Dreaming Big Dreams: Children’s Literature in Scotland

by | Sep 7, 2020 | IBBYLink Autumn 2019

Mairi Kidd

Scotland is a small, rainy country in the north of Europe where umbrellas turn inside-out and wheelie bins fly around in the wind. Scotland doesn’t have a big population, but it has produced an incredible number of important scientists, writers, inventors, doctors and other thinkers, and more still have come to live and work here. Perhaps the chilly weather and long, dark winter nights keep people inside by the fire and inspire them to dream big dreams . . .

I recently began a children’s non-fiction title with these words. Among the output of its thinkers, Scotland has, of course, produced a remarkable number of classics of children’s literature. David Balfour and Long John Silver, Ratty and Mole, the multi-hued fairies and Peter Pan are just a few of the characters dreamed up by Scottish firesides who have gone on to shape the way we think about stories for children and young people. Without George MacDonald we might not have Narnia, or Middle Earth; within the Scottish canon itself, Stevenson was heavily influenced by R.M. Ballantyne, particularly The Coral Island (1858). Peter Pan has recently lent his name to Scotland’s new centre for children’s literature and storytelling, Moat Brae House in Dumfries. Joanna Lumley acted as a patron for an £8 million fundraising campaign to save the house – where Barrie played with his childhood friends – from demolition. The centre offers visitor facilities, an education suite and the chance to explore the garden Barrie described as ‘enchanted land’ and ‘the genesis of that nefarious work’ that has become a byword for childhood itself.

In the modern era no visitor could miss the fact that J.K. Rowling ‘came to live and work’ in Scotland, dreaming up a certain boy wizard in an Edinburgh café. The Potter souvenir shops in the capital now give even the tartan outlets a run for their money, and the Glenfinnan Viaduct draws tourists from across the globe. Another modern children’s classic, The Gruffalo (1999), is fondly embraced as Scottish since its author Julia Donaldson was a much treasured resident of Bearsden for many years – there’s a sculpture trail around Kilmardinny Loch to mark her importance to the town. Less well-known is the fact that The Gruffalo publisher Kate Wilson travelled in the opposite direction, moving from Edinburgh to London many years ago. Kate Wilson remains a great champion of Scottish authors and illustrators, publishing Pamela Butchart, Ross Collins, David Solomons and others quite brilliantly at Nosy Crow.

And so we reach the present day, when Scotland has a host of household names and those well on the way to being so. Starting with those Nosy Crow authors, David Solomons saw instant success, winning the Waterstones Children’s Prize and the British Book Industry Award’s Children’s Book of the Year in 2016 with My Brother Is a Superhero (2015). Pamela Butchart’s Baby Aliens series has been joined by a raft of other early readers and middle-grade titles, and she recently scooped the prize gig of writing the Secret Seven ((2018) with endorsement by the Blyton estate. Ross Collins has dozens of books to his name – including a number of collaborations with fellow Scottish author Vivian French – of which There’s a Bear in my Chair (2016), This Zoo is not for You (2018) and This is a Dog (2019) are unmissable, as are Ross’s deadpan events. Other picture-book and young-fiction creators include Debi Gliori, Catherine Rayner, Chae Strathie and Emily Dodd – the latter two creating both fiction and non-fiction for the youngest readers. Scientist Gill Arbuthnot – who has tended to write for older children – has recently entered this market with the gorgeous Balloon to the Moon (2019).

For the same age range, Scotland’s traditional stories have been recently gathered in stunning treasuries by Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper: An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales (2012), An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Mythical Creatures (2015) and An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Castle Legends (2019). Mairi Hedderwick’s Katie Morag has made the jump to TV stardom on CBeebies and happily some of her creator’s older work has been revived – Jane Duncan’s Janet Reachfar books, with their stunning Mairi Hedderwick illustrations, are well worth a look.

For 8–12s Ross MacKenzie’s Nowhere Emporium series are brilliant and Elizabeth Laird opens the mind’s eye to life across the globe in titles including A House without Walls (2019) and The Fastest Boy in the World (2014). 8–12 fiction in Scotland has a glorious history but there is a challenge in the stewardship of this backlist, which has not fared particularly well. In the 1980s and 1990s the Canongate Kelpies imprint set about bringing together a huge range of titles set in Scotland and from Scottish authors. The appeal of these books was not limited to Scotland – in a recent conversation I discovered that Frank Cottrell Boyce vividly recalls the magic of Lavinia Derwent’s Sula (1989) and its sequels.

Like the Canongate Classics, another 1980s and 1990s initiative to get neglected Scottish literature back into print, the Kelpies struggled as the book market became tougher in the late 1990s. Floris Books has revived the imprint in recent years with a mixture of new commissions, debuts sourced via an annual competition and backlist, but only a small selection of older work has made it back into print. Kathleen Fidler’s The Desperate Journey (2012) and The Boy with the Bronze Axe (2012) are available – and hugely useful in classrooms studying the Highland Clearances and Neolithic peoples – and George MacKay Brown’s Fankle the Cat (2012) remains in print. Mollie Hunter’s gorgeous historical and folklore-influenced work lies neglected, as does the work of Allan Campbell MacLean and Frances Mary Hendry. Joan Lingard is still writing and her Kevin and Sadie books of The Troubles in Belfast are viewed as modern classics, but much of her Scottish-set backlist also languishes forgotten.

Teen and young adult have strong voices, with established work by Catherine MacPhail, Theresa Breslin and Cathy Forde joined in recent years by Claire McFall – whose Ferryman (2013) was an enormous surprise hit in China and is set for big-screen adaptation – Elizabeth Wein and Estelle Maskame. Anecdotally, however, this is not an area in which either Scottish authors or Scottish publishers find it easy to break into the conglomerate-dominated publishing market, and London-published titles dominate the shelves in Scottish shops.


Our three-voiced country

Scotland is a country with three indigenous languages. You’ve made it this far in the article, and so we’ll agree you’re familiar with English. Next up is Scots, spoken by 1.3 million people according to the last census. As a sibling of English, Scots tends to be the subject of ongoing arguments, both linguistic and political–cultural, about its status. Reading and writing in Scots can be politically freighted, but for many young people, is transformative in raising attainment. Learning to read is, after all, easier when you speak the language on the page.

In recent years children’s publishing in Scots has been buoyed up significantly by the Itchy Coo imprint of Black & White publishing. Lively translations of A.A. Milne, Asterix (2013) and Roald Dahl – The Eejits (2008), The Sleekit Mister Tod (2008) and Geordie’s Mingin Medicine (2007) – have joined original titles for young children including Katie’s Ferm (2007) and Rabbie’s Rhymes (2008). James Robertson’s translation of The Gruffalo (2012) has been a particular hit, spawning a raft of versions in different dialects of Scots from Glaswegian to Orcadian, Dundonian and Shetlandic:

A moosie taen a daandir throo thi daip, derk waid. A tod saa that moosie an that moosie looked gaid. (The Dundee Gruffalo)

Ida hert o a forest deep an dark, a perrie broon moose guid oot for a waak. (The Shetland Gruffalo (2015))

The organisation Into Film has toured the Scots dialect Gruffalos to children and teachers across the country in partnership with quality improvement agency Education Scotland, but publishers Black & White report an uphill struggle getting Scots books into schools, and seek both formalised inclusion of Scots on the curriculum and more responsive arrangements for school book supply. 

Gaelic is a Celtic language, close cousin of Irish and Manx and more distant relative of Welsh, Breton and Cornish. Today it is spoken by around 60,000 Scots and popular misconception (or downright discrimination?) has it that it is neither naturally a written language, nor a national one, having always been confined to the Highlands and Islands. It is true that it has been supressed in education and the political life of Lowland Scotland for centuries, but its literary output is impressive and international in viewpoint – its literature for adults, that is. For younger readers, a push to originate picture books, fiction and more in the 1970s and 1980s has gradually fallen by the wayside and instead translated picture books proliferate. Some of these are very good indeed, both in the original and in Gaelic (the Hugless Douglas translation is a masterpiece), but there are significant gaps in terms of early readers, 8–12s and teens. Much, much more is needed, to a strategic framework that articulates and works towards an offer spanning what children need to become readers. 

Incoming languages have their place in Scotland too, and New Scots are a key part of our future. In children’s books Polish-born illustrator Kasia Matyjaszek has recently begun taking her beautiful work out to Polish-speaking families via Glasgow’s Book Festival Aye Write and other providers. She is fabulously talented and one to watch – find her work in I Am A Very Clever Cat (Templar, 2016) and The Fourth Bonniest Baby in Dundee (Floris, 2016).

So what might we look for from our new centre at Moat Brae, ready to give Scottish children’s literature its day in the sun?

The promotion of reading for pleasure in Scottish schools is alive and well – the First Minister’s Reading Challenge and Scottish Book Trust’s Live Literature support for author visits and Authors Live programming with the BBC are significant interventions in this area – but there is clearly work to be done in ensuring our output of Scottish-authored work grows apace.

In a related point, we know that conditions are challenging for all writers across the UK. We need to advocate for better; in Scotland this means both better investment by publishers, and better access to the UK and global books, and adaptation marketplaces. Author support can take other forms, too, and while we in Scotland manage Fellowship and other programmes for writers of literary fiction, we have not engaged with the place of children’s writers in this ecosystem. This is definitely an area in which we could up our game.

Edinburgh International Book Festival has been working with the charity PAMIS (Promoting a more inclusive society) to make book events accessible to children and adults with profound and multiple learning disabilities, and Scottish artist and storyteller Ailie Finlay is another pioneer in this area. This is an example of the sort of inclusive practices we could develop much further, to spread the joy of literature to those currently excluded.

The Scottish Government’s National Performance Framework enshrines support for and access to culture as a priority for all public sector policy areas. There is a case to be made here for the very real power of children’s books and ways to think about delivering in other policy areas – health, for example, or justice – through cultural initiatives, from prescribing poetry to help tackle stress, to empathy building to tackle problems with violence. We could lead the way in these areas.

Diversity is an area in which we are demonstrably not succeeding in this country. We need more stories, to ensure that our literature is of and for all of us. The recent Breaking New Ground (2019) publication found only one writer of colour working in children’s and young adult’s in Scotland – and she is a university student originally from London, who may stay or not after graduation. We need a concerted effort to develop our Scottish BAME authors, those from backgrounds of socioeconomic challenge and those with other protected characteristics. In this we may have to consider a growing suspicion that being Scottish and, say, BAME may represent an intersection at which a person is invisible to the wider book industry, which may see both of those separate identities in limited and prescribed terms. Our backlist is not managed, studied or promoted. We could learn to tell the story of our children’s literature much better, for now and for the future. There is life before and after Harry Potter. 

Selected bibliography

Arbuthnot, Gill (illus. Chris Nielsen) (2019) Balloon to the Moon: The Story of the Human Journey to Space. London: Big Picture Press.

Breslin, Theresa (illus. Kate Leiper) (2012) An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales. Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Brown, George MacKay (2012) Six Lives of Fankle the Cat (Kelpies). Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Burns, Robert (illus. Karen Anne Sutherland) (ed. James Robertson and Matthew Fitt) (2008) Rabbie’s Rhymes: Robert Burns for Wee Folk. Edinburgh: Itchy Coo.

Butchart, Pamela (illus. Thomas Flintham) (1914) Baby Aliens Got My Teacher. London: Nosy Crow.

Butchart, Pamela and Enid Blyton (illus. Tony R0ss) (2018) Mystery of the Skull (Secret Seven). London: Hachette.

Collins, Ross (2016) There’s a Bear in my Chair, London: Nosy Crow.

Derwent, Lavinia (1989) Sula (Kelpies). Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Duncan, Jane (illus. Mairi Hedderwick) (1976) Janet Reachfar and the Kelpie. London: Macmillan.

Fidler, Kathleen (2012) The Desperate Journey (Kelpies). Edinburgh: Floris Books.

Fidler, Kathleen (2012) The Boy with the Bronze Axe (Kelpies). Edinburgh: Floris Books.

French, Vivian (illus. Ross Collins) (2007) The Robe of Skulls (Tales from the Five Kingdoms). London: Walker Books.

Hedderwick, Mairi (1986) Katie Morag and the Tiresome Ted. London: Bodley Head.

Kidd, Mairi (2019) Worriers and Witches and Damn Rebel Bitches. Edinbugh: Black & White.

Laird, Elizabeth (2019). A House without Walls. Basingstoke: Macmillan Children’s Books.

Laird, Elizabeth (illus. Peter Bailey) (2014) The Fastest Boy in the World. London: Macmillan Children’s Books.

Lingard, Joan (1970) The Twelfth Day of July (Kevin and Sadie #1). London: Hamilton.

Literature Alliance Scotland (2019) Breaking New Ground: Celebrating Children’s Writers & Illustrators of Colour. Edinburgh: Literature Alliance Scotland. https://issuu.com/speaking_volumes/docs/breaking_ground_final _singles

Mackenzie, Ross (2015) The Nowhere Emporium (Kelpies). Edinburgh: Floris Books.

McFall, Claire (2013) Ferryman: Life, Death, Love, which Would you Choose?. London: Templar Publishing.

Robertson, James and Matthew Fitt (illus. Karen Anne Sutherland) (2007) Katie’s Ferm: A Hide-and-Seek Book for Wee Folk. Edinburgh: Itchy Coo.

Solomons, David (2015) My Brother Is a Superhero. London: Nosy Crow.

Ann Lazim is the Literature and Library Development Manager at the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education, London, www.clpe.org.uk, which holds a large collection of traditional tales retold for children. She is a member of the IBBY UK committee, a previous Chair and was co-director of the 2012 IBBY International Congress.