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.

Talk to us

More in Local News

A wanted suspect was arrested after a standoff with law enforcement Tuesday night. (Bothell Police Department)
Kidnapping suspect arrested after standoff in Bothell

A large police presence contained the property in the 20500 block of 32nd Dr. SE on Tuesday night.

Community Transit's Lynnwood microtransit pilot project is set to launch this fall with a service area around the Alderwood mall. (Community Transit)
Lynnwood’s microtransit test begins this fall, others possible

Community Transit could launch other on-demand services in Arlington, Darrington and Lake Stevens.

Doctor Thomas Robey sits in a courtyard at Providence Regional Medical Center on Thursday, Aug. 11, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
‘It’d be a miracle’: Providence tests new treatment for meth addiction

Monoclonal antibodies could lead to the first drug designed to fight meth addiction. Everett was chosen due to its high meth use.

Rev. Barbara Raspberry, dressed in her go-to officiating garments, sits in the indoor chapel at her home, the Purple Wedding Chapel, on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2022, in Everett, Washington. The space used to be two bedrooms, but she and her husband Don took down a wall converted them into a room for wedding ceremonies the day after their youngest son moved out over 20 years ago. The room can seat about 20 for in-person ceremonies, plus it serves as a changing room for brides and is the setting for virtual weddings that Raspberry officiates between brides and their incarcerated fiancees at the Monroe Correctional Complex. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
Everett’s oh-so-colorful Purple Wedding Chapel is in the red

Rev. Rasberry has hitched hundreds of couples over the years. After her husband died, she’s unsure if she can keep the place.

Everett
Man dies in motorcycle crash that snarled I-5 in Everett

Washington State Patrol: he tried to speed by another driver but lost control and hit the shoulder barrier.

The Days Inn on Everett Mall Way, which Snohomish County is set to purchase and convert into emergency housing, is seen Monday, Aug. 8, 2022, in Everett, Washington. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)
County OKs hotel-shelter purchases, won’t require drug treatment

Snohomish County Councilmember Nate Nehring efforts failed to delay the vote and failed to require residents to get addiction treatment.

In a nearly empty maternity wing, Chief Administrative Officer Renée Jensen talks about how it has been almost nine years since east-county mothers could give birth at EvergreenHealth Monroe on Monday, April 1, 2019 in Monroe, Wash. (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
EvergreenHealth Monroe seeks Community Advisors to guide services

Applications for the volunteer positions are due by Sept. 16.

Arlington
1 dead in fire at Arlington RV park

Authorities believe the fatal fire early Wednesday was an accident.

Patrick Diller, head of community partnerships for Pallet, discusses the Pallet Shelter Pilot Project last June in Everett. (Katie Hayes / Herald file) June 29, 2021
State laws prompt changes in Everett city rules for shelters

The city is considering revisions to issue permits more quickly for emergency shelters.

Most Read