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Book Reviews Shanter's Tale, Retold.

Luath Press The tour of Scotland’s publishing houses (but not the very big ones) continues this month with Luath Press.

Based on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, Luath probably have the best literary outlook of any Scottish publisher’s offices – certainly beats Tippermuir’s view of Perth’s Pomarium Flats. Luath have been going for some four decades and are today a cornerstone of publishing in Scotland. The story behind their name and its link to Robert Burns is notable:

Luath Press takes its name from Robert Burns, whose little collie Luath (Gael., swift or nimble) tripped up Jean Armour at a wedding and gave him the chance to speak to the woman who was to be his wife and the abiding love of his life. Burns called one of The Twa Dogs Luath after Cuchullin’s hunting dog in Ossian’s Fingal. Luath Press was established in 1981 in the heart of Burns country, and is now based a few steps up the road from Burns’ first lodgings on Edinburgh's Royal Mile.

The company has bagged a few prizes over the years including Ann Kelley’s The Bower Birdwhich won the Costa Children’s Book Award and many books that have either been shortlisted for or won Saltire Literary Awards. Home by John Mackay is the fifth publication by Luath from that author and has already earned some acclaim.

MacKay is likely better known as a broadcast journalist, as a news presenter for award-winning STV News (News at Six which boats an impressive half a million average viewers) and for other television news programmes including Scotland Tonight, which claims to be Scotland’s ‘most popular news and current affairs programme’. In his Notes of a Newsman, MacKay’s only foray into non-fiction to date, he details many of the big ‘Scotland’ new stories of the last three decades. Home (John MacKay, 2021) is a novel set upon the Hebrides, a place with which the author has a familial association; his previous three novels were set upon the Isle of Lewis. The first comment that must be made about the book is that it neither is nor attempts to be a work of literary fiction – it is a piece of storytelling, a family saga, albeit of the page-turning variety. Homefollows a standard structure for a novel chronicling a family’ history across dramatic and changing temporal periods – two world wars and the major social and technological changes experienced after both wars. At times, I worried that the author had collected so many stories and oral accounts in his research that the book was in danger of being simply an amalgamation of these sprinkled with a collection of tropes. Thankfully, MacKay managed to offer enough embellishment, decoration and straightforward storytelling to these to make the book entertaining and as already stated a page-turner, something which is facilitated by an overarching storyline relating to a missing family member – the child of one of the brothers killed in the war. MacKay also knows how to bring on the tears and I found myself welling up every twenty pages or so – there is a great deal ging on: suffering, pain, love won and love lost, the consequences of emigration, death and the joys of return!

MacKay has produced a story which is more than that of one family from the Hebrides and I am minded that most of its readers will find themes and experiences which resonate with their own; and enjoy the book.

The Shanter Legacy (Garry Stewart, 2021) is a new title from Tippermuir. The book is written for the 8-13 age group and has been be described as ‘magical realist fiction’, ‘fantasy adventure’ and ‘fantasy/horror’. The author, Garry Stewart, is well-equipped to write in this theme. He an award-winning actor, a writer and director who spends his time between Glasgow and his home in Andalusia. He was artistic director of Baldy Bane Theatre Company where he wrote and directed over 30 plays for children and young adults. He believes that humour and a clever animal or two are a great way to engage children in stories. One of his early childhood memories was the excitement of waiting for the mobile library to arrive in the area of Edinburgh where he grew up. Climbing the huge steps to see the hundreds of books on the old wooden shelves that lined the large van, was where he discovered that stories could take you to places beyond the streets where you lived.

The book was originally a popular play and the book is a fine development from it. As well as being a fun read, it is a bridge to Robert Burns being a ‘sequel’ of sorts to ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. As the storm ravaged the countryside there was weirdrie in the air. Fiona watched stricken with horror as the tail was ripped from the fleeing horse, leaving a terrible, bloody and gaping wound. For seven nights in a row she startled awake at the same point in this dreadful nightmare. Soon she would discover the nightmare was real and that sinister events were about to unfold. Fourteen years earlier Fiona’s father, Tam o’ Shanter, had disturbed a coven of witches gathered at Alloway Kirkyard. Upon seeing him the witches gave chase. Tam galloped his grey mare, Meg, as fast as he could but the witches caught up with them as they raced towards the keystone of the bridge. The grasping hand of a witch reached out and caught Meg by the tail unleashing a series of events that would one day threaten the future of Caledonia.

In this children’s sequel to the Robert Burns classic poem, ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, Fiona and her wee brother Finn are swept into a strange mystical world to embark on a perilous quest. They must find Meg’s tail which has been taken to the dark and evil land of Dracadonia. The tail is now in the possession of Morbidea, the beautiful but deadly Druid Queen. A powerful and potent magic has been bestowed upon the tail, allowing it to be used as a key to the mystical portal known as The Yett of Abandoned Time. Legend has it that Morbidea will use the power of the tail to enter the mortal world. On this stormy Halloween night the time has come for the Queen and her undead army to launch a savage and vengeful war on the people of Caledonia. Fiona and Finn learn of their extraordinary link to this deadly threat and must make the brave decision to try and prevent it. Accompanied by Meg and their border collie, Kirsty, the children dare to enter Morbidea’s world where they are catapulted into a tsunami of danger and magic. In a land populated by weird creatures, an army of undead warrior nuns and an eccentric troublemaking alchemist their quest unfolds. The children’s courage grows as they face their destiny. For Fiona and Finn, life, if they survive, will never be the same again. The book is available online, from booksellers and directly from Tippermuir Books:

Dr Paul S Philippou is Honorary Research Fellow in History and a member of the Centre for Scottish Culture at the University of Dundee, and a director of Tippermuir Books. He is currently project manager and joint director (alongside Professor Kirsteen McCue of the University of Glasgow) of ‘The Soutar Project’, a Scottish Government supported endeavour to see to the publication of the complete poetry of William Soutar both published and unpublished alongside a modern and critical appraisal of the Scots Renaissance poet. With Jim Macintosh, he is currently editing a collection of poetry to mark the centenary of the birth of the great Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown; Beyond the Swelkie will be published in May/June this year.

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