A Nursery of the Talents – Edinburgh Writers’ Club

Edinburgh Writers’ Club has nurtured fledgling writing talent for more than sixty years. Some of that talent, Audrey Reimann, Millie Gray, the Mulgray twins, Lari Don and Norman Bissett, for example, have gone on to become distinguished published writers. Some members, such as Margaret McKinlay, Sheila Aird, Margaret McArthur, Joyce Holms and Harriet Smart were already well-published before they joined. Indeed, Lothian Life’s editor, Suse Coon, is a former member and her career – prize winning children’s novelist with Richard’s Castle in the Kathleen Fiddler Award, but also journalist and publisher – exemplifies the club’s broad base in one person. So what’s the story behind the stellar catalogue of story-tellers, playwrights and award winning poets?

In 1947, a group of people decided to form a writers’ club. In January 1949 a constitution, signed by Matt Freeland, Chairman, and Isobel K C Steele, Hon Secretary, decreed that the club would promote ‘a mutual association of writers for the common benefit of all and the encouragement of the art of writing in all its branches.’ At that time, and when I joined in the early 1980s, a person had to give names of markets where their work was published or provide an example of work that would be assessed before membership was granted. Today, all writers of whatever skill level are welcome.

Unlike the Arts Clubs, Edinburgh Writers’ does not have premises and that has been both a bugbear and a delight for members. Who can forget Molly dozing off in the front row of the Osborne’s dining-room, Liz’s efforts to turn down the heating going catastrophically wrong and scaring the visiting speaker into silence or Magda, Alma’s guide dog, scrabbling at the carpet hoping to find a goody the hoover had missed?

Despite these mishaps the Club was settled in The Osborne, along the road from Picardy Place with its statue of Conan Doyle, for many years. Christmas 2010 saw the club homeless, as the building was changing hands, and a search was on for another meeting place. First choice was The Lot a converted church in the Grassmarket run as an Arts’ venue and bistro. Sadly, we had only two meetings there before its closure. The club currently meets in The Eric Liddell centre in Morningside, another converted church. Famous authors in plenty live nearby so perhaps the air is good for creativity.

The usual pattern of meetings held by Edinburgh Writers’ Club includes speakers from the world of writing, talks about matters related to some areas of writing such as forensic science, work nights and competitions in different disciplines.

Ian Rankine is perhaps the most famous speaker to address the club, but others have included the wonderfully entertaining Janice Galloway and the late Iain Crichton Smith who graced the Fiftieth Anniversary dinner. They come to talk to other writers and it is different from the talks delivered at book festivals to their readers. They never ‘talk down’ and members leave with the belief that they can do it too.

Specialists in the crime field are always popular because many members write crime stories and welcome the opportunity to learn about how forensics operate, what the HM Customs’ locus might be in the battle against drugs or how a police officer can up the tension in an interview. Having had Harry Cummings, a retired Chief Superintendant, in the chair for many years, helped enormously in this area.

Work nights might be presented by professionals such as Louise Ironside or Zinnie Harris, but equally might be organised by the committee or a member of the Club. It’s often a revelation to try writing in the style of, or to try turning your prose into drama, and it’s always good for the grey cells. Later, a person can try the new skill out in a club competition.

Club competitions are open to paid-up members only and members benefit from a written critique on their work composed by an expert in the field of the competition. Other writers can be most generous with their time and expertise, particularly if they have themselves come to publication through the writing club world. It was through such a competition that I finally accepted I was a playwright. I have heard many other writers say that was how they came to recognise what they were doing best.

At the end of the year, competition success is rewarded by the presentation of a trophy. The club has many trophies donated by former members or in memory of former members. The most singular is The Ena Bryan trophy, a Bronze of a child’s head. There are silver quaiches and rose bowls. There are more quirky pieces such as a Horse’s Head, a Gun dog and a thinker seated on a pile of books.

Our Honorary President, Alanna Knight, could make a seat out of her own backlist alone. Alanna agreed to become Hon President during the Fiftieth anniversary year and has been a strong supporter of the club since then. Her friendly, but no-nonsense, approach has offered much wisdom to fledgling writers and indeed helped to launch the career of the Mulgray twins who are probably the only twins’ by-line in contemporary fiction.

No piece about Edinburgh Writers could omit mention of our late Membership Secretary, Margaret McNeill. Margaret held all the committee posts, sometimes simultaneously, except President or vice-President over a period of thirty years. She was an evangelical member and keen photographer. We miss her still.

Anyone interested in joining or learning more about EWC should visit the website: www.edinburghwritersclub.org.uk and e-mail the membership secretary.

Anne Stenhouse is a playwright and freelance writer. She can be contacted through her website: www.annestenhouse.co.uk

Theatre Broad are currently touring their production – Peter Pan Man – which includes Anne’s play about JM Barrie: M’CONNACHIE & JMB to the Pleasance Theatre Edinburgh on 29th May and Howden Park Centre, Livingston on 5th June.

11 thoughts on “A Nursery of the Talents – Edinburgh Writers’ Club”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the article concerning the Edinburgh Writer’s Club. May it continue to flourish and bloom for eternity.

  2. I have enjoyed reading about the history of the Edinburgh Writers Club. Although I was only a short term country member I remember many of the members named very well and my first meeting with many of them at Pitlochry. Margaret McNeil worked extremely hard to keep country members informed when she was secretary. Long may the club prosper.

  3. Really enjoyed reading the article, Anne though I would hardly described you as following in my “distinguished” footsteps!!! It is so good to hear about successes such as this.

  4. Great article and lovely photo of Margaret McNeill. Thank you, Anne.

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