How a drowned village inspired poetry, and music from Mogwai
It was a story that started it all, is is so often the way.
When I became Reader in Residence for North Lanarkshire in autumn of last year, I began by looking for local myths, legends, and real histories. That's when I found out about Bothwellhaugh.
Bothwellhaugh was a once-thriving mining village in the Clyde Valley. It was gradually abandoned in the 1960s and then flooded to create Strathclyde Loch. Lots of people were keen to tell me the history as they remembered it, and accounts differed. Local legend has it that you can still see the remains of the village under the water on a clear day. I was very taken with this story. It sparked my imagination. Partly because I was still spooked by Channel 4's French TV series The Returned.
You can still see the remains of the village under the water on a clear day
I did a bit of research and found another couple of drowned villages in Britain - Mardale in Cumbria, submerged in 1935 to form Haweswater reservoir, and Capel Celyn in Gwynedd, also controversially flooded in 1965 to create a city-serving reservoir.
The poetry partnership
An idea of partnership formed in my head. I hooked up with the libraries from the two areas and together we launched a poetry competition.
To drive engagement with our libraries (my raison d'etre as Reader in Residence) the competition was open only to library users. Entrants were tasked with exploiting the artistic possibilities of these lost places - whether they were romantic, melancholy, political or just plain unsettling. We wanted to remind people of local stories, the cultural heritage that was lost, and the feelings in the community at the time.
I knew exactly what I'd like for a prize, but I was knocked out when it was approved so readily. Spook-rock icons Mogwai immediately agreed to put the winning track to music. The band are mainly Lanarkshire boys, but even more fittingly, they had provided the soundtrack for The Returned. The notion of writing music for a drowned village was nothing new to them.
Stuart Braithewaite, Mogwai boss-man said the idea immediately appealed: 'I think inspiring people to write poetry is wonderful and the opportunity to accompany it with my music was too good to pass by. I also feel that supporting libraries is absolutely essential. They are vital for our communities and have to be cherished and protected.'
To ratchet up my excitement levels I managed to secure a top notch judging panel featuring by Manic Street Preachers' Nicky Wire, Scots Makar Liz Lochhead, popular poet Ian McMillan (Radio 3, Radio 4) and Northern Ireland novelist Robert McLiam Wilson (Ripley Bogle, Eureka Street).
The competition attracted poems from over the globe (we had to point out gently to many that it was only open to library members from North Lanarkshire, Cumbria and Gwynned), as well as lots of media attention.
In June we announced the winner. Catherine Baird, a 50-year-old creative writing teacher from Chryston in North Lanarkshire, won with her poem 'Never Come Home'. Judge Robert McLiam Wilson said of the poem: 'Anyone who talks of forgetting width of trees, the colour of hills and the way windows shone has fully engaged. And shown enough confidence and sincerity to keep the language simple and strong. 'Never Come Home' is a bit of a knockout.'
I sent the poem to the agent of Scottish actress Shirley Henderson (Trainspotting, Bridget Jones' Diary, Filth, Harry Potter [Moaning Myrtle]). I felt her unique under-your-skin voice would be perfect for reading Catherine's poem, which, depending on your interpretation, could be either mournful or a sinister warning bell. Shirley was impressed with the poem and agreed to record it.
And now, I can announce the end product of the competition: Mogwai's 'Never Come Home', featuring Shirley Henderson.
The fruit of our labour received its first radio play on 15 October, on BBC 6 Music. And in the spirit of free access libraries, 'Never Come Home' is now available as a free download.
A rather nice postscript to the story is that Stuart Braithewaite's (Mogwai) mum read the background to the project when she was catching up with her son's Facebook page just this week, after which she casually informed him that his granny had lived in Bothwellhaugh!
It's taken a while to get here, but I'm very proud of the whole project and how it captured the imagination of so many interesting people. And I'm especially pleased for Catherine. When she saw her name as winner, she thought it a different Catherine. This is her winning poem...
Never Come Home
Look away from the familiar bend in the road,
From the vista to the east at dawn
Take your belongings
Strike the memory from your heart
Strike the name from history
Strike the name and never look back
You can never come home
Never come home
Forget the way windows shone on winter afternoons
Forget the gnarled bark, the width of trees
Forget the number painted on your door;
Peeling paint showing layers of what had gone before
Forget how stone held the heat of day until night
Forget catkins promising spring
Forget the colour of hills
For everything will drown
And you can never come home
Never come home
Find out more about the inspiring work of our Readers in Residence. Do you believe like Stuart Braithewaite that libraries must be cherished for the good they do in the community? Tell your favourite library how much it means to you with our Love Letters to Libraries project!