Duncan McLean

Duncan McLean was born in Aberdeenshire but has been resident in Orkney for many years.  He has written stories, novels and plays which have been produced and published in various parts of the world. 

He has a long-standing involvement with small press publishing, first with the Clocktower Press – which published such writers as Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, Janice Galloway and Gordon Legge – and most recently with the Abersee Press, which is dedicated to printing challenging new work from Orkney. 

Since 2007 his day job has been running a deli in Kirkwall, Kirkness & Gorie.  In the mid-nineties his day job was working with Tam in Stromness Books & Prints.  The photo shows him still confused about where he’s supposed to be.

We asked him some questions about the books he’s been reading recently….


Hello Duncan, thanks for talking to us. What books are on your bedside table right now, and are you enjoying them?

Right now I’m loving The Great Depression and The New Deal by Eric Rauchway (OUP, 2008).  The parallels between the present and its virus-induced economic collapse, and the crash of the early 1930s are unmissable.  There was even a Trumpian president in Herbert Hoover, who believed his roles was to inspire the country (or at least the Republican parts of it) by making orotund pronouncements, while not actually initiating action to aid the millions of suddenly unemployed and starving citizens.  One great difference is that Hoover was swept from power by Franklin D Roosevelt, a leader possessed of great energy, a plethora of ideas, and a willingness to ditch those ideas when they didn’t work in practice.  I don’t see anyone like that in the running to battle Trump.  Actually, it’s not only the USA that needs a Roosevelt figure.  Where is the Orcadian Roosevelt who will help us survive the new great depression that’s about to engulf us?

Where indeed. Do you read one-book-at-a-time?  Or are you a promiscuous reader, leaping from text to text according to whim?

I usually have one main book that I’m concentrating on: reading with full attention, you might say. But I’m a great lover of short stories, so I usually have one or two collections on the go, for occasions when a five- or 10-page session is possible rather than a 50 page one.  At the moment, I have on hand Maupassant’s Butterball, (Hesperus, 2003), with an introduction by Germaine Greer.  (I have about four different translations of Maupassant: he’s one of my favourites, and the different translations bring out different shades and colours in the prose.)  And also The Smell of It by Sonallah Ibrahim (Heinemann, 1971).  It’s number 95 in the Heinemann African Writers Series, one of the great publishing initiatives of the 20th century – up there with Penguin (with which its covers share a striking orange colour scheme.)

What are your favourite books about Orkney?

I could say ‘the early stories of George Mackay Brown’ or ‘Christina Costie’s collected works’ but I can recommend a hundred books in one if I say Simon Hall’s The History of Orkney Literature (John Donald, 2010).  Its scholarship is impeccable, its passion unmistakable, and its enthusiasm infectious.  Read that and you’ll be sent off down many forking paths.  A second nonfiction book that I consider indispensable is William P. L. Thomson’s The New History of Orkney (Birlinn, 2008.)  Orkney labours under a heavy weight of myths and misconceptions, the burden of them impeding understanding and slowing social progress.  Thomson’s book helps the reader throw off that burden decisively.  In fiction, the most stimulating Orkney novels of recent years are Iss by Fiona Macinnes (Stromness Books & Prints, 2014) and Queerbashing by Tim Morrison (Thunderpoint, 2016.)  These fictions would start a fight in an empty bookshop, and god help us that’s exactly the kind of writing we need more of here.

Absolutely – great recommendations, thanks. What are the new books out this year that you are particularly excited about?

This is an easy one, as Harry Josephine Giles just emailed me a pdf of their thesis, Writing Orkney’s Future: Minority Language and Speculative Poetics.  It will end up as a book, or maybe even two books, and will be of enormous importance to anyone interested in Orkney literature and language.  I don’t know if it will be published this year or next, but it’s certainly making its entrance right now – albeit just in digital form for the moment.

What book or books do you press into other people’s hands at any opportunity?

Any and all of the above.  The only problem is it tends to be late at night in an excess of enthusiasm, and I can’t always remember who I gave which book to.  So, if you’re reading this blog – yes, you, whoever you are – and you have that book I loaned you – yes, that book, whatever it was – can I have it back now, please?


Be sure to return to The Book Blog next week, for Duncan’s A-Z of underappreciated authors.

Interview by Cal Flyn

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