Trust me, I’m a doctor

I don’t think I’ve ever written anything before about getting my PhD, but I was feeling a bit nostalgic the other day, plus I had a dream about Murchison House, where I used to to work.

Back in 1966 I was working in West Lothian, in public libraries. I’d got my library qualifications but, frankly, I didn’t really fancy staying in public libraries for the rest of my career. I had a hankering to move into a scientific library, but I didn’t have a degree. Then, thanks to the wonderful Jenny Lee, Education Minister in the then Labour government, the Open University started in 1971. I was one of its first students (I still remember my old student number). I crammed it, and got a degree in maths and science, with a distinction in Geology and Geochemistry. After all, who really needs more than three hours sleep a night? I started work in the then Institute of Geological Sciences (which much later became the British Geological Survey), as their Edinburgh librarian. I loved the job.

By the 1980’s I’d started to compile annual lists of theses in Scottish geology, which were published in the Scottish Journal of Geology. At some point I started to wonder what became of the research written up in these theses. How did it become incorporated into the corpus of geological knowledge? And how did it reflect the prevailing background theories of geology. This was at the time when plate tectonics was revolutionising our views of the Earth and its history.

So I wrote to the Professor of Information Science at Strathclyde, outlining my ideas, and wondering if research along these lines was feasible. He wrote back immediately, inviting me for an interview. After it, he offered me the chance to do an M.Sc by research, and I agreed to embark on the work, having developed my own ideas on the research methodology I would follow, and fitting that into the time I would have left over from my paid work as a librarian, and my life as a family man with a wife and two sons. But the Open University had taught me how to be self-motivating and self-reliant.

At the six month report stage, Professor Cronin said I was uncovering so much new information that he wanted to convert my course to an M.Phil, and after the first year it was further extended to a study for a PhD.

I won’t go into all the ins and outs of the research, but I looked into how many of the theses on the subject had been consulted in University libraries and borrowed from the British Library, how many had been cited by other authors, and other measures of use. I developed a model of co-citation analysis to see which words, used in thesis titles, reflected the underlying paradigms of the science, so it became to some extent an epistemological study. I learned statistical techniques and cluster analysis, I learned how to use a FORTRAN program to map the localities of geological research, I read voraciously, and I became fascinated by the process of scientific communication. It’s not linear, that’s the main thing, and there are a few specific centres of excellence where the most influential work comes from.

Halfway through the process I left BGS to become Chief Librarian of the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, with all the challenges that involved, but I continued with the research, working on at nights after the library closed, thanks to the presence of overnight security guards, and at weekends.

Finally, after six years of part-time research and study, it was finished, and I graduated from the Department of Information Science, University of Strathclyde, in November 1991. It was at the time one of the greatest achievements of my life, and it changed the course of it, as the Open University had done earlier.

It gave me a lot of confidence, in knowing that I had the capacity and stamina to undertake something difficult, something long-term, with no certainty at the outset that I would succeed, but that I would find a way. That stood me in good stead later when my boss asked me to take on the role of Garden Secretary, responsible for finance, personnel and administration. Then later when the Chairman of the Board of Trustees asked me to take on temporary responsibility for managing the whole organisation.

On the use of the research thesis in scientific communication, with particular reference to theses in Scottish geology is my magnum opus. I was 49. Nothing wrong with being a late developer.

The blog post title? Oh, after my graduation, my youngest son gave me a T-shirt with the words Trust Me, I’m a Doctor on the front. I wore it quite often, until one day, at a Courtyard Reading in the Scottish Poetry Library, a young member of the audience passed out. Medical attention was called for, and I found myself hiding my chest when the paramedics arrived. I didn’t think his problem could be solved by someone with a background in information management.


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Word Play launched



CW_Word Play

Here I am, at home after the launch, about to go out for a natter with my neighbours.

The launch, at the Scottish Poetry Library, was a joint one with my friend and CoastWord colleague Hannah Lavery. I hadn’t seen the book before I walked in to the Library, so it was lovely to see Sheila Wakefield sitting at the sales table, all set up, and with the author copies of the book all ready for me.

The audience was excellent, with lots of our friends sitting in the front rows. Hannah read first, giving us a variety of the very short, short and longer pieces from her pamphlet, Rocket Girls.

I had decided I would read the beginnings of six of the stories, then the whole of a single story. It felt right to do it that way, and the audience reactions were just what I’d hoped for. I think I’ll do that again at future launches.

This is my sixth publication with Red Squirrel Press/Postbox Press, and my eleventh altogether. I hope there will be more.


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Calder Wood Press


I’ve been spurred into action by a visit to the Scottish Poetry Library, and a subsequent email. Now that my old Calder Wood Press domain is no longer in use, there’s nowhere for a listing of the titles I published between 1997 and 2015. So here it is:

Titles published by Calder Wood Press, 1997-2015

Author Title Format Year
Colin Will Flowers of Scotland Poem card 1997
Colin Will Painted Fruits Poem card 1997
Colin Will Roundabout Livingston Poem Card 1997
Colin Will Landings Poem Card 1997
Colin Will Robin’s Rowan Privately published card 1999
West Lothian Schools Six hundred lines haiku pamphlet 2000
Quill Writers Group Regalia Pamphlet anthology 2001
Colin Will Mementoliths Poetry pamphlet with geological notes 2005
Gerry Urwin A Feat of Arms Book (history) 2006
Mary Johnston Kennt His Faither Short story pamphlet 2007
Dunbar Writers Tidelines Pamphlet anthology 2007
Mercedes Claraso A Blessing of Unicorns Poetry pamphlet 2007
Jo Gibson The Heart is Always Full Poetry pamphlet 2007
Anna Dickie Heart Notes Poetry pamphlet 2008
Anne Connolly Downside Up Poetry pamphlet 2008
David Purdie The Biggers Poetry pamphlet 2008
Donald McKinney Why We Howl at the Moon Short story book 2008
Jayne Wilding Sky Blue Notebook Poetry pamphlet 2008
Catriona Malan Love Affair With Mussels Poetry pamphlet 2008
Lillias Forbes A hesitant opening of parasols Poetry pamphlet 2009
Irene Brown Glass Slippers Poetry pamphlet 2009
Mary Johnston Fa dis she think she is? Poetry pamphlet 2009
Kevin Cadwallender Dog Latin Poetry pamphlet 2009
Jane Wilde Words, words, words Poetry pamphlet 2009
David Purdie The Godothin Version in Scots 2009
Gerry Urwin A Muse To Amuse Poetry pamphlet 2009
Lyn Moir Easterly, Force 10 Poetry pamphlet 2009
Morgan Downie stone and sea Poetry book 2010
Juliet Wilson Unthinkable Skies Poetry pamphlet 2010
Judith Stewart Brief Encounters Poetry pamphlet 2010
Christine Ford Pink Socks and Walking Boots Poetry pamphlet 2010
Eddie Gibbons Why she flew to Barcelona Poetry pamphlet 2010
Geoff Cooper Songs the Lightning Sang Poetry pamphlet 2010
Mercedes Claraso Setting Out Poetry pamphlet 2010
Judith Taylor Local Colour Poetry pamphlet 2010
Marion MacCready Vintage Sea Poetry pamphlet 2011
Lyn Moir Velazquez’s Riddle Poetry pamphlet 2011
Sonata Paliulyte Still Life Poetry pamphlet 2011
Stephen Barnaby Self-Loathing Ostrich Poetry pamphlet 2012
Alistair Noon Out of the cave Poetry pamphlet 2011
Jo Gibson Everything I thought I knew Poetry pamphlet 2013
Ross Wilson The Heavy Bag Poetry pamphlet 2011
Alec Finlay Question your teaspoons Poetry pamphlet 2012
Jill Madden Ticket to Sugarloaf Short story book 2013
Janette Ayachi Choir of ghosts Poetry pamphlet 2013
Amy Anderson Night’s Fresh Velvet Poetry pamphlet 2013
Jane Overton Short Term Parking Poetry pamphlet 2013
Colin Will The year’s six seasons Poetry pamphlet 2013
Dunbar Writers Wild Words Pamphlet anthology 2014
Lindsay Macgregor The Weepers Poetry pamphlet 2015
Nuala Watt Dialogue On the Dark Poetry pamphlet 2015

This list is of printed works only, i.e. it excludes e-book versions.

The Press was wound up in 2016.

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The new book

Word Play, a new full-length of previously unpublished short stories, will be launched by Postbox Press at the Scottish Poetry Library on Saturday 30th June (1pm – all welcome). It’s been a long time coming. I used to think I was a prolific writer of poetry, but there were days, weeks even, when I didn’t write any new poems. Not so with the short stories. I can’t stop writing them. I write every day, and most of my writing is short fiction.

Selection was always going to be difficult then, but by the end of last year I had a group of stories I had confidence in. There are twenty in the book. I hope readers will find them varied and interesting. There’s no theme, but they are mostly about relationships between people. I find that my ‘characters’ quickly become people. I can see them in my imagination; I can hear their conversations, their interactions.

I’m the editor at Postbox Press, so it might seem there’s a conflict there, but I submitted them to Sheila Wakefield, founder and publisher at Red Squirrel Press, in the same way other prospective authors do, and the decision to publish was hers. I’ve written in an earlier blog post about my decision to send them for an impartial and objective assessment and critique to The Literary Consultancy. I think that was one of the best decisions I’ve made as a writer. The feedback was spot-on and invaluable, even if it did mean rewriting the majority of the stories.

I’ve now proof-read the text, expertly and cleverly set by Gerry Cambridge, who also designed the cover. It’s out of my hands now, off to the printer, and I can now turn my thoughts to other things. Except I can’t.  I’ve noticed this before with other books. There’s a dip in my energy, my inspiration, after a book is away. I have lots of unfinished stories on file; lots of fragments, starts and endings I could work on, but every time I start looking at them I feel restless, and dissatisfied with them. Some of them might go somewhere, others will definitely not. No doubt after the launch I’ll knuckle down and begin work again, but until then I’ll just continue writing my daily journal, and not worry too much about new stories. They will come.

Word Play cover


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The Open Mouse

The Open Mouse started as an offshoot from the Poetry Scotland website, which I started in 1996 as the web presence of the printed broadsheet Poetry Scotland, which I’m happy to say is still flourishing under its editor, my friend Sally Evans. So, without having a precise handle on how long it’s been going, it’s pretty safe to say it’s around twenty years.

I’ve enjoyed receiving and reading submissions, making a choice, and putting the accepted poems into a file for later uploading.

Just lately though, I’ve become aware that, subconsciously, I haven’t been putting the effort into it that I did in earlier times. I’ve missed some uploading deadlines, so that some poems have appeared after the dates I said I’d publish them. That’s made things a bit rushed and last-minute to me, and I don’t like that. And I’ve also found myself making excuses to myself about putting off going through the submission emails.

I think this is me telling myself that I want to close the Mouse sometime soon, and I’ve decided to act on that. With the number of current submissions in the pipeline it will probably be some time towards the end of July this year. I’ll know the exact date after I finish going through the submissions, and I’ll announce it on the site and in social media.

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Short story writing

I did a workshop on short story writing for the Federation of Writers (Scotland) recently, and I thought I’d put down a few notes on it here.

I began with some thoughts on making a start on stories; some of the things that might work to trigger a story. I took in some everyday props – a phone, a pebble, a clothes peg, a cork, a small key, a book of stamps, an envelope addressed ‘To Whom It May Concern’. Concrete objects often work well as starting points, because they don’t exist in a vacuum; they have associations with people, places and events.

I suggested that writers might want to start with a snatch of overheard conversation, and I recounted an actual conversation I’d heard on the train through from Edinburgh that morning. I couldn’t have made it up, but I know I’ll use it in a story.

Moving on to the actual writing, we did a couple of exercises which led to a focus on the first two sentences of a story, the ones which pull the reader into reading the rest of the story. I compared it to beach volleyball, where the first one sets up the point, and the second one spikes it. This is something I’ve been thinking about since I attended a workshop in Dunbar led by Catherine Simpson. It made a strong impression on me; I use it in some of my own stories, and I find it in others. I read out the first two sentences from some of the stories in a recent issue of Gutter magazine, so that the group could see how effective the technique is.

Most stories are character-driven, and creating characters a reader can believe in is crucial to the reader’s involvement with the story. Readers can like or dislike characters; but they have to be interested in them. So we did exercises in building characters from descriptions, and how they might interact in a narrative.

We discussed point of view – first person, third person, omniscient third person and so on. Who is the narrator in your story, and how does that affect what can and can’t be related? A first person narration, for instance, can’t describe what’s going on inside another character’s mind, just what can be observed. I suggest that writing in active voice, rather than passive voice, makes the narrative stronger.

Dialogue was the next topic. It’s often said that dialogue is not true speech, but a semblance of it, and we looked at ways in which dialogue in a story differs from everyday speech. Dialogue takes the action forward; description slows it down. A story which is all dialogue becomes a play script, only needing directions to turn into a play. There are too many examples of bad dialogue – written, or in television or film. Dialogue should resist the urge to explain, which is part of the familiar ‘show don’t tell’ paradigm.

We talked about continuity; keeping track of characters, objects, scenes and actions. It’s sometimes easy to get lost in the urge to keep the writing moving forward, but it’s important to know where your characters have been, and what they’ve done.

Story structure is important. Whether or not you follow the conventional three-part structure of beginning, middle and end – or opening, development and denouement – or you decide to branch out and do something different, your story should follow an arc, a narrative line.

Endings are at least as important as beginnings. Does your story finish with closure, or do you leave it open-ended? Some writers like ambiguous endings, letting the reader construct an ending in their own minds. It’s up to you.

Word counts are important if you are aiming to place your story in magazines or competitions, and each opportunity will have its own guidelines.

Finally, we dealt with the important business of editing and revising. There is no story which couldn’t be improved by revising it, but there’s the risk of overworking a story so that its original energy is lost. At some point you have to let go of it, tell yourself you’ve done enough.

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Mountains and valleys, final part

Day 6, 5th November 2003

Up at a reasonable time for breakfast, then shinkansen (bullet train) to Nagoya, and a change to a ‘limited express’ to Takayama. A stunningly beautiful journey through the mountains. The autumn colours are at their magnificent best, and the trees a multicoloured mixture of broadleaves and conifers, a russet and green mosaic. Near the top of the hills the leaves have already fallen, and the forest dissolves into transparency, the soft fuzzy look of bare twigs on the high ridges. Near the road we see the spindly maple shrubs, with starry scarlet leaves. Occasionally there’s the piercing yellow of ginkgo trees. The single-track line crosses and re-crosses narrow gorges, with fast green rivers far below. We pass through a metamorphic belt, and into granite country, the high hard core of Japan.

hilltop trees are leafless,
a russet haze on mountain ridges
where it’s already winter –
here in the valleys
a warm autumn dithers

Takayama is a nice little town with gridded streets and a lot of character. It’s touristy – but mainly for Japanese tourists – but it’s also a town where people live and work. We have a walking tour first, visiting the Jinya building, where the administrator lived during the Shogunate period. It has a number of large, high-ceilinged unheated rooms which must be freezing in winter, even with the open hearths. Then on to a sake brewery for a tasting, then another tasting in a miso soup emporium, among the big barrels of fermenting bean paste.

outside the office
taxi-drivers wait –
samurai rickshaw-pullers

Day 7, 6th November

Up for morning market in Takayama – colourful and interesting. We bought some ginkgo nuts, persimmons, lacquer bowls, a wee taiko hand-drum for our grandson, and some other nick-nacks. Leave at 9 for a visit to an Edo period merchant’s house and a Buddhist temple, which we can’t enter because a funeral service is going on. Then on the bus to the Shokawa Valley, and the Shirakawa-go hamlets. Terrific drive up into the mountains, with hairpins, narrow tunnels, dams, lakes and hydro schemes. In places the scenery is like the Scottish Highlands, in other places completely different. We make one stop beside a large lake behind a massive gravity dam. The ‘rest stop’ toilet is closed, sadly, but in the car park there is a giant cherry tree, a favourite of the locals, which was transplanted when the valley was drowned. Amazingly, after a few years, it began to send out leaves and flowers once again. There’s a statute to the man who moved it, and quite right too – I’ve never seen a tree as big as this being transplanted.

venerable cherry
leaves its drowning village
puts down new roots

The village in Shirakawa-go (Ogimachi) is very picturesque, with thatched cottages where large extended families live on the ground floor, raising silkworms in the upper stories. The houses are called gassho-zukuri, which refers to the hands raised in prayer because the roof pitch is very steep. The thatch is made from Miscanthus grass – we saw fields of it growing. It’s a World Heritage site, because there isn’t anything like these houses elsewhere, and to have 150 of them in the one spot is unique. Eventually we manage to find a place for lunch – soba noodles in vegetable soup for me – quite tasty – but Jane had chosen cold soba noodles – a summer speciality. It isn’t as nice. We buy candied apples and cucumber, not knowing what they are, but they are good, especially the apples. Back down to Takayama, where we have a tonkatsu meal at the restaurant Bandai Kadomise – a country style restaurant where we have to sit on the floor. Very uncomfortable, but the food is good.

candied cucumber
a bitter-sweet snack
after cold noodles




At last! A good use
for Pampas Grass –
thatch for silk-worm
hatcheries far better
than suburban lawns.

Day 8, 7th November

We drive down the mountain roads from Takayama to Matsumoto. Visit the castle of the local daimyo – feudal overlord – which is more impressive from the outside than inside. Similar sort of road to yesterday’s, with many narrow lakes, each with its dam and hydro scheme. On to a lunch stop at Lake Suwa in spectacular mountain scenery. The whole valley is taken up with hydroelectric schemes, dam after dam until we reached the huge one at Suwa. We get our first glimpse of Mt Fuji from the motorway – we are told this is most unusual, as it’s only visible on average 28 days each year. We’re also told that today in Matsumoto it was the warmest November day for 38 years, 24C (75F). We then drive up through the clouds to the 5th Station on Mt Fuji, the start of the climbing route (only open July and August). The lower slopes are densely forested, with road signs warning of bears. This is a place where some sad people come to die, walking off into the woods and deliberately losing themselves. As to the mountain itself, words are inadequate. We have a clear view of the snow-dusted summit, and the fresh clinker-like reddish-purple scoria from the last eruption in 1707 is obvious. We are above a sea of clouds, stretching all the way to a chain of distant mountains. It is a magical experience. The trees here are Japanese White Pine – Pinus parviflora – with pale silvery bark and very contorted trunks and branches, due to the altitude. There’s a collection of shops at this point – mostly gimmicky souvenirs – we didn’t buy the canned Fuji air. Back down in the gathering darkness to our hotel at Hakone.


Matsumoto Castle

A park insulates
the medieval castle –
a wooden pyramid –
from the modern city.

In the grounds
a tented history show –
dummies posed as actors
tell the story
of Hare Meat Soup.

The Chrysanthemum Society
shows its best creations –
giant pom-poms, white spiders
and the subtler specialisms
of shaped displays
and bonsai blooms.


Lake Suwa snap stop
for fast noodles, green tea,
a quick panorama




In the Sea of Trees
‘BEAR’ signs don’t deter
the despairing. Lost already,
they’ve come too far
to find the way back.


Steady climb, hairpin
after hairpin – we can’t
see the view
for the trees.
Near the end of the road
fresh scoria – only
three centuries old –
purple, clinkery –
then the sight
of the icing-sugar summit.


A cold wind here
smells of home. We’re above
the wind-sculpted clouds,
one like Hokusai’s big wave,
but insubstantial as fog.


Closed to climbers
the big walk starts
at the last twisted pine.
Eyes detect a route
that feet can’t follow.


Day 9, 8th November

We wake early this morning, and on the way down to breakfast we see a veranda door open. We step out for a view of the most beautiful mountain in the world. It’s a perfect cone, Fuji-san, and it changes with the light, the time of day, the altitude of the viewer, and the amount of haze in the atmosphere. On the other side we have a view of Lake Ashi. After breakfast we are off to the Owakudane valley, for a view of fumaroles, boiling springs, cable car, and a geothermal energy plant being constructed. They boil eggs in the springs – it’s a speciality – their shells turn black due to the sulphur. Back to the lake for a mini-cruise on a very nice boat – it is great to be back on the water. Before embarking we visit a really nice little souvenir shop, specialising in yosegi-zaiku woodwork – a kind of mosaic technique. As we get off the boat we notice a bright orange torii gate by the lakeside – obviously another very large Shinto shrine for those who can walk on the water or have other transportation. We buy our lunch in a little supermarket, and drive on alongside the ancient route – the Tokaido Road between Edo and Kyoto – lined by magnificent tall Cryptomeria trees.

Valley of Great Boiling

Nauseous smell of sulphur
hangs over the hillside.
Stunted shrubs and dead grasses
line the banks of hot milky streams.
Steam jets from unseen pipes
under the yellow-stained boulders.


paddle steamer
whips the water, delivering
more splash than speed

Then a long drive to Kamakura through some pretty uninspiring industrial towns like Odawarra along the Pacific coast. Surf is not up – little waves run ashore as if they can’t be bothered. Kamakura itself is cramped, bustling and noisy, but the massive bronze statue of the Buddha Amida is hugely impressive. He sits in the open air, the temple having been destroyed by a tsunami in the 18th century. Here again I am able to pay my respects. The weather iss still very warm and sunny. We drive on through Yokohama to our hotel in Tokyo. This time we’re on the 17th floor. We go out to the Wing deli, where I persuade Jane not to buy rice, pickles and seaweed – our suitcases are already over-full. We buy some sushi, and take it back to the hotel, where we dress up in our yukata and dine, watching a kendo match on the TV.

serene, with earthquake-proof head,
the Kamakura Buddha
ignores the black kite screams


Tokyo looks familiar –
we know these streets,
these shops, that station.
I drop coins in the bowl
of a begging monk
and pray to return.


Day 10, 9th November

The flight home iss long and tedious, chasing the terminator all the way across the top of the world. A boring wait at London, then the short flight to Edinburgh, where our friends are waiting for us. We will go back to Japan some day.

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