Ardtornish Writers Retreat: Jackie Kay Brings Words to Life

In November, Jackie Kay visited Ardnamurchan High School as part of her Ardtornish Writers Retreat. The class, rather serendipitously, was the first to have studied Jackie’s memoir Red Dust Road for their English Higher in the school. With the help of an enthusiastic teacher, the pupils were lucky enough to have the opportunity to pick the brains of the author herself.

When faced with a classroom of teenagers, some writers would feel a certain sense of trepidation, especially when those teenagers have been studying their book for important exams and were likely to be armed with some intimidating questions. Not Jackie Kay. Within five minutes of walking into the room, Jackie had made everyone laugh, running around the classroom, learning names and getting her picture taken with every student. As an extra treat she had brought her mother Helen along as well. Helen proved to be an enthusiastic student, a cheeky contributor and a key character in the book.

As she read passages from her book, Jackie stood up, danced and ran energetically on the spot, helping the words spill out from the book and spring into life. It’s hard to imagine what this kind of experience must be like for the pupils, watching a text they had underlined and annotated being brought to life in such an animated way. For me, this would have been the equivalent of Iain Banks standing in front of me re-enacting the scene from The Wasp Factory in which the main character flies a small girl off on a kite. Very strange, but fantastic!

During the course of the day Jackie also engaged with the students about politics, memory and the importance of landscape in writing, telling them about her holidays to Mull and the strange and wonderful characters that she remembers. Then she encouraged the pupils to think about their own lives, the places they’ve been and the people they’ve met. It became their turn to create a story, with Jackie guiding them on a journey to put ‘imaginary toads in real gardens’. This exercise seemed difficult at first but soon had everyone travelling across the arctic with strawberries to deliver.

By the end of the day the students had shared a few stories and were still smiling. The workshop provided a lovely reminder that stories and books really are alive, and above all they’re about people engaging, talking, and laughing. Or as Jackie put it ‘my book is a gift to the reader.’

Claire Marchant-Collier

Claire Marchant-Collier is the Writer Development Administrator for Scottish Book Trust.