Island books short-listed for award

The staff at Saltire books.
The staff at Saltire books.

Two books by an island-based publisher have been included in this year’s shortlist for the prestigious Saltire Society Book Awards.

Lewis writer Norma Macleod is in the running for Fiction Book of the Year with An Dosan; her fourth novel, written entirely in Gaelic.

Meanwhile, Dol Fodha na Greine (The Going Down of the Sun), a beautiful and powerful book which tells the story of the First World War as it was experienced by the island community of Ness, is shortlisted for History Book of the Year.

It is fully bilingual; written in both Gaelic and English, and was published by Acair in conjunction with Ness Historical Society Comunn Eachdraidh Nis. Neither book is a stranger to awards. Norma’s book won the Donald Meek Award for Gaelic Literature at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014 while Dol Fodha na Greine took the top Gaelic Literature award at the recent Royal National Mod in Oban.

However, their inclusion in the Saltire Society Awards is particularly to be welcomed because the awards do not differentiate between Gaelic, English and Scots.

There are no sub-divisions, no awards for ‘Gaelic’ Fiction Book of the Year. It is simply Fiction Book of the Year. An open category. There are six categories within the annual Saltire Society Literary Awards: First Book of the Year, History Book of the Year, Research Book of the Year, Poetry Book of the Year, Fiction Book of the Year and Non-Fiction Book of the Year.

It is the second appearance on the Saltire shortlist in the same number of years for Acair, originally set up in 1979 to provide educational materials for schools for the bilingual project. Cala Bendita, a Gaelic novel by Martin MacIntyre, featured on the shortlist for best Fiction Book last year.

Another Gaelic novel, Tim Armstrong’s sci-fi work Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach, took the Saltire First Book of the Year prize in 2013, but such honours for Gaelic are still fairly rare.

Norma Macleod, a former managing editor of Acair until her retirement in 2010, said she was “gobsmacked” to be named in the Saltire shortlist.

“I’m amazed and I’m pleased. I think the Saltire award is an excellent award for Scottish literature — not that I ever thought the poor old Dosan would be put forward for a Saltire award. It is a prestigious award and, whoever else is on the shortlist, I would wish them well and I’m sure they are happy about getting on the shortlist as well.”

The fact these nominations are not in ‘Gaelic only’ categories, but in the main fiction and history awards lists, is hugely significant for Norma.

“It says that Gaelic publishing can be up there in Scotland now along with Scottish publishers who write in English,” she said.

“Over the past few years it’s beginning to become a measure of equality that these languages — like Gaelic and hopefully Scots as well — are considered on their merits. It’s just great.”

“As a former Acair editor, it’s great to see Acair steps forward and taking new directions in the kind of books it publishes. It’s quite wonderful.”

And what would her central character, the eccentric Dosan (Domnhall Seumas Iain, to give him his Sunday name), make of such high-level recognition? “He would make the most of it,” she said.

An Dosan follows this character as he goes about life in an island community and attempts to write a book, becoming increasingly unhinged as he does so. His book is contained with the main novel, with chapters of each interweaving.

Dol Fodha na Greine is a very different book. It was created by a whole team of people, with a lot of community involvement, and led by Comunn Eachdraidh chairwoman Annie MacSween and editor Donald A Morrison.

Annie said of their shortlisting: “It’s a great honour — not just for Acair or the Comunn Eachdraidh but the Ness community because really it’s a community book. We are just delighted that we’ve been nominated.

“We’re very proud of the book. I think Donald A Morrison and the designers and everybody else did a fantastic job and the amount of research that went into it is amazing.

“I don’t know if any other community in the whole of the UK has done a book like this to commemorate — commemorate not celebrate — the First World War.”