Rediscovered William McIlvanney picks up award

William McIlvanney, right,  winner of the writing award presented by Ewan Morrison, left. Picture: Greg Macvean
William McIlvanney, right, winner of the writing award presented by Ewan Morrison, left. Picture: Greg Macvean
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AUTHOR William McIlvanney expressed his delight and disbelief at being honoured at the Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards just two years after begging the Edinburgh International Book Festival to help rescue his career.

The crime writer made a moving speech at the annual ceremony after collecting the writing award from Ewan Morrison, one of the rising stars of the Scottish literary scene.

Spirit of Scotland award winners on stage. Picture: Greg Macvean

Spirit of Scotland award winners on stage. Picture: Greg Macvean

There was also an emotional reunion between McIlvanney, 77, and broadcaster Kirsty Wark less than two weeks after he paid his own tribute to her when she received a Bafta Scotland award for outstanding achievement.

Visual artist Ross Sinclair, actress Kate Dickie, conductor Donald Runnicles and wildlife cameraman Gordon Buchanan were among the other winners at the glittering event at the Prestonfield Hotel in Edinburgh, which is organised in partnership with The Scotsman.

McIlvanney’s award came as the 16th annual celebration of Scottish culture was drawing to a close, shortly before Wimbledon tennis champion Andy Murray was named this year’s Top Scot. The 26-year-old tennis ace also won the sport category.

The award for McIlvanney capped a remarkable revival over the last two years since he appeared at the book festival and told a stunned audience that all of his novels were out of print. Within a year, he had struck a deal with publisher Canongate to revive his work, starting with his Laidlaw trilogy.

His Spirit of Scotland award was confirmed on Thursday night shortly after his 1975 book Docherty was named one of the best 50 Scottish books of the last 50 years.

McIlvanney had been up against award-winning playwright David Greig, historian William Dalrymple, author of Return of a King, about the first Afghan war, and JK Rowling, who was nominated for the crime novel she released under the pen name Robert Galbraith.

McIlvanney said: “I’m sorry I don’t have a prepared speech for the very simple reason that I didn’t think I had a prayer.

“When you think of the talent that was up against me, it was stunning.

“How I got here, I’ve no idea. The other contestants should probably ask for a recount. I’m overwhelmed and delighted.”

Book festival director Nick Barley told The Scotsman: “He wrote to me personally a couple of years ago, basically asking for one last chance of a revival before he died.

“When he appeared at the festival in 2011 he didn’t have a publishing deal. There was a real strength of feeling at the time.

“I remember speaking to people in the audience after the event and they were saying: ‘Why can’t we buy any of his books?’ They couldn’t even get a signature. It was shocking.

“Scotland had basically forgotten this great hero of Scottish literature. Canongate rightly thought it was mad. He’s now being rediscovered.”

The Glenfiddich Spirit of Scotland Awards recognise excellence across a cultural spectrum. Previous winners include violinist Nicola Benedetti, singer-songwriter Sharleen Spiteri, actor Peter Capaldi, football icon Sir Alex Ferguson and artist Elizabeth Blackadder.

Special guests at Thursday night’s ceremony, who helped present awards, included actor Ewen Bremner, chef Albert Roux, artist Alison Watt, sculptor David Mach, and veteran Beechgrove Garden presenter Jim McColl.

Dickie, 42, winner of the screen category, has appeared in a host of high-profile films in recent years, including Prometheus, Filth, Not Another Happy Ending and For Those In Peril, whose director Paul Wright lost out to the East Kilbride-born actress.

Edinburgh chef Tony Singh, also 42, who won the food category, has made a major comeback since having to close his flagship restaurant Oloroso due to financial troubles.

One of the two stars of BBC TV show The Incredible Spice Men, said: “I’m never usually lost for words, but tonight I am. It’s not a hard job promoting Scottish produce when it is the best in the world.”

Ross Sinclair fought off challenges from Turner Prize nominee David Shrigley, Ilana Halperin and Richard Wright to win the art category with his Real Life project, which saw him flood Edinburgh with eye-catching works of art inspired by the city’s cultural icons during the arts festival in August.

Mull-born wildlife camerman Buchanan, whose most recent work was on the BBC show The Polar Bear Family And Me, won the environment award. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra’s chief conductor Runnicles fought off competition from Django Django, Mogwai and Calvin Harris to win the music category, while the business award was collected by the Lewis family who run the Mhor chain of food-related businesses in the heart of the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.