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recommended reading list
before your visit to Scotland
Before your visit to Scotland I highly recommend you read some of the books listed below. In no particular order, it’s my own eclectic list featuring some of Scotland’s finest writers.
This novel, about a group of heroin addicts living in Edinburgh’s port district, Leith, exploded with the shock and impact of a thunderbolt, and established Irvine Welsh as the voice of 1990s British youth culture. Danny Boyle’s 1996 film reached an even wider audience, securing Welsh’s place in Scotland’s literary hall of fame – or infamy, depending on your taste.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Although Muriel Spark wrote over twenty novels, it is her sixth, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), that is her best-known and most discussed work. Set in Edinburgh, the book tells the story of an unconventional schoolmistress who charms and manipulates her pupils. It can be read on many different levels and, like all great classics, it refuses to fade into obscurity with the passage of time.
The Silver Darlings
Neil Gunn will be best remembered for conveying the simple life and background of the Highland fishing and crofting communities he grew up amongst. His most popular work, The Silver Darlings (1941), is a powerfully evocative story of the herring fishers of Caithness and Sutherland, who were displaced by the Highland Clearances and forced to make the sea the source of their livelihood.
No Mean City
A. McArthur & H. Kingsley Long
Set in the Gorbals, once the most infamous area of Glasgow, No Mean City (1935) explores the pernicious effects of grinding poverty and brutal violence, and tells the story of Johnnie Stark, who becomes a gang leader known as Razor King. The city’s portrayal became a stereotype for working-class Glasgow and was seen to damage its image around the world. Perhaps it was small wonder that many local libraries and bookshops refused to stock this insightful novel.
All of Neil Munro’s novels were extremely competent literary works, but none would eclipse in popularity the exploits of the crew of the Vital Spark and their skipper Para Handy, which first appeared in print in the pages of the Glasgow Evening News in 1905. The Vital Spark was a puffer, one of the many small cargo boats that delivered cargo to the remote world of the Western Isles of Scotland. The Para Handy stories have evolved over the years into a national institution and have been adapted for stage, radio and television.
The Black House
This is the first volume of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy, published in 2011. Set in the Outer Hebrides, it is a murder mystery in which a Lewis-born detective is sent from Edinburgh to solve the crime. The case represents not only his journey home but also a voyage into his past, as he attempts to rediscover the life and the people he left behind.
Ring of Bright Water
One of the most popular wildlife books of the twentieth century, selling over a million copies worldwide, Ring of Bright Water documents aristocrat adventurer and writer Gavin Maxwell’s story of how he came to share his isolated cottage in the West Highlands with a family of otters. Written with great sensitivity and sense of place, it established Maxwell as one of the masters of natural history writing.
The Second World War brought rationing to the Hebridean islands and food was in short supply, yet people coped. But when the whisky ran out it was the end of the world for them. The 1947 novel, Whisky Galore, which was based on actual events that occurred in 1941, tells the story of the 8,000-ton cargo ship SS Politician running aground in treacherous seas in the Sound of Eriskay, off the coast of Barra, in the Outer Hebrides, with a cargo that included 22,000 cases of whisky.
George Mackay Brown
The works of George Mackay Brown are inseparable from his roots in Orkney. Much of his inspiration came from farmers and fishing folk, ‘the tillers of the earth and sea’ as he called them. More Norse than Scots, his work is rooted in the ancient sagas and traditions of the islands that inspired him. Greenvoe is set on the small and idyllic Orcadian island of Hellya, where the entire way of life of its inhabitants is suddenly threatened by a sinister military project.
Robert Louis Stevenson
Kidnapped (1886) is Stevenson’s tale of the Jacobite rising of 1745 and its sad aftermath. The novel follows the adventures of David Balfour and Alan Breck on a 300-mile trek that turns into a manhunt through some of Scotland’s most remote and spectacular country. The book, which marks Stevenson reaching the pinnacle of his writing career, remains a national favourite.
Neil, and his guileless, hunchbacked younger brother Calum are hired for the war effort to gather cones on a soon-to-be deforested estate. Most of the men of the estate have left to fight in the Second World War, leaving only those too old to fight, including the pathological gamekeeper Mr Duror. The events that take place on the grounds of the estate, which represent a microcosm of the world at that time, lead to a tragic conclusion.
The Life of Robert Burns
As the first warts-and-all biography of Burns, Catherine Carswell’s The Life of Robert Burns (1930) is of major importance because it does not treat its subject as a demigod, and because it lacks a sentimentality found in other works on Burns. Carswell’s account upset many Burns traditionalists, inspiring one overzealous devotee to post her a bullet with an accompanying note asking her to ‘make the world a cleaner place’.
Knots & Crosses
Described by crime fiction writer James Ellroy as the ‘king of tartan noir’, Knots & Crosses was published in 1987 and introduced Detective Sergeant John Rebus with ‘water seeping into his shoes’ standing before the grave of his father. The Rebus character was intended as a one-off, but the public’s appetite for this sardonic, obstinate, world-weary cop has ensured his immortality with each successive bestseller. Rebus is now on a par with the legends of the detective genre, from Marlowe to Morse.
Dreams of Exile
Part literary biography, part travelogue, this book traces Robert Louis Stevenson’s development as an artist and as a man by following his often chaotic progress from continent to continent, in good health and bad, in poverty and wealth. Finally, it suggests that the real Stevenson has been all but lost among the many conflicting – and often romanticised – images we have of him, and that his fame as a storyteller has obscured his genius as a writer.
The late Alasdair Gray didn’t just write books, he conceived them, enveloping them with his illustrations and typography, creating something that was unique and master-crafted. 1982, Janine (1984) was one of his personal favourites and is an exploration of Gray’s outlook on politics, religion, powerlessness and pornography.
The House With The Green Shutters
George Douglas Brown
This is a study of small-town greed and selfishness. George Douglas Brown’s only novel, The House With The Green Shutters could be viewed as a one-hit wonder, but as Brown died aged 33 in 1902, only one year after the book’s publication, he had no time to let us know otherwise. With the death of Brown, Scottish literature lost a writer who had the potential to grow into one of its greatest sons.
Red Dust Road
Jackie Kay is a Scottish poet and novelist who became the Scots Makar (national poet laureate of Scotland) in 2016. She was born in Edinburgh to a Scottish mother and a Nigerian father in 1961. Abandoned by her parents shortly after her birth, she was later adopted by a Glaswegian couple. Red Dust Road tells the story of her journey to Africa in search of her biological father.
And the Land Lay Still
This prodigious novel is a candid and diverse portrayal of modern Scotland as seen through the eyes of natives and immigrants, journalists and politicians, dropouts and spooks, all living their lives in a country in the throes of great and rapid change. It was winner of the Saltire Society Scottish Book of the Year Award 2010.
The Thirty-Nine Steps
In 1915 The Thirty-Nine Steps first appeared anonymously in Blackwood’s Magazine, which introduced the first of the Richard Hannay espionage thrillers and established Buchan as a bestselling author. Set in Buchan’s native Scotland, this ‘man on the run’ thriller has been adapted for the screen many times, notably by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935.
Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Gibbon’s novel Sunset Song was voted the Best Scottish Book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival in 2005. Written in less than two months during the spring of 1932, it was the first part of a trilogy that became known as A Scots Quair, which charts the life of heroine Chris Guthrie and, in parallel, Scotland’s transition from rural to urban and industrial society. Gibbon’s other books are now largely forgotten, Sunset Song being the work for which he is most remembered.