“After I qualified in medicine – I was about 23 or 24 – I just started travelling straight away”

Inset: Gavin Francis in his role as doctor in the Antarctic. Above: the new novel, Shapeshifters

as well as first prize in the Basis of Medicine category of the BMA’s Medical Book Awards.

WANDERLUST His current literary focus is on medicine, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, his initial foray into writing was motivated by his love of being on the move. “After I qualified in medicine – I was about 23 or 24 – I just started travelling straight away.” Those early days in medicine were very much his “passport to travel” and he would do six- month stand-alone jobs, work non-stop, spend very little, and then go travelling for six months. “Because you were a professional, you were paid relatively well. And these stand-alone jobs still counted towards my training. It’s harder now.” His first book, True North, was about a trip he made through the northern reaches of Europe and the Arctic – from the Shetland Isles to the Faroes, Iceland, Greenland, Svalbard and then Lapland. It was written, ironically, while he was holed up in the Antarctic, where he spent 14 months as a doctor at Halley, Britain’s most inaccessible research station. Originally trained in emergency medicine, and with a penchant for travel in sub-zero temperatures, he was ideally suited to the role. He later wrote about these Antarctic experiences in his second book, Empire Antarctica, which won the Scottish Book of the Year in the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Awards in 2013. After Antarctica came an 18-month-long trip to New Zealand by motorbike with his wife, Esa Aldegheri (they co-wrote an essay about this trip, called ‘Freedom of Travel’, for the Edinburgh International Book Festival last year). The move away from travel writing with Adventures in Human Being coincided with his return to Edinburgh to settle down as a GP and the subsequent arrival of their three children. But while medicine’s gain

may have been travel writing’s temporary loss, Gavin plans to rectify things in his next book. “I have another travel book coming out next spring,” he says

“although I can’t say too much about it right now as it’s still in evolution. I’m interested in the way that as a writer I can either write about the physical landscape around us, or the anatomical landscape that we carry with us, but the techniques and approaches to both these kinds of writing are essentially the same – they’re both about reflecting on experiences in a way that brings together the history of a place, its philosophy and culture, with contemporary encounters I’ve had either out in the world in the case of travel writing, or in the clinic in the case of medical writing.” The source of inspiration for this new book are journeys he’s made both before and after settling down – having a young family has, of course, ‘grounded’ him somewhat. Does he miss the travelling? “Yes, a little bit but this is the phase of life I’m in – a kind of householder phase,” he says, chuckling. Still, this latest book on the constancy of change is providing something of an outlet for his itchy feet, because with his continuing literary success, he gets regular invitations to attend book festivals in far-flung places. “My colleagues are very understanding – I was in Jerusalem and Siberia last year, and the year before that in the US and in Bhutan. So I still get to travel from time to time.” Plus ça change.

Adam Campbell is a writer and editor in Edinburgh and regular contributor to MDDUS publications

Shapeshifters is published by Profile Books. For more information on Gavin’s books, visit


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