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Pushkin unites Scots and Russians in verse

An annual cross-cultural competition helps to bring the best out of creative young minds, as Deedee Cuddihy reports.

The prize-giving for this year's Pushkin Prizes is over and the winners are standing in brilliant sunshine outside the historic Archer's Hall in Edinburgh, ready to board the minibus for Moniack Mhor, a centre for creative writing near Inverness.

The pupils were among more than 600 from over 60 secondary schools who submitted folios for Scotland's most prestigious competition for young writers.

It was established in 1987 by Lady Myra Butter, who lives in Perthshire and is a great-great-granddaughter of Pushkin, to "encourage young people intellectually". She told the audience at this year's prize-giving ceremony: "Nobody is a loser in this competition. The highly commended are very highly commended. If you submitted work but didn't get an award, you are not a failure, you are on the first steps of a journey.

"Let your imagination fly, get those thoughts and ideas down on paper. Read some of the works by Pushkin, especially the poems and stories which are very inspiring."

The Pushkin Prizes contest is open to pupils only in S1 and S2 at Scottish local authority schools and pupils in St Petersburg, the place most closely associated with Russia's best-loved poet, where the competition is aimed at the city's 37 English-speaking schools. The writers submit, through their school, a folio of two to four pieces of work.

Two Russian winners are chosen and flown to Edinburgh for the prize-giving.

They then travel with the eight Scottish winners to Moniack Mhor where, with some of their teachers, two professional tutors and the organisers of the competition, they spend five days seeing the sights and, most importantly, writing.

This year's Scottish prizewinners came from Aboyne Academy in Aberdeenshire, St David's High in Dalkeith, Midlothian, Broughton High and Queensferry High in Edinburgh, Madras College in St Andrews, Fife, Ullapool High and Tain Royal Academy in Highland and Notre Dame High in Glasgow.

Each of the 10 winners received a framed certificate and a pile of books as well as a place at the writing workshop.

The first-prize winner for Scotland is Victoria Baker, aged 13, of Aboyne Academy, for her poem "The Fridge". English is one of her favourite subjects. Author Julie Bertagna, who was one of the three judges, said of her poem: "I have never read anything like it."

Speaking about the entries for this year's competition, Ms Bertagna, who was also a judge in 2003, said: "The standard was higher this year. There was more creativity and diversity; more style, voice and structure and more risk taking. There was also more poetry.

"Although the work in a number of the folios was uneven, with some pieces beginning stunningly and then tailing off or ending abruptly, the folios are important because you can explore different styles of writing."

Author Keith Grey, another of the judges, said: "The great thing about creative writing is, it's not like maths; there's not a right or a wrong way to do it. A teacher can complain about your grammar or punctuation because that's what they're paid for, but the creative voice comes from inside you.

"With all of this year's winners, the creative voice was bursting to get out."

St David's High pupil Benjamin Kettle was highly commended this year for his story "EVNova Chronicles". The school, which came second in 2003 and has produced three award winners in four years, runs a lunchtime Pushkin Club for aspiring writers in S1 and S2.

"It's held once a week for less than 40 minutes," says English teacher Geraldine Mackie. "The pupils usually take it in turn to read something they're working on and hear what the others think of it. The club is more a sharing of ideas session than anything else.

"Taking part in the competition doesn't mean a lot of extra effort for the teacher. It's a case of typing out the pupils' work, filling in the forms and sending the folios off."

In August, an anthology of the 2004 winners' work, plus a selection of other entries and work produced at Moniack Mhor, will be sent to the English departments of every local authority secondary in Scotland, along with information about the next

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