Happy Birthday, Swatch!

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Cover of The Swatch (2000); illustrations by Dave Sutton

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 2000, a wee orange booklet – short in length but muckle in ambition – was printed and distributed free to teachers and potential readers. The Swatch (pronounced in Scots to rhyme with catch) was the first title in what became the ground-breaking Scots language imprint, Itchy Coo. Itchy Coo didn’t have that name, or the famous Coo logo, to begin with. The three writers who founded it – myself, James Robertson and Matthew Fitt – first went under the name of Dub Busters (i.e. wellie boots): a term coined by my husband, Rob MacKillop. It was the three Dub Busters who applied for the Lottery grant that allowed us to co-found Itchy Coo. But if it hadn’t been for The Swatch, the Coo might never have got off the ground at all.

From my perspective, the idea began around 1998, when I was working as a Senior Editor at the Scottish National Dictionary Association (SNDA). I was frustrated at the lack of high-quality material in Scots for wee ones. Lack of funding (although not lack of will or imagination) meant that Scots books were often published with few, or only black-and-white illustrations. This was in stark contrast to the clamjamfrie of colourful children’s books published in English. Scots bairns were, I felt, getting short shrift. I wanted to publish books in Scots that had high production values and, crucially, paid illustrators professional rates. But as Scots books were not then seen as commercially viable by publishers, that would require subsidy and siller.

My first idea was to publish a series of Books for Bairns through the SNDA, with whom I had recently produced the Electronic Scots School Dictionary and a Scots grammar for bairns, The Grammar Broonie. But I was told that creative writing lay outwith the remit of the SNDA, so I decided to try elsewhere. I had been working with Matthew Fitt on a second edition of my Grammar Broonie, so it seemed natural to ask if he would be interested in joining the project. He was, and in turn he suggested we bring in James Robertson, who he knew was also interested in writing Scots for bairns.

Picture5The three of us met to discuss plans in the Elephant House in Edinburgh. The said café is now famous for That Other children’s book series; but to me it will always be the home of Itchy Coo. I brought the drafts of some books and poems I had been working on – including early ideas for Animal ABC, and a story about planets with Scots names, which was the genesis of Planet Fankle. We batted around some further ideas, and went away fired up with enthusiasm to change the world of Scots publishing for good.

I had recently been successful in getting a grant from the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) for the Electronic Scots School Dictionary, and I hoped they might fund another Scots children’s project. I set up a meeting, and we received very helpful advice from the late (sadly missed) Gavin Wallace, who warmly encouraged us to apply – and so The Swatch came about, as a means of testing our future readership. The overwhelming support we received from our readers helped to build the case for funding a larger project. Our original plan was to set up as publishers, but Gavin advised us that a Scots imprint, in partnership with an existing Scottish publisher, would be less risky and more fundable; and so we ended up as partners with Black & White Publishing (with whom James had a previous association). The University of Dundee also kindly gave us office space for the first year of the project.

Picture11The Swatch combined new and original work in Scots with classic texts, such as  William Dunbar’s ‘On his Heid-Ake’, chosen to appeal to bairns of all ages. My own contributions were Ma First ABC (an early version of Animal ABC), Sweetieraptors (a poem about Scots dinosaurs such as Dreichosaur and Nebosaurus), and Phonic Freens, a wee story to help bairns navigate the sounds and spellings of Scots. Sweetieraptors was brilliantly illustrated by the bairns from Seabeach Nursery in Portobello, which my daughter was then attending. (When he saw the Dreichosaur image, Gavin Wallace declared that it was ‘worthy of Chagall’.)Picture3

When Lottery funding came through, in September 2001, we had less than a year in which to write, edit, commission illustrations for, and print, our first batch of titles. In the middle of this, Matthew left for several months in Australia, leaving me and James to write and edit three of the first four titles: my Animal ABC & Planet Fankle and James’s Scots Parliament. The fourth title, Hoose o Haivers, comprised a selection of stories based on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, with each of the three Dub Busters contributing our personal favourites. (For some reason, mine all featured heroines beginning with A: Arachne, Ariadne, and Atalanta!)

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The founding philosophy of Itchy Coo was to publish new and exciting original material, supported on occasion with samples of classic writing. This was the basis on which the selections in The Swatch were chosen. Translation, which has now become a mainstream of the imprint, and which publishers view as commercially less risky, was not part of the original plan. Even the Haivers stories were loose adaptations, not exact translations in the manner of the later Roald Dahl books, for example.

Although I had been involved in Itchy Coo from the outset, co-writing the funding application, and writing and editing many of the first titles, I decided to step back after the first year. At the time, I was also chief editor of the Dictionary of the Scots Language at the University of Dundee: a huge research project which was increasingly demanding. There had also been a stushie within Itchy Coo over who should write the Planet series. (Although the original concept had been mine, Matthew wanted his mother, Alison Fitt, to take over the series, which I resisted.) I wearied of the conflict and decided to leave the partnership, so the three Dub Busters became two.

Picture8I did however continue as an author and wrote two further Itchy Coo titles: a second Planet book, Kat an Doug on Planet Perjink, and Sweetieraptors, a revised version of the poem that had featured in The Swatch. Planet Perjink was brilliantly illustrated by Dave Sutton, who had been with the project since its early days, but sadly Itchy Coo decided to discontinue the Planet series after it came out. 

Things went further agley the following year. Itchy Coo advertised a sequel to Animal ABC, called Animal 123, without asking my permission as author of the original work. When my agent asked them to add a credit, they refused and passed the matter to their legal team. I won the argument, but the bitterness of the letters I received meant that I kept my distance thereafter. (One letter claimed that, as a mere lexicographer, my work had only been published because of my association with the other two writers!) The book was later published not as Animal 123 but as Moose in the Hoose. Apparently they decided to re-title it rather than add a credit.

Despite all that later happened, I am immensely proud of my role in co-founding Itchy Coo, and of my books that were published in its early years. I was delighted when the Saltire Society awarded Animal ABC its Educational Publication prize in 2002, and pleasantly surprised when Hoose o Haivers received a Special Commendation in the SAC Book of the Year Awards in 2003. (I only found out by accident as no one at Itchy Coo had thought to tell me!) It is wonderful that the imprint has done so well; yet it is depressing to have been written out of its history. It is simply inaccurate to say (as the current website does), that Itchy Coo was founded by two Dub Busters, not three. The official ‘Story of Itchy Coo’ only tells one side of a more complicated story.   

Picture9All my Itchy Coo titles, forby Animal ABC, are now out of print, but I have made the texts available on my website. I am publishing below images of two of my pieces from The Swatch which are not available in print elsewhere. There is, I think, a refreshing energy – a lively and optimistic virr – in The Swatch that epitomises those early days of the Itchy Coo project, and which deserves to be recorded and remembered.