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A Highlander and his Books
A Chat with Jim Hewitson

Author of
Boulders at Hirti Geo 
Interviewed by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA Email:

Jim Hewitson with his womenfolk - Morag, Lindsey, and Katy.
Paul Thorburn, photographer.

Q: Usually I begin by asking an author how long it took to write his/her book but, in your case, it took over forty years before this book became a reality. So I’ll move to asking what gave you the inspiration to compile a good portion of your life’s work into this beautiful book.

A: Doors opening and closing – it happens all through your life, doesn’t it.

I had been gathering my bits and pieces for years and even though publishers did not reckon it was commercial, I decided to press ahead. I think the work is an interesting mix of journalistic observation, short stories, poems, university essays and miscellaneous items and comes together quite neatly. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Q: You have been out of “reporting” for a long time. Are there parts of the business you miss?

A: To be truthful, no. Perhaps the camaraderie, but little else. Newspapers in Scotland have always been an ultra-competitive business. But now people are buying Scottish editions of the London dailies instead of the Herald, Scotsman or Record. It’s really odd when you consider that the Parliament with its first nationalist government is doing so well. You would expect the Scottish papers to be thriving. Actually, some of the journalistic work in Boulders reflects my news reporting days. Stories and poems about events which I felt I needed closure on and which as news stories felt incomplete. 

Q: Regarding the picture on the front of the book, did you find the stone on the beach or did someone engineer it? Where is that stone today? How large is it?

A: Found on the west shore of Papa Westray a few years back. It is a naturally sea-turned boulder. A couple of feet in width, it is still there to this day although I haven’t checked in the past week or so! In Scottish folk tradition, if you peeked through the holes in sea-turned, and particularly, river-turned stones you might glimpse Elfhame or fairyland. Give it a try.

Q: Your Clydebank high school “white-haired English teacher, John R. Third” was a wee harsh on you, and I wonder if the two of you ever met later in life.  If so, what was the outcome of that conversation? Do you think he said the things he did to challenge you to do your best which, like many of us (me included), you were obviously not doing as a teenager?

A: Sadly, I never met Johnny Third again. He was in despair about my lack of application to my work. Looking at my life today he may still have a point. He was a magnificent teacher, of the old school, of course. Not averse to cuffing you round the lug wi’ a copy of the Merchant of Venice when it was felt appropriate. I just wish I’d been witty enough to absorb more of his wisdom.

Q: How did you come to live for over 25 years on the Orkney island of Papa Westray? Ever wished you were in another location? I’ve been in Inverness during the longest days, but how much more daylight is there on Orkney during the summer months, if any?

A: Long story, but briefly I was seriously ill in my mid-twenties and this made me take a serious look at my priorities in life. Three children and the stunning beauty of our wee island home of Papa Westray. Orkney brought us here permanently. It’s difficult to imagine living elsewhere but like many Scots I feel a strong pull towards France where we have a modest village house in the Drome valley, north-east of Avignon.

Q: What is your main port and mode of travel to get to the mainland of Scotland or to get back home when you are, say, in Edinburgh? In other words, if any of our readers wanted to visit your island, how would they get there?

A: All roads and sea routes, for us anyway, lead to Aberdeen where my two daughters, Katy (veterinarian) and Lindsey (university lecturer in animal behaviour) both live. Innes our grandson is there also – so a strong pull in that direction. The sea journey from Aberdeen to Orkney can be a real adventure in the auld Norse style.

Q: Is Robert Burns revered up your way as much as he is in other parts of Scotland? Do you have Burns Night in January to celebrate his birthday?

A: Burns is widely celebrated in Orkney. There was even a suggestion that his family may have originated in Orkney but this seems to have been discredited more recently. Burns speaks to all men and women, hence Orkney, like the rest of the world, is listening. One innovation at the Burns Supper in recent years on Papa Westray might have had the bard glowering…vegetarian haggis.

Q: In the American-Scottish community on our side of the pond, you are well known. A large part of that recognition must come from your columns in The Scottish Banner and your many books. You are missed. How did you come to write for that publication, and why did you decide not to do so anymore. Is there a chance you will ever sign on with another American-Scottish periodical?

A: My years with Banner were happy and productive ones, but we are back to those doors opening and closing again. Val (Val Cairney, the editor) had ambitious plans for her paper and I really was a bit out of touch with the real Scotland at that time. She has taken the paper on to a new level and the standard of writing in the Banner continues to improve.

Q: You reference Hemingway, another of my favorite authors, and I wonder if you were taught Hemingway in high school or at university? If not, how did you come to know his works? Tell us a little about you and “Papa” Hemingway.

A: Got to know Hemingway through his Spanish Civil War novel Death in the Sun and that opened a whole new wonderful world to me. I have never been to classes at which Hemingway has been the featured writer. Scottish literature has been very much my bag.

Q: As I recall, you completed your university degree in the last few years. What was your main course of study, and why now as opposed to earlier years?

A: I failed to get sufficient entry qualifications for university in the 1960s and was thrilled to get the chance to make a belated sortie in the world of academe (University of Aberdeen 2000-2004) where my subject was, surprise, surprise – Scottish Studies. It was a wonderful, belated opportunity and I loved to see the young people round about me grow in confidence as the years passed.

Q: I’m curious. You have a 1995 article entitled “A Wee Marian Obsession…” about Queen Mary. Why have you “had this thing about” her?

A: I would make Mary Queen of Scots far and away the most interesting character in European sixteenth century history. She was a smasher, tall, enigmatic, a skilled snooker player, a poor sovereign perhaps, but she had all the boys in a dither. I’m sure I’m not alone in my wee obsession.

Q: After the slaughter at the Alamo, books of Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott were found among the Scots who were killed there? If marooned on an island, no pun intended, what three books would you like to have with you and why?

A: Marooned on a desert island, is it? Well, Papa Westray is an island and while I’m not marooned here, books still play an enormous part in my life. Every available space is filled with books, and if you were to pin me down to three, it would have to be The King James Bible (so many layers, so many wonderful insights into life), anything by my old pal Bill Bryson who is guaranteed to make you laugh whatever the situation, and my Wolf Cubs handbook to survival in the wild…build your own tree house and stalking your evening meal. That’ll keep me busy.

Q: Thanks for the courtesies extended to me in this and the other reviews of your books. Any last words for our readers on electricscotland?

A: Pride in nationhood is a wonderful thing. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. As the late Bill McCue once said: ‘There are three kinds of people in the world – those who are Scots, those who want to be Scots and those who have no ambition at all.’    

(FRS:  5-23-2008)

Return to Frank Shaw's Page


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