Writing Community in Scottish Literature: Byres Road Book Festival

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Words: Zoi Moir (she/her)

Organised by Visit West End in partnership with Glasgow Life, Oxfam Bookshop, and Waterstones, the annual Byres Road Book Festival (21 – 24 September) celebrates Scotland’s rich cultural heritage and the vibrant community of its largest city. With talks from established and upcoming Scottish authors, ranging from bilingual English and Gaelic writers like Alasdair Whyte to Michael Pederson, Writer in Residence at The University of Edinburgh, the festival gives local writers the opportunity to showcase some of their best work.

First up was Scottish broadcast journalist and writer Sally Magnusson, author of The Sealwoman’s Gift and The Ninth Child, discussing her new book, Music in the Dark. Published by John Murray Press earlier this year, Magnusson’s period novel considers the impact of the Highland Clearances, a period in the late 18th and early 19th centuries when crofters were forcibly removed from their communities in the Scottish Highlands. Centring her story around Jamesina Ross, a victim of the violent clearance of Greenyards in Strathcarron, Magnusson explores the devastating experiences of the women who took part in the widespread attempt to resist eviction in 1854. Set in Rutherglen some thirty years later, the story runs over the course of a single night but travels back generations after a familiar face arrives at Jamesina’s tenement flat looking for lodgings. An engrossing and unforgettable novel about community displacement and love found later in life, past and present fuse together as Magnusson recounts a vital chapter of Scottish history in the form of a touching and unusual love story. 

Raised on Mull, Alasdair Whyte balances his academic career as a Research Fellow at the University of Glasgow working predominantly in Gaelic with a career in the creative arts, as a singer-songwriter and presenter. Involved in traditional Scottish folk music from an early age, Whyte developed a keen interest in the country’s Gaelic heritage; his debut album Lass fuses traditional Gaelic music with his own original songs. Discussing his new book, Glasgow’s Gaelic Place-Names, Whyte takes us back through one thousand years of the city’s history to reveal the Gaelic origin of many of its locations. Debunking the common misconception that the Celtic language was never spoken in Glasgow, he reveals the Gaelic origins of the city’s own name, with ‘glas’ often translated to mean various shades of green. ‘Place-names are microcosms for local cultural heritage,’ Whyte asserts, products of various languages fusing together to birth new entities. Whyte also discusses the importance of Gaelic Medium Education for maintaining the Gaelic-speaking culture so embedded within the Glaswegian community, an option within Scottish education allowing children and young people the opportunity to gain bilingual fluency. 

Kirsty Logan is a Scottish writer of novels and short stories talking about sperm, the gothic goriness of birth and the beauty of motherhood in her queer memoir, The Unfamiliar. Presenting the unique challenges and practicalities of pregnancy when ‘your two bodies can’t make a baby together,’ Logan reflects with raw honesty upon her and her partner’s experiences having a baby as a same-sex couple. Dividing her work into four sections, “The Planning,” “The Growing,” “The Birth” and “The Baby,” Logan explores in intricate detail the wonders and bloody realities of growing and birthing a whole new person. Despite being an autobiography, the entire novel is written in the second person and any characters are left unnamed to better immerse you in the work. Fearless and insightful, Logan’s novel is a pleasure to read, shedding a new light on motherhood while challenging preconceptions about pregnancy, gender roles and what it means to be a queer family in a predominantly heterosexual community. Logan also discusses her new fiction book, Now She is Witch, a mediaeval revenge quest centring around a young woman wrongfully accused of witchcraft and influenced in part by the strange and wonderful events of The Unfamiliar

Boasting a wide range of Scottish authors and literature, the Byres Road Book Festival, though lacking in practical-based writing workshops for aspiring novelists, is a great way to engage with local culture and discover more about Glasgow’s rich community of writers. While you’re waiting for next year’s run, be sure to keep an eye out for some of the country’s other popular book festivals, including Glasgow’s book festival Aye Write and the Edinburgh International Book Festival (EIBF). 


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6 months ago

Great read! really insightful and well written.

6 months ago

Really interesting!