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  • Writer's pictureJohn Dempster

Scottish By Inclination

We were delighted to welcome Barbara Henderson to Tuesday’s HighlandLIT online which was attended by 15 people. Barbara was speaking about her new book Scottish by Inclination which was published last month by Luath and is already in its second printing. Barbara is well-known as the author of six vividly-written novels for children, but Scottish by Inclination is different.

It features the stories of 30 people, originally from the EU countries but now living in Scotland and pleased to call themselves ‘Scottish by inclination.’ Barbara interviewed each of them about their story of coming to Scotland and falling in love with Scotland, and then about their reaction to the Brexit vote in 2016 which threatened their continuing presence in the country.

Interwoven with these pieces are chapters in which Barbara tells her own story in the same zesty style she uses in her children’s books. We hear of her coming to Scotland from her native Germany in 1991 to study, courtesy of EU funding; we read of her often hilarious adventures as a student and young teacher; she marries, raises a family; ultimately moves to Inverness and finds success as a writer. And then she shares her visceral reaction to the Brexit vote and its aftermath, the sense of betrayal and rejection she and the others in the book felt at the decision of the British people, even as she was comforted that Scotland voted 60% in favour of ‘Remain.’

Thus the book is a powerful statement, both catharsis and literary activism. Initially, Barbara’s idea was limited to the thirty interviews which she planned would cover people from every EU country, with a wide range of occupations. She pitched this on Xpo North’s annual Writers’ Tweet Pitch in January 2020, which allows writers of all levels from across Scotland to tweet pitch their work to top Scottish literary agents and publishers.

The publishers Luath expressed an interest, but asked Barbara to include the autobiographical material which makes the book so vivid. Her initial reaction was to walk away from the deal, not wishing to disclose her personal and family story.

But she had a rethink. Perhaps she could write autobiography. After all, she realised, she would be in control of what was disclosed and what was not; she could be protective of her family; she could run the text past her husband to ensure he was comfortable with her mentions of him; she could write in a positive and affirming way, not criticising or denigrating those who are part of her story. She drafted a few chapters, and sent them to Luath. And they liked them!

Luath advised Barbara to apply to Creative Scotland for funding to cover the cost of the writing of the book, and she completed an application. She costed her time at £25 per hour; committed to writing for 3 and a half hours three afternoons a week; undertook to put in additional hours’ work as an ‘in-kind’ contribution; and submitted her bid. It was successful – the only proviso being that Creative Scotland doubted whether Barbara could complete the MS within the time frame. In fact, she delivered it early!

Barbara contacted her interviewees through posts on social media, contacts with friends and those, such as David Worthington of UHI who have extensive networks of people originally from Europe. As she had hoped, there are representatives from all EU countries, but she acknowledges that she would have preferred the list to be more representative – the bulk of the interviewees are for people in fairly high-profile cultural, social and educational roles.

Barbara doesn’t have shorthand, and didn’t record the interviews, most of which were conducted on Zoom. Instead she wrote copious longhand notes while she interviewed, and subsequently read through these and highlighted the parts that ‘stood out’ to her. She then wrote a draft of the article, and very importantly she feels, sent it to the interviewee for their comments. She felt that these people were entrusting her with their stories, and the least she could do was to ensure her words captured what the person she was talking to wanted to share. If someone said something in the interview, but then decided on seeing it in black-and-white that they would prefer this not to go to print Barbara was happy to edit it out. In this way she respected her interviewees – and ensured that when Scottish by Inclination was published she had a ready-made team of 30 working with her to promote the book!

Barbara’s interviewees were keen to emphasise the impact for good which they were having in Scottish society. We are so grateful for that. But Barbara also pointed out that these folk should not have to ‘justify’ their presence in Scotland, and that the fact they felt they should do this reflected their concerns about how welcome they in fact are.

In the course of the evening, Barbara read two of the autobiographical chapters from the book. One described the emotional turmoil of the evening of the Brexit referendum as the votes were counted. The first chapter she read was humorous in tone. ‘The Pesky Passport’ described a hurried trip from Inverness to Edinburgh to get her German passport renewed, and the frantic shenanigans as she tried to get a passport photo the German regulation size, found her car on the brink of being clamped, and made it, breathlessly back to Inverness in time to collect her kids from school. Both these chapters showed Barbara’s narrative skill, and ability to convey emotion.

She was asked whether she found it difficult to transition from writing for children to writing for an adult audience. In fact, she says, she just writes – it’s what she does. She doesn’t ‘write up’ for adults or ‘write down’ for children – whichever book you read, the style is distinctly Barbara Henderson. In the same way, it wasn’t difficult for her to transition from the humorous chapters to the serious.

Barbara has now been in Scotland for 30 years. She loves Scotland. She loves Germany. Life has moved on in Germany over the last three decades, and while Barbara is in regular contact with her family there, Germany now seems less than ‘home.’ Scotland is where she belongs – which is why the Brexit vote, with its implied message of rejection – was so wounding. And she feels that Brexit has tragically made it more difficult for young people to explore Europe and come to love other nations and cultures.

Scottish by Inclination is a powerful book with a message for today, and one which will be read in future years for its insights into post-Brexit Scotland.

Barbara is currently working on another interview-based book for adults, but she told us that her primary vocation is to write children’s books, and she spoke of her appreciation for Cranachan who publish these books and its authors. A ‘clan’ she said, a ‘supportive family.’

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