Simon Hall Celebrates Saltire First Book Prize

12 Dec 2010 in Orkney, Showcase, Writing

SALTIRE Society Scottish First Book of the Year joint winner Simon Hall has spoken of his delight at winning the award and revealed his book has already had to be reprinted.

The History of Orkney Literature was praised by judges for its excellent writing and passionate discussion, but Dr Hall told of how he almost didn’t make it to the ceremony due to the atrocious weather in Edinburgh.

Simon Hall, joint winner of the Saltire Society First Book Prize 2010

Simon Hall, joint winner of the Saltire Society First Book Prize 2010

“My wife Linda and I travelled to Edinburgh for the awards ceremony and we nearly missed the event altogether. Edinburgh ground to a standstill in the terrible weather, and we couldn’t even get a taxi to take us up to the National Library of Scotland,” Dr Hall said. “We had just about given up all hope of getting there, but we traipsed up Cockburn Street and the Royal Mile in the snow, eventually making it in the nick of time.

“The ceremony was very exciting, with many famous faces from Scottish Literature in attendance, including Robert Alan Jamieson, Andrew Greig, James Robertson and Ian Rankin. When they announced that The History of Orkney Literature was joint winner of the Scottish First Book of the Year it was a complete surprise, and of course I was absolutely delighted. To win a Saltire Society literary award is a tremendous honour, and I’m delighted that an Orkney book has won the award. Orkney books have done well in the Saltire Society awards over the years.”

Dr Hall, the principal teacher of English at Kirkwall Grammar School, said his book, which argues that Orkney has a distinct literature with writers responding and reacting to one another, was a story waiting to be told.

“It is great for another Orkney based book to win a Saltire award and for more interest in Orkney culture to be generated,” he said.

“There are several big names in Orkney literature like George Mackay Brown and Edwin Muir but as I did my research I realised that other writers responding to each other had created a major tradition in its own right. Ever since the recovery of the Orkneyinga Saga people have been adapting the theme. We no longer agree with the Orcadian nationalist and dubious stance of some of the Victorians who looked back to the myth of a Norse golden age with their ideas of Nordic race and supremacy which is uncomfortable with today’s thought. George Mackay Brown looked at Norse history in a completely different viewpoint through his Catholicism and Eric Linklater wrote his sagas as adventure stories.”

Cover of Simon Hall's book

Other Orcadian writers included in Dr Hall’s literary survey are Walter Traill Dennison, Robert Rendall, Gregor Lamb, Ernest Marwick (as folklorist and historian) and Christina Costie. He includes non-Orcadians adding their own work to the canon, in setting, style and influence such as Margaret Elphinstone and Naomi Mitchison.

Dr Hall added: “Since the book was launched at the St Magnus festival in June, I have had wonderful feedback from readers, including people in Orkney who knew the writers.”

Dr Hall’s pupils at the grammar school will have no reason to lament, as George Mackay Brown did, the lack of teaching about Orkney history and literature in school. “We look at Robert Rendall, George Mackay Brown, Edwin Muir and Christina Costie and the pupils respond well to literature of their own place, written in their own variety of the Scots language. There is a strong emphasis in the Curriculum for Excellence of people learning about their own place in the world. It’s a good excuse to teach how Orkney’s sense of place inspires writers.”

Saltire Society Literary Awards judge, Dr David Robb of the University of Dundee, praised the book, saying it was a strikingly successful first book.

“To the best of my knowledge it is the only modern account of the entire sweep of Orkney literature, from Orkneyinga Saga to Gregor Lamb and it offers an account not only of the ‘big names’ of whom we have all heard,” Dr Robb said.

He added that the book’s argumentative persuasiveness is clinched by the sheer excellence of its writing. Fellow Orkney-based writer Duncan McLean described the tome as a treasure trove of inspiration.

Dr Hall researched his book for his PhD thesis more than ten years ago. He said it was fitting that the book ended its investigation of Orkney writing in 2000.

“There is still more excellent writing happening in Orkney and there will be another chapter to write in the future by someone. And Orkney writers and books based here have won several Saltire awards. Orkney certainly is punching above its weight for literature.”

He added he is likely to write more books after the great support he has received both in Orkney and further afield for his first book. But he is keeping the theme under close wraps until he gets his proposal written.

Dr Hall shared the Scottish First Book of the Year award with Sue Peebles for her book The Death of Lomond Friel.

Simon Hall accepts his award at the ceremony

Simon Hall accepts his award at the ceremony (courtesy Saltire Society)

Previous Saltire winners associated with Orkney include:

  • Scottish Book of the Year 1994: George Mackay Brown for Beside the Ocean of Time
  • Scottish Book of the Year 2004: Andrew Greig for In Another Light
  • Scottish First Book of the Year 2005: John Aberdein for Amande’s Bed
  • Scottish First Book of the Year 2006: Maggie Fergusson for George Mackay Brown, The Life.

The History of Orkney Literature by Simon W Hall is published by John Donald, an imprint of Birlinn in paperback at £20.

© Catherine Turnbull, 2010