Arts / Organisers pleased as Wordplay showcases some top class authors

Author Gavin Esler during the book signing after Sunday's event at Mareel. Photos: Hans J Marter

THE UNTOLD and often hidden histories of women was one of the many threads that ran through this year’s Wordplay book festival which closed on Sunday night with a well-attended event featuring former BBC journalist Gavin Esler.

Being interviewed on stage by another former BBC journalist – Jane Moncrieff – Esler identified  in his book How Britain Ends English, rather than Scottish or Irish nationalism, as the driving force behind the very real possibility of the UK breaking up.

However, during the five-day event, held mainly at Mareel, it was mainly women who set the agenda and steered the discussion.

Dr Cat Jarman speaking on her research into Viking history, Sara Sheridan, author of Where are the Women, discussing her 2021 novel The Fair Botanists, Kirsten Innes presenting her state of the nation novel Scabby Queen as well as Chitra Ramaswamy who had her new book Homelands just published, the mention just a few.

Dr Cat Jarman: ‘Human remains are very much telling a different story’.

There were, of course, also plenty of men, from children’s author David Macphail, broadcaster and author James Crawford, illustrator Tom Percival to local author John Goodlad whose second book on the local fishing industry The Salt Roads has just been published and, of course, Wordplay curator Malachy Tallack.

Studying human remains through carbon dating and DNA analysis has enabled Dr Jarman to largely rewrite Viking history.

Rather than solely relying on historic records written by monks attacked and plundered by pillaging Vikings, her focus as a bioarchaeologist is unlocking the data that is found in “our bodies”, in the skeletons of people buried in the Viking Age.

She says that there is no denying that rape, murder and pillaging was very much part of the Viking expansion in the 9th and 10th century, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.

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“Especially, the archaeology, the objects and the human remains are very much telling a different story,” she says, “which is one of the things I wanted to get across with the book River Kings.”

“We use to think that in the Viking Age women tend to stay at home, and men went out, rob monasteries and come back home again. But evidence from human remains have now shown that that is not true at all; women were moving out of Scandinavia as well,” she explains.

“Women were very much part of these movements in Viking Age, and that is really what has radically changed of what we understood about them.”

Meanwhile Sara Sheridan’s subject matter is the Edinburgh of 200 years ago when the city prepared for the much-anticipated visit of King George IV, the first monarch to visit the Scottish capital in more than 100 years.


The Fair Botanists makes fun of the extraordinary event, which coincided with the move of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh from its site on Leith Walk to  Inverleith, interweaving plenty of scandal as the city went crazy in the build-up to the big day.

Sheridan says she enjoyed playing around with such historical events, trying to imagine what it was really like.

One thing is certain: not everybody was delighted by the monarch’s visit and most people agreed that he was not a good king.

Sara Sheridan:

Always on the lookout for the hidden history of women and the working class, Sheridan says: “One of my bugbears with historical fiction is when you have working class characters like maids and servants in the house, and they exist solely in relation to who is the master and mistress.


“Creating subplots around their real lives is what I am interested in.”

She continues saying: “Not everyone was delighted the king was coming; there were many middle and upper class women who were angry with George IV. He was a terrible king, he slept with everyone and had loads of illegitimate children.”

A committed republican nationalist, she said she was chuffed and amused to have been contacted by the Duchess of Cornwall – now the Queen Consort’s – Instagram based book group which wanted to feature her book to the group’s 150,000 members.

“Camilla has read it and loved it, so we got featured on the Duchess of Cornwall Instagram group which was hilarious,” she said.

As preparation for next year’s Wordplay will, no doubt, get underway soon, curator Tallack and organiser Shetland Arts said they were pleased with the response from audiences to what was the first non-hybrid book festival since the pandemic.


“For some people, there’s still a bit of hesitancy about attending events and being among crowds, which is understandable. But the overall feeling I get is that most folk are relieved to be able to do these things again,” Tallack said.

“The audiences at Wordplay have been back up at pre-pandemic levels, from what I can tell, and there’s a real sense of enthusiasm about the whole weekend.

“It’s such a good feeling, having selected the writers this year, to see folk come out of events talking to each other about what they’ve just seen, and heading off happily with books in their hands.

“One of the aims of Wordplay is to give audiences in Shetland the same kinds of opportunities they would get elsewhere.

“The writers appearing here are probably also appearing at Edinburgh or Cheltenham or any of the other much bigger book festivals. But of course, a community festival has its own kind of atmosphere and intimacy, which you won’t find at those other places.”

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