The Imagining History Programme UK

IHUK 2023 comes to an end

The Imagining History Programme UK for 2023 has come to an end. This year we have worked in person and online with around 104 young writers between the ages of 13 and 19. We are happy to continue our relationship with three schools – in Edinburgh, Suffolk and Cornwall -and to add a new one to our list of collaborators in Bethesda, Gwynedd in North Wales.

Last weekend a group of 13 young writers from Sir James Smith’s School in Camelford presented excerpts of their work live at the North Cornwall Book Festival. Earlier in the summer my colleague Anna Wilson worked with them in school and I joined them on a Historical Fiction writer’s field trip to Trerice Manor, near Newquay. This is fourth project that we have completed with SJS and the North Cornwall Book Festival, and the writers never fail to impress with both their writing and their presentation skills. Young Cornish writers have a strong sense of their identity and their connection with the land they walk on.

writing at Sutton Hoo
Great Gate at Penrhyn

Our live workshops this year began way back in May with a writer’s field trip to Trinity House of Leith in Edinburgh with students at Firrhill High School. Then we moved to Suffolk in July, where Sutton Hoo hosted us again with students from Farlingaye School in Woodbridge. Also in July we began what we hope to be a long relationship with Penrhyn Castle in Bangor, North Wales. This workshop was especially exciting for me, because I was joined by Demelza Mason as writer/historian. Demelza won a Young Walter Scott Prize back in 2017, went on to study Archeology and now works for the National Trust.

writing at Sutton Hoo

I’m looking forward to potentially reading shortlisted stories from amongst these new young Historical Fiction writers during the YWSP judging round which will begin around December this year.

Our online programme ran during the month of July and had around 20 writers enrolled. I and my team led workshops exploring major historical turning points (Falling Statues), our relationship with the Sea (Lure and Lore of the Sea), the lives of an English Country House (Boughton Journey) and a new workshop idea exploring the adaptation of a story into a Radio Drama. This last project was led by the award-winning writer Tim Stimpson who writes for Radio 4’s The Archers.

On the first anniversary of the unprecedented announcement of the UK’s first National Lockdown, Imagining History UK is proud to announce the publication of an anthology – Times Shifting – New Voices from a Changed World. This collection showcases the writing and thinking of 15 writers aged between 14 and 24 from across the world. Between May and July last year, as the world experienced a remarkable and collective upheaval, the writers were mentored by a faculty comprising a professional writer, an academic historian, a digital content creator and an arts educator. Following a programme of guided exploration, discussion and writing, they were commissioned to write 2,000 words in a genre and style of their choosing, to reflect their journey through this very changed world of ours.

Imagining History UK, as does its sibling The Young Walter Scott Prize, invites young writers and historians to follow the example of Walter Scott as a young man. Driven by curiosity, he travelled as widely as he could, read as much as he could, and listened to and spent time with people who had a story to tell. From the understandings thus gathered he built the foundation of his life’s work, initiating amongst many other things the genre of Historical Fiction.

Central to the project was the possibility of an exchange of information and ideas between writers from diverse backgrounds and differing national contexts. We invited the writers to share with one another their thoughts, insights and writings on their experiences of lockdown. But TImes Shifting had an additional, counter-intuitive demand to make of its participants – study your present from the point of view of a historian studying events, live your present with the awareness of a writer looking for inspiration, then approach your writing write from a point of view some time in the future looking back and trying to make sense of it all.

What sets it apart from similar projects is that this is not simply an attempt to encourage teenagers to write for writing’s sake, but it is also trying to create historical evidence for the future which adds a unique level of depth to what is being created.


Historical records are partial and often lacking in first-hand on-the-ground detail from which to build clear hypotheses about the way people actually lived. By converting the present into the past, our young writers of Historical Fiction suddenly had a hugely valuable primary source for their writing.

Times Shifting is designed and led by a team skilled in techniques of historical exploration, creative writing, digital collecting/presentation and somatic and intellectual learning. The writers first had to develop the categories necessary to create the kind of historical source that their writer’s mind would begin to feed off. Tasks taken from techniques of mass observation and the development of dramatic characters in the theatre were interwoven with creative thinking and writing tasks that live in the moment just before a story emerges. It was important to develop their understanding of themselves as writers in the moment of perception of our suddenly changed world.

For Walter Scott the exploration of his world – both natural and imaginative – was a way of mitigating and calming the troubles that life threw in his path. He writes tenderly and candidly about his mental health following major disruptions to his own life. And he allows his insights to help him develop his characters and story lines. At the heart of the Imagining History UK process of working is the sense that a young writer’s voice will develop at pace if we hold the creative space around them in a non-directive way free from the idea that there is a ‘correct’ way to do things. For our writers and for the good of their psychological future it is important to find as many different kinds of pleasure in doing what they feel confident in doing. Our mentoring process integrates exercises in the understanding of historical processes, writing tasks that assume that an idiosyncratic voice will emerge and invitations to explore that perhaps alter the lens through which the writers might see their world.

Along with the irresistible prospect of writing again, the chance to meet new people and explore creative processes as a healthy outlet and escape from everyday life was a big draw to the project


As Scott himself well understood, a different kind of curiosity arises with the realisation that the everyday might carry historical significance. Observations of worn patches in a garden, the changing significance of doors to the outside, the sensation of deserted school grounds or the intrusive everyday diet of public statistics amongst so much more are transformed into a source of inspiration for the mind of a speculative Historical Fiction writer.

No-one has expected the wheels of history to rattle round the way they have. In editing their work, we gave the writers a chance, two months on, to reflect upon their writing and their writing selves during the project. My colleagues and I are deeply proud of the depth and incisive care of the insights contained in both their writing and their reflections. With their feet in two pivotal historical moments, they have been able to respond creatively to one, then at a later point with clarity in hindsight, to respond to themselves responding. We could not have predicted the richness of Times Shifting, from both a creative writing and a creative living perspective.

Our writers first dig where they stand. In their own lives, events and relationships they find threads that, like the underground communication fibres in a forest, connect them to farther and wider visions.

There has been a shift in the way I think, I am looking at the way in which we interact with each other in a different way


Times Shifting- New Voices from a Changed World is available to buy for a very reasonable £5. Contact IHUK for details.

Curiosity, Movement, Memory and Writing.

Creative non-fiction writer, Malachy Tallack in his autobiography of exploration, 60 Degrees North writes

Human beings have always moved from here to there…with a combination of memory, acquired knowledge and curiosity

He goes on to talk about the internal maps that guide us and that are often passed down from one generation to another. Such maps give a sense of powerful physical and creative identity to those who hold them in mind.

To write within the historical environment is to make new maps inspired by what we experience in the moment and the knowledge of past generations that is shared with us through the place itself. At the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Israel, visitors are told that they have now been inhabited by the souls of those who died during the Holocaust and that those departed souls will speak through them to tell their stories. As we map the historical environment as writers, we find that it holds voices who demand to live on the page.

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The writer’s map is idiosyncratic, it is created out of their present personal circumstance infused with the focus of their research. It therefore comprises as much the physical energy of the writer’s curiosity as the historical facts.

The concept of Curiosity could be used to describe the innate, hard-wired creative faculty that calls the brain into shape as we develop in the womb. From the moment that the finger-buds differentiate themselves from the hand-bud of an embryo they start to move. The touch sense begins to process the world and to build brain capacity – our first movements creating our first memories creating our first recognitions. And uniquely for humans, that movement can be put to use to create writing, amongst other forms of communication, further enriching intellectual and creative potential. The faculty of curiosity drives us to move, touch, explore, build memories, knowledge and wisdom. Curiosity is the engine-driver of us as skilled humans.

The Imagining History UK programme has been developing the use of the historic environment as an field classroom for creative writers since early 2015. At the heart of the programme is the devising of ways to energise curiosity. We surround young writers with creative partnerships that allow them to extend their exploratory, analytical and language skills in places that are filled with incitements to physical discovery and questions to their intellect.

Imagining History UK workshops take advantage of the hard-wiring of the human brain to be ever-moving forward and ever-building knowledge.  We have found that young adult writers are naturally innovative and keen to find new forms of expression by building on what they already know. They move and think in rangy, impulsive and often surprising ways. They are also driven by an ethic of satisfaction, ready to take their creative work seriously as they discover their world. We give them the opportunity during the hours of an IHUK workshop to be rangy, impulsive and to astonish themselves. This is frequently reflected in feedback that has, after four years, become commonplace… I was amazed that I could come up with so many ideas.

IHUK workshops take place within a vibrant atmosphere where all facts are fiction in the moment when they are discovered for the first time. Historical places are functionally astonishing, rich in real-time objects, facts and hidden corners inviting sensory engagement. We have developed innovative processes of guiding and mentoring a young writer’s first contact with the historical – linking the senses with writing in immediate and energetic ways. Our work celebrates the developing thought processes of young adult writers – we question but do not push for answers, believing that time will tell.

Young writers come to workshops having been trained in technical aspects of understanding history, literacy and imaginative story-construction. Our aim is to complement this learning by giving a guided free-form atmosphere in which they can experiment with their developing knowledge. There is no pressure to write a story during the workshop. Feedback from participants supports the observations that our young writers are ‘in the zone’ and coming up with material that is allowing them to feel satisfied with their writing. Over the course of several hours we offer them a space in which they can further develop their creative thinking and writing in an entirely idiosyncratic way.

We are constantly developing new ways of engaging and nurturing young creative writers through working in the historical environment. Our project in Cornwall, in partnership with the Sir James Smiths Community School and the North Cornwall Book Festival, has grown so successfully that our school-partner has agreed to commit school funds to extending the project further into the academic year. In Norfolk, we have just begun a pilot collaboration with the Norfolk Museums Service and Horatio House, exploring how writing in the historical environment can open up lines of personal and creative satisfaction for students alienated from standard schooling.

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IHUK is the education programme of The Young Walter Scott Prize(YWSP), the UK’s only prize for young adults writing Historical Fiction. We shortlist and award writers who transport readers into historical worlds, often unexpectedly but always completely. YWSP and IHUK celebrate young writing and thinking about the historical, and perhaps the modern, world.

Young adults who come to an Imagining History UK workshop are encouraged to scale up their writing to enter the Young Walter Scott Prize. Whether they win or not, each one is given feedback from the judging panel, chaired by Elizabeth Laird and made up of writers, educators and literary agents. We value and reward the act of preparing an entry itself, and we award those writers who write with panache and courage, all the while respecting the historical sources of their work.

The novelist, broadcaster and campaigner for the written word, Damian Barr writes: 

I think this is a great prize and your approach to it is refreshingly rigorous but also open-ended. I would so have loved to enter something like this when I was a kid.

Alan Caig Wilson – Director of The Young Walter Scott Prize & The Imagining History UK Programme.

What inspired YOU to write?


The winner of the 2018 11-15yrs Young Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction (YWSP), Jenny O’Gorman from Edinburgh, was inspired by a striking memorial to those who died during the Irish Potato Famine. 70423-famine_memorial_coffin_ship_2Her story Shadow of Hunger tells of the desperation of those who boarded ships to a find a better life in the US.

Joseph Burton from Kent, winner of the 2018 16-19yrs prize was inspired to write his suspense story Dust On The Road by the work he did during his GCSE History on the Great Depression in the United States during the 1930s.

How do your ideas emerge?

I remember, when I was around 14 or 15, the moment when an idea took hold. But better than that, I still remember the excitement I felt when I felt the idea forming in my head. It was as if there was a time before the idea and the time after the idea. Between not having it and having it, my life changed.

I was on horseback, riding fast across the sands towards Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland, the sea wild on my left and the other people in my group yelling with excitement on their horses in front of me. It was the nearest I ever came to flying and it was my moment, and not anyone else’s. The idea I had was about how important it was to trust the moment I found myself in, and to pay attention to everything that was around me, otherwise the memory would be lost in time.

The source material for a Historical Fiction story is out there, just waiting to picked up, rolled around your mind and written about. And it can also be in there – in you as you experience the place you find yourself in. This is why we developed the Imagining History workshops. We put you in a place and at a time where an idea you never previously though about might grow and develop in your mind.

We want you to feel that shiver in time when an idea can make you into a new person.There you are, surrounded by the fizzing inspiration of objects and place and a feeling that real people in history once existed there or once held the object you are touching. Slowly but surely an idea emerges into your writer’s mind! Many of our young writers say that they grew ideas during a workshop that they could not have predicted they would ever have.

With the added spur of finishing your entry for the Young Walter Scott Prize, who knows where your initial inspiration will take you, when you explore a time before you were born when the world was very different to the world of your present time.

People in history were just like us – same needs and wants and dilemmas and big questions –  except that the details of the living of their lives were different. As a Historical Fiction writer you are free to base your story on events, people and places that already figure in history. Then, by adding experiences from your own life into the mix and imagining how the people of the past might have been thinking,  you can create a completely new take on the historical time period you are writing about.

Who is to say that the insights you have are wrong? A fiction writer’s job is to explore ideas and characters – to create new dreams and inspire new thoughts. A Historical Fiction writer’s job is to explore history and to take their readers to a time and place where they never expected to get to. You are a time traveller – you, your imagination and your notebook.

Imagining History UK 2019

The Director and Development team of The Imagining History UK Programme are proud to announce:

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Along with The Young Walter Scott Prize, we are now in our fourth year of inspiring young people to explore the writing of Historical Fiction.  Together with the challenge of the Prize, IHUK is the only creative writing programme for teenage writers in the UK focusing on the research and writing of Historical Fiction. We appeal to both young fiction writers and young historians. We offer opportunities to get out into the historical environment to see, sense and feel the richness that is available to enrich creative thinking and writing.

From modest beginnings at two venues and two workshops in 2015, we have expanded to nine venues and 14 workshops nationwide in 2019.

Innovations this year include our first two workshops in London and a psycho-geographical-historical exploration of the extraordinary waterfronts of Great Yarmouth.

In Cornwall our young writers will give a live public performance of excerpts of their work at the personal invitation of Patrick Gale, Artistic Director of The North Cornwall Book Festival.

We are open for bookings from schools and Sixth Form Colleges, individual over-16s attending under their own steam and home-schooled students. For further details, and to book places: YWSPrize@outlook.com

Scottish Borders         Bowhill House, Selkirk       The House Breathes…        17 June

Edinburgh                     Trinity House of Leith         They Went to Sea…            20, 21 June

Cornwall                         Trerice              A Cornish Journey pt1                   27 June & 5 July

London                           Wallace Collection   The Time-Traveller’s Map            2, 16 July

Norwich                         Museum of Norwich    Starting With Samson…           6, 9,10 July

Woodbridge                  Sutton Hoo  On the Border of Myth and History          8 July

Aylsham                        Blickling    The People That Changed The Land            11 July

Great Yarmouth & The Elizabeth House    From Shoreline to Quayside       12 July

Cornwall                       Penhallam Manor    A Cornish Journey pt 2        2 Sept dates tbc

Special performance: The North Cornwall Book Festival                         11 October

We are, as we have been since our establishment, generously hosted by properties owned and managed by Heritage Environment Scotland, English Heritage, the National Trust, the Buccleuch Living Heritage Trust, Norfolk Museums and the Wallace Collection. We are grateful to the staff, volunteers and resident experts who make our young writers feel at home as they explore these amazing places. We are deeply grateful to our ongoing collaborative and creative partnership with the Young Norfolk Arts Festival, and IlluminateUK in Edinburgh.







2019 Imagining History UK Programme announced

WEBPANEL Prog 2019-page-001The Young Walter Scott Prize is proud to announce the 2019 Imagining History UK Programme.

14 workshops for teenage writers that explore the writing skills and creative research that build a work of Historical Fiction.

Workshops are held in

  • Edinburgh,
  • The Scottish Borders,
  • Norfolk,
  • Suffolk,
  • London
  • Cornwall.

From Edwardian country houses, to archeological sites, hidden treasures and spectacular art collections – explore sources of rich inspiration for your writing.

Come along and write stories you never thought you could write!

Then enter the Young Walter Scott Prize – the UK’s only writing competition for young people writing Historical Fiction. Check out this year’s winners at http://www.ywsp.co.uk

For more information about Imagining History, the Young Walter Scott Prize and how to book places on our workshops: YWSPrize@outlook.com.

Flightpaths of Historical Inspiration

Here is a fascinating infographic showing where entrants to the Young Walter Scott Prize sourced their inspiration. From the history of the hidden Christians in Japan, to a 1950s family dealing with racial integration, from political intrigues in Ancient Byzantium to the personal sorrow and despair of Suffragettes and Soldiers, young writers of historical fiction are fearless in their writing and connected in their ideas.YWSP2017 Flightpaths of Inspiration-page-001

Someone quoted an opinion to me last year that The Young Walter Scott Prize and The Imagining History Programme is ‘niche’ – only about history. IT SO ISN’T. History is not ‘just’ history. Mining history for its significances is more important than ever right now. Historical Fiction is all about new thinking. Most Historical facts are invisible. Historical Fiction is the search for new possibilities.

They come from all over, and they are thinking hard!

Apart from being Creative Director of The Imagining History Programme UK I am also Director of The Young Walter Scott Prize. The two things are inextricably related, both in their foundation and in their inspiration.  I am so excited to post this map, showing the geographical spread of entries to the Prize. This year the range and expertise of the writing was impressive and in many cases astonishing. Young writers of Historical Fiction are showing themselves to be perceptive, engaged, energetic and, for readers, inspirational in the way they look at the world they encounter.

There has never been a more important time to promote the reading and writing of Historical Fiction. Sir Walter Scott hoped that his novel Waverley, or ’tis sixty years since would prove useful to people in putting bad times to rest and looking forward to better times. Our times now are troubling but surely there is hope in the coming generations of young people who are learning to take the long view.youngwalterscottprizeentrants2018dataview