The First John O’Groats Book Festival

First John O'Groats Book Festival programme

This weekend was the first John O’Groats book festival.

I’ve looked forward to this for a while and I’m happy to say that it was an enjoyable event that gave me a lot to think about.

Spread over two days, Friday kicked off the festival with a map launch and an evening meeting the authors, followed by some local jazz. I didn’t attend these for a variety of reasons (ok, I’m really not into jazz and while I’m sure the musicians are fabulous I decided to keep my hayfever-ridden self at home so I could make the most of the Saturday talks).

Saturday was filled with four author talks spread evenly over the day and, as Theresa Breslin noted, this was a brilliant thing to do as it meant we could all go to every talk without worrying about missing something.

Old Schoolhouse Tearoom, John O'Groats

The first event of the day was a workshop with Theresa ‘Writing for Young People: How to Write for Children and Young Adults’. This took place at the Old Schoolhouse Tearoom, which I’m ashamed to admit I didn’t know existed. It’s a lovely venue and somewhere that I’ll visit again.

I met up with some friends that I haven’t seen in a while, and said hello to some that I saw not too long ago, as we settled down to a fabulous talk all about the craft of writing for a younger audience.  We started with a small exercise intended to get us thinking about memory and character. It really did highlight what most writers know already (even if they don’t realise it), that writing, and reading, is character based.  Theresa also spoke about the advantages and disadvantages of writing for young people – I won’t give away her thoughts on the matter … go and hear her talk!

The hour went by so quickly we really could have done with at least an hour more. That said, it was a fantastic start to the day. As a Carnegie Medal-winning children’s author, with fifty novels to her name, Theresa really knows her stuff and we were lucky to have her talk to us about her work.

The Gallery, John O'Groats

Next up, at The Gallery (a lovely gallery of local arts and crafts), poet Andrew Greig entertained us with his poetic sequence set in Orkney, ‘Found at Sea’. As with Theresa’s talk, the audience took up all the available tickets and more – more seats had to be found to accommodate the stragglers that kept on coming. Now, another admission – I almost didn’t go to this talk. This one was due to start at 12.30 and with half an hour between sessions I figured that at some point I would need to eat. But when picking up my tickets I realised that this was one day and there was always chocolate!

Andrew read to us, with small asides to explain his journey, and sang a few songs accompanied by his banjo. His voice, as well as his music, was melodious and he was very entertaining. My favourite poem in the sequence was ‘This Liquid Field’ – what a brilliant way to describe the sea!

Stacks Bistro, John O'Groats
Now, I had coffee and a scone, but this is what we often have at Stacks – their excellent hot chocolate

I needn’t have worried about not eating. Once Andrew’s presentation was over there was time to head to Stacks Bistro for one of their excellent cheese scones and some caffeination. I also met a lovely local author named Gail. Now, I’m not shy about striking up a conversation (much to my daughter’s dismay over the years) and this was one of those meetings where you naturally end up chatting. It transpired that we knew some of the same people and it was lovely to meet someone new. She writes a blog called ‘Wellies on the School Run’, which I think you should go and have a look at – it highlights life in the far north beautifully.

James Hunter, Set Adrift Upon the World
James Hunter’s talk … set against the beautiful big skies of Caithness

Meeting up with a couple of friends, local authors Sharon and Meg, we managed to find our way to Natural Retreat’s Corporate Lounge for a talk ‘Set Adrift Upon the World’ by James Hunter.

Now, as I’m also a genealogist I was really looking forward to James’s talk, and managed to squeeze myself in at the back as we were a tad late. Luckily we were given a little extra time to settle ourselves in as I met more friends who I haven’t seen in a while. That’s another thing I loved about the day – catching up with old friends and meeting new ones. There was a true community feel to the whole thing.

Anyway …

James’s talk concentrated on his book Set Adrift Upon the World, which deals with the more human aspect of the Sutherland Clearances rather than the usual focus on the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland. He didn’t deal with the politics of it all and lay blame – he gave us stories of the families who were affected. The regular families who are so often forgotten by history. I knew a little, but I never knew there was a man living in the Straths whose sons were native Cree speakers!

James didn’t disappoint. His talk was eloquent, enlightening and entertaining. It was good to hear excerpts from his book, and I now have another book that I must add to my collection. I could have listened to him talk for hours.

But we didn’t have hours.

A beautiful day at John O'Groats
In the rush I forgot to take a photo of the Seaview Hotel. But look at what a glorious day it was at Groats!

The final talk of the day was at the Seaview Hotel, whose owner and staff are extremely welcoming.

The speaker for this final offering was award-winning crime writer Chris Brookmyre.  Again, I met some lovely people and some old friends (there seems to be a theme here?). Admission number three … I haven’t read any of Chris’s books. However, sitting at the head of the room I was lucky enough to have a close-up view of one of the funniest men I’ve listened to in a while. It’s obvious he has a large following in the far north as, before his talk, overheard snippets of conversation tended to focus on his brilliant writing.

Seriously, if his writing is as good as his public speaking it’s no surprise that he’s won awards – and the excerpts he read were rather good. His talk was filthy, using swearing to narrow the distance between himself and his audience, and had us all in fits of laughter. I nearly snorted my coke (obvs of the cola variety) so I would recommend not drinking if you intend to hear him talk. I’d also recommend not taking children or the easily offended – there was at least one kid in the audience that I know who perhaps shouldn’t have been subjected to the many fucks and c-bombs at quite such a young age. Perhaps something for the organisers to think about for next time.

But Chris was exceptionally funny, sweary and a brilliant endorsement for his books. He gave us anecdotes about how many fucks are acceptable to BBC radio (he can only give 15 fucks, any more and swearing of a different variety is needed), and how his readership really should take more notice of book covers. Readers should also perhaps get their facts right if they feel the need to berate the author for using cuss words, and be very careful about giving away their secrets.

For me, Chris’s talk was the highlight of the day. I’ll certainly be buying at least one of his books to add to my every-growing ‘to read’ pile. Ok, it’ll probably be two – I quite like the idea of a ‘buddy cop’ story set in space.

After the talks the organisers had given time for author meet n greets, with books available to buy and get signed.

The festival closed its doors with a writers’ panel followed by a ceilidh band, which I again didn’t attend. Being the anti-social hermit type (who hates ceilidh music) that I can be at times, going on my own to things like this is, quite frankly, my idea of hell. Rather than go for the panel talk then slide unseen out of the door I felt it would be kinder to myself to stay at home. Which I did, and I enjoyed it immensely.

I hope that the organisers and writers are happy with the weekend. All their hard work paid off, and everyone I met thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

I came away with a few thoughts:

  • The way the festival was organised was excellent. It’s always hard to choose between speakers, so I hope for the next festival (please, there must be another one!), they stick with the same formula, or at least one similar. People appreciate having the speakers spread out.
  • Perhaps a larger gap between lunchtime speakers would allow attendees the luxury of knowing that lunch is an option. I bought the chocolate anyway.
  • Natural Retreats really should smarten up the public convenience at John O’Groats. This has nothing to do with the festival, but for the first time ever I did like a tourist and visited the public loos – if you’re going to charge people 20p a pee at least have proper mirrors in the bathrooms and a decent baby changing area (I didn’t immediately see one of those, although it may have been in the disabled toilet … urgh). Visitors to the county would appreciate spending a penny, and changing their children, in an area that didn’t remind them of 1980s basics. A girl needs to check her hair and makeup in a real mirror that you can actually see a reflection in.
  • There’s a large writing and artist community in Caithness – I enjoyed meeting up with old friends and making new ones. A writing/book festival can only be a positive thing for the county and remind people that we have a lot to offer.

My final thoughts …

The festival took people to places they may never have been before (and as a result is great for local business), but it also made me realise that just as I didn’t know about the Old Schoolhouse Tearoom, most writers in Caithness probably don’t know that there’s a real-life, qualified, fiction editor in the county. I need to advertise myself more and let local groups (and businesses) know that I’m here, and I’m always agreeable to a visit to talk to them about how an editor can help.

The first John O’Groats Book Festival was a credit to the organisers: the speakers were wonderful, the venues were close enough to allow for a comfortable saunter to each talk and there was a nice variety – young audiences, poets, historians and crime. I look forward to the next one!

9 Comments on “The First John O’Groats Book Festival

  1. What a marvelous festival! Between the stunning views and the sweet treats and the friends and the extra-sweary speaker (ha ha!) it sounds like a truly wonderful experience. I do hope they’ll have a second one next year and that it will be equally successful. Thank you for letting us tag along vicariously!

      • Would you believe that the snow has completely melted? All 38 cm of it! Everyone seemed a little bit giddy this weekend. 🙂

      • Miraculously, no flooding near us! In fact, the soil was making a rather disconcerting sucking sound as it absorbed the melting snow. It was too subtle to record, alas — that would have made a good blog post in its own right.

  2. What a fantastic round up of the events Sara and thankyou for giving my blog a mention! It was lovely to meet you on Saturday and I’m sure our paths will cross again x

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