Reader in Residence

3 Apr 2012 in General, Ian Stephen Blog

This is one of 5 Reader in Residence posts throughout Scotland. These are part of the Creative Futures project, funded by Creative Scotland, developed and administered by Shetland Arts Trust. They range from the poet Jen Hadfield’s post with Shetland Libraries to Maureen Sangster’s residency at a mental health facility. My own project has been developed in consultation with Kathleen Milne, the team-leader with Western Isles Libraries.

We have taken a line of approach which tries to take account of the strong oral tradition in the outer Hebrides. Since about the 1950s there has also been a very strong literary culture with writers of the international stature of Iain Crichton Smith, Derick Thompson and Donald Macaulay at the forefront. But earlier transcriptions of spoken stories indicate that the love of language, wit and narrative have been an established cultural force in this region for as far back as records can document.

My own working practice, since I began to publish and perform stories and poems in 1979, has been hugely indebted to an established tradition of oral storytelling. Part of this has come to me through my upbringing but I have also benefited from the work of those who have gathered well-developed examples of this vernacular art form. Donald Morrison, (1787 – 1834) was a cooper, working in Stornoway. No doubt his contacts with the herring-trade brought him in contact with a range of storytellers. His transcriptions of stories which range all down the western seaboard of Scotland and on across the North Sea to the Netherlands and Sweden, were gathered in a manuscript of 9 parts.

Sadly, two of these have been lost but the remainder were published in 1975 as edited by Norman Macdonald with the then District Librarian, Alexander Morrison. The collection is available in lending and reference copies at Stornoway Library. A copy is also held at the National Library of Scotland. We very much wish to draw attention to this seminal collection as a key aim of the Residency. Plans include regular slots on Isles FM and a regular feature in Events. These will include the retelling of selected stories from the collection. Look out for examples on this site.

We hope to work with existing writing groups in the Western Isles and work together to compile a reading programme which will compare work by contemporary Island writers with writing from other times and countries.

Ian Stephen was born in Stornoway and still lives there. He studied Education, Drama and Literature at Aberdeen University graduating with a B Ed (hons) with distinction.

Ian worked for the Coastguard Service for many years but has been a full time writer and artist since winning the first Robert Louis Stevenson Award in 1995. His project of navigating through the settings of traditional maritime stories was funded by a Creative Scotland Award and this has remained a key element in his work. He travels widely to tell stories.

Work in drama includes the play Seven Hunters – a touring production, directed by Gerry Mulgrew for Communicado, The Highland Festival and Tosg. His first collection of poems Malin, Hebrides, Minches was published in Aarhus Denmark, in 1983 and his new and selected poems Adrift were published in the Czech Republic in 2007. Poems and short-stories were gathered in the pocketbooks/Polygon series in Green Waters (with Graham Rich and Ian Hamilton Finlay) and Mackerel and Creamola (with Donald Urquhart).

For more information about Ian visit his website at

© Ian Stephen, 2012