Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Its a Bute-Aful Day(s)...

Watching the ferry coming into Rothesay from Wemyss Bay on the mainland

Craig, every second Tuesday. 

Kia ora and gidday everyone.

What recharges your batteries? What fills your soul? 

I've thought about this a fair bit in recent years, both in a broader sense as we've all gone through the uncertainty and life-altering times of a once-in-a-century global pandemic, and as I - like most people - have had various personal challenges to deal with in terms of parenthood, 'career', family health and bereavement, and other things. 

Oversimplifying things perhaps, I've found that blue-green days help me a lot. 

By that I mean days when I get plenty of water (sea, lakes, rivers) and trees/forest/parks in my life. Nature rejuvenates. For me at least. Another thing that's vital is spending time with people you care about, and sharing adventures and experiences with good people. So this past weekend was a particularly special one that ticked all those boxes across the board, as I headed up to Rothesay in Scotland for the annual Bute Noir festival.

Chairing Scottish crime royalty at Bute Noir on Saturday: Liam McIlvanney,
Denise Mina, Louise Welsh, and me onstage at the new Bute Yard venue

Rothesay is the main town on the isle of Bute, a lovely little island that sits just off the west coast of Scotland, a short train ride and ferry from Glasgow. Bute's population is around 6,000-7,000 people, and you can drive around the entire island in pretty short order, given its only 15 miles long and a few miles wide. Yet packed within that small space is a whole lot of fascinating nature and history (including archaeological discoveries dating back 4,000 years). 

Add on a cool crime writing festival, and what more could you want in a weekend? 

This year was my third time at Bute Noir - I'd been in 2019, ie the last 'normal' year, then returned last year. Even in my short experience the festival had grown tremendously, while still maintaining its intimate and collegial feel. Created by Scottish author Craig Robertson and local bookseller Karen Latto, with the help of several others in the local community, Bute Noir began in 2016 with a series of author events in Print Point bookshop and the local museum and library. Intimate settings for booklovers to connect and share their love of great crime writing. 

We do something similar with our Mystery in the Library series in New Zealand each year, panels which generally have audiences of 25-50 people, sometimes 70-80, and are great fun even if much smaller than the big festivals. 

Bute Noir began in a similar way, though it's grown quite a lot since.

I love that author panels continue to be held in the library and Bute Museum as the festival grows significantly, with larger venues added to hold the bigger crowds (200-300 people now for some events) as Bute Noir becomes more renowned - last year it was the Trinity Church, this year we had the brand new Bute Yard venue. There's still a very strong sense of collegiality, togetherness, and intimacy to the festival as we all revel in crime fiction camaraderie. 

The historical mysteries panel on Sunday in the Rothesay Library, featuring
Anna Mazzola, Douglas Skelton, and Vaseem Khan chaired by Colin Sinclair

I had a great time at my first two Bute Noir festivals - chairing some fun panels, hanging out with cool authors and booklovers offstage, and exploring a bit of the island too. This time it was even more special because I didn't go alone. My eight-year-old daughter, a fellow booklover and outdoors adventurer, joined me. She'd been wanting to go back to Scotland since our first visit pre-COVID to Linlithgow and Edinburgh, and this seemed an ideal opportunity given the welcoming and relaxed nature of Bute Noir, the fabulous people involved, and the natural environment. 

Miss Eight hooning down the hillside at Scalpsie Bay to get a closer look at the seals
we spotted from up on the cliffs (a steep path from the road down to the beach)

The fact is I've known since my first-ever crime writing festival (TOPCWF in Harrogate, 2012) that the crime and thriller writing community is an amazing one. Very welcoming, collegial, supportive, and full of good people. Of course there are some exceptions, but they're rare and standout because of it. 

As much as I've enjoyed several terrific literary/books/arts festivals in various countries over the years - including taking Miss Eight to Oxford Literary Festival earlier this year for kids events with Michael Morpurgo and Cressida Cowell - the crime fiction festivals are generally something even more special and a little different in atmosphere etc. So I was very comfortable taking Miss Eight to Bute Noir - we went up a day early to explore the island a bit before festivities kicked in - because I was confident she'd love the place and the people, and they'd be really good with her (including when I had to be onstage myself a couple of times, chairing events with some terrific authors). 

Not gloating or anything, but man was I proved right! 

We had a terrific time from the moment our ferry docked in Bute and Karen at Print Point had a specially made lanyard waiting for Miss Eight to wear for the festival (as an official 'helper') and we caught up with Craig Robertson - who'd first met Miss Eight when she was in utero at Iceland Noir in 2014, and maybe hadn't seen her since (possibly at Harrogate in 2019) - who was so kind and chatted with her lots about various things even though he was on the cusp of a fast-growing festival and his head would have been full of all the things that needed to be done, checked, rearranged and dealt with over the next 72 hours. Crime fiction people are some of the best people. 

Catching up with our pal Val, the Queen of Crime, who first met Miss Eight
when she was Miss Three, and has hung out with in NZ and UK since. 

We had a really lovely first 24 hours on Bute, before Bute Noir kicked into gear on Friday evening, exploring the island with a sunrise walk around the seashore, a morning trip to ArdenCraig Gardens, woodland walk along the hills above the town, spending time learning about the island's history at the Bute Museum (including M8's favourite item, the Queen of the Inch necklace which is 4,000 years old and features in a kids mystery I got her at Bute Noir last year, THE MOTLEY CREW AND THE MYSTERY OF THE QUEEN OF THE INCH by Myra Duffy). 

Then we took the open-top bus around part of the island to see Port Bannatyne and its WWII history of midget submarines, the roofless ruin of St Colmac's Church, sandy Ettrick Bay, plenty of farmland, views across the western side of the island and coastline to Inchmarnock (M8 also excited about this - it's where the grave of the Queen of the Inch was discovered) and Arran, and on to Scalpsie Bay, a great spot for seal spotting. As we worked our way down a steep slope we spotted a couple sunning themselves on the rocks below, then once we got down to the beach we saw six seals, including one playfully swimming while the other five sunned themselves. A lovely moment. 

Lovely to have our feet in the ocean for the first time since New Zealand in Dec/Jan
- well, technically the Firth of Clyde, sheltered from the Atlantic, but still... 

We were very tempted to go for a swim at the sandy beach, but did a paddle walk instead, walking through the water the whole way around the beach from one end to the other, before realising we may be struggling to get back to Rothesay for the start of the festival if we waited 2 hours for the next bus, which would works its way around the scenic route back to Rothesay (a good journey, but not timely). 

So we hiked straight across the island back to Rothesay, a few miles, but quicker than waiting for the bus! A nice walk too, past some lochs and lots of farmland fields. A highlight was seeing Highland Coo, which Miss 8 had recently learned about but I hadn't thought we'd see on Bute (I had shown her pictures on the train from our friend James Oswald, who is a farmer as well as a great crime writer). As we got back into Bute we bumped into several people gearing up for the festival, including our pal Val McDermid (above), author and screenwriter Alex Sokoloff, and others including author Ann Bloxwich and journalist, blogger and Ngaio Marsh Awards judge Louise Fairbairn. 

Kia ora Highland Coo! Hairy cows on Bute...  

From there, it was two great days centred on the Bute Noir festival, opening with a fun panel with Abir Mukherjee and Ambrose Parry discussing their books exploring mystery and history, then onto some other fun panels and an unforgettable Friday night finisher where Abir and Vaseem Khan had a special 'Red Hot Chilli Writers' podcast episode where they put four authors through some gruelling/embarrassing tasks: Mick Herron, Anna Mazzola, Fiona Cummins, and Craig Robertson were very game, everything from pitching the worst novels they could think of (Fiona's '50 Shades of Decay' which featured a love affair gone wrong between Abir and Vas, turning the humiliation tables on our hosts) to perhaps the world's first-ever (and last-ever?) crime writers rap battle. You had to be there. 

Far too many highlights to distil into a post, but here's a wee photo essay of a few fun moments from the weekend. As I said above, the crime writing community is pretty special. They really embraced Miss Eight being there, made her feel welcome and included, with several authors having good conversations offstage with her about storytelling, and lots of people being kind to her as she took some 'official photographs' of panels and the Fun Lovin' Crime Writers concert. She's not generally a shy kid anyway, though she does worry about not being good at things (like we all do sometimes), but she grew in confidence over the weekend even though it was all new to her. 

Crime fiction people are great people. 

So, lots of blue, lots of green, great times with people I love, and sharing lotsa cool moments with cool people. Couldn't really ask for anything more in a weekend excursion, eh?  I'm feeling very fortunate and thankful. Kia ora rawa atu (thanks heaps) to everyone involved with Bute Noir. It was a Bute-aful weekend. 

Definitely check out Bute Noir if you get the chance in future. Put it in the calendar, or on the bucket list.

Miss Eight taking pics of her pal Val McDermid, the Queen of Crime,
in conversation with the great Mick Herron on Friday night at Bute Noir

A terrific crime writer and a terrific bloke, Bute Noir founder Craig Robertson
is a man of many talents... I can neither confirm not deny whether rapping is one of them

Discussing why villains make the best characters with superstar
Irish crime writer Liz Nugent (who feels the same way)

Rothesay Castle at twilight; the historic fortress was
right across from or nearby all the Bute Noir venues

Seashore sunrises are pretty spectacular on Bute

Even the parkrun on Bute is special; we woke on Saturday for a 5k stroll around the magnificent grounds of Mount Stuart, forest to seashore to manor and more

Miss Eight taking photos of the "Long Arm of the Law" panel on police procedurals
with Claire Askew, Neil Lancaster and Marion Todd on Saturday morning

Miss Eight loved hanging out with and chatting storytelling with bestselling
author Elly Griffiths, who also ran a special kids event during Bute Noir

The wonderful Karen Latto, founder of Bute Noir and owner of Print Point bookshop
The 4,000-year-old Queen of the Inch necklace discovered in a neolithic
grave - that's 2,000 years before Jesus, or Asterix and Obelix! 

The littlest concert photographer? Miss Eight getting some shots of
the mighty Fun Lovin' Crime Writers on Saturday night at Bute Noir

Final storytelling and other chats with historical mystery royalty Anna Mazzola,
Vaseem Khan, and Abir Mukherjee on the ferry back to the mainland on Sunday

The images above barely scratch the surface of all the fun and good times that were had over a few days in Bute. As I've said and will continue to do so: the crime writing community is a great group of people. I feel very fortunate to get to wear a few different hats and be involved in various ways. 

Have you ever been to Bute, either for Bute Noir or in general? Does this look like the kind of crime writing festival you may enjoy? Do you like going to author events as well as reading their stories? 

Until next time. Ka kite anō.

Whakataukī of the fortnight: 

Inspired by Zoe and her 'word of the week', I'll often end my posts by sharing a whakataukī (Māori proverb), a pithy and poetic thought to mull on as we go through life.

He aha te mea nui tea o? He tangata he tangata, he tangata!

(What is the most important thing in the world? It is people it is people it is people!)


  1. Thanks all for coming. Fabulous weekend 😀

  2. Karen latto is a powerhouse of a human being! Hope she's putting her feet up now.

  3. Having lived on the West Coast with my late Scottish husband many years ago, Bute was accessible to us and visited often. Now in NZ, I look forward to the meetups you organise in the Wellington libraries. Thanks, both for those and for your blog posts.