“I don’t write about birds. I use birds as a way of writing about people and communities.”
Shetland-based and Lewis-Born poet, short story and non-fiction writer Donald S. Murray quickly established that his work tends to use birds metaphorically to explore human issues close to home for him.
He then told host Marion Sinclair, the chief executive of Publishing Scotland and the fascinated Mareel audience about his journey from unpublished to published writer. Like so many others originating from the Isle of Lewis in the Western Isles, Murray has been described as a raconteur for many years – “something in the water” he reckons.
Giving a talk to an engrossed auditorium, Murray discussed his ascension as part of Shetland Arts’ Wordplay festival and spoke very highly of Shetland and the island life.
A very humble man who describes himself as “lucky”, Murray had humble beginnings, living in the same area as former Anderson High School English teacher Donald Campbell, writing and illustrating comics for his father to sell at the local shop. When asked to name his influences, he cited the King James Bible, several innovators of European literature and classic playwrights such as Arthur Miller.
His first poetry collection is called Between Minch and Muckle Flugga and was published in 2005 and since then the majority of his writing has focused on islands and their seabirds.
Lewis, where Donald S. Murray was born, is the only place where you can still legally eat sea birds and he shed some light on that. Other than a “demented SSPCA guy from Dundee”, it is met with very little criticism. The actual act of hunting these birds features heavily in his books The Guga Hunters and Praising the Guga and in his illustrated collection The Guga Stone: Lies, Legends and Lunacies of St Kilda.
Murray did some interesting poetry readings, which very much asserted his raconteur status. He told unbelievable tales about Western Islanders rock climbing to get food to eat. He was adamant that guga hunting is economically sustainable and that the birds are easily treated better than how those who criticise the historic practice treat chickens.
Getting a bit more political, Murray discussed his European identity. He talked about how important innovative European writers like Franz Kafka had been in shaping his writing style. He stressed how important it was for us to retain our European culture.
His next book, Dark Stuff, written about the topic of peat will be out in April. He described it as a “lyrical” look at peat. When he read into it and realised the devastation caused by peat in Ireland, Holland and Germany, he learned that it could be treated lightly – thus Dark Stuff.
He then went on to speak about how each island he has visited has its own dynamic that affects people differently. Murray feels that Shetland taught him to become a non-fiction writer. His parting plea was for islanders to stop letting “outsiders” be our cultural voice.
The afternoon was a very fascinating insight into the mind of a gifted writer and storyteller.