LISTEN: Highland storytelling is celebrated in new book by Caithness-based author Virginia Crow as part of creative project Spirit of the Highlands
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A new book commissioned by a creative initiative aims to celebrate storytelling and landscape across the Highlands.
Embarking on a journey across the Highlands and its rich tradition of myths and legends, Caithness-based Virginia Crow's novel Haunting Whispers of Highland Waters was commissioned by Spirit: 360, a funding programme launched as part of the Spirit of the Highlands initiative.
The book is one of the projects funded by the scheme, which aims to interpret and showcase the spirit of the Highlands as a part of the project which will see Inverness Castle converted into a new visitor attraction.
The novel is based on seven different stories submitted for Spirit of the Highlands by people living around the region and it follows Zip and Irene Cooper, a loving married couple who set off on a roadtrip as they face the shadow cast by Irene's debilitating condition.
Ms Crow said: "It was an absolute privilege to take those stories of people having this strong connection to the place and put them together into the book.
"There was a really strong element of storytelling in them, not just in the content, so it was really easy to put them on the page.
"Because I was taking something that meant so much for the people who wrote the stories, it mattered that it was a honest representation and I felt a big sense of responsibility in doing this. Such a big part of writing the book was to keep it authentic to the stories it is based on."
The author grew up in Orkney and drew from her personal experience of travelling from her new home in England when the family moved to Lincolnshire.
"One year we decided to do a round-trip instead of travelling straight to Orkney for the summer, and I can remember going around the west coast the first time, and it was amazing. Those images of the summer light on the west high just triggered something.
"So, although the story has just been written, it has been brewing away in my mind for a few years.
"Looking back at my own experiences and linking back to the stories submitted, that really helped the landscape come alive.
"One of the reasons I chose water as a main theme is that is constantly changing, always on the move, always making sounds – what you'd expect from a character.
"If you look at a map of the Highlands, the water routes look like veins, so there are all these different parts that are putting life in the Highlands like veins in a body.
"I really wanted this to be an experience of someone who had been in the Highlands for a long time but who are experiencing and discovering new places along the way. So, as well as it being for people who are visiting the Highlands for the first time I wanted for people who live here to know that there is still that little bit of magic there worth finding You could live here forever and you still wouldn't be able to see all that the Highlands have to offer."
Creative director at Spirits of the Highlands, Bryan Beattie said: "Visitors increasingly respond to something that is authentic, and what makes certain places in the world stand out, is where you can get a genuine experience of the place.
"I think that a book like Virginia's brings pulls all those strings together: it is a travelogue and it is a fantastic advert for the Highlands and Spirit of the Highlands. It's fantastic for bringing people here and retaining the interest of the area."
Spirit:360 was first set up with two main goals: showcasing the work that artists across the Highlands are producing, in all disciplines and, as it was first started during the pandemic, as a way to support solo artists in the region.
A second round of commission is hoped to become available in the coming months.
Mr Beattie added: "It was a very difficult time for artists, particularly those who were not part of a larger organisation, so we wanted to create a commissioning scheme that focussed on them and to help financially during a very difficult period.
"The backdrop to it is the Inverness Castle project: it's quite an ambitious programme in three phases, the first of which is converting the castle and gardens into a visitor attraction. The key thing which will make it different from similar attractions is the content in the castle, which aims to reflect the Spirit of the Highlands – whether is the food or how things are planted in the gardens, all has to reflect the spirit of the Highlands.
"For us it was a no-brainer when we were looking at how to interpret the spirit of the Highlands for the Castle's project, and we quickly realised that it is through stories. And they have to be authentic, from people within the area.
"Stories are central to the mythology of the Highlands and its history, but also to our contemporary life and contemporary mythology: story is what we do, what we tell one another on a daily basis. Sometimes we formalise it through various media, sometimes we just share them over the gatepost with our neighbours. It's central to describing who we are to others and to ourselves. ’