When Scottish crime writers Lin Anderson and Alex Gray were having a late-night drink about three years ago at a Crime Writers' Association conference in Lincoln they came up with an idea. This, of course, is not unusual - writers will drink, their currency is ideas and sometimes such circumstances culminate in a book. Not this time.
This particular idea had a different set of legs. So many of the writers at the conference were Scottish, they realized, why not bring together Scottish crime writers and their international counterparts at a festival in Scotland - something unlike any of the country's other 40 or so book festivals. This was going to be genre fired. 'We could call it Bloody Scotland,' Alex suggested well into the second bottle of prosecco. The women laughed. But the next day, when the headaches wore off, Lin and Alex began to put together a team and the idea grew.
This year we're celebrating the second Bloody Scotland. The seed didn't take root in Scotland's central belt (where many Scottish crime books are set.) Instead it landed in Stirling - the gateway to the Highlands, where the Lowland scenery of the Central Belt eases off and the rugged views start. The festival is programmed over a long weekend in September at the end of the city's existing Off The Page book festival. The team Lin and Alex put together has garnered support including generous financial sponsorship from international accounting firm, Mazars, a strand sponsored by Toshiba and support from Waterstones, the Daily Record, the University of Stirling, The Open University, Event Scotland, Deanston, Creative Scotland, Promote Shetland and Forth Valley College. After its almost sold-out first year that attracted record numbers of tourists to the area, Bloody Scotland won the regional final of the Thistle Awards run by VisitScotland and will be in the grand final this November, hoping to win the accolade of Best Cultural Event in Scotland.
Not bad for an idea sprung from two bottles of fizzy wine and an overlong journey south.
Scottish writers are particularly successful in the crime genre. Something approaching a third of all traditionally published fiction in the UK this year falls into the category and it's one where Scots punch above their weight. Perhaps it's something to do with our cultural proximity to oral storytelling because crime books above all others require a healthy dollop of narrative drive. Perhaps it's something to do with our location north of England and south of the hugely successful Scandinavian crime-writing states. Or maybe, as was suggested to me recently in London, there's just more crime in Scotland to write about. With our reputation for the Scottish hard man, personified by William McIlvanney's gritty Laidlaw books, the 1970s trilogy that gave birth to the 'Tartan Noir' genre, Scottish writers produce a huge diversity of stories from the ever-so-cosy to the blisteringly forensic. I write a cosy crime noir series myself.
For a festival in only its second year Bloody Scotland is flourishing. Ticket sales are up for 2013 and its short story competition has attracted a flood of entries. It has wholeheartedly embraced the digital possibilities for a festival of its type with worldwide interest, after all, in one of Scotland's most important cultural exports - stories.
Perhaps what's most interesting about this visionary achievement is just that - it's a visionary achievement. There has been an appetite for this festival that has surprised even the organisers. Stirling has taken to the event as if it was its own- the county council allowing crime tape and fake chalk outlines of bodies on the streets. Visitors flock to it but local people have also shown an appetite for this slice of contemporary Scottish writing culture. And there's a feeling of excitement about the town - something is happening that people are proud of.
The success of Bloody Scotland is larger than simply the festival that will be taking in place in Stirling this September however. It's also part of a response to traditional book festivals with their literary bias that has been growing for some time. For years genre writers have primed the financial pump of publishing houses and yet their work receives fewer reviews in the traditional media (particularly if the writers in question are female) and fewer slots on the programmes of traditional book festivals. This is especially true of fledgling genre writers - unlike fledgling literary writers whose appearances tend to be welcomed with more open arms by traditional festival organisers. In historical fiction (the other genre in which I write) this has also prompted new Historical Writing Festivals like the one recently staged in Harrogate in 2013 and a new one at Summerhall, in Edinburgh that launched this year. The BBC History Magazine programmed a writers' strand at the Kelmarsh History Festival this year and writers of fiction and non-fiction alike are a key part of the programming at Previously .... Scotland's History Festival. In this movement, interestingly, it was romantic novelists who were ahead of the game (for they are the most maligned of all genre writers and also, mostly female). They founded the Romantic Novelists' Association in 1960 that now gives out its own awards, provides mentoring for fledgling writers in the genre and holds an annual conference.
Taken in the context of our new digital age this further broadens the curatorship of our writing culture and best of all, it really speaks to readers of all stripes. So - Roll up! Bloody Scotland launches this weekend and I'm looking forward to it.