Award-winning first novel has Scottish Gaelic twist

Tim Armstrong wrote a novel about a rock band.

That’s not so unusual, except his sci-fi story finds its characters on a distant moon and in a luxury spaceship. It’s science fiction, after all.

If that seems wonderfully unlikely, get this: The former Everett man’s book just won a prestigious prize, bestowed by a group that celebrates excellence in Scottish culture and tradition.

Sorry, though. Chances are, you won’t be able to read Armstrong’s book. It’s called “Air Cuan Dubh Drilseach.”

That’s Scottish Gaelic, a language distinct from the Irish tongue called Gaelic. In English, the book would be called “On a Glittering Black Sea.” But Armstrong’s novel isn’t being published in English.

“I wrote it very deliberately in Gaelic. Having it appear in Gaelic makes it special and helps the language,” said Armstrong, 46, who grew up in Everett.

Visiting family here this Thanksgiving week, he has an impressive topic for dinner conversation. On Nov. 14, the first-time novelist received the award from a venerable group called the Saltire Society.

At a ceremony in Glasgow, Scotland, Armstrong was honored with the society’s Scottish First Book of the Year prize, which recognizes an author’s debut. According to The Scotsman newspaper, Armstrong shared the prize with Eunice Buchanan, a short story writer.

The society’s description of his book said Armstrong “has brought the counterculture of his native Seattle to shape the first genuine sci-fi novel in Gaelic.”

Armstrong lives on the Isle of Skye, off Scotland’s west coast. He works as a researcher in social linguistics at Sabhal Mor Ostaig, a Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye. In 2009, he earned a doctoral degree in Gaelic studies from Sabhal Mor Ostaig and Scotland’s University of Aberdeen.

“I’m studying the Gaelic language as a spoken language,” he said. The language is spoken by about 50,000 people, mostly in northwest Scotland. “It’s still used as a community language in the Outer Hebrides,” he said.

He grew up in Everett and attended Mukilteo schools before high school at Seattle’s Lakeside. The book’s plot line — musicians on tour — is heavily rooted in experience. For years, Armstrong played in punk bands in Seattle and Scotland.

His band, Mill a h-Uile Rud (translated, it’s “Destroy Everything”), has performed entirely in Scots Gaelic. An early album, “Cearr,” was the first CD of all new Scottish Gaelic songs. About a decade ago, Armstrong lived at “a punk-rock commune in the woods” on the Olympic Peninsula. “We put the band together there,” he said.

In 2005, his band toured Europe with Oi Polloi, a Scottish band well known for Gaelic punk. Armstrong also has been a member of the Gaelic bands Nad Aislingean and Na Gathan.

His scholarly and literary work has left little time for playing guitar in a punk band. “Honestly, there’s not too much time for that. I do a lot of writing in my day job, and publish in English and Gaelic,” Armstrong said. He just completed a second Gaelic novel, this one for young adult readers.

Considering his early academic experience, it may seem improbable that Armstrong became a novelist — in a language learned later in life.

His mother, Beth Armstrong, a longtime freelance photographer for The Herald, said her eldest child struggled with visual learning disabilities. As a fourth-grader, he didn’t read beyond what she said was “pre-primer level.”

He found success with an Individualized Education Program, which his mother said was updated annually by the Mukilteo School District. Slow to read, he did very well in other subjects.

“Then all of a sudden, it was like a light switch went on in fifth or sixth grade,” said Tim Armstrong, the eldest of four siblings. The first real book he read was “Dune,” Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic.

It was science, not literature or music, that was his first career choice. Armstrong earned a bachelor’s degree in biology from Bowdoin College in Maine, then studied molecular biology as a graduate student at Harvard University.

“I just really enjoyed learning Gaelic. Human beings are natural language learners,” he said.

Scientist-turned-punk rocker-turned novelist, Armstrong said he “never in a million years” expected to write a prize-winning book, which he describes as cyberpunk meets space opera.

“I wrote about things that I knew — a band-tour disaster,” he said.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460, jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

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