The History

by Richard Neath

The Reading Room so far…

In the spring of 2011 an excited writer drove over the Skye Bridge in
the early morning mist. He travelled the twisting roads from one side
of the country to the other, bound for the BBC Radio Scotland studio in
Inverness. He got lost (several times) and, in a fume of frustration and
words choice enough to make most dockers blush and at total odds with
the literary world, blundered from street to street until, finally, sweating
profusely and rapidly running out of time, he pushed open the doors of his
destination and entered the lobby…

I was that excited writer and, at that point in time, I knew nothing of
literary salons apart from the fact that I was due to read at one that
very evening in a hotel somewhere in the city. In the lobby of the studio
stood a group of people. I recognised one face: Peter Urpeth of Hi~
Arts. He duly introduced me to the rest of the group and I duly forgot
every name I was given. And then, in a small room on the first floor
with a desk, a microphone a pair of headphones and a couple of chairs I
met Kristin Pedroja, the lady responsible for setting up and running the
Highland Literary Salon.

Also in that small room was a dark haired lady with a lilting Irish voice
and an impish, cheeky smile desperately trying to cover her own nerves:
Orla Broderick.

The radio reading went well and, during lunch with Orla and Kristin, the
literary salon idea began to gain some semblance of order in my head.
I gradually began to understand the thinking behind the whole idea.
Basically, like-minded people with a love of books, literature, poetry and
writing in general (Orla coined the phrase “all things writerly” and it stuck
for many months) got together on a regular basis and discussed their
passion. Writers and poets would visit and read their work, discuss their
thinking and their processes and in doing so, the beauty and depth of
the written word would be shared and, by being shared, its impact and
effects would spread between people like a well-meaning virus.

After the evening reading, a meal and a pint or two, Orla collared me and
went for the kill. Having already run one successful event on Skye she was
desperate to make it a regular event but realised that she needed help.
I liked the idea but really had too much on my plate already, what with
work and all the other commitments that cling to modern life. No, I really couldn’t get too involved.

Did I mention the lilting Irish voice and impish, cheeky smile? Orla can be
a difficult person to say no to…

The early events were fraught with a frustrating limit to our resources;
we didn’t have enough time, help or cash, but, despite these issues, they
went well, with getting on for forty people attending individual events.
We heard tales from the bicycle saddle courtesy of Kevin MacNeil
when he visited to promote his new Anthology ‘These Islands We Sing’.
We were reduced to tears of laughter by Mark O Goodwin reciting his
work and, in the same wonderful evening, reduced to thoughtful musing
over the wonderful penmanship of Myles Campbell. Meg Bateman and
Alec Findlay entertained us in an event jointly hosted with Atlas and, for one night only, even theSalon’s founder members got in on the act and read passages from both published and unpublished work.

It must have been early Autumn when it became all too apparent that
things were getting too big, too complicated and simply way too involved
for Orla and myself to manage on our own and so, we decided, with a
nudge and a prod from Peter Urpeth, that we had to get serious.

I’ll mention, at this point that, during our initial discussions when Orla
convinced me to get involved, I had one simple reservation to the whole
project. Being a solitary fellow with an aversion to rules and regulations,
my one stipulation was that I absolutely, definitely, categorically didn’t
want to get involved in a committee. But we’d got to a point where we
needed a more formal arrangement. We needed administrational help. We
needed access to funding and more structure.

I could see where it was heading.

An initial steering committee was duly formed (Charlotte Johnson, Iona
MacDonald, Val Fellows, Orla Broderick and myself) and several meetings
followed where we discussed, tweaked, cajoled and slowly sculpted what
was to become, at the inaugural meeting in December, The Reading Room.

One of our most pressing issues was ‘The Baker Prize’.

At its inception, it was simply a daft idea, a throw away comment,
a reason for a bit of a jolly. We’d launch a writing competition with categories for prose and poetry in both English and Gaelic, with the resulting entries assessed by independent judges. We thought we may get a little interest and a few entries, even thought at the time that we may enter ourselves. What we didn’t expect was the level of interest the competition would generate. Admittedly, the real influx only came after the Baker Prize appeared on the Cuillin fm website but, my-oh-my, once the World Wide Web got involved, how the interest soared.

Some days, while working in my home office, I’d get an enquiry or an
actual entry every few minutes, the little message at the bottom of my
screen flashing to tell me I’d received another email. One after another
they flooded in, from all over the country and several from overseas. We
even had one from a lady in South Carolina and I remember joking that if
she won, I only hoped she didn’t expect us to pay her travelling expenses.

Well, after a couple of months, the deadline came and went and, with
the help of my wife Max, I set about compiling individual entries for the
different categories. Over 140 pieces of work, sent, on the whole via
email, from across the vast expanse of cyber space to land on my pc to be
judged and awarded their place in the very first Baker Prize.

Niall Gordon came in top place in the Gaelic poetry category, Andy
Jackson put in a fine performance by taking top honours in English poetry
and landed a highly commended into the bargain.

And what do you know, that lady from South Carolina just went right
on and won first prize in the English Prose section with her short
story ‘Payline’. “Oh well”, we all thought, “we’ll have to chose someone to
read her winning entry on her behalf”.

And yet here the tale of the Reading Room so far, like a well written,
page turning thriller, takes a final plot-turning twist and that lady from
across the pond, the highly talented Heather Magruder, joins us at the
Skeabost Hotel to claim her prize, read her work and, simply by being
there and by making such a monumental effort, helps the Reading Room
grow a little more.

And, you know what? I think the best really is yet to come…

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