Plant Magic by Gregory J. Kenicer, illustrated by Sharon Tingey and Jacqui Pestell, is published by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh.

Interview: Uprooting

THE GREAT OUTDOORS | To celebrate our great outdoors theme, we are talking to the first two winners of the Nan Shepherd Prize for nature writer. The Nan Shepherd Prize is the biennial prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, inspired by the late Nan Shepherd, whose The Living Mountain is considered a classic of the genre. You can read part one with Nina Mingya Powles here, and learn more on the prize at nanshepherdprize.com.

In part two, we speak to Marchelle Farrell about Uprooting, which will be publishing in 2023.

Can you tell readers a bit more about Uprooting, which is out next year?

Uprooting is a story of belonging, and of searching for home, when the idea of home is a complicated notion. Complicated personally by the upheavals in inner and outer landscape that come from being part of the Caribbean diaspora. But also by the almost universal experiences of disconnection from self, one another, and our environment that seem to underlie so much of modern malaise. I was lucky enough to find my family a home with a garden just before we were confined to it by the pandemic, and the book has emerged from my developing relationship with the garden as I attempted to make sense of what it means to try to settle in a place, in these profoundly unsettling times. It very much feels like a co-creation with my garden, as so much of the book has been shaped by the plants that make their home here.

You started to take new meaning from the plants and surroundings in an English country garden. Can you tell us a bit more about your own relationship to nature? Was that always a part of your life, or more recent passion?

Growing up in Trinidad, I was lucky enough to have the kind of feral childhood playing in the outdoors that seems almost mythical for so many children nowadays. As I grew older, my relationship to nature became more complex – anything akin to manual labour in the soil was heavily discouraged, because of the close memory of slavery, and I was encouraged to aspire to a professional life far removed from nature in many ways. Yet, a sense of closeness with nature, and belonging to it when other forms of belonging felt harder, has always been there, and always been a constant thread, although its prominence has waxed and waned through the seasons of my life. Having my own children was the most recent trigger for a deeper rekindling of my relationship to the natural world.

“It very much feels like a co-creation with my garden, as so much of the book has been shaped by the plants that make their home here.”

Photo credit: Sandra Freij

The Nan Shepherd Prize focuses on nature writing, but so often it can be a lens for much more; how are you finding writing about a range of topics through this lens? Can you tell us a bit more about what you’re exploring in the book?

Considering the world through nature, of which we are an integral part, feels like the most natural thing. It seems to help me make sense of phenomena that otherwise feel utterly maddening. I am trained as a psychotherapist, and attempting to understand our current relationship with the natural world, and make sense of some of the seeming madness in that relationship, is one of the things I am deeply curious about. I am fascinated by all the entanglements between our personal relationships and individual histories, and how they relate to wider cultural happenings, and generational traumas. Ultimately, what I’m really interested in is healing wounds. I think everything I do probably relates in some way to wondering whether I can avoid passing on to my children the intergenerational scars that have been reinforced for so long, so that they can at least be free to make their own, new mistakes!

Uprooting asks readers to reconsider our relationships to one another and the living world of which we are part – how have you found your own relationship to the world around you changing over the past few years, and the course of the book?

The thing that continues to grow in my relationship with the world and my sense of place in it is a profound sense of compassion. And also vulnerability – it is so vulnerable to open ourselves to loving the world and being loved by it, and we do so much to defend ourselves against the pain of that. I suppose it’s a defence against the pain of loss – how do we fiercely love the world when we are here for such a brief time, and must inevitably give it up? 

“Considering the world through nature, of which we are an integral part, feels like the most natural thing.”

You have noted that submitting for the Nan Shepherd Prize was the first time you dared to take your writing seriously; why did now feel the right time and project? How have you found the process?

Serendipity is to blame for so much! I was focussed on my work with patients, and then the juggle of caring for patients and children for so long. And a creative career was never encouraged; it was drilled into me that the safety and stability of a ‘secure’ profession was the most important thing. But I have always chafed against that, and I happened to take a career break from medicine to settle our young family into our new home at the point that we were then confined to it. It is my nature to try to make sense of things that feel mad, which is certainly how our first year here felt. The garden seemed to compost the intense feelings of that time, and offer such clarity, and deep comfort. It also seems to be a source of creative inspiration for me – every time that I have ventured into creative writing, I have lived in a place with a garden, but previously they have been temporary, rented spaces. This is the first time that the garden was also my home.

I still don’t fully understand what called me to begin sharing my writing online, but I was deeply moved and stunned by how it resonated with others, and by the encouragement I received to take my writing further, and apply for the prize. It has been, and continues to be, utterly surreal to find myself doing what I harboured dreams of doing as a child.

What, or who, inspires your work?

My grandmother was such an important influence in my early life, and my relationship with her is a central theme of the book. I think that she would have loved my garden, and I hope that the book would have made her proud. 

What do you hope readers take from your book?

I hope that it encourages people to be curious, and maybe to stop and think a little more deeply about things they might not have considered before. It comes from my heart, and I hope that in turn it touches a few others.

Uprooting by Marchelle Farrell will be published by Canongate Books.

Interview: Small Bodies of Water

THE GREAT OUTDOORS | To celebrate our great outdoors theme, we are talking to the first two winners of the Nan Shepherd Prize for nature writer. The Nan Shepherd Prize is the biennial prize for underrepresented voices in nature writing, inspired by the late Nan Shepherd, whose The Living Mountain is considered a classic of the genre. You can read part two with Marchelle Farrell here, and learn more on the prize at nanshepherdprize.com.

In part one, we speak to Nina Mingya Powles, whose Small Bodies of Water, explores notions of belonging and the meaning of home through the world around us.

Can you tell readers a bit more about Small Bodies of Water?

Small Bodies of Water is at its heart a collection of essays about belonging and the meaning of home. The book swerves between many different places: Wellington, where I was born, and Shanghai, London, and Sabah. I wanted the structure of the book to mirror some of the dislocation and ‘unbelonging’ I felt growing up, not knowing where exactly to call home. Within each essay I wanted to go deeply into that in-between space: between languages, between physical places, between past and present. 

What, and who, inspires your writing?

I would say it’s other writers inspire me the most when I’m writing. In the making of this book in particular, I was inspired by essayists and nonfiction writers such as Rose Lu, Jessica J. Lee, Alexander Chee, Annie Dillard, and poets Franny Choi and Victoria Chang. When I’m stuck on a project, reading poetry usually helps get me unstuck – even if (or maybe especially if) I’m not writing poetry. It also excites me when writers bring all the various strange joys of their world into their work, beyond literary influences; I’m talking about films, art, crafts, music, food and the surrounding landscape. I go through phrases when I am often obsessing over a particular dish I’ve recently eaten, or a movie I’ve just watched. These things will often seep into my writing. 

“Poetry has showed me that there are many different kinds of environmental writing.”

Photo credit: David Marshall

Small Bodies of Water reflects on a girlhood growing up between two cultures, and a variety of subjects and topics within; how did considering everything through the lens of nature writing and the natural world allow you to explore them?

I have often wondered whether I really am a nature writer! In some ways I don’t see myself as one; I don’t always see a place for myself in the canon of highly researched, scientific writing on the natural world. Many of these books seem to me to speak as an authority on certain subjects (and many authors are indeed experts in their fields). I don’t see myself as an authority on anything, and nor do I want to be. 

Poetry has showed me that there are many different kinds of environmental writing, and there are many of us writing about all kinds of landscapes in all kinds of genres. I did not consciously set out to write about nature; it’s more that I am always constantly writing in response to the landscape around me, whether an urban city or a rural coastline, and the feeling of my body being present within it. I think that I’ve also been a person who is attentive to weather and the seasons, especially having grown up half in the southern hemisphere and half in the northern hemisphere. From a young age I think I was always noticing things relating to seasonal change, since in Wellington the seasons are not very distinct. I like cities best when they’re in-between seasons. 

What drew you to water as the through thread? What is the importance of water to you personally?

I’ve always loved swimming and always felt stronger in water than I do on land. In all the places I’ve lived, I always seek out places to swim. Small Bodies actually started with a single essay I wrote on swimming – a personal history of swimming, I suppose – and in the process of writing it I realised that almost everything I write comes back to water, or oceanic landscapes, or the movement of my body through water. I realised I wanted to write a book about water, guided by other poetic books on water such as Plainwater by Anne Carson and Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton. And I think the individual pieces in the book are themselves connected geographically by bodies of water. I wanted the structure of the work to mirror the flowing dispersal of water, and I wanted the experience of moving through the book to feel a bit like floating. 

Are there any stand-out reflections in your book or stories that you particularly enjoyed revisiting, or have a particular significance to you?

I recently went back to Katherine Mansfield Birthplace and Museum in Wellington (which is around the corner from where I went to school) to do an interview for a documentary. Mansfield was an enormous influence on me in the earliest years of my writing career, and I write about her briefly in Small Bodies – how she left New Zealand and was never able to return. I noticed in one of her stories set in New Zealand that she describes a particular flower as yellow and ‘bell-shaped’ and names it as a mānuka flower, but mānuka are white and pink, not yellow. The flower I think she’s talking about is the kōwhai, which is on the cover of my book. The director of the museum said to me that she thinks I’m right; that Mansfield did misremember the name of the flower and was in fact describing a kōwhai, which is understandable since she hadn’t been back in New Zealand since she was a child. I felt quite smug about my (very niche) discovery. 

“I realised that almost everything I write comes back to water, or oceanic landscapes, or the movement of my body through water.”

As you are also a poet, how did you find the process of writing non-fiction compared to the poetic form?

I don’t really see my essays as distinct from my poems – these forms are all part of my ongoing creative process. Very often, when I start something new, I don’t know for sure whether something will be an essay or a poem or something in between. This ‘in between’ is what I’m most interested in. I keep writing into this gap between poetry and prose, so really I see Small Bodies as being quite a hybrid work. Poetry taught me to pay attention to the physical shape of the text on the page, and how the reader interacts with white space. As a result, I am always thinking about the physical shape of each essay, just as I would a poem. Poetry also taught me to trust the reader, to allow them to make leaps in time and place. 

What do you hope readers take from your book?

The biggest compliment is when someone tells me that they read something I’d written and it made them want to write. That’s the best thing – to inspire not just writing but any kind of creativity. I mean creativity in the broadest sense here: cooking, gardening, handcrafts, physical motion – dancing, swimming. But above all, my only real hope is that a reader might feel this book makes space for them. That it makes space for these feelings of in-betweenness. 

Small Bodies of Water by Nina Mingya Powles is published by Canongate Books.

Interview: Extraction to Extinction

THE GREAT OUTDOORS | We talk to David Howe about his book Extraction to Extinction to learn more about our relationship with and reliance on the world around us, and how the future could look.

Can you tell readers a bit more about Extraction to Extinction?

It’s a book about how men and women over the last few thousand years, right up to the present day, have learned to turn the many types of rock that make up the planet’s crust into all the material stuff that fills our modern world. We’ve been a very clever species. Whether it’s a skyscraper or mighty bridge of steel, mobile phone or television, plastic bottle or aluminium foil, plate glass window or silicon chip, car or plane, nearly all the materials that go into the manufacture of these things began life as a rock. Geologists have a saying that if you can’t eat it, a geologist probably found it. And for hundreds of years we have also been digging, pumping and burning vast amounts of fossilised fuels – coal, oil and natural gas – to power the industries that transmute the rocks into all this amazing stuff. We now mine, quarry, pump, cut, blast, and crush Earth’s resources at an unprecedented rate. We have become a dominant force on the planet. In fact, we appear to be creating a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene – and this is probably not a good thing.

However, we are beginning to recognise that we are paying a heavy environmental price for all this ingenuity. Landscapes are degraded, oceans polluted, and greenhouse gases emitted. As a result, we see global temperatures rising, the climate changing, ecologies collapsing and biodiversity falling. We could be on our way to a sixth mass extinction. In essence the book is a cautionary tale in which human hubris is being chased by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Gaia is having her revenge.

What drew you to this topic? How early did this interest begin, and evolve?

The first time I entertained a very early version of these thoughts was at the end of a school geology field trip in the mid-1960s. We had been exploring the sandstone rocks of Alderley Edge in Cheshire which, since Bronze Age times, had been mined for their veins of malachite. Malachite is a copper mineral. I wondered how on earth Bronze Age men and women knew that you could heat a bright, brittle green mineral and release a soft, malleable metal of molten red copper. Genius, I thought. Never in a month of Sundays would it have crossed my mind that such an alchemical trick could be performed. And then fifty odd years later I happened to be driving by Alderley Edge and I remembered that long forgotten thought. I also realised that what was true of green-stained sandstone rocks and copper was also true of so many other material things and their manufacture. As I began to research the topic more deeply, I realised how much of this technological wizardry was coming at some cost to the planet.

“If we can marry our growing scientific understanding of the planet’s complex network of natural systems to our moral compass, sense of justice, political outrage, and instinct for survival, then there is still the hope.”

In tracking our environmental impact through time, are there any particularly key or defining eras or materials in terms of the scale or direction of the shifts?

Well, I think it has to be the mining and burning of coal to drive the steam engines that powered the factories and fuelled the blast furnaces and kilns, kick-starting the Industrial Revolution. Levels of the greenhouse gas (carbon dioxide) in the air suddenly began to increase, warming the atmosphere, causing global heating, leading to climate change and resulting in a threat to much of life on Earth. The pumping and burning of oil came along a century later to add to the problem.

You note how we are technologically clever, but all too often environmentally stupid. Can you expand on this idea a bit more? How can we address this?

As I’ve said, you have to be impressed at how our species has developed the skills and know-how to make so many marvellous and wondrous material things. It’s hard to imagine life without them. Just look around you and practically everything you see is rock somehow turned into stuff, into energy, into power, into speed, into communication. Quite extraordinary. But for centuries we’ve been rather complacent about the downsides of all this cunning. Although there have always been warning voices, including John Ruskin in the nineteenth century, they have largely been ignored.

There has been a belief that if we have been clever enough to make all this stuff then we can be smart enough to plan, plot and engineer our way out of any environmental worries. This is the cult of irrational optimism beloved by many politicians, fossil fuel lobbyists and economic neo-liberals who are loath to accept that we cannot go on consuming at present rates without dire consequences. The environmental journalist and activist George Monbiot writes that those possessed of this fantasy mindset, including much of the media, love these messages that really, nothing fundamental needs to change. We can wait for technological fixes and falls in the world’s population and everything will work out fine. ‘A simple story,’ mocks Monbiot, ‘with a happy ending telling power what it wants to hear, this is the Disney version of environmental science.’ But this relaxed attitude ignores so much of the robust scientific evidence warning that Earth systems are in imminent danger of reaching critical tipping points. This is especially true of global heating and climate change.  

Naturally, climate change and protecting the earth is an important topic to many; for those looking to learn more on their own time of practical information and insights on what we can do, what would you recommend?

Of course, we can all make small changes to our own lives to help reduce pollution, the size of our carbon-footprints, and loss of biodiversity. The environmentalists’ mantra of ‘renounce, reduce, reuse and recycle’ is a good one. Eat less meat, use public transport, drive electric, walk more, cycle more, fly less, consume less, insulate more, recycle, and so on.

However, the more significant changes have to be made at the macro-political and economic level. As George Monbiot says, in order to prevent environmental breakdown we have to stop doing the old things we have always done. Massive commitment to green, renewable energy is absolutely essential, but it only makes sense if it fully replaces our reliance on burning fossil fuels. We can’t have it both ways. Only governments can bring about fundamental changes on this societal and global scale. Glasgow’s COP26 summit on the climate crisis went some way to get governments to agree to reduce their carbon emissions, but there is still the worry that it didn’t go far enough. Nevertheless, it is good to know that in hosting the conference Scotland in general and Glasgow in particular have played their part in warning the world and making a difference.

We can’t be politically neutral on such existential matters. From mocking Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring to snowflaking Greta Thunberg’s environmental activism, the powerful and those with vested interests have been relentless in their attempts to undermine, dismiss and ridicule popular mass political movements to bring about the deep economic and lifestyle changes that are absolutely necessary if we are to slow global heating, stop polluting the planet, and prevent a sixth mass extinction. When countries weaponise the export of their natural resources including coal, oil and gas, then the incentive to invest in home-based renewable energy sources becomes a no-brainer. Tina Stege played a key role at Glasgow’s Cop26. She has recently said ‘I hope that it is now clear that investing in renewable energy is an investment not just in energy but also in resilience and independence.’ Good advice, I’d say.

“We could be on our way to a sixth mass extinction. In essence the book is a cautionary tale in which human hubris is being chased by Nemesis, the goddess of retribution. Gaia is having her revenge.”

The book considers the question: what does the future look like for our depleted world? In your opinion, what does the future look like?

I’m seventy-six this year but I have children and grandchildren. It’s their future world I worry about. I’d like to think that the commitments made by governments around the world to reduce carbon emissions and clean-up their act will keep temperature increases to around 1.5o C. But I confess I’m not overly optimistic. Our track record on meeting agreed emission targets is not good. Recent measures taken this month, May 2022, at the Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii have recorded carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere of over 420 ppm, some of the highest on record. Not looking good.

If we don’t do more, then the future looks bleak, even frightening. More and more of the planet becomes uninhabitable as temperatures rise above human endurance levels. Deserts spread north and south. Ice melts. Sea levels rise threatening coastal cities and millions of people. Population migrations pose major political challenges. Loss of biodiversity, especially loss of thousands of insect species, threatens food production. Land degradation and pollution get worse. Oh dear, all rather gloomy. So I would hope that books like mine, along with the many other voices shouting as loud as they can to take all this stuff very, very seriously, can act as a warning cry and a rallying call. When I see the generations below me acknowledging the reality of what’s happening and ‘getting it’ and getting active, maybe there is still hope. But we need to act fast.

What do you hope readers take from your book?

I suppose I’m offering a double-edged message. We have to be impressed that as a species our scientific and practical skills have transformed the world and the lives we lead in ways that are quite extraordinary. But our scientific enquiries are also telling us that as a result of our ingenuity we are radically changing the balance of the planet’s natural systems in ways that are not only bad for us but bad for the rest of life on Earth too. If we can marry our growing scientific understanding of the planet’s complex network of natural systems to our moral compass, sense of justice, political outrage, and fundamental instinct for survival, then there is still the hope that we can avoid disaster.

Extraction to Extinction: Rethinking Our Relationship with Earth’s Natural Resources by David Howe is published by Saraband.

Response: The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd (Maud Rowell)

THE GREAT OUTDOORS / RESPONSES | As part of the Year of Scotland’s Stories, we are running a series of Responses on BooksfromScotland, commissioning writers to respond to books from the Publishing Scotland membership, engaging with work in different ways. For May, Maud Rowell, author of Blind Spot who is set to embark on a year-long trip around Japan after winning the Holman Prize, considered a classic of the nature writing genre, The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd.

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‘A book is a door; on the other side is somewhere else.’

So writes Jeanette Winterson in her excellent afterword to The Living Mountain, expressing a sentiment which – to me – has never rung more true than over the pandemic years. I was a masters student when the first lockdown began and all the doors of reality were slammed shut, and my dreams of flying away after graduation froze, fixed in place some distance away from me, unmoving as desert mirages even as I marched towards them in time. The whole wide world simultaneously felt tiny (shrunk down to fit snugly around me sitting hunched over my laptop screen) and impossibly gigantic, as it must have felt in the days before air travel, before we had stripped our planet of the power of its cosmic vastness with our feats of science and engineering.

With real-life doors to carry me to far-flung places shut indefinitely, the only doors left open were books, and so I turned to some of the great works of travel writing. I flew through the audiobooks of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia and The Songlines, and Patrick Leigh Fermor’s A Time Of Gifts. I fell especially in love with D H Lawrence’s Twilight in Italy and Mornings in Mexico, delighting in the imaginative rabbit holes, spun from exquisite language, into which he draws his readers.

But the greatest piece of travel writing I have read in recent years is, without doubt, The Living Mountain – though Nan Shepherd would not have liked me saying so (‘Don’t you loathe having your work over-praised?’, she wrote in a letter in 1930; ‘It makes me feel positively nasty towards the praiser’). But it is difficult to imagine Shepherd even vaguely nasty, because this book of hers is so much a love letter, and showcases its author at her most tender and affectionate. For The Living Mountain is not about some distant, foreign wonderland – it is about Shepherd’s home, a landscape she loved all her long life – the Cairngorm Mountains, in north-east Scotland.

Shepherds’ depiction of this region makes for delicious reading. She tells us of sunrises where ‘the whole plateau burn[s] with a hot violet incandescence until noon’, and of lochs with ‘the green gleam of old copper roofs’; there are glowing purple birches , their twigs like ‘spun silk floss’ that seem ‘to be created out of light’. In winter, a sprig of heather freezes into ‘a tree of purest glass, like an ingenious toy’, and in summer, plants emit the perfume of ‘strawberry jam on the boil’. At night, the ‘alien lights’ of the aurora borealis blaze, and ‘minute pricks of phosphorescent light’ leap in black ooze. And there are animals –  tits ‘scolding like fish-wives’, squirrels with the ‘wilful petulance’ of ‘small children who have too many toys’, ‘moths like oiled paper, and moths like burnt paper’, and ‘frogs jumping like tiddlywinks’. Nothing is ordinary – rather, everything is made extraordinary through Shepherd’s experienced and observant eyes.

It is not just visual scenery that Shepherd paints so exquisitely: she explores the Cairngorms with all her senses, and is unrestrainedly physical. Shepherd has a body, and uses all of it to engage with the landscape, while so many of her male counterparts who still dominate the travel writing canon write with something of an anthropologist-like detachment, and tell tales of the mind. Shepherd, by contrast, delights in portraying visceral engagement with the land – whether that’s following her nose (‘I am like a dog – smells excite me’) or swimming naked, so that ‘the freshness of the water slides over the skin like shadow’. Shepherd wants to touch everything, not just look at and describe it from afar – ‘touch is the most intimate sense of all’, she tells us: everything ‘has its own identity for the hand, as much as for the eye’, and so ‘the hands have an infinity of pleasure in them’.

This is one of Shepherd’s most likeable qualities as a narrator – her sheer pleasure at being among the mountains, a pleasure that is endless and infectious.  Her imagination was first captured as a child, when the image of a ‘stormy violet gully’ ‘haunted my dreams’:  from that instant, she ‘belonged to the Cairngorms’. Decades later, she still possesses a kind of childlike wonder and excitement (she describes being unable to wait for the rest of her walking party before running up to the summit: ‘The morning was cloudless and blue, it was June, I was young. Nothing could have held me back.’) And she retains her ability to marvel at the wonders of nature even with the scientific understanding of how they work. ‘Knowledge does not dispel mystery,’ she tells us. For Shepherd, science may ‘make the world so interesting’, but still, her ‘imagination boggles’.

But – crucially – mixed with this childlike wonder is an experienced awareness of the dangers posed by the landscape she loves, and Shepherd – a teacher all her working life – instructs us not to forget that all this beauty has a dark side. A mountain is like ‘the back of a monster’s head’, she writes: ‘at the other side are the open jaws, the teeth, the terrible fangs’. She recounts tales of casualties of the area – frozen bodies found too late, or climbers who disappear during blizzards, never to be seen again. There are also wrecked aeroplanes, ‘left to rust in lonely corners of the mountains’ (one of the few reminders to the reader that Shepherd is writing in the 1940s).

Death and danger may be ever-present, but so too is life. ‘I draw life in through the delicate hairs of my nostrils,’ she writes. ‘Even the good smell of earth, one of the best smells in the world, is a smell of life, because it is the activity of bacteria in it that sets up this smell.’ Shepherd delights in the resilience of living organisms against all the odds, marvelling at prehistoric flowering plants which – ‘with their angelic inflorescence and the devil in their roots, have had the cunning and the effrontery to cheat, not only a winter, but an Ice Age’. In this way, time as a linear continuum seems to collapse in on itself in Shepherd’s writing – we are seeing the Cairngorms from outside time, as they have always been and as they are, simultaneously.

This is just one of a the magical, surreal elements of The Living Mountain, produced simply by virtue of being the product of human observation and imagination. Appearance and reality are often at odds: Shepherd sees a bird with an impossibly huge wingspan – it turns out to be a duck and a drake ‘following one another in perfect formation’, ‘two halves of one organism’. The sound of students yodelling, ‘bell-like and musical’, turns out to be stags. Mountains that are lochs away seem pressed up against her face, and the snow atop summits seems to float above her head, ‘a snow skeleton, attached to nothing’. The figure of a man appears and disappears as a ‘ghostly mentor’ in thick mist as he leads a walk, and pine trees change their forms ‘like any wizard’. The Cairngorms seem to fold in on themselves, endlessly shifting and remapping, erasing and creating.

But it’s not just tricks of the eye – sometimes, the magic of the mountains is somewhat more sinister and inexplicable. Shepherd describes one warm October night with a ‘dawn all mixed up with moonshine’, over which she slept outdoors, as ‘a night of the purest witchery, to make one credit all the tales of glamourie[1] that Scotland tries so hard to refute and cannot’. Everything about the splendour of the Cairngorms – a magnificent, alien, lethal splendour – smacks of scenery plucked from storybooks, the stuff of myth, untethered to our world and our reality. A young Shepherd even thought of the hillwalking she would eventually spend much of her life doing as ‘a legendary task, which heroes, not men, accomplished’.

To me, Shepherd is the very best kind of traveller – one who is never bored of beauty, or of exploring, of always learning and experiencing more. ‘Knowing another is endless,’ she tells us. ‘The thing to be known grows with the knowing.’ I hope to carry this lesson with me as I embark on my own attempt at travel writing. The doors of reality are open again, and my dreams of flying away no longer hang frozen in front of my mind’s eye. Now, they are concrete: a plane ticket to Tokyo in my inbox, a one-year visa, and funding from a San Francisco’ based charity – Lighthouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired – to embark on an ambitious adventure around Japan, and write my second book.

The world has changed so much, and I must admit I feel nervous about opening doors I once barely noticed passing through. But Shepherd has words of wisdom for this, too. ‘Often… …I have remembered the places I have run lightly over with no sense of fear, and have gone cold to think of them,’ she writes. ‘It seems to me then that I could never go back… …horror is in my mouth. Yet when I go back, the same leap of the spirit carries me up. God or no god, I am fey[2] again.’ I must hold on to the knowledge that I recognise Shepherd’s passion in myself, and that once I am there – exploring, learning, writing, immersing myself in what fascinates and bewilders me – I, too, will be fey again, and will be made brave by the Earth’s magic.

[1] A Scots word for “magic, enchantment, witchcraft; a spell”.
[2] Ascots word which in this context refers to behaving as though bewitched; otherwise peculiar, otherworldly.

The Year of Stories x Books from Scotland response strand was inspired by Fringe of Colour’s series, which you can read more of at fringeofcolour.co.uk. This piece also featured in May’s Books from Scotland issue, The Beauty That Surrounds Us.

Publisher spotlight: Sandstone Press

Across 2022, the Year of Stories, we are spotlighting Publishing Scotland members, who will share their own story in their own words. Get to know Sandstone Press, the Highland-based publisher behind a range of titles, from nature books to the International Booker-winning Celestial Bodies.

What’s your story?

Sandstone Press is an independent publisher based in the Highlands of Scotland, founded in 2002 by Robert Davidson with Moira Forsyth. We were writers at the time, not publishers, so this has been a twenty year journey of learning a great deal very fast – and that never ends. We have always enjoyed the rich and various nature of publishing which is endlessly interesting and full of surprises. We’ve been fortunate enough to win prizes and achieve award listings for many of our books, and we’re proud to say we have been Saltire Society Scottish Publisher of the Year twice, in 2014 and 2019.

Tell us about some of your key stories.

Prize listings are always wonderful news. Booker long-listings for The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers and The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris, and Celestial Bodies by Jokha Alharthi winning the International Man Booker in 2019, were wonderful achievements for our authors and for us. They made a significant contribution to our growth as a company, in addition to having an impact on sales. We’ve also been lucky enough to see two of our translated crime series adapted for screen in high-budget, critically acclaimed TV shows. Babylon Berlin and Wisting both make enthralling viewing – though we think the books are even better!

We’re known for our outdoor books, including John Allen’s Cairngorm John, a Sandstone outdoor classic about an almost forty-year career in Mountain Rescue, now in its third edition, and Andy Howard’s award-winning Secret Life of the Mountain Hare, our first large format wildlife photography book; since then we have gone on to publish wildlife photography books annually. Juliet Blaxland’s The Easternmost House took us into writing on the environment and rural life; it was selected as The Times Nature Book of the Year and short-listed for the Wainwright Prize.


What draws you to a story? What makes a good story?

A good story is one that draws you into its world and keeps you there, utterly absorbed and compelled to keep reading. I love stories with unexpected turns and twists, and those that extend my understanding and knowledge. A story might be set in a country you’ve never visited or about people completely unlike those you know, but if it’s a great book it will transcend that to show you the connections between it and your own life and experience. It should also stay with you, so that you go on thinking about the characters or the narrative. The best fiction lingers long after you close the book.

 
What stories should we look forward to or check out this year?

2022 is off to a brilliant start! On the fiction side, we’ve been delighted with the response to Stephen May’s historical novel about Stalin’s 1907 visit to London. Sell Us the Rope, which has had rave reviews across the UK media. Hilary Mantel even said she wished she’d written it herself – so it’s definitely one to look out for. If you’re concerned about climate change and love dark speculative fiction, Kings of a Dead World by Jamie Mollart describes a radical solution to the world’s dwindling resources.

In non-fiction, Marram, which was Waterstones Scottish Book of the Month in April, is a magical blend of memoir and nature writing, exploring grief and mother-daughter relationships against the beautiful windswept backdrop of the Outer Hebrides. Later this year we’ll publish High Risk, which has been called ‘a riveting insight into a remarkable climbing era.’

We have published many fascinating memoirs, and this year we have two pretty special examples. Wah! Things I Never Told My Mother is due out in June, with high praise from fellow writers. Witty and poignant, Wah! is Cynthia Rogerson’s memoir of train-hopping, hitchhiking and living in squats, recalled between visits to her dying – but still sparky – mother. In August we’ll publish Over the Hills and Far Away, Nikky Smedley’s funny, entertaining and insightful memoir about being Laa-Laa the yellow Teletubby in the hugely successful TV series.

Our wildlife photography book this year, published in time for Christmas, will be Puffins, featuring Kevin Morgans’ stunning photos of these iconic and fascinating birds.

Learn more about Sandstone Press at @sandstonepress and sandstonepress.com.

Publisher spotlight: Scottish Mountaineering Press

Across 2022, the Year of Stories, we are spotlighting Publishing Scotland members, who will share their own story in their own words. Get to know Scottish Mountaineering Press, who celebrate an exploratory spirit and create books for those who love the mountains and wild places of Scotland.

What’s your story?

At Scottish Mountaineering Press, we create books for people who love the mountains and wild places of Scotland. Our long-standing partnership with the Scottish Mountaineering Club means we have been primarily focused on guidebooks in the past, and we are now expanding our range to include creative and historical fiction and nonfiction, biographies and memoirs. Through art, poetry, photography and prose, we celebrate an exploratory spirit and seek to inspire and inform through the medium of the outdoors.

As a community of outdoor enthusiasts, our close-knit team embody the company’s values and bring their skills and experience to our purpose. We collaborate closely with authors and artists from all walks of life to realise their vision in print and on screen, connecting them with their target audience and enabling them to share their experiences of being in the mountains.

We are a wholly-owned by the Scottish Mountaineering Trust, a charity whose primary objective is to promote health, education and recreation. As such, all our profits are channelled into enriching the Scottish uplands and the communities that enjoy them. Our commitment to protecting and enhancing the environment is inherent in our design and production processes, and we use high quality, sustainable materials to create beautiful products that reflect the natural, tactile themes of our titles. We have begun our journey towards Net Zero by producing a carbon account for the 2021/22 financial year, offsetting the balance, and defining our carbon reduction plan for 2022/23. Our offsets are a combination of  Verra-accredited afforestation and biochar production.

Tell us about some of your key stories.

The Great Sea Cliffs of Scotland, published in 2020, is a coffee table anthology offering gripping personal accounts of sea cliff climbing adventures across Scotland. The drama is heightened by stunning and exclusive images from some of the UK’s most distinguished photographers, and we were delighted to win in the Mountain Image category at the 2021 Banff Mountain Book Competition. This was the first book published under the Scottish Mountaineering Press imprint.

Last year we published an award-winning memoir,The Fox of Glencoe, which chronicles the life of mountaineering and mountain rescue legend Hamish MacInnes. In a wry, elegant style, it offers the reader a glimpse into the mind of one of the greatest adventures of our time through unseen and retold stories, historic images and narratives from some of Hamish’s closest friends, including Sir Michael Palin and Sir Chris Bonington. Received to wide acclaim, The Fox of Glencoe won gold in The Great Outdoors’ 2021 Reader Awards.

Republished in 2021, Syd Scroggie’s classic The Cairngorms Scene and Unseen has stood the test of time as one of the best original accounts of Scotland’s bothy culture. Although he lost his sight and one leg in the Second World War, Syd returned to the Scottish mountains with companions and summited over 600 hills until well into his 80s. His eloquent descriptions of his beloved Cairngorms are uniquely insightful, and will appeal to anyone interested in Scottish mountain culture.

Grant Farquhar’s A’ Chreag Dhearg is anengaging collection of vignettes and photographs tracing the rich mountaineering history of the Angus Glens. With contributions from a range of voices within north-east Scotland’s close-knit climbing community, it captures the evolution of climbing in Scotland, and reveals a history that is often exceptionally localised. A’ Chreag Dhearg is both a tribute to Victorian pioneers and latter-day trailblazers and a reflection on formative, youthful endeavours.

Going back to our roots, we recently published a new edition of the original and best-selling guidebook The Munros, which describes the best walking routes on Scotland’s 282 mountains above 3000ft and is brought to life with high-quality maps and imagery.


What draws you to a story? What makes a good story?

Although we honour traditional mountaineering narratives of triumph and adventure that describe the genesis and evolution of Scottish mountaineering, these stories don’t represent the full spectrum of communities that enjoy the outdoors.

With that in mind, we look for narratives offering fresh perspectives on Scotland’s mountain culture; unconventional experiences and journeys; humorous, entertaining, and even tragic insights; unfamiliar characters who are shaping our mountain heritage in meaningful ways; and subjective and objective research that broadens depth of understanding. We value elegant prose and the ability to convey complex themes clearly and succinctly. Humour and wit never go amiss either.

For guidebooks published with the Scottish Mountaineering Club, our authors are some of the most experienced and knowledgable climbers and hillwalkers in Scotland. Very often years of effort will go into collecting the detailed information and photographs that comprise a book, and it is up to us to make sure that the finished product is the best it can possibly be.

What stories should we look forward to or check out this year?

Our big nonfiction title this year will be a biography of the late, great Tom Patey. This meticulously researched volume will include historic and hitherto unseen photographs, offering a comprehensive profile of one of Scotland’s mountaineering icons and insight into a bygone era. With an all-star climbing cast, including Sir Chris Bonington and Joe Brown, it is both poignant and entertaining, and imbued with typically Scottish dry wit.

As part of our ongoing commitment to producing the highest quality guidebooks for those venturing to the hills and crags of Scotland, we’re excited to be launching Scottish Winter Climbs West, the first of three winter-specific select guidebooks and a grand tour of the best winter climbing venues across western Scotland. Its scope and range offer options for climbing across all levels and styles, and we hope it will inspire fresh-faced newcomers and seasoned connoisseurs alike to discover hidden classics and reconnect with old favourites. The venues and routes are accompanied by high-resolution photo topos and are detailed on exquisitely rendered maps designed to be user-friendly for everyone, including those with visual impairments.

We’re also looking forward to bringing out a new edition of Highland Scrambles North in the next few month , and as part of the Wired series (a collective of UK-based guidebook producing climbing clubs), a new Scottish Rock Climbs select guidebook with beautiful imagery, photographic topos and key information on approaches, route lengths, descents, tides and bird bans. Everything you need to get out scrambling and climbing in Scotland!

In addition to all this, we’re delighted to announce the launch of Creatives, a vibrant, thought-provoking and innovative digital publication which promotes, reimagines and is inspired by the beauty of the Scottish landscape. Our aim is to offer a platform for artists and writers to connect with audiences all over the country, collaborate with other creators, develop their crafts and motivate others to explore the natural world. Creatives is now welcoming submissions, and we’re encouraging both emerging and established creators to submit work, especially those from communities that are currently underrepresented in the outdoors.

Learn more about Scottish Mountaineering Press at @scottishmountaineeringpress and scottishmountaineeringpress.com.