Festival authors return to scene of seasonal jobs

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Two of the guests at this year’s Ullapool Book Festival, taking place from May 10 to 15th, are coming back to the village where they spent time working in their post-student days.

One is Linda Cracknell who will be talking about her non-fiction book Doubling Back: Ten Paths Trodden in Memory.

It was described by Gavin Francis as ‘a heartfelt exploration of the mental and physical landscapes that shape our lives’ and was broadcast as BBC Radio Four’s Book of the Week.

Linda said of her time in Ullapool: “In 1986 I was living in Devon when I went on a cycle-touring holiday in the north of Scotland.

It was early July and the weather conspired with rain and a headwind from whichever direction we turned. Coming down the coast from Scourie we arrived, extremely hungry, in Ullapool and discovered The Ceilidh Place.

“On an impulse I went to speak to Jean Urquhart at the reception desk. ‘No,’ she said, ‘no staff needed just now. But leave your phone number if you like.’ A few days after arriving back in Devon, the phone rang. Someone had left unexpectedly. Would I like to go back?

“I took my bicycle on the train from Exeter to Dingwall and cycled the rest of the way. I was there for a month, working behind the self-service counter in the daytime or waiting tables in the evenings, dressed in blue uniform dungarees.

“Jean and Joan (Michael) were my managers. I lived in terror of the walk-in fridge, never sure where I might meet the current lobster-in-residence. I put on an enormous amount of weight as the remains of every cake ended up on the table of the staff hut!”

Ireland’s Nuala Ní Chonchúir is another returnee. She will discuss her critically acclaimed latest novel The Closet of Savage Mementos which is drawn directly from her own experiences and explores heartbreak, loss, motherhood and adoption in a fictional village loosely based on Ullapool.

She reflected: “I arrived at The Ceilidh Place the day after sitting my final exams at Trinity College Dublin, in June 1992; I was there to take up a summer job. I loved that the hotel didn’t just take in guests, that it was a cultural centre, book-shop, art gallery and music venue.

“I received a warm welcome from Jean et al and settled quickly. And, of course, the landscape of the Highlands was bewitching: I loved the vast angular mountains flanking Loch Broom, and Ullapool’s neat grid of white, black-trimmed houses.

“I was seduced by the place and the people and ended up staying six months longer than I had intended. It was a time of friendship and learning for me that I remember really fondly. I think Ullapool has that kind of draw for people; it gets hold of you.”

Festival chair Joan Michael said “We are thrilled to welcome Linda and Nuala back to Ullapool. I am looking forward to seeing Linda again. And I know that some of Nuala’s former colleagues have bought tickets for her session. A wee reunion looks to be on the cards.”