Taking the Book Festival to Scottish Prisons

While our long-term work with Scottish prisons takes place the whole year round, every August we plan a series of special, stand alone author visits through our Story Nation project.

The Book Festival’s Story Nation project is all about taking the joy of the Book Festival to those who cannot access it themselves, in person or online. Over the course of this year, that has included workshops at the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People, as well as collaborative working with care homes in Edinburgh, including Gilmerton Care Home and Cramond Residence. When restrictions permit, our long term partnership with Open Book enables the Book Festival to reach the prison population, via regular shared reading sessions which use our archived events as discussion material and conversation starters.

The pandemic had major implications on prison services across the country. Engagement activities were significantly reduced, and visits from outside were strictly limited, in order to lower the risk of infection entering the prisons. Thankfully, as the lockdown restrictions eased on wider society, engagement opportunities within prisons began to open up again, and we were delighted to work with our partners in prison libraries to arrange author visits during the August Book Festival.

Our first visit took place at HMP Edinburgh with Pat Nevin, fresh from his Book Festival event with Val McDermid, discussing his recent memoir, The Accidental Footballer. Pat’s reflections on the process of writing about his life, as well as his charming anecdotes about his football career, made the workshop participants laugh, and the feedback from the session was very positive. One attendee reflected that the session made him feel “involved, and happy I got to meet the one n only Pat Nevin”.

Pat Nevin at the Book Festival

Crime writing is perhaps the most popular genre within the prison library service, and so we were delighted that Chris Brookmyre joined our August prison programme with a trip to HMP Perth. While Chris was at the Book Festival, he talked about his latest novel as Ambrose Parry (a pseudonym he shares with his wife Marisa Haetzman), but during the prison visit he opted to speak about The Cut, a thriller about a make-up artist who has been convicted for killing her lover.

In HMP Kilmarnock, Andrew O’Hagan read a hilarious section from his 2020 novel Mayflies, recounting the escapades of the book’s young heroes making their way to Manchester for a weekend of partying that defines their lives. Several of the men who came along said the session was relatable, and that it shrunk the gap between the author’s life and their own. Andrew is hoping to maintain his connection with HMP Kilmarnock and deliver more workshops there in the future.

For our final prison visit of the Festival, we returned to HMP Edinburgh, this time to visit the women’s wing for a performance You’ve Never Slept in Mine by Jessie Kesson, specially adapted for the Book Festival by Jenni Fagan. We were really pleased to work with Stellar Quines theatre company, as well as actors Genna Allan and Chloe Wyper from the Citizens Theatre’s WAC Ensemble, to deliver the production to two audiences at the prison, just a day after its premiere at the Book Festival.


A group of women standing outside HMP Edinburgh

Our engagement work in prisons is a deeply important part of the August communities programme, as we believe everyone deserves to have access to culture. We donated three copies of the relevant books to each prison library service after the visits, all of which were borrowed straight away. We are now looking forward to our two visits with acclaimed writer Kirstin Innes, planned for this October. Kirstin will be discussing her fantastic book Scabby Queen with the women at HMP Cornton Vale and HMP Edinburgh.


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