Northwords Now Issue 37

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Coffee, cake and adrenaline

The inside story of the Highland Book Prize

by Kenny Taylor

Now in its second year, the Highland Book Prize has already generated great interest among writers, publishers and readers. To find out more in the lead-up to the 2019 award, I visited Moniack Mhor to speak to some of the staff who have helped to shape and steer the prize. Rachel Humphries, Rich Clements and Eilidh Smith gave me the low-down. From now on in, most of the words are theirs. Some cake and coffee was consumed in the making of this article.

Rachel: It all started with Alex Ogilvie, treasurer of the Highland Society of London, who had previously spoken with Joan Michael of the Ullapool Book Festival (UBF) and a number of others, including the literary agent, Jenny Brown, to get their input. Very kindly, Jenny, Joan and the Scottish Book Trust suggested that Moniack Mhor be involved in the prize, because of our location and our connections with the Highland writing community. That was in April 2017.

The Highland Society of London (founded in 1778) has a long history of supporting Highland-linked art forms and traditions. So expanding its charitable giving to further raise the profile of literature with a Highland connection was a logical move.

Eilidh: Quite simply, books produced by UK-based publishers and inspired by the Highlands are eligible. The criteria are broad, including books concerned with Highland culture, heritage or landscape or have a significant amount of activity set in the Highlands; authors born or brought up here; or writers who have lived in the Highlands for six years or more.

Rich: Our expectations were modest. I thought we might get 15 books or so; Rachel reckoned ‘Oh - let’s be optimistic: 20!’ But in year one, we got 56 titles submitted, with 52 eligible. That blew our minds; we realised that we were dealing with something that not only was much needed, but also was much bigger than we’d anticipated.

Rachel: There are two rounds of judging. The first is by a panel of readers. We had 64 readers in total in the first year, including people with associations with Moniack, industry professionals, members of the UBF and Highland Society of London committees and avid readers.

Eilidh: Assessments from our panel of lead judges came after detailed scoring of different aspects of books had been completed by readers to produce the long- and short-lists. The 2018 panel was Kevin MacNeil, Jenny Niven from Creative Scotland, Alex Ogilvie and Chris Dolan, honorary president of UBF.

Rachel: The 2018 winner was Kapka Kassabova, for her remarkable book Border. Kapka, who was in New Zealand at the time, appeared on video. She also gave half her prize money o the Scottish Refugee Council. Now, when she talks about the book, she mentions the prize. None of Border is set in the Highlands, but the argument from both readers and lead judges was that borders are incredibly important, as is displacement of people, irrespective of where you live. Kapka also says that if she hadn’t been living and working in the Highlands, the book would have been very different.

For the 2019 prize, there’s been an increase in the range of publishers submitting their books and in fiction entries. The team has aspirations to expand how they bring new titles to readers, including through events, and is looking to appoint a part-time co-ordinator for next year’s prize.

Come Saturday night in Ullapool this May, the tension in the hall will be worthy of the Ullapool Oscars. You can see the shortlist on the back page. But the buzz will be shared more widely – among the large team of readers, across UK publishers and (not least) the staff at Moniack Mhor: “We’ve all had so much fun so far. I think we’ve run on coffee, cake and adrenaline.”