Taking to the Stage

Having had work performed by others earlier in the year (Sister Echt; The Granite Mile), the last couple of months have seen me return to the stage to perform myself. These stage appearances have also marked a progression in my work as I move from completing my first novel, Quines at Sea, to exploring new ideas and projects.

Esther Woolfson reading at Aberdeen Booked Unbound (photo by Lewis Camley)

Esther Woolfson reading at Aberdeen Booked Unbound (photo by Lewis Camley)

First up was Aberdeen Booked Unbound, part of Edinburgh International Book Festival’s On the Road programme. I hosted this fun evening event in the Arts Centre in Aberdeen, with fantastic performances from Esther Woolfson, Jake Arnott, Morna Young and Morna’s band Folkify. As well as hosting, I read the opening chapter of my novel Quines at Sea which covers five women’s escape from Fraserburgh harbour in an old fishing trawler. I read a much earlier version at the May Festival in 2016 when I was only about halfway through writing the novel, so it was great to give it a second outing now that I’ve written to the end of the novel (but not necessarily completed it!) and I'm sure of the characters and overall direction of the work. If you’d like to read the opening chapter yourself, it’s just been published in issue 34 of Northwords Now which is available in print and online.

The next stage outing was much more of a challenge. I was commissioned to write a 10-minute piece about ‘home’ as part of Paines Plough’s Come to Where I’m From series, a fantastic project where four playwrights from different cities and towns across the U.K. are invited to perform and record new plays which are then all uploaded to an app. Having recently dislocated my knee (long story!), I decided to incorporate this into my piece, exploring dislocation in the sense of 'disturbance from a proper, original or usual place or state'; this involved rapidly moving through many of the homes I was brought up in throughout the Northeast of Scotland and the memories attached to them, memories of movement and unrest, and of stillness and isolation. I was so nervous just before the performance as I've never written something so personal and usually avoid autobiography, but I'm glad I was challenged to do it as it's made me realise I have many more stories to tell, even if I decide to tell them through different characters and perspectives in the future. It was also great to perform alongside playwrights Neil Cargill, Morna Young and Lesley Hart, as I think our plays resonated with each other in that we all come from small coastal towns and have all moved around, generating a complex sense of place. You can read a Wee Review of the evening here.

Finally, I was selected to take part in the National Theatre of Scotland's development opportunity, One Day to Play, as part of their new Engine Room initiative. Led by NTS Associate Director Cora Bissett, this project was all about generating new cross art form ideas, and I was very excited to be paired up with visual artist Kate Steenhauer.

After an initial discussion about how to approach working collaboratively across art forms, we were sent out into the night with a task to gather material from a public space in Aberdeen. After wandering around for a little while, Kate and I finally settled on a bus stop on Union Street as a perfect location to eavesdrop on conversations to gather verbatim text and for her to stand slightly aside and sketch the scene. What was fascinating about this process was that what I heard and what Kate saw told two different narratives, even though we were interacting within the same confines of one bus shelter on Union Street.

We decided to explore this further the next day, gathering more sketches and voices, until we had enough material to create a new piece that could potentially involve a live drawing and a monologue unfolding at the same before an audience, giving different perspectives on the same physical space and scenario. While Kate refined ink drawings from her initial pencil sketches, I got to work on typing up all my (badly handwritten) scribblings from the shelters. Unsure of how to progress with how I could cut, paste and structure the verbatim material into something theatrical and performance worthy, I decided to watch Kate at work, and noticed how she would return to certain aspects of her figures, adding more detail and definition as her drawings progressed, or even drawing them all over again from a different perspective. With the realisation that, over time, an audience watching Kate drawing live would slowly start to work out what her drawings represented, I decided to chop up the text I had gathered, repeating certain lines up to three times, with the next line being added in on the repeat, so that, by the end of the monologue, fully coherent stories are being told by the different voices I embody, and the audience can finally work out the location and who is talking. 

After a few practice runs, we presented this to an invited audience and it seemed to go down well; we're looking forward to receiving the feedback so we can find out more about what caught the audiences' attention most (sight or sound) and their ideas of how we could develop this further, either in a theatre context, or as an art installaton (or both!). It's definitely something Kate and I would like to explore and develop, so I'm looking forward to visiting Kate's studio and collaborating further!

Sarah Ord, Cora Bissett, Kate Steenhauer, Lynn Shaw and me!

Sarah Ord, Cora Bissett, Kate Steenhauer, Lynn Shaw and me!

As you can probably tell, it's been a busy few weeks! Now it's time to do some reflection on the new material I've generated for the stage, as well as new prose ideas I've been developing and consider how best to progress in the coming months... Watch this space!

Summer 2017 Update!

I’ve been a little quiet on here the past couple of months, but with good reason... At the end of April, I met with literary agent Jenny Brown after she read my manuscript for Quines at Sea and I am chuffed to announce that Jenny has taken me on! This has meant that I’ve been working hard on getting my manuscript into ship-shape for submission to publishers at the end of the summer. This has involved a lot of time spent playing with post-its to map out each of my characters’ arcs, smoothing out continuity errors and contradictions, and tightening up the prose as much as possible. Thankfully, I’ve had the resource of a shared studio space, Aberdeen Writers’ Studio, with fellow writers in Aberdeen at The Anatomy Rooms. It’s been great working in a dedicated writing space with the support of a community of writers I’ve come to know really well. I don’t know if I would have got this far without them all!

Alongside this, I’ve been facilitating a second The Writers’ Room programme at my Creative Learning post. I’ve really enjoyed getting to deliver this programme again, but with a different set of writers who’ve all brought something new and unique to it, and it’s also been great to have help with the facilitation from Dr Gavin Wallace Fellow Morna Young, author Wayne Price, last year’s participant Megan Primrose, and two visual artists, Lady Thornfield and Caitlin Hynes. One highlight this year was when participants from both programmes took a jaunt up to Inverness to attend XPO North, Scotland’s creative industries festival. There we watched three writers from last year’s programme - Rachelle Atalla, Rae Cowie and Emily Utter - pitch their novels brilliantly to a panel of publishers and Jenny Brown. Lots of great feedback was given, and more general advice that had us all scribbling notes in the audience!

On the theatre side of things, I had new work performed as part of Union Street, a collection of skits, sketches and poems from playwrights local to Aberdeen, performed by professional actors (including Joyce Falconer and Morna Young), as part of the Silver City Stories Festival. This production, a follow up to the National Theatre of Scotland's Granite, showcased the diverse set of voices writing in Aberdeen today, but all focused on the city’s most famous street. The play, and other writing from the group, was published in a collection by Aberdeen University Press, and also performed as part of this year’s May Festival.

Speaking of festivals, there’s still one more literary festival to come to Aberdeen this year, and that’s EIBF’s Booked! Festival in ACT Aberdeen. I’m looking forward to delivering children’s writing activities throughout the two days in my role at Creative Learning, and also hosting and reading some of my own work at Aberdeen Booked! Unbound alongside bestselling novelist Jake Arnott and some of the Northeast’s most well-known and well-loved writers: Leila Aboulela, John Aberdein, Esther Woolfson and Morna Young; there’ll also be music from Morna’s band, Folkify. It’s a free, unticketed event starting at 8pm in the ACT Theatre on Thursday 24th August, so get it in your diary now!

Student Show raises over £90,000 for charity

After working for over half a year on the script for the 96th Aberdeen Student Show, Sister Echt, it's great to hear today that the production has raised £92,194.15 for local charities in the Northeast. Having been a Script Editor and on the script team in the past, I doubted I'd ever be back as Script Editor again, so it was great to be able to write one last show for 34 great causes in Aberdeen city and shire! Now my focus is fully back on edits to my novel, Quines at Sea. There'll definitely be more news on that in the months to come...

BUKA at Look Again

In advance of a talk I'll be giving alongside Sue Fairburn and Sally Thomson about our art-in-health project in Bulawayo, I've created a document highlighting the story so far which features some new creative pieces alongside images from the project. Read it below!

If you'd like to find out more, the talk will take place on Monday 24 April at 12pm in N118 Sir Ian Wood Building at Robert Gordon University as part of this year's Look Again Festival.

Aye! Scottish-Bavarian Literature Festival

Having previously visited the special Bavarian city of Regensburg twice before as part of the Passages project, I was delighted to be asked back to take part in a Scottish-Bavarian Literature Festival in the middle of March. The festival is the third in an annual series of literary festivals run by the Evangelisches Bildungswerk where Bavarian literature is paired with that of another country; the first was Turkish literature and last year’s was Czech. This year’s festival took place in the city’s newest cultural space, the Degginger, and featured ceilidh band Danse Macabre, and writers Helen Lynch, Alex McCall, David Ross and myself from the Scottish contingent, and many writers, storytellers and performers local to Regensburg.

Over the course of the weekend, I read of one of my stories ‘Caul Iron’ as part of a Short Story Dinner, took part in a panel discussion about links between Scotland and Bavaria related to the Passages project, and read Burns’ ‘Tam o Shanter’ alongside a German translation from performer Magdalena Damjantschitsch who has one of the most soothing reading voices I have ever heard! We decided to have the German version of Burns read first, so that when the Scots was read it would be easier to follow. I also ensured I read ‘Caul Iron’ a lot slower than I normally would as well as being a bit more performative to evoke as much of the story as possible since a fair bit of it was in the Doric. Reading as part of the short story dinner was one of my favourite moments of the weekend, and the food was lots of fun, fusing Scottish and Bavarian traditions: haggis ravioli and sauerkraut! Thankfully, the audience were really responsive and receptive to Scots and Doric throughout the weekend and many said they enjoyed getting to hear it, in some cases for the first time.

The whole festival had such a nice feel, and involved meeting friends old and new. It's always great to set the world to rights (no easy task right now!) with Helen Stellner who translated the Passages collection; brought up in Aberdeen, Helen has been living in Regensburg since the 70s, and so she’s a pro in English, Doric, German and Bavarian, and is a wonderful reader and storyteller, as well as a very thoughtful translator. I also had lots of laughs with the quines of Danse Macabre, Helen Lynch, Claire White and Anne Taylor – all literary festivals should have one of their ceilidhs! I must thank the EBW for their fantastic hospitality, and writer Angela Kreuz, who did a great job hosting both the Short Story Dinner and the Passages panel discussion, which is not an easy task when it involves four different dialects…


Following another fantastic visit to Regensburg – which must be seen to be believed – I spent a day wandering round Munich, enjoying the nicer weather and wandering through the gardens and art galleries. I hope it’s not too long before I see Bavaria once more as it has become one of my favourite places thanks to connections I’ve made with it through writing and literature.

Inspiration Point and the Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship

Over the past half year, I’ve been working on an exciting project as part of my role as a Creative Project Practitioner for Aberdeen City Council’s Creative Learning Team. Inspiration Point was an interactive arts project which aimed to inspire residents of Aberdeen to engage with their creativity and to highlight the range of artistic and creative opportunities in the city. We did this through a range of residencies covering visual art, drama and creative writing, as well as a two-day celebratory event packed with lots of creative activities, workshops and performances at The Lemon Tree.

My main focus in the run up to the celebratory weekend was coordinating the three Creative Writing residencies which took place in the last fortnight of January. This involved supporting three writers – John Bolland, Avril Erskine and Elaine Reid – to create new work and engage with staff and customers at three local businesses: Fifth Ring marketing agency, Bon Accord Care and Charles Michie’s Pharmacy. As well as the images below, you can find out more about how they went via the Inspiration Point blog.

During the Friday of the Inspiration Point celebratory weekend, I ran a creative writing workshop for S3 pupils from Mintlaw Academy who are interested in choosing arts subjects. I facilitated a character creation workshop which led to some really interesting and mature writing from various pupils in the group.

Later in the afternoon I ran a CPD session for teachers which launched a brand new Youth Arts Advice website for young people interested in the arts in the Northeast. Check out the website here and spread the word to anyone you think might find it helpful! The session also involved talks from Skills Development Scotland, the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, the Scottish Drama Training Network and ACES RGU, who all deliver great work for young people interested in the arts. It was great that the first day of events was capped off with a packed networking event which took over most of The Lemon Tree with lots of creative discussion and buzz happening all over the place!

Throughout the Saturday I supported three writers from The Writers’ Room programme to deliver workshops to the public, and also learned a lot myself about children’s literature (from Megan Primrose), visual storytelling in film (from Gavin Gilmour) and life writing (from Emily Utter) during the workshops.

The weekend culminated in a Literary Salon hosted by yours truly, featuring brilliant readings by all eight writers who took part in The Writers’ Room, all three Inspiration Point writers-in-residence and the chosen recipient of the 2017 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship, playwright Morna Young, who delivered a powerful performance of excerpts from her play Lost at Sea, which is set to tour Scotland in 2018.

It was great to finally launch Morna’s Fellowship after months of reading applications and conducting interviews since Creative Learning was chosen as the Fellowship Host at the end of last year. I’m really looking forward to supporting Morna throughout 2017 to create a new full-length play which will give voice to working-class female voices from the Northeast. I’ll also be running another The Writers’ Room programme in May/June thanks to Creative Learning being chosen as the Fellowship Host, so it's great to be able to to continue supporting a lot more writers and creatives in the Northeast this year! Follow further Inspiration Point happenings on Instagram and Twitter @inspirationABDN

A Doric Smoorach at Spectra

This weekend, thousands of people traversed Aberdeen city-centre under intermittent showers of snow to see the annual spectacle that is Spectra: Aberdeen's Festival of Light, which is always a real highlight of the city's festival programme. Like last year, I particularly enjoyed the illuminations at St Nicholas Kirkyard, especially umbrellas which lit up when you made lots of noise!

A couple of months ago I was asked to provide Doric recordings for one of the installations in Union Terrace Gardens. Along with Les Wheeler and Sheena Blackhall, my voice was recorded for the Doric Smoorach display, which involves festival-goers having images taken of them making different vowel sounds that are then projected onto huge heads. Each head speaks at a different time with our original Doric recordings playing back, sometimes at pitch, and sometimes altered to make it lower or higher. Check out the videos below to see what I mean, and you can hear some of the original recordings on my 'Writing' page.

This was a great start to this year's cultural calendar and I loved that my writing featured as a wee part of it. Next stop it's the Inspiration Point Literary Salon which I'm hosting as part of a weekend of events with Creative Learning at the Lemon Tree. Then I'll be running a workshop with John Bolland as part of Granite Noir the weekend after. A busy month ahead!

Dates for Your Diary in February 2017

There's lots coming up in Aberdeen in February that I'm really excited to be part of...

Thursday 9 – Sunday 12 February

  • Two of my Doric poems and a flash fiction piece will form part of a light and sound installation during the fourth annual Spectra Festival of Light in Aberdeen.

Saturday 18 February, 7pm onwards

  • As part of the Inspiration Point celebratory weekend, I am hosting a literary salon in the Lemon Tree featuring readings by Northeast writers and the recipient of the 2017 Dr Gavin Wallace Fellowship. Tickets available soon.

Sunday 26 February, 10.30am-12pm

  • As part of Granite Noir, Aberdeen's first festival dedicated to crime fiction, I will be co-facilitating a Dark Doric creative writing workshop with John Bolland in Aberdeen Central Library. Tickets available here.


To whet your appetite for my next workshop, here's a wee fun task from my last workshop in December which was Dickens themed!

Dickensian name.jpg

A Creative Journey in Zimbabwe

Between the 12th and 18th of November, I visited Bulawayo, Zimbabwe to work with a team of arts-in-health experts, artists and maternal health experts to facilitate a creative exchange between arts and health organisations with the collective goal of enhancing maternal health environments in the city.

This project was follow up to a play I was commissioned to write in 2015 by Immpact, a global maternal health research initiative based at the University of Aberdeen. The play, A Mother’s Journey’, was performed at the 2015 May Festival and attended by an obstetrician and matron from two Bulawayan maternity hospitals. The obstetrician, Dr Davidzoyashe Makosa of United Bulawayo Hospitals, was impressed by the art work on display in Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, and commented on her own efforts to enhance the maternity wards she worked in with visual art. During an exchange visit with Immpact in September 2015, I witnessed the beginnings of Dr Makosa’s artistic enhancement in the Lady Rodwell labour ward and also met with the Mayor of Bulawayo. He was very interested in a potential arts project and felt it would be of much benefit to the hospitals, particularly in maternal health buildings, which are often the last to be renovated and repaired.

On this recent return visit, I was joined by Sue Fairburn of Gray’s School of Art, an expert in design in maternal health environments who previously worked with Immpact, and Sally Thomson, the Director of GHAT, an organisation which has provided art in Northeast hospitals for over 30 years. Throughout the week in Bulawayo, we were hosted by Cliford Zulu of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe, and met with arts and health organisations to identify areas of need within Mpilo Hospital and United Bulawayo Hospitals; we then facilitated a creative demonstration by Bulawayo-based artists in the public-gathering areas of the maternity hospitals. This involved the six artists — Owen Maseko, George Masarira, Talent Kapadza, Charles Bhebe, Danisile Ncube and Omega Sibanda  creating new paintings and chalk drawings, as well as inviting staff and patients to have a go at creating their own work with clay and coloured vinyl cuttings.

One of the many highlights was brightening up the Youth Friendly Unit at United Bulawayo Hospitals which is composed of grey cabins tucked away behind the main maternity buildings. Hospital staff expressed concerns that the location and appearance of the unit was discouraging young people from visiting them for sexual health advice and counselling services. In order to counteract this, all six of the artists and hospital staff worked together to create a colourful artwork on the side of one of the cabins using vinyl cut-outs.

As a result of the visit, Cliford and the artists have created a new arts-in-health collective called #Buka, an Ndebele word which means ‘look at’; they will continue to engage with hospitals in Bulawayo, while myself, Sue and Sally continue to support them by seeking funding opportunities to expand the art programme further into the wards and buildings of the maternity hospitals, as well as exploring other potential arts-in-healths links between and within the cities.

I am currently working on a creative document which will capture the dialogues that took place between the artists and health workers, as well as my own creative responses to the beautiful art works created during the project. Check out some of work in the pics below, and keep up to date with further developments by searching #BukaMpilo and #BukaCentral

The Writers' Room

I've been meaning to post a blog for some time about the fantastic experience I had mentoring eight emerging writers between July and November of this year, and here it finally is...

The set of images below explain the purpose and structure of The Writers' Room programme, which I ran as part of my role as a Creative Project Practitioner for Creative Learning (Aberdeen City Council). The CPD programme has led to so many fantastic outcomes for the participants involved as well as the creation of a close group of writers who continue to share and critique each others' work as part of a new writers collective. I've loved every minute of running the programme and look forward to running a second in 2017!

Polari Literary Salon @ Edinburgh's Assembly Roxy

On November 4th, I read at my second Polari Literary Salon in Edinburgh’s Assembly Roxy. My first took place at Aberdeen University’s May Festival earlier in the year, so it was great to be invited back to read alongside queen of crime Val McDermid, Mari Hannah and Karen McLeod, as well as compere Paul Burston. Highlights from the evening have to be getting my story BSL interpreted which proved for some interesting takes on the rather rude imagery in my piece ‘A Story for Mrs Grey’ (appearing in the Winter 2016 edition of Causeway/Cabhsair magazine), and the brilliant performance by Karen of her alter-ego Barbara Brownskirt – a hoot from start to finish!

October Update

I've been pretty busy the past few months with various events and workshops so thought I'd share some pics of what I've been up to!

First up, I took part in the Edinburgh International Book Festival's Booked! Festival in Aberdeen. Across two days I ran Doric Gruffalo and cut-up poetry activities for primary schools as part of my role with Aberdeen City Council's Creative Learning Team. On the first evening, I also read from my work in progress novel, Quines at Sea, at the Unbound cabaret event, performing my work alongside Peter Arnott, Wayne Price, Helen Lynch, Joshua Seigal, Allan Burnett and James Oswald.

Photograph by Amy Muir (courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival)

Photograph by Amy Muir (courtesy of Edinburgh International Book Festival)

The following Sunday I read more of Quines at Sea at a packed-out Pushing Out the Boat magazine event at The Blue Lamp. It was great to test out new passages from the novel across this week, to assure me about the direction it's going in. It was also great to see so much support for the magazine as it heads towards its 14th issue. I'm on the prose panel so I'm looking forward to reading through all of the submissions across the next month!

As part of my work with Creative Learning, I've been coordinating and facilitating a CPD programme for emerging and established writers in the Northeast called The Writers' Room. I promise to do a proper blog about it soon, but for now, here's a pic of an open event we ran with theatre production company, 10ft Tall, which explored Performing Your Work.

I then headed for a week's retreat in Moniack Mhor. This was an untutored retreat where I could get on with your own work in the company of other writers. It was great to hear what everyone else was up to and to talk about my work to folk outside of the Northeast. I'm especially looking forward to seeing new work from Zoe Venditozzi and Helen MacKinven in particular, who were a great laugh throughout the week!

This Autumn, the Granite writers have regrouped after the epic National Theatre of Scotland performance in March. We're now working on our own projects as well as writing smaller pieces to form part of a play for performance next year. Here are some pics from a hilarious session we did with the Granite Theatre group, who we will be devising work with across the next few months.

At the beginning of October I was asked by IntoFilm Scotland to do a reading for P5 - S2 pupils of The Sleekit Mr Tod, which is Roald Dahl's The Fantastic Mr Fox in Scots. This was followed by a screening of Wes Anderson's Fantastic Mr Fox film and then the school pupils were asked to write their own review in Scots which I helped them with. It was great to pick winners for the review competition, who will all be receiving Sleekit Mr Tod goodie bags from IntoFilm and Black & White publishing.

Later that day, I ran a 'Messages'-themed beginners' poetry workshop for Aberdeen City Libraries, which explored their postcard collection for inspiration and celebrated National Poetry Day. I then ran a beginners' prose workshop a couple of weekends later which explored the libraries' Treasures collection, including 'How to Stamp Out Typhoid' booklets from 1964 following Aberdeen's typhoid outbreak, and Cooke's Royal Circus programmes from the late 19th century. The Treasures collection is currently on display in the library in anticipation of the Central Library's 125th anniversary next year!

My last event in October was a beginners' Doric workshop for Aberdeen University students. This was mostly attended by students from other countries who are dumfoonert by the Northeast Scots dialect. We had a lot of fun watching clips from Brave and Aberdeen Student Show, as well as guessing the meaning of a selection of common Doric words.

Next month I'll be reading as part of the Polari Literary Salon on Tour in Edinburgh on November 4th at the Assembly Roxy along with Val McDermid, Mari Hannah, Karen McLeod and Paul Burston. I'll also be heading back to Bulawayo in Zimbabwe for a week to follow up on the Mother's Journey project I did in conjunction with Immpact and United Bulawayo Hospitals last year, so there's still plenty to get excited about in the rest of 2016!

Upcoming Readings and Workshops

It's not quite the end of summer and already the second half of my year is filling up fast! Over the coming months I'll be taking part in a few readings and facilitating a couple of creative writing workshops in Aberdeen and beyond. All details below and on my home page..

Monday 29 August, 7pm

  • Reading at Unbound! as part of Edinburgh International Book Festival's Booked! Festival in Aberdeen Arts Centre and Theatre Café Bar.

Sunday 4 September, 7pm

  • Reading as part of 'An Evening with Pushing Out the Boat' at The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen. Advanced tickets available from the POTB website.

Wednesday 5 October, 6-7.30pm

  • I am running a beginners' poetry workshop for adults at Aberdeen Central Library on the theme of 'messages' to celebrate National Poetry Day. Booking info.

Saturday 15th October, 12-1.30pm

  • I am running a prose workshop for adults exploring Aberdeen City Libraries' Treasures Collection. Booking info.

Friday 4 November, 7.30pm

  • Reading with Val McDiarmid, Mari Hannah and Karen McLeod as part of the Polari Literary Salon hosted by Paul Burston at the Assembly Roxy (Upstairs), Edinburgh. Further details here.

Spirit is Released: a Nan Shepherd Mural

I was recently asked by artist Lady Thornfield to select a quote that I felt would be suitable for a book group and creative writing meeting room at Rosemount Community Centre where I work part-time for the city's Creative Learning Team. After sifting through a few books on my shelf, it didn't take long to come across a brilliant quote about libraries and reading by Nan Shepherd, a writer who lived and wrote in the Aberdeen all of her life. Thankfully Lady Thornfield loved the quote, and it's now part of the monochrome mural which reflects Shepherd's engagement with nature throughout her writing, particularly in her first novel, The Quarry Wood, from which the quote comes.

Shepherd was recently selected to be the first female writer to feature on a Scottish banknote, and her non-fiction work, The Living Mountain, has gained increasing attention over the past decade with several new editions finding their way on the shelves of book shops across the country. Definitely check out her work if you haven't done so before!

A Journey Through Union Street's Unreal Estate

As part of this year's Look Again Festival, artist Gabrielle Reith created and curated the Unreal Estate Aberdeen exhibition which reflected on and redressed Aberdeen city through new artworks and writing about 10 buildings on its iconic Union Street. I was commissioned to write new pieces for five of the buildings focused upon in the exhibition which were displayed in the Bon Accord shopping centre between 28 May - 2 April. Below you can read each piece, learn more about the research and writing process for it, see the piece of artwork created for each building and listen to new music created by Fitlike Records for the project.

The Tollbooth

At the start of my research, I took a walk up and down Union Street, taking note of the aspects of each building that I found interesting: architectural details, information plaques, how folk interacted with them, what I could see through their windows... For The Tollbooth, I decided to take a visit inside as the building is now a museum displaying various exhibits about its history as a tax office, its later use as a wardhouse, the prisoners it held within, and the architectural changes the building has undergone. Although I've visited the building before, I'd never had a proper tour around the exhibits and was lucky to have my own 1-1 tour with one of the guides, Doug Strachan, who delighted in telling me more about the building's history as well as some great anecdotes about his time working there. I took a ream of notes by hand, trying to capture all the details I'd noted about the building itself (the wee windows, the narrow spiral staircases, the crumbling sandstone) and the stories Doug told.

A few days later, I picked out words and phrases from my notes that still resonated with me and typed them up in a document. I wanted to get the sense of crampness you feel in the building (and the prisoners would have felt when up to fifty were held in one cell!) as well as comment on what little light gets through the building through the small openings in the sandstone. A series of haikus seemed a natural fit, which is surprising as I don't normally write in the form. It really felt like it came together though, when I shifted into using Northeast Scots (Doric) to capture the voice most prisoners would have spoken with over the Tollbooth's use as a wardhouse. The final touch came when I realised that, forming part of an art exhibition, it wouldn't be too bad a thing to play around with the form and layout on the page, and so the haikus zigzag as you read through them, capturing the sense of the spiralling of both the narrow staircases and the prisoners' minds.

Hilary Duncan

Hilary Duncan


The Athenaeum

For this building, I did a fair bit of reading on the life and works of Aberdeen's most acclaimed architect, Archibald Simpson. I knew he had a massive impact on Union Street, but I was unaware of just how much work he'd managed to produce in his relatively short life across the Northeast of Scotland and beyond. The best resource I came upon was Archibald Simpson, Architect by David Miller, which gives a thorough overview of Simpson's career and, particularly important for my fabricated letter, a great sense of Simpson's bold, yet charming character. For the final draft of the piece, I looked at examples of letters from around this time to ensure I used a plausible register and the correct salutations.

The building went on to play a central role in the wider Look Again festival, as the launch took place in the basement of The Athenaeum building which now houses Brewdog's first nightclub, Underdog.

Allan Watson

Allan Watson


Esslemont & Macintosh

It's strange now to think that this is the only proper prose piece I wrote for the exhibition given that this is the form I work in most, but it's not so surprising that it turned out to be my favourite to write. I gave myself a bit more leeway with this piece in terms of how much research I did as I wanted to be a bit more playful, rather than sticking too closely to facts. I did sift through various images of the former Esslemont & Macintosh department store, which now sits empty except for a Jamie's Italian on one half of its first two floors. However, what caught my attention was a news article about a lift operator named Charlie Gordon who worked in E&Ms for over 40 years, and who passed away only a few months after the store closed its doors in 2007 after around 134 years in business. Given my recent involvement in the National Theatre of Scotland's Granite production, I was also inspired to make reference to this industry as well as Aberdeen's former textile mills, and the beginnings of a certain industry that still dominates the city now.

Given there are on-and-off plans to convert the former E&Ms building into a hotel, I love mixed-media artist Caitlin Hyne's vibrant piece which encapsulates what she'd rather see in this relatively massive space.

Caitlin Hynes

Caitlin Hynes


The New Market

From David Miller's book on Archibald Simpson, I also learned a lot about this former Victorian Market which was knocked down in the 1960s and involved the destruction of one of Simpson's most extravagant works: an Egyptian temple-like facade on its Market Street entrance. While I ultimately chose to write a fake news paper article about a lost building and many lost opportunities, I did come across a brilliant STV article about the inShops Market which currently stands in its place; if you want a laugh and a great example of the 'truth is stranger than fiction', have a read here.

Andy Kennedy

Andy Kennedy


The Colonnade

Given that the colonnade is a decorative work (a 'funcy dyke' some might say), rather than a building, I decided to focus on its form and neoclassical style. Reflecting on neoclassicism, I was soon reminded of Alexander Pope's 1712 mock-heroic narrative poem, The Rape of the Lock, with its satire on Pope's society through the recalling of heroes from ancient epics, and decided to do something similar for present-day Union Street.

I'm not usually keen to write in strict poetic forms, and while the piece did require the most editing and fiddling to fit a primarily iambic pentameter metre scheme (10 syllables in tee-TUM rhythm), I'm glad I persevered, particularly for the resulting musical take by Fitlike Records, which brings out a very different, unexpected feel to the piece I think.

Anne Marquiss

Anne Marquiss


Sitting Empty

I also collaborated with Fitlike Record on the following song to reflect number 520 Union Street, the final building on the street which is currently sitting empty. It features the vocals of Katie Buchan from one of my favourite Aberdonian bands, Best Girl Athlete.


The Unreal Estate exhibition was visited by 3170 people across the Look Again Festival weekend, which speaks volumes for the success of the Festival and the cultural appetite of the city. Besides this exhibition, I had great fun playing on Assemble and Simon Terrill's Brutalist Playground, and being a tourist in my own city on Doug Fishbone's Boomin' Bus Tour of Aberdeen! Check out my Instagram for my festival pics.

You can listen and download all the Unreal Estate tracks on Bandcamp, and find out about the other art works, writing and buildings on the Unreal Estate webpage.

Michty Mia! Student Show 2016 Lyrics

Over the past week, the 95th Aberdeen Student Show, Michty Mia!, was performed six times in Aberdeen’s His Majesty’s Theatre to around 7,000 people. After being involved in various productions of the local musical in the past, I was chuffed to be asked to write a couple of parody songs in Doric for this Aberdonian take on Mamma Mia!

Design: Alasdair Corbett, Studio Four

Design: Alasdair Corbett, Studio Four

Now that the final curtain has come down, I thought it’d be great to share the lyrics I wrote for this all-round brilliant production which saw over 40 students give over a month of their time to raise tens of thousands of pounds for Aberdeen Students’ Charities Campaign. The first is a mash-up parody of Abba’s ‘Thank You for the Music’ and ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ and the second is a parody of Megan Trainor’s ‘All About That Bass’. Enjoy!


Mannies, Mannies, Mannies / What’s Been Missing


Bridgette begins reading Reeva’s diary as the intro plays.

Bridgette (‘Thank You For the Music’):

Bidin’ in Stonie, at times, is a bit o a bore,

fan mam faas asleep, I aften just sneak oot the door.

Fan I feel this lonely, I ken fit to dee:

heid through to the Deen for some male company,

 ‘cos fan I feel forlorn

I’ve an affa bad case o the horn...

Reeva (to ‘Gimme Gimme Gimme’ chorus, while Bridgette reads with increasing shock; Reeva dances back and forth between all three dads):


Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

There’s nae much to choose fae doon at Estaminet.

Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

Guess he’ll hae to dee, I hivna gotten aa day!

(Reeva and one dad – Al – end up under a spotlight)

Half past ten!

He’s a bit o a mover – really kens hoo to sway,

oh I’ll hae me some Italian ony day.

We decide

to sneak into the lavvies, canna wait to see the sights

that are hidden underneath his tighty-whites.

(Reeva looks shocked and moves away from Al)

But this Italian stud,

his salami was a dud!

(She moves on to dance with the two remaining dads; chooses Glen by the verse)


Half past twelve

Am I weering beer goggles? ‘Cos he looks like Richard Gere…

Hiy! Ere’s nae “Pretty Woman” gan on here!

S’pose he’ll dee

‘cos I’m fed up o ess place, oh ma feet are getting sare

and I’d hate for half his bed to end up bare!

(Reeva looks disgusted and moves away from Glen)

But his breath was pretty foul –

I’m back oot on the prowl!

(dancing with the final dad, Broch)


Half past two

And we’re baith doon the Boolie, hae-in a pull in his car,

he reclines the driver’s seat back affa faaaaar!

Beeped his horn

fan I climbed owre to his side – oh, I wisna very slick

‘cos I ended up entwined wie the gear stick…

(Reeva waddles away from Broch and sings to audience)

He was an aarite ride,

but I’m never satisfied!


Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

There’s nae much to choose fae doon at Estaminet.

Mannies mannies mannies, fit een am I aifter?

Ony loon’ll dee fan Reeva Don’s oot to play!


Bridgette (Music back to ‘Thank You for the Music’):

Mum’s never mentioned these men when I’ve asked Who or What?

But Grannie has hinted, that mum used to be a right… nut!

Oh, I’ve always wondered, who my dad could be?

Had zero suspects, but now I have three!

The thoughts making me smile

of my dad walking me down the aisle!

Oh my God!

This is what’s been missing, why I’ve been dreading

turning up to my own bloody wedding!

Why be down about it? Why should I stress out my bae

on our big day?

Oh now I’ve stumbled on this puzzle piece,

I can see this has what’s been missing

to make me feel complete.


Aa Aboot the Deals


Grannie (backing singers in brackets):


Because you ken I’m aa aboot the deals!

Love a steal!

(Home Bargains!)

An Asda Smart Price meal

maks ma feel!

(Pound Stretcher!)

Thon Tesco Finest chiels

are unreal!

(T K Maxx!)

I’m aa aboot the deals –

Boots meal deal…

(deal, deal, deal)


Noo you listen here: way back in sixty-two

Fan I got mairried (mairried), wisna that big a do

We both said ‘I do’ doon at the registrar

Then dooned a few pints, doon at The Grill Bar (Far?!)


The kinda money folk will shell oot nooadays,

enough to mak ye boke! There must be other ways…

If I was Bridgette (Bridgette), I’d just elope!

Hoo can these brides be bothered? I would never bloody cope…


Oh, my mither, she telt ma “Da buy an expensive dress”

(No, nit-nit, no-no nit-nit)

‘Cos my wedding was shotgun and I was a big fat mess!

 (That belly belly! Urgh! That belly belly!)

Ye ken there’s nae better fit for an ever-expanding whale

than a frock made fae fresh bedsheets oot o the Markies’ sale.




Oh my daughter, I telt her to set up a B and B,

(Aye, aye-aye, oh aye, aye-aye)

to hae somewye to bide far I ay get breakfast for free.

(That bed and breakfast! Ooh! That bed and breakfast!)

And noo I’ve convinced oor Bridgette to wed at the bowling club

So I get member’s discoont on aa my ain drink and grub!


Because you ken I’m aa aboot the deals –

love a steal!

(Home Bargains!)

An Asda Smart Price meal

maks ma feel!

(Pound Stretcher!)

Thon Tesco Finest chiels

are unreal!

(T K Maxx!)

I’m aa aboot the deals –

Boots meal deal…

Granite: a True Celebration of Aberdeen

I first heard about the National Theatre of Scotland’s exciting Aberdeen-based theatre production, Granite, while at the launch of my twin city writing project, Passages, in May 2015. I discovered the production would involve bringing together different performing arts and writing groups across the city to produce an outdoor theatre spectacle in Marischal College quad to celebrate the history of the city through the stone it’s built from. It was exciting to hear that, just as my initiative to get folk writing in the city was coming to an end, another was on the horizon.

A couple of months later, I was asked to join the community writing team for the production headed up by well-known Scottish playwright Peter Arnott, who’d previously written stage versions of Sunset Song and Silver Darlings produced in Aberdeen.

box office image-01 (2)_1.jpg

The group met for the first time in August 2015. It was great to see some familiar faces from a playwriting course I was previously on: George Milne who wrote the fantastic Play, Pie and a Pint, Auntie Agatha Comes to Tea, and Evening Express writer Donna Ewen who’s as passionate as myself about works of theatre in the Northeast tongue. I had also previously met the former Doric Makar Sheena Blackhall, and Sheila Reid, a brilliant actress and writer who produces theatre for Fleeman productions in the city. Everyone else was a new face, which was very exciting as it’s often hard to know who else is writing maybe just a few streets away from you, particularly in a big, busy city like Aberdeen.

In the first few meetings it became clear that I was the youngest and less experienced “Aberdonian” in the team (unsurprising given I hail from Fraserburgh and have only lived in the Granite City for a decade), and so I came to learn so much from the other writers who all had such a wealth of knowledge about the history of both the city and its former granite industry. Thankfully we had a few strands to work on for the show which allowed me to be able to bring in my own interests, as well as trying out something new – projects and commissioned work are always great for that.

The main focus was to write a scene each for a story called “The Rooshian” which would form the central narrative of the final production. This narrative is based on a true story about a quarry worker, James Bissett, and his family who moved from the Northeast to Odessa when it was still part of Russia back in the 1860s. The family were all kicked out of Russia for James’s alleged attempt to start up a worker’s union (or perhaps just for his mere ownership of works by Robert Burns that were a tad too radical for Tsarist Russia), and it was said that they had to walk all the way back to Scotland, with his young son being known as “The Rooshian” into his adult life because of this.

To get to work on my own scene for the show, I headed straight to the Special Collections Centre at Aberdeen University, as well as the city libraries’ Local Studies collection, and came across a few gems on the granite industry. My favourite would have to be William Diack’s 1949 Rise and Progress of the Granite Industry in Aberdeen, which is worth reading for his grand prose style alone. Take this passage about the wide impact Aberdeen’s granite industry had globally for instance:

The products of the granite yards of Aberdeen are to be found in every quarter of the globe. They mark the last resting places of Kings, Emperors, and Statesmen. They may been seen in churchyards and cemeteries on both sides of the Border, in the Dominions over the seas, in the great Republics of North and South America; the in the snowy wastes of the Far North; and even in the arid deserts of Central Africa memorials of Aberdeenshire granite tell the world where gallant British soldiers have fallen.

While there was such as wealth of information on the industry to be found, I had to remember to not get too bogged down in factual detail as it can end up being a major block to creativity. So for a different source inspiration for this project, I returned to one of my favourite Russian writers, Nikolai Leskov, to see which of his tales of Tsarist Russia could give me a sense of life at the time. One of his stories, ‘The Steel Flea’ (also known as ‘Lefty’) is a fantastic folktale about expanding empires, international industries and the craftsmanship of the folk, which I felt resonated with what I was trying to write for my scene in which James and other granite workers arrive in the quarry in Odessa for the first time to pass on their stone dressing skills.

Sharing my first attempt at this scene with the rest of the writers was a useful gauge of what did and didn’t work in terms of plausibility, historical accuracy and humour. Having such a wide pool of people as a soundboard meant it didn’t take long to re-shape the scene afterwards into something that worked a lot better. Hearing everyone else’s scenes also gave me a sense of where my own fit into the bigger puzzle we were all trying to piece together. As I have found time and time again, this collaborative process is essential when writing for the stage compared with the more personal and private process I have with drafting my prose.

As well as our individual Rooshian scenes, we were given free reign to work on other aspects of Aberdeen as a city and interpretations of the wider ‘granite’ theme. I turned to Grassic Gibbon’s 1934 essay on Aberdeen and worked on a modern take on his description of Aberdeen’s 1930s nightlife which compares ‘the watching granite […] on the façades of the great grey buildings’ with ‘the manners and customs of the folk in the streets’. I was also asked by Peter to write a poem based on the research I’d done on the health conditions of quarry workers. I don’t often write poetry, and do find it that it’s easier to complete a poem when I’m given parameters to work within by someone else. The final poem, ‘Granite from the Heart of the Mountain’, was somewhat of a found piece, taking lines from the reading I’d done on injuries and deaths in the industry, as well as thinking about the uses of granite in relation to funereal practices: tombs, urns and gravestones – cheery stuff!

These two latter pieces were showcased as part of a writers’ night for our script team at the Arts Centre in February. This was a chance to get a taster of the final Granite production, as well as have the principal cast perform some of our other work. Having attended a few ‘scratch’ events in the past in Aberdeen, this one was very effective with its simplified, cabaret staging, musical accompaniment from Howarth Hodgkinson, and Peter’s well thought-out order. For small showcases like this, comedy always works well, and Trish Harvey’s pieces are the ones I remember most for their sheer hilarity, performed so brilliantly by Joyce Falconer, Marc Wood and Elspeth Davies, as Doric seagulls and aul wifies.

Granite principal cast and writers.

Granite principal cast and writers.

It wasn’t long for the final event to come round, opening on March 31st for a three-night run. Doing any outdoor event in Aberdeen at this time of year is risky, but thankfully the rain held off for opening night. The audience were sat either side of a long, slim stage in the middle of Marischal College quad which was reminiscent of a ship; it was swarmed by the cast who recalled the past in their Victorian dress, while a futuristic, asteroid-like granite rock dangled above them. The cast was composed of various groups who’d worked on different aspects of the Granite project, including ACT’s Adult Drama group who celebrated individual Aberdeen heroes, APAs Youth Theatre who looked at what the city meant to them and its future, and various dance groups performing traditional Scottish and Russian dance. These narrative strands were all explored throughout the performance alongside the Rooshian story, and while it threatened to become a bit too overwhelming at the start, all of the threads wound together over time towards a powerful and moving climax, which included a visual nod to the Piper Alpha disaster through a beautiful aerial performance, and an on-stage snowstorm which the Bissett family had to weather to find their way home – the 5 degrees Celsius temperature definitely added to this part of the show!

Given the nature of such a large collaborative project which brings together input from a range of different groups, I had no idea whether any of my writing had made it into the final cut, and wasn’t expecting that much of it would given it was a one-act, 70-minute performance. I was chuffed, however, to see that my poem and Grassic Gibbon homage were both used, as well as a trimmed down version of the scene set in the Odessa quarry. It was really exciting to see my work performed as part of such a large, community effort, alongside fantastic pieces by the other writers and performance groups, and the words and letters of bygone Aberdonians.

The sold-out Granite production took place during a busy week for the city, with packed out events also taking place on the same nights to celebrate the Music Hall before it undergoes a two-year renovation. Alongside the buzzing festivals that have already taken place, this week really felt like an important moment in the city’s cultural scene, marking the drive and desire to reach new cultural heights and to make things happen, so the National Theatre of Scotland and all the partners involved can only be thanked for being such a big part of that, and I look forward to seeing more work of this standard produced in our granite city.

The programme and a wee granite cassie given to the audience after the performance.

The programme and a wee granite cassie given to the audience after the performance.

You can see images of the production here, and find out more about the wider project on the Granite website.



Across November last year, I ran a series of story writing workshops for Aberdeen City Libraries' #WriteCity Creative Writing Festival. The workshops took place in Cummings Park Community Flat with the same group of participants, building on their knowledge each week to complete and redraft their own story. Across four sessions, we covered character creation, showing versus telling, dialogue and dialect, and avoiding clichés. Although I've worked with university students across several sessions in the past, it was great to do the same in a community setting with older participants who were more willing to be open and share stories in person and on the page.

Participants' work from these sessions feature in the #WriteCity publication, along with work by Alan Spence, Helen Lynch and other workshop tutors and participants. Although written long before I was asked to take part in #WriteCity, my own story begins in Aberdeen Central Library itself before shifting through neighbouring St Mark's Church and His Majesty's Theatre, so it seemed only right that I submitted it for the collection. The publication is free to pick up from libraries throughout Aberdeen.