Gaelic science fiction novel wins literary prize

Tim Armstrong, Gaelic writer and academic. Picture: Contributed
Tim Armstrong, Gaelic writer and academic. Picture: Contributed
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AN AMERICAN writer has landed one of Scotland’s flagship literary prizes - with the first ever Gaelic science fiction novel.

Tim Armstrong, a former singer in a Gaelic punk rock band, has scooped the Saltire Society’s prestigious “first book” prize with his book “Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach” (On a Glittering Black Sea).

The debut from 46-year-old Armstrong, a trained biologist who is now an academic at the Gaelic college Sabhal Mòr Ostaig on Skye, features two musicians at the centre of the book’s plot.

Unveiled at the Aye Write festival in Glasgow earlier this year, it is billed as a mix of “space-opera adventure, dark cyberpunk, romance and rock-band road-trip drama.”

The story unfolds after the pair - based on a mining colony on a remote desert moon - hitch a ride on a rocket to a space station “where anarchists and cybernetic insurrectionists battle with autocratic mercantile authorities.”

They then steal a luxurious “disco-equipped spaceship” and travel first to San Francisco on Earth, then a tropical pleasure planet where they are accused of being involved in a “cybernetic uprising.”

Armstrong’s book was named joint winner of the Saltire Society’s debut book prize at the cultural body’s prestigious annual literary awards at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow.

The honour was shared with As Far As I Can See, a collection of short stories by Arbroath writer Eunice Buchanan, a retired schoolteacher in her eighties.

Previous winners of the Scottish First Book of the Year prize include Jackie Kay, Ali Smith, Kate Clanchy, Robin Robertson, Michael Faber, Louise Welsh and John Aberdein.

Armstrong, who was born in New York but brought up in Seattle, moved to Scotland 13 years ago and quickly immersed himself in the music scene in Edinburgh, where he formed a Gaelic punk band “Mill a h-Uile Rud”, which translates as Destroy Everything, while he was studying the language.

He said: “I was really into the pock rock scene in Seattle before I moved to Scotland.

“I don’t really know why I came, I just sort of washed up here. I had a lot of friends who were involved with the music scene at that time and I remember playing for the first time, busking on the Royal Mile, with a mohawk.

“There was actually a bit of a Gaelic punk scene in Edinburgh at the same, with bands like Oi Polloi, although it was maybe only around a dozen of us altogether.

“I was in Edinburgh for a couple of years, playing guitar and singing in the band and we actually toured overseas for a year or so.

“I then went to study in Skye, where I played in a few other Gaelic bands. I’m now a social research fellow at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, so I do a lot of writing in my job.”

Armstrong cites the late Iain M Banks and Frank Herbert as major influences on his writing, which has been championed by the independent Gaelic publishing firm Clar, based in Inverness.

Armstrong added: “I’ve loved science fiction for years. I was 12 when I read Frank Herbert’s Dune, which was the first adult book I read. I’ve been a sci-fi fan ever since.

“I was ask to try to write a short story in Gaelic a couple of years ago and the book came out of that. But I didn’t think it would lead to anything like this.”

The judging panel for the first new book honour - which was first awarded by the Saltire Society in 1988, said of “Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach”: “Tim Armstrong has brought the counter-culture of his native Seattle to shape the first genuine sci-fi novel in Gaelic.

“Musicians fleeing their redundant planet are chased across the galaxy by a half-crocodile cop and a sinister female recluse with very nasty intent.

“Secretive power and racial orthodoxy are among the issues raised.”

Armstrong’s novel was one of two Gaelic books on the Saltire Society’s main shortlists for literary honours this year.

One of the contenders for its overall Scottish Book of the Year was Màiri Dhall (Blind Mairi) by Duncan Gillies, who hails from Ness, on the Isle of Lewis.

Burnside lands Scottish Book of the Year gong with short stories collection

CELEBRATED poet and novelist John Burnside has won the Scottish Book of the Year prize - with only his second collection of short stories.

The Fife writer won the Saltire Society’s flagship honour for the second time with his book Something Like Happy.

Burnside, who had his first poetry published in 1988, has been a full-time writer since 1994. A former writer in residence at Dundee University, he is currently professor in creative writing at St Andrews University.

The long-running cultural body’s literary awards have been staged annually since 1982 and previous Scottish Book of the Year Winners have included Alasdair Gray, Edwin Morgan, William McIlvanney, Alan Warner, Andrew Greig, James Kelman and Liz Lochhead.

Burnside, whose other honours include the Whitbread Poetry Award and the TS Eliot Prize, won the society’s main prize in 2006 with his memoir, A Lie About My Father.

The judging panel said of Something Like Happy: “John Burnside’s second collection of short stories deals with the central theme of the despairing and the disappointed, lives in which people are trapped by circumstances or human failings or even by the haphazard events of living.

“What marks these stories out though is the redemptive quality that can be found in each of them as people find hope in sometimes the smallest and most inconsequential signs of the familiar.”

The Scottish History Book of the Year award was won by Roger Emerson’s biography “An Enlightened Duke: The Life of Archibald Campbell (1682-1761), Earl of Ilay, 3rd Duke of Argyll.”

Robin Lloyd-Jones won the Scottish Research Book of the Year with “The Sunlit Summit: The Life of W. H. Murray”, about the celebrated Scottish climber William Murray.

Magnus Linklater, president of the Saltire Society, said: “We have a long standing commitment to recognising exceptional writing talent in Scotland. Our literary heritage is internationally renowned and the future is in similarly fine fettle with the quality of work evident in these awards.”