Scotland’s stunning landscape and history must surely be part of the reason the country has so many great writers. The setting of the Highlands is one of the most dramatic in the world, and Scotland’s turbulent and tragic history seems to bleed from its cities’ very stones. The last time I was in Edinburgh I visited Holyrood House (the Queen’s official residence in Scotland) and I was struck by its bloody past and by the way that events that happened hundreds of years ago seem as though they occurred only yesterday.
There are also many brilliant modern-day Scottish novels. Here’s just a small selection:
Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin
The very first Rebus novel from the No.1 bestselling author.
‘And in Edinburgh of all places. I mean, you never think of that sort of thing happening in Edinburgh, do you…?’
‘That sort of thing’ is the brutal abduction and murder of two young girls. And now a third is missing, presumably gone to the same sad end. Detective Sergeant John Rebus, smoking and drinking too much, his own young daughter spirited away south by his disenchanted wife, is one of many policemen hunting the killer.
And then the messages begin to arrive: knotted string and matchstick crosses – taunting Rebus with pieces of a puzzle only he can solve.
44 Scotland Street, by Alexander McCall Smith
The story revolves around the comings and goings at No. 44 Scotland Street, a fictitious building in a real street in Edinburgh. Immediately recognisable are the Edinburgh chartered surveyor, stalwart of the Conservative Association, who dreams of membership of Scotland’s most exclusive golf club. We have the pushy Stockbridge mother, and her prodigiously talented five-year-old son, who is making good progress with the saxophone and with his Italian. Then there is Domenica Macdonald who is that type of Edinburgh lady who sees herself as a citizen of a broader intellectual world.
In McCall Smith’s hands such characters retain charm and novelty, simultaneously arousing both mirth and empathy. 44 Scotland Street is vintage McCall Smith, tackling issues of trust and honesty, snobbery and hypocrisy, love and loss, but all with great lightness of touch. Clever, elegant and funny, this is a novel that provides huge entertainment but which is underpinned by the moral dilemmas of everyday life and the characters’ struggles to resolve them.
Driftnet, by Lin Anderson
A driftnet catches everything.
A teenage boy is found mutilated in a Glasgow flat. Forensic scientist Rhona MacLeod is called to the scene, but her grim task is even more unsettling than normal by the boy’s remarkable resemblance to her – Could he be the son she gave up for adoption seventeen years before?
Amidst the turmoil of her own love life and consumed by guilt from the past, Rhona sets out to find both the boy’s killer and her own son. The powerful members of an Internet paedophile ring have nothing to lose and everything to gain by Rhona MacLeod’s death.
Bone Deep, by Sandra Ireland
What happens when you fall in love with the wrong person?
The consequences threaten to be far-reaching and potentially deadly. Bone Deep is a contemporary novel of sibling rivalry, love, betrayal and murder. It is a dual narrative, told in alternative chapters by Mac, a woman bent on keeping the secrets of the past from her only son, and the enigmatic Lucie, whose own past is something of a closed book. Their story is underpinned by the creaking presence of an abandoned water mill, and haunted by the local legend of two long-dead sisters, themselves rivals in love, and ready to point an accusing finger from the pages of history.
Every morning James Christie puts on a blue rugby shirt and jeans. His wardrobe is full of identical outfits. Every day he eats the same meal and drinks from the same mug. These are not ingrained habits, but survival strategies. For James, coping with new experiences feels like smashing his head through a plate glass window. The only relief comes from belting the heavy bag at the boxing club or watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He’s an autistic man lost in a neuro-typical world. Differently wired. Alien.Despite a high IQ, it seems he’ll spend the next 20 years cleaning toilets. But then his life takes an amazing turn – from a Glasgow tenement to a rendezvous with a Hollywood star on Sunset Boulevard.On that road trip across America, the man who feels he lacks a soul will find it. Eight time zones and 5,000 miles away, he has a date with the actress who played Drusilla, the kooky vampire who changed his life when he saw her in a Buffy episode. Drusilla has no soul either. And maybe that’s the attraction. But Drusilla is fictional. The lady he’ll see on Sunset is Juliet Landau. She’s real, and that’s a very different proposition…
And of course there are the classic Scottish novels such as Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson; The Heart of Midlothian, Rob Roy and Waverley, by Walter Scott; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark; The 39 Steps, by John Buchan.
And one of my favourite classic Scottish novels is a brilliantly romantic read about one of the most famous and turbulent times in Scotland’s history: the Jacobite uprising of 1745. The novel is The Flight of the Heron, by D.K. Broster.
I love this novel because, although it’s not a love story, it’s actually one of the most romantic stories I’ve ever read. It’s the tale of the unlikely friendship that develops between two young men – Capatain Keith Windham, who is an English redcoat serving in the army in Scotland, and Ewen Cameron, who is a Highland laird and master of his estate since childhood.
Ewen’s foster-father is a taibhsear (soothsayer). He predicts that Captain Windham and Ewen will meet near water, through the agency of a heron. They will meet a total of five times, the last time also near water, and Captain Windham will provide Ewen with a great service, but will finally be the instrument of bitter tragedy.
D.K. Broster’s descriptions of the lochs and mountains, the soft rain, the dark and frightening alleyways of Edinburgh are some of the most evocative of Scotland that I’ve read, and the two main characters of the novel are the most romantic heroes you could wish for. Sadly the book is out of print now. It’s a melodramatic story, but I do love a melodrama, and if this book feels too dramatic to be real, then you have to remember what a truly dramatic country Scotland is.
Are there any Scottish novels – or films – you love? Please let me know in the comments. I’m always looking for recommendations!