A Write Highland Hoolie gets Mallaig buzzing about books

John Lister-Kaye in conversation with Polly Pullar was one of the festival highlights.

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Visitors and local people came together for a Write Highland Hoolie at the West Highland Hotel last weekend, writes Kirsteen Bell.

A wide-range of writers and musicians celebrated under one roof for the weekend, which is Mallaig’s Book Festival, and which included writers’ talks as well as music and storytelling in the oral tradition.

The Hoolie opened on Friday night with a celebration of Carnegie prize-winning author Teresa Breslin’s recent OBE award for Services to Literature.

Guests also sang a round of Happy Birthday to Sine Davis, manager of the West Highland Hotel and co-founder of the book festival along with naturalist and writer Polly Pullar.

Graeme Hawley, Head of General Collections at the National Library of Scotland (NLS) then gave his highly entertaining presentation on The Joy of Spines.

The NLS holds more than 30 million titles as it aims to retain a record of every printed publication in Scotland, from the well-known to the obscure: from fiction to academic titles, from church pamphlets to football programmes, and from 13th-century manuscripts to the 1970s Argos catalogue.

Mr Hawley said that the library holds ‘the possibility of everything’ and for the Mallaig audience that included an old advert for the West Highland Hotel advertising ‘hot and cold faucets in every room’, and ‘A History of the Mallaig Herring Industry’.

Mr Hawley’s celebration of books was a fitting opening to the weekend programme of events that saw a diverse group of authors speaking to audiences who came to Mallaig from near and far.

Two ladies told organisers that each autumn they choose a new book festival to visit, and that they were ‘absolutely blown away’ by the Hoolie.

The final event of the weekend was a special afternoon tea which included Gaelic singing from Mallaig Primary pupils. Ron Butlin, novelist and former Edinburgh Makar, also presented the prizes for the children’s writing competition.

One of the key aims of the Hoolie this year was to involve more children.  Mick Kitson visited Mallaig High School to talk about his new young adult novel, Sal, and Teresa Breslin visited both the High School and Primary School along with illustrator Kate Leiper.

Ms Leiper also did an art workshop with senior pupils. Primary pupils were treated to a visit from Ron Butlin and award-winning Argyll children’s author Alan Windram.

Speaking at the opening event, Ms Breslin said they had been given a lovely welcome at both schools, and that the questions from the pupils were unusual and challenging, making it a ‘joy and a pleasure’ to be there.

Ms Pullar, founder and chairperson of the Hoolie, said: ‘I grew up in Ardnamurchan with the hoolies where everybody got involved, so we wanted to create the ceilidh atmosphere.

‘People can have a preconception of book festivals as high-brow – so the Hoolie aims to get everyone involved. On Saturday night we had great participation from the audience, with Charlie MacFarlane especially delighting us all.

‘This year we were thrilled to have managed to put on so many school events and this is our aim in future. We are also particularly pleased to work closely with the Highland Bookshop in Fort William and to support the vital need for independent bookshops in Scotland. It was such a happy atmosphere overall.’