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Writer and Penn-Roader John Spurling wins Walter Scott Prize

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In charming, self-deprecating fashion, John Spurling explains that he’s been to quite a few literary award events over the years, where he was often asked if he was related to his much-awarded wife Hilary. The difference at the Borders Book Festival in Melrose on 13 June 2015 was that he was the one being awarded the prize – and it’s his first. 

To qualify for The Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction, a novel must be set over 60 years ago, be written in English and have been published the preceding year. His book, The Ten Thousand Things is the story of Wang Meng, one of the 14th century’s great masters of landscape painting. 

‘Mesmerising’, ‘an elegantly drawn picture of old imperial China’, and a novel that ‘feels remarkably modern’, is what the panel of judges thought.  ‘It has the sort of sensual prose that makes the reader purr with delight and is surely destined to be one of the books of the year,’ is what John Harding of The Daily Mail wrote.

The competition was formidable:  Martin Amis, Adam Foulds and  Helen Dunmore were on the shortlist. Chairman of the judges Alistair Moffat remarked: ‘In the end, it was the illumination shone by John Spurling on this fascinating and little-known period that lit us up for the longest time.’ 

When shortlisted, John described himself as delighted because he’s such an admirer of Walter Scott, has read all his fiction and even has a small bust of him on his bookcase.  It was also gratifying because the book had earlier attracted 44 rejection slips. 

‘To say I was surprised to be declared winner is an under-statement,’ says John. It was not the first surprise of the visit.

Richard Walter John Montagu Douglas Scott - His Grace the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensberry, Chief of the Clan Scott and Donor of The Walter Scott Award – first drove John and Hilary himself to the very stately Bowhill House. He then insisted on taking their luggage from the car himself and carrying it up the sweeping staircase to their rooms on the first floor.

Since becoming a freelance writer in 1966, John Spurling has written 30 plays and three other novels, with the fifth, Arcadian Nights: the Greek Myths Re-imagined, due to be published by Duckworth in September 2015 ( He and Hilary have lived in Penn Road for 30 years.  

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