Painting with words

From almost 900 entries from all ages, the winners of the National Galleries' creative writing competition Inspired? Get Writing! have been chosen SUSAN MANSFIELD reports

IT'S HARD to visit a great art gallery and not feel inspired. That's the idea which underpins the Inspired? Get Writing! creative writing competition run by the National Galleries of Scotland (NGS) and the English Speaking Union. Launched three years ago, the competition asks budding writers, young and old, from all over Scotland, to write a poem or a piece of prose inspired by a work of art in the NGS collection. Entries were invited in five categories: under-12s, 12-15s, 16-18s, and published and unpublished adults. The five category winners are printed here.

The response is never less than exciting, whether the inspiration is Rembrandt or John Bellany. This year's winners range from a witty take on the Bonnie Prince Charlie myth ("the face that launched a thousand tins of biscuits") to an insightful poem about Scottish socialist Jennie Lee, inspired by a photograph by Robert Capa.

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• The winners from the previous two years are published in a book, Inspired? Get Writing!, available from NGS shops and website at


by Fiona Ritchie, aged 13, St Columba's School, Kilmacolm

Category: 12-15s

Inspired by: Prince Charles Edward Stuart by Antonio David

I KNOW what you're thinking. Which three words just come into your head as you stand there looking at me.

Bonnie Prince Charlie.

I'm right, aren't I? Only because I lost, you know. If I'd won, it would have been His Royal Highness, Prince Charles Edward Stewart, and a lot of bowing and scraping and going out of doors backwards. I don't really mind the Bonnie – I mean, if you look, I was pretty gorgeous. Bit of a babe magnet in my time. And Prince is accurate enough – it's the Charlie which is disrespectful. But I just have to stand here and put up with it, and listen to the drivel you lot come up with as you look at me. All because I lost – and in an odd sort of way you won. You peasants can say what you like and I have to listen. Believe me if I'd won I wouldn't have been listening to peasants, not at all – unless they were cheering in the streets I suppose.

It's not as if visitors here say anything original – same old, same old, time after time.

"If only he hadn't tried to march to London, if he'd stopped at Edinburgh it would all have been different." Yes it would have been different. But there wouldn't have been any point in that, you stupid old man – it was all about money and power and the money and power was in London. I didn't come all the way here for a few miles of damp heather and a ceilidh.

"It's so sad; the Highland way of life was destroyed forever." Good thing too – do you really think you'd have liked the Highland way of life? You'd have been a lot thinner, for starters Madam – people ate less and moved around more in those days, and in your case ate a lot less. The Highland way of life had to go – and believe me you wouldn't thank anybody for bringing it back. Do you really think you could get yourself a plasma screen TV and surround sound by rearing a couple of scabby cows on a stony patch of ground? So sick by the end of the winter the beasts were that they had to be carried out to pasture – do you know why Madam? Because you and your children would have survived the winter by drinking their blood, that's why. Want to go back to that do you? Didn't think so. Progress, that's what the end of the clan system was. A bit harsh, the way it was done, I'll grant you that it could have been gentler. But progress all the same and your lives are much better for it.

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"He's not even Scottish you know." Well that's true enough. I was born in the wonderful city of Rome. My mother was Princess Clementina Maria Sobieski of Poland. She was one of the wealthiest Royal women in Europe. And beautiful. You can see where I got my exceptional good looks from. My birth was an important event – I even had a special blessing from his Holiness the Pope. Do you have any idea, any idea at all, how lucky you were that I left my privileged home to come here? Life was cultured and refined; I conversed in English, French, Latin and Italian. Oh dear, never bothered to learn Gaelic. Never mind, too late now. The women, no the ladies, were beautiful and gracious, the gentlemen were sophisticated and well dressed. Not like I found here – a coarse bunch of highlanders eating oats with spoons made of bone and calling themselves "Clan Chieftains." You have no idea how honoured you were that I came here at all. Not even Scottish indeed!

Then you get the tourists "That reminds me, we must go to Culloden while we're in Scotland" Backbone of the tourist industry, that's me. What thanks do I get? None, none at all. The face that launched a thousand tins of shortbread. And bottles of whisky and tartan tins of sweeties, and mugs and even mouse mats. CDs of sad songs about how darling Charlie skipped across the heather into a boat to Skye and isn't coming back again. Ever. Written in Kent, recorded in Canada.

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No I don't like bagpipes either, not that anyone ever asks. Not all this tat is made in Scotland either by the way. And is there a single castle in the whole of Scotland which doesn't have a "piece of Bonnie Prince Charlie's waistcoat" in a glass case on the wall? What do they think I did, ran around the country snipping up my clothes and leaving a trail like breadcrumbs everywhere I visited? I suppose that would explain why I apparently slept in every old pub in Scotland.

But the worst visitors are those who "did the Jacobites" at school. So very clever they are. Know it all, they do. And the worst, the very worst of all, is that every so often, about once a week, one of them leans across the rope, looks me in the eye and says: "Run, you cowardly Italian."


by Stuart Aitken, aged 11, Port Ellen Primary School, Islay

Category: Under 12s

Inspired by: My Father by John Bellany

My friend is honest, kind, helpful and funny.

I talk to him everyday because I visit him in his

shed. It's colourful with photos of him working, fixing nets and creels.

He used to have his own boat but it smashed on

the rocks, the rope snapped.

After that he decided to stay on land – his old

back was giving him trouble anyway.

He passes time in here listening to his radio,

smoking and whistling. It smells of

Golden Virginia. He can look angry, he is not, he is just wise.

His wrinkled face tells me he's been alive for a

long time. His eyes are full of stories. I know some of them. His

large, rough, sandpaper hands are worked.

Calloused and lines with engraved dirt.

His wrinkled clothes match his face.

His tattoo is the only evidence

that he ever loved anybody – maybe that was the

name of one of his boats – who knows? Him.

He's taught me a lot about the first world war.

Fascinating facts and tales. The tanks when they

first arrived, big scary machines. The hardship in

the trenches, filth and death. Rats and wetness.

He was a horse handler. His big gritty hands are

just perfect for this job. I like him, my mate.


by Andrew McCormack, 16, St Andrews Academy, Paisley

Category: 16-18s

Inspired by: The Revd Robert Walker Skating on Duddingston Loch by Henry Raeburn

Charity Malone was an earnest young nun,

Swimming dark lochs was her idea of fun.

She'd slip off her habit and lay down her beads,

Say a quick prayer then push through the reeds.

Her well worn costume of lilac and white,

Was nun's regulation, not too slinky or tight.

She swam like a mermaid without fuss or hurry,

And let the cool water wash away all her worry.

But summer was followed by a winter most sinister,

The nun left the water and ice brought a minister.

The man had a talent, he could skate like a demon,

The crowds seemed to love him, especially women.

He leapt like a salmon and turned like a dancer,

But she saw a show-off and a bit of a chancer.

His sin was pride, and she knew it was wrong,

But she wished it was her, admired by the throng.

Her sin was envy, she swam like he skated,

But she did it alone, unseen, uncelebrated.

In her convent so dreary she prayed hard and long,

And her jealousy left her at summer's return.

She went back to her loch and swam for hours,

Enjoying her talent and god-given powers.

She swam not for praise or celebrity's fame,

She cared not who knew her or remembered her name.

So if you see a young mermaid in a Loch all alone,

She might be a nun called Charity Malone.


by Ian McDonough, Edinburgh

Category: Published adult

Inspired by: Rembrandt Van Ryn – Self Portrait, aged 51

Aged two, they said,

I drew the outline of a sparrow in the dirt.

Soon my eye consumed the whole of Leyden,

fingers etched with light, ears burning

with a score of crafty secrets from old Swanenburch,

Pieter Lastmann's recipe for clouds.

Fast enough I left them, the old devils, to their tricks,

set off to snare the glory of our world. Year on year,

rejoicing, aching, among gesso chalk and glue,

layering imprimatura till my boards yielded such glow

you'd swear the sun lay buried just beneath the floor.

Older, I turned rougher with the brush, capturing

nothing more or less than I bore witness to.

This blanket of years, sewing such a bleak embroidery,

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presses heavy as time rolls, stifling the blaze to smoulders,

Ochre to Raw Umber, then the frightful edges of Bone Black.


by Andy Jackson, Tayport

Category: Unpublished adult

Inspired by: Jennie Lee by Robert Capa

Daughters, hear the truth. Back then,

no pit was deep enough for diamonds,

none would strike a match

for fear of fire-damp.

The roar of the conveyor belt

drove girls from blackened homes

in Fife, their coughing fathers

burning out like cinders.

She was caught by gales that swept

across the steppes, to rattle windows

on collective farms, yearning for

the gusts of revolution.

She broke the ceilings in a ruin,

breathed on plaster till it cracked,

then helped to mix the sand

with the cement to build us up again.

The artist, bleak in his fatigues

and listening out for shells,

is sizing up the shot. His art

is in the truth, his propaganda

is the likeness of a better world

already here, if we could only see

its levelling of light and dark,

its socialism of the eye.

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• The winners, runners-up and commended entries will receive public readings at the Hawthornden Lecture Theatre in the National Galleries complex tomorrow: Under-12s at 10:30am; 12-15s and 16-18s at 1:30pm; published and unpublished adults at 5:30pm