Acair Go Back To Go Forward

7 Apr 2011 in Gaelic, Heritage, Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Writing

KATIE LAING reports on the latest phase of development for the Stornoway-based publisher.

PUBLISHING company Acair are gearing up for a busy period of new releases and projects – but with former manager Agnes Rennie back in the driving seat after 20 years, they are in safe and familiar hands.

Agnes, who hails from Galson, Ness, and is married with two daughters, was originally with Acair as manager between 1982 and 1992 before leaving to have her family.

Agnes Rennie is back for a second stint at the helm of Gaelic publisher Acair

Agnes Rennie

The other members of Acair’s team, designer Margaret Anne Macleod and administrator Donalda Riddell, had already started at the company before Agnes left. As she says, there is quite a “cycle-of-life” thing going on at Acair. When Agnes came back in September she replaced editor and manager Norma Macleod, who was retiring. But, unlike Norma, she will not be doing any actual editing.

“I don’t edit,” she said. “That’s not my skills. My skills are in terms of project management and development. My role here is to focus on making the best use of Acair’s resources so we are able to publish and produce as many new Gaelic books for children and adults as possible.”

Agnes’s background is in community development. After taking a degree in Celtic Studies and Scottish History at Aberdeen University, she spent a “very formative” year as a supervisor with Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, in its first year as a job creation scheme.

“That shaped me hugely,” said Agnes, “because it was at the time that community co-operatives were just getting off the ground and there was so much going on in the community.”

Inspired by her experience at the new Comunn Eachdraidh, Agnes decided against teacher training college – she turned down the offer of a place – and went into community education instead, taking a diploma at Aberdeen College.

From there, it was on to the Highlands and Islands Development Board as a community co-operative field worker in Lewis and Harris, and then to Acair after figuring she had the “transferable skills” for the post of manager.

When Acair was set up in 1977, it was primarily to support the emerging Bilingual Education Project in the Western Isles and, later on, the new Gaelic medium schools across Scotland. Now, a lot of Gaelic educational resources are produced by Stòrlann, which means the demands on Acair have changed.

The environment in which Acair exists has also changed. The Gaelic Books Council are being restructured, while Bòrd na Gàidhlig are working on their very focused development plan, Ginealach Ùr na Gàidhlig, which aims to create a new generation of Gaelic speakers.

Overseen by a board, whose chairman is Donald Martin, Acair have published around 500 titles since they were set up and rely on a team of freelance editors and others to produce their volume of work. They certainly have a lot on their agenda this year.

One of the highlights will be the launch of Sangs tae Eimhir, the original Gaelic love poems of Sorley MacLean with Scots translations by Derrick McClure. This will be the first time Acair have published a book solely in Gaelic and Scots and it will launch at the Word book festival in Aberdeen in May.

Next up is Na Caimbeulaich, a book about the lives, music, history and song of the Skye Campbells. It will include a CD and be launched at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August.

The summer will also see the publication of the essays about life on Colonsay by the late Barbara Satchell and edited by her daughter, Morag Law. A collection of Iain Crichton Smith’s Gaelic poetry, with critical support material by Moray Watson, is on the agenda for autumn, as is the publication of Weaving Songs, the poems of Donald S Murray, complemented by the photography of Carol Ann Peacock, which is being brought out to celebrate the centenary of the Harris Tweed Orb.

A number of reprints are also being considered, and a fourth edition of one particularly popular book, Fo Sgàil a’ Swastika (Under the Shadow of the Swastika), was at the printers at the time of writing, and due to be released in April.

While Acair do publish some adult books in English – ones with a relevance to Highlands and Islands culture and social history – they are arguably best known for publishing Gaelic material, particularly children’s books. These include a wide range of co-editions – Gaelic versions of books hugely popular in the English language, such as Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo.

The co-editions, said Agnes, go back to the 1980s and the publication of the Spàgan books which were illustrated by Quentin Blake of Roald Dahl fame. These have, in fact, just been re-orthographised and republished by Acair so a new generation of young readers can enjoy them.

Agnes said: “Over the years, Acair have produced dozens of these co-edition books, which are just beautiful to handle and they mean that young Gaelic readers have the best of what’s available in the mainstream.”

There are another two new children’s releases on the horizon. One is a co-edition of Nora, the new release by Ben Cort, the illustrator of Aliens Love Underpants. Unusually, the Gaelic and English Noras are being released simultaneously.

Catriona Black, writer and illustrator who previously brought out the popular An Tractar agus an Liobht, is also bringing out a new, second title for children around the end of the year. There are a number of other exciting projects in the pipeline too, which will see Acair join forces with similar organisations in Ireland, and they are now in the early stages after securing funding.

Agnes is clear what her priorities are for their company. “Number one,” she said, “is to have a clear place for Acair as part of the Gaelic language infrastructure – to be there to support Gaelic medium education and to satisfy Gaelic readers and writers of all ages.

“It’s also about providing an outlet for Gaelic writing creativity and creating a workflow that makes the company sustainable. Moving forward, I want to build on the kind of skills that we already have but also take advantage of new technology and encourage emerging talent.”

The cover of Shilling For Your Scowl

Shilling For Your Scowl

Meanwhile two recent titles tap into current concerns over community land ownership, a concept that is somewhat de rigueur nowadays – so much so that it is difficult to imagine a time when islanders were in thrall to their masters.

There are still the heroes and villains, of course. The public-spirited Fred Taylor, who has offered to give Scalpay to the people for free, compares favourably with the likes of Barry Lomas, who is attempting to block a hostile buyout of the Pairc estate.

But there was a time, hundreds of years ago, when the heroes were fewer and further between and the villains were common players on the Hebridean stage. Both books bear witness to this, and tell of the years where power was held in the hands of the very few – and a community terrorised as a result.

James Shaw Grant’s A Shilling For Your Scowl (The history of a Scottish legal mafia) is the story of Donald Munro, who was factor or chamberlain of Lewis in the middle years of the 19th century and described by Shaw Grant as “the most hated man in the island’s history”. It is also the story of a legal mafia, with Munro as the godfather, who held “a community in thrall for a generation”.

The title for the book comes from the Gaelic phrase Munro used when fining tenants who were surly when they paid the rent – Tasdan air do dhrèin.

At the height of his power, Munro held nearly 30 public offices. He was simultaneously procurator fiscal and factor for the whole of Lewis – two incompatible offices – and Shaw Grant goes back to 1788 to explain how this situation could possibly have come about.

When Scotland’s legal system was formed, the provision of solicitors was left to market forces. In places such as the Western Isles, there simply were not enough lawyers to go round and people accused of a crime often had no-one to represent them.

Munro and his mafiosos were able to play judge, jury and, all too often, executioner. Shaw Grant describes the factor as “unique among the oppressive factors of his day in the personal pleasure he derived from gratuitous acts of malevolence”.

The book charts his rise to power, his ultimate downfall – brought about by the Bernera ‘riot’ of 1874, which he had precipitated – and many of his misdeeds along the way. These include Munro’s persecution of the writer’s own ancestors, which had tragic results and was the original inspiration for the book.

With James Shaw Grant as its author, it should be no surprise that this is an immensely well-crafted and enjoyable book, as well as one of cultural and historical import. Shaw Grant was editor of the Stornoway Gazette from 1932 to 1963 and aspiring journalists of today could learn a lot from the pace of his writing and his turns of phrase, as well as the quality of his research.

John Munro Mackenzie's Diary of 1851

Diary 1851

John Munro Mackenzie’s Diary for the year 1851 is another Acair publication which opens a window onto the old days of landowners and factors. Mackenzie was Sir James Matheson’s chamberlain, and his diary details day-to-day practicalities such as the collection of rents and inspection of repairs.

It is more a factual record than a work of introspection, but what makes the diary so interesting and historically important is that it covers the period of the emigration of 500 souls, on the Marquis of Stafford in May of that year, who were made to leave after falling desperately into arrears. This was partly because the meal Matheson had given the people to save them from starvation during the ‘hungry forties’ was chalked up to their rent.

As the diary documents in its early pages, Matheson was given his baronetcy in recognition of this ‘generosity’ but he went on to clear the land of those irretrievably in arrears in order to re-let it to those who were better able to pay.

John Munro Mackenzie was an altogether different character to Donald Munro. A Lewisman by birth, and the son of a sheriff, he was described in a testimonial by a local minister as “a young gentleman of an amiable disposition”. His mildness is apparent in the diary, when he writes of his fears that the ground officers had got the figures wrong when it came to debts owed for the meal.

He said: “The greater number of them deny the quantity charged against them and many assert that they paid the meal when they got it. Neither John nor James can read or write and it was quite impossible they could keep account of the meal given out and from whom they got payment. I have great doubts as to all being right in that quarter.”

The diary features detailed accounts of the numbers of families from each village who were to emigrate, what arrears they had, and whether they were willing to go. Few were.

It also features some entertaining local assessments, with Point, for example, containing “several desparate characters that must be made an example of” and comparing unfavourably with the people of Back and Coll who could always pay their rents because they were “near good fishing ground”.

The diary is rich in the detail of a factor’s life but is a must for anyone interested in the history of emigration from the Highlands and Islands and life under an autocratic regime. A Shilling For Your Scowl was first published in 1992 and John Munro Mackenzie’s Diary in 1994 – but they are no less relevant or readable today.

Acair manager Agnes Rennie said: “Today, when more than 50 per cent of the land in the Hebrides is under community ownership, it is hard to believe that this same community was subject to such despotic leadership less than 200 years ago. These books should be read by everybody with an interest in the historical context of a modern day, popular movement.”

Both titles are available in paperback from Acair. A Shilling For Your Scowl is priced £4.99 and John Munro Mackenzie’s Diary £7.99.

© Katie Laing, 2011