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‘A wee belter of a group’: How Aberdeen’s Lemon Tree Writers is still inspiring new voices 30 years on

Established in 1993, the group has developed the talents of a wide range of writers including award-winners Leila Aboulela and Rachel Matheson. reports.
Neil Drysdale
The Lemon Tree Writers Group was inspired by Todd McEwen. Pic: Design/Lucy Ellmann Date; Unknown
The Lemon Tree Writers Group was inspired by Todd McEwen. Pic: Design/Lucy Ellmann Date; Unknown

Todd McEwen didn’t have an auspicious introduction to the Granite City.

As he recalls: “In my first few days in Aberdeen, I was one evening in The Grill, a resort of journalists and other undesirables. I was talking with one of them, an affable, shabby chap from the Press and Journal.

“He got around to asking what I did and when I told him I was the new Writer in Residence, he twitched, gave me the blankest look I’ve ever seen and abandoned the bar and his drink without saying a word.”

Fond memories of group

Yet, undeterred by that reaction, McEwen struck up a rapport and forged a connection with a disparate collection of writers who started attending a new book collective – “a fantastically lively, varied bunch” – and the seeds had been sown for an enduring idea.

And now, with the launch of a commemorative work, Peeling Back the Years, the characters who would subsequently become the Lemon Tree Writers group are celebrating their 30th anniversary of highlighting the talent which exists in the city.

Eddie Gibbons has been a driving force in the Lemon Tree Writers group in Aberdeen.

The American-born McEwen is one of life’s collaborative spirits and though he once spent a Fourth of July in Duthie Park with two compatriots – “The hailstones were the size of golf balls and they haven’t spoken to me since ” – he was soon encouraging and nurturing myriad writers from all over Scotland, but also from Sudan, France, South Africa and such diverse locations as Texas, Liverpool and Orkney.

And he still has fond memories as so many of them became his friends.

This group was the exact opposite

He told me: “This was a really hands-on job, seeing anyone and everyone who needed help with any kind of writing. It was fascinating. I also did some workshops for kids, and started an adult writers group that went on, I was most gratified to see, to become the Lemon Tree Writers.

“Aberdeen being what it was at the time, there were people from all over Britain and the world. And this combination of nationalities and approaches made it very easy to talk about one kind of writing and then ease into another.

“We read and talked about all kinds of fiction and poetry. My usual experience with writers groups is that they are unwilling to read anything they haven’t heard of and only talk about their own stuff; this group was the exact opposite.

“It was the best time I’ve ever had conducting a writing group.

The Lemon Tree Writers have published a 30th anniversary collection “Peeling Back the Years”.

Keeping things going

“The list of former members who have published good work is rather long, but one of the most outstanding is the Sudanese/Egyptian novelist Leila Aboulela, who lives in Aberdeen. She has just been in the United States promoting her latest book, River Spirit, an amazing historical novel about the Siege of Khartoum.”

When McEwen left the city in 1994, the group was determined that the ground work he had established in tandem with their efforts should not be squandered.

And Eddie Gibbons, one of the gifted and prolific individuals in the ranks, was the next person to ensure that the early momentum was maintained.

How Aberdeen inspired Leila Aboulela to become an award-winning global writer

He explained: “When Todd’s residency finished, we were left to write by ourselves. I wanted to keep the workshop group together so I decided to hold meetings under the banner of ‘Lemon Tree Writers’.

“In the first year, the group grew from a dozen to 30 members. I was working full-time and long hours in my day job, so the frequency of meetings fluctuated between weekly and monthly, depending on my workload. In later years, Yvonne Spence and Mike Euillet helped by filling in when I was not available.

“In 1995, an anthology titled Left to Write was published. To my knowledge, members of the original group who went on to have books published include myself, Peter Burnett, Eric Swanepoel, Priscilla Frake and, most notably, Leila Aboulela, who has received worldwide acclaim for her novels.

It was a true team effort

“The group received terrific support from John Smith at Aberdeen Central Library. He arranged many events at the library and other venues, providing our members with platforms for reading their own work alongside such luminaries as Edwin Morgan, Don Paterson, Sheena Blackhall and many more.

“My chairmanship spanned five years, with a short break when I invited Roddy Lumsden, who was then Aberdeen [University] Writer in Residence, to chair a few meetings. Towards the end of my tenure another great supporter of the group, Shona Powell, then director of the Lemon Tree, provided funds for me to book the Liverpool poet Brian Patten, and the Australian poet Les Murray to read at the venue.

“The longevity of the Lemon Tree Writers is testament to the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of everyone who has chaired or attended the group meetings.”

A large group of writers have contributed to the book “Peeling Back the Years”.

‘Feedback was always encouraging’

What’s evident is that, unlike many organisations, this has never been a clique. On the contrary, new initiatives and members have been warmly embraced down the decades.

As poet Bernard Briggs said: “I first attended LTW in about 2005 or 2006. At that time, meetings were still being held in the Lemon Tree itself, either in the bar upstairs, or in one of its meeting rooms.

“I remember being very intimidated by the group at first. I was very much a novice poet and very unsure of my style or even if I was doing anything right at all. But I needn’t have worried. The feedback was always encouraging, thoughtful but above all honest, so I always felt as if I was learning my craft in the best company.

The Lemon Tree is one of Aberdeen’s most cherished arts venues. Pic: Kami Thomson.

“Of course, giving feedback was shared by everyone around the table and that is also something that one learned over time and could be even more rewarding.

“Some of the writers that attended those early meetings are sadly no longer with us, or have moved away from Aberdeen, but many of them are still vary active in the writing scene around the north-east, and that’s the very essence of a successful writer’s group. As members come and go, the dynamic remains fresh and vibrant; bringing new voices, views and styles to the table.”

Rachel’s one of the new scrievers

The group is still very much nurturing fresh talent, including Rachel Matheson, somebody who excels in Doric and was effusive in her praise for the LTW.

She said: “It is a wee belter of a group. I’ve been a member for over a year, joining online as an Aberdonian expat. Participating gave me a bit of a friendly and welcoming kick up the backside to focus on the writing I have always enjoyed.

Rachel Matheson describes the Lemon Tree Writers as a “wee belter of a group”.

“Feedback and friendly debate fill the fortnightly meetings; it even prompted me to test out a bit of Doric, which led to my success with the Toulmin prize [for her four-part story in the language] this year.

“I credit the group with providing space to share a variety of work and for supporting all keen scrievers.”

McEwen is proud of his legacy

Unsurprisingly, given the fashion in which it has flourished, McEwen is proud of what was achieved back in the 1990s in Aberdeen. And what has been sustained ever since.

Todd McEwen was the catalyst for the creation of the Lemon Tree Writers group in Aberdeen. Pic: Lucy Ellmann.

He said: “On the last day of my post, I was having lunch with one of the writers and I could barely lift my sandwich. I began to lean toward the left.

“Are you all right?’ he asked. I said: ‘Oh, I’m just happy.”

Further information about the group can be found at: