Taking Part in the Big Scottish Book Club

Find out what’s been going on in our sessions as one of our members shares news from their group.


Taking Part in the Big Scottish Book Club


Laurence Errington is a member of our shared reading group at the Grassmarket Community Project.


It used to be BC and AD. Now, in 2020 it is BC and AC (before Covid and after Covid). In the pandemic’s opening act, I soon realised that the social isolation of living on my own was going to be a problem for me. I cast around for things I could do to fill the void. Fortunately, the Grassmarket Community Project got around pretty swiftly to making available many of their activities online using the now ubiquitous Zoom.


I was aware of the shared reading group run by Open Book on a Wednesday morning, but the concept to me of a reading group was something that I feared, and would run from, arms waving in panic at my perceived lack of comprehension of anything in the sphere of literature. I reckoned that such a group would consist of persons who are comfortable with discussing the human condition (more likely women rather than men), and who could understand, interpret and discuss literary works that require delving into the emotional depths of the human mind. Science and facts fine, emotions not fine. And for me, who at times is troubled by ‘performance’ anxiety, a reading group posed problems.


Nevertheless, I signed up to the group around about April, and frankly, it’s been something of a revelation. Jess Orr, who runs our group, usually presents us with a short section of text; it might be a story, it may be about someone’s travels or experiences, and perhaps a poem. We then share in the reading of it and after that we discuss it – what it is probably about (if it’s somewhat obscure), how it makes one feel, whether we liked it – really anything we want to say about it. Very often, something which at first seemed obscure (in my mind – accompanied by my suspicion that I just don’t get any of it) becomes much clearer. Last week, we read a piece (from a book called Autumn by Ali Smith – shortlisted  for the Man Booker Prize in 2017) that felt like a stream of consciousness, which for me, made little to no sense. Then quite suddenly I found it evolved into something which did make sense and then acquired meaning. I wanted to know more about the book and thought I might even want to buy it!


A month or so ago, we were asked if we’d like to attend a TV shoot of our group as part of BBC Scotland’s second series of The Big Scottish Book Club, presented by writer Damian Barr. And so it was that several of us met up with the film crew and Damian on a very windswept and squally autumn morning in Edinburgh in a park close to the Royal Botanic Gardens, ready for a socially-distanced filming session.


We shared the reading of a piece from the edited book Antlers of Water, a collection of contemporary Scottish writing (prose and poetry) and photography on nature and landscape. The piece we read was ‘Around Some Islands’ by Amanda Thomson. It described a boat trip taken from Mallaig to visit a small island called Mingulay at the very southern end of the Western (Outer) Hebrides. It was once home to early Christians and Norseman, and later, Gaelic speaking residents, but the last inhabitants left over a century ago. All that remains of its occupation are the ruins of the abandoned crofts and townships along with the rusting remains of farming implements. The writing is very atmospheric. The boat trippers were allowed a few hours to have a walk on the island, and the author describes climbing up a hill, until suddenly the land ends and she found herself on the very edge of tall cliffs. There were large numbers of many types of seabirds, “puffins, guillemot, razor-bills, fulmars wheeling high on the currents that push them up and over cliffs so that they sometimes startle, so fast and suddenly and close do they appear”. I felt I was there myself!


Overall, the writings in this book range widely in place and subject, which I found almost all of interest in one way or another, from an account of spending time as a volunteer warden on the Isle of May in the Firth of Forth, via wasps nests (bykes), Sea Eagles, Archaeolink Prehistory Park (which became history but which may yet arise from its ashes in some other educational form), through to wild swimming (a fashionable craze at present it seems) in Orkney. It is a book that I would never have ventured to buy, yet entertained me greatly.


I’m so grateful to the Grassmarket Community Project and to Open Book for the shared reading group, and want to thank the people who help to run it so well.


Watch the GCP Open Book group’s appearance on The Big Scottish Book Club from BBC Scotland: