It has been a busy summer. I’ve hung out with Berbers in Morocco, partied with Edwyn Collins in New York and hooked up on the way to the university library (which was weird but interesting). Yet I still made time to dabble in tarot and past-life regression and, one afternoon, I found myself falling in love with a river, as if it were a person.

It’s not been entirely a summer of joy. Grief and loss has rarely been far away. But that hasn’t stopped me learning things, about jellyfish, jam-making, geology and so much more.

And I haven’t even had to leave my desk to do it. It’s all here in the 124 entries I’ve been reading for this year’s Anne Brown Essay Prize for Scotland, in association with The Herald, which will be awarded tomorrow at the Wigtown Book Festival.

The idea of setting up a new, open national essay prize first came about in 2020, as a way to mark the life of the remarkable Anne Brown, and is supported by her children, Richard and Jo.

Anne had been an indefatigable chair of the book festival’s trustees. She was also, for almost six decades, a senior broadcast journalist at BBC Scotland, where she was renowned for taking younger journalists under her wing.

She had a reporter’s instincts, which she honed on local newspapers including the Galloway Gazette and used to devastating effect in her investigation of the Orkney child abuse scandal.

But her inquisitiveness went far beyond the professional. She was interested in everything, from the latest books and current affairs, to the people she met in the village.

The open nature of the prize, which places as few restraints as possible on subject matter, mirrors Anne’s openness. We look for writers who show curiosity and engagement. Sometimes the canvas required to do this is big and sometimes it’s a miniature. It’s the quality of attention that matters, not the scale.

It’s also instructive to go back to the 16th-century writer Michel de Montaigne, who first used the deliciously suggestive term “essai” – French for a trial, attempt or sally – to describe this kind of short-form non-fiction.

The best essays are often provisional, an attempt by writers to grapple with the uncertainty outside in the world and within themselves. I’d argue that we need that kind of honest grappling more than ever in the face of hot-takes and social media spats.

So what do this year’s entries say about Scotland’s collective psyche? Essays touching on Covid and the climate emergency were well-represented: politics less so, with only a couple of the submitted essays touching on Scotland’s domestic affairs. Make of that what you will.

History remains a national passion. A few pieces placed well-known historical figures in little known situations (when Neil Munro met Joseph Conrad) or shed light on little-known figures (“James Finlayson and the North West Mounted Police”). We love the past.

But never more so than when it’s close to home. Two very good essays that narrowly missed appearing on the shortlist revolve around heirlooms. Elsewhere, secrets are passed down generations. Family history has never been more popular – signalling perhaps of our need for roots in a fast-changing world? This tendency towards the personal has been a talking point among the judges, including The Herald’s environment correspondent Vicky Allan and broadcaster Gavin Esler. Were some of the essays too introspective? Where were the big outward-looking state-of-the-nation pieces?

I don’t have the answers, except to reflect that essays are cultural barometers – and you can’t fight the weather. Instead of worrying about what’s absent, perhaps we should listen more carefully to what is being written about, like the steady buzz of climate emergency-related anxiety that runs through so many of this year’s entries.

Two of 2023’s nine shortlisted essays directly address climate and ecology. Saltire Award-winner Stephen Rutt’s The Birds of the Sun offers a vignette of climate-change through the story of one bird, the bee eater.

Gaelic-speaking translator and author Paul McQuade’s A Seed skilfully draws connections between nature and language and the “thinning” of each, while the threat to culture and language is also a theme of Katie Goh’s Longyan, an account of her trip to her Malaysian family’s ancestral village in China.

Migration is a theme this year. Performance poet Victoria McNulty’s very personal essay, An Absence Tells the Story, considers the legacy of Irish emigration to Scotland’s west coast, while two of the other shortlisted authors are writing in their second language, having made their careers in Scotland.

Raised in Bucharest under communist rule, Monica Wolfe contrasts her Scottish and Romanian families’ attitudes to sin and secrets in Sinship.

Meanwhile, Greek-born Roxani Krystalli – an expert in international relations at St Andrews University – makes the list for her essay Impermissible Joys about expressing joy in the face of sorrow on the internet.

The shortlist is completed by the two most established writers on the list, novelists Kirsty Logan and Rodge Glass – who in very different ways have written pieces about emotional intimacy – and by the Shetland-based journalist Jen Stout, whose essay reflects on the murder of the Ukrainian children’s author Volodymyr Vakulenko.

In a culture that’s usually screaming its head off, none of 2023’s shortlisted works shouts. I would argue that’s a positive. Each repays rereading.

It would be fascinating to know what Anne herself thought of our selection. I’m sure she would have liked some more than others. I imagine she might even raise an eyebrow at a couple of them: “I don’t get it.” But she more than anyone would have understood the value of attempting what Montaigne so beautifully described as “the painting of thought”.

Wigtown Book Festival continues until October 1


On the Covenant, by Rodge Glass

Longyan, by Katie Goh

Impermissible Joys, by Roxani Krystalli

Just Come a Little Closer: Raze (2013), by Kirsty Logan

An Absence Tells the Story,  by Victoria McNulty

A Seed, by Paul McQuade

The Birds of the Sun, by Stephen Rutt

Hunting for Vakulenko, by Jen Stout

Sinship, by Monica Wolfe