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Packed programme as John O’Groats Book Festival 2020 extends to four days


By Alan Hendry


James Hunter, author of Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter, pictured at Wick harbour. Picture: Jim A Johnston
James Hunter, author of Insurrection: Scotland’s Famine Winter, pictured at Wick harbour. Picture: Jim A Johnston

SOME of the best-known names in Scottish writing will descend on John O’Groats next year for its annual book festival.

The event will be full of local interest, looking at subjects such as police detective Donald Swanson, from Thurso, and the mid-1800s meal riots in Caithness, as well as discussing gender, music and gin.

Guest authors this year include renowned traditional musician Freeland Barbour, historian James Hunter, crime writer Gillian Galbraith and children’s historical novelist Barbara Henderson, with local writers involved throughout.

The festival’s first two years have proved such a success organisers have extended it to four days of sessions and workshops, running from April 23 to 26.

It is being organised under the auspices of John O’Groats Development Trust.

This year organisers have worked closely with the publisher Birlinn.

The first session will be held at Lyth Arts Centre with a joint production from Freeland Barbour and singer Gerda Stevenson, a guest author at last year’s festival.

Mr Barbour’s new book, The White Rose of Gask, looks at the life and songs of Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne.

Lady Nairne wrote some of Scotland’s most famous traditional songs.

Barbara Henderson with her new adventure for youngsters, Black Water.
Barbara Henderson with her new adventure for youngsters, Black Water.

Festival organiser Ian Leith said: “She was a prominent Jacobite and a lot of her songs she wrote anonymously. They are songs we all know.

“Freeland is a respected and renowned musician and music producer. As an accordionist he plays with a number of bands.”

Barbara Henderson, from Inverness, will do sessions throughout the Friday with local primary schools.

She has just released a new book called Black Water, a Scottish smuggling tale featuring a real incident in the life of Robert Burns.

She will also do a workshop at Lyth for older children, called Puppet Power. Ms Henderson is a puppet-maker and creates stories using them.

Gerda Stevenson at last year's John O'Groats Book Festival. Picture: Alan Hendry
Gerda Stevenson at last year's John O'Groats Book Festival. Picture: Alan Hendry

Historian James Hunter’s latest book, Insurrection, is based around the meal riots in 1846 in which Wick played a major part.

Mr Leith said: “He is a brilliant writer. He uses immense detail but also has a knack of telling a story. It’s not just dry history.”

Gillian Galbraith is a former advocate and now Scottish crime writer. Her crime novels include four featuring Edinburgh-based DS Alice Rice.

Mr Leith said: “Her new book is called The End of the Line. She comes highly recommended.”

The five authors will appear together on the Friday evening at the Seaview Hotel in a session called Author Appetisers, giving short talks about their work.

Detective Donald Swanson from Thurso was put in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation.
Detective Donald Swanson from Thurso was put in charge of the Jack the Ripper investigation.

Saturday morning’s Caithness Connections features Adam Wood, author of a biography about Thurso man Donald Swanson who as a detective worked on the Jack the Ripper murders in London, plus others prominent writers with a local connection.

Saturday afternoon’s session – Birlinn Showcase – will include three one-hour talks from the guest authors.

On Saturday evening Highland writers Helen Sedgwick and Liz Treacher will do a joint talk on gender writing over the past 100 years, interspersed with gin tasting at the Seaview in a session called Gin and Gender.

The final day will include local writer Kevin Crowe doing a session for LGBT writers based on his involvement with an LGBT magazine.

There will also be a poetry and music session in LAC with contemporary folk musician and clarsach player Esther Swift.

Mr Leith said: “She is creating a piece which she will put into production next year offering local poets to help develop this programme. It’s great to have that included.”

Tickets will be available in the new year from Lyth Arts Centre.



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