Tonight is Burns night in Scotland, but dinna fash yersel’ (don’t worry), I won’t be making you eat haggis. No, we should reserve offal-stuffed intestines for those hardy folk of the north who have the stomach for it. As a soft southern Sassenach I will content myself with opening a tin of Scottish shortbread (mmm) and pouring myself a large dram of Glenmorangie before drinking Rabbie Burns great health. Slainte! (Cheers!)
Robert Burns is the national poet of Scotland, and when I first started thinking about which Scottish novel I’d choose to read to celebrate his day, I was struck by the incredible wealth and variety to come out of this small country.
Maybe it would take a trip to Scotland to explain why it has produced so many great writers. The landscape of the Highlands is one of the most dramatic in the world and Scotland’s turbulent and tragic history seems to bleed from the cities’ very stones. The last time I was in Edinburgh I visited Holyrood House (the Queen’s official residence in Scotland) and was much struck by its bloody past and by the way that events that happened hundreds of years ago seem as though they occurred only yesterday. The past is very much present in Scotland.
Having said that, there are also many brilliant modern-day Scottish writers. Here’s just a small selection of great modern Scottish novels:
Knots and Crosses, by Ian Rankin (the first in his Inspector Rebus series); 44 Scotland Street, by Alexander McCall Smith; Driftnet, a great crime novel by Lin Anderson; Trainspotting, by Irvine Welsh; The Wasp Factory, a terrifying novel by Ian Banks; Dear Miss Landau, by James Christie (voted my top romance novel of 2012).
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.
So, what to choose to read tonight? With such a wealth to choose from, as you can guess I have been fashin’ masel’ in a big way trying to decide. In the end, though, I have opted for a brilliantly romantic Scottish 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.
Gradually, through the novel, we see the predictions coming true against the thrilling backdrop of the Highlands and the uprising. 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. Both of them are proud, courageous and determined. Captain Windham is particularly well-drawn as a cynical, hardened Englishman with a nice line in bitter sarcasm. Ewen is a young, chivalrous and vital Highlander with the capacity to inspire great love in all who follow him. The chivalry between the two men is one of the most moving parts of the novel. They do indeed meet by water, when a heron brings down Captain Windham’s horse and Ewen takes him prisoner. They meet several more times through the novel, their relationship growing with each meeting from initial reserved wariness to great affection and finally deep love. Their final meeting is again by water, as predicted, where Captain Windham does indeed provide Ewen with a vital service, and the nature of the bitter grief is finally revealed.
This novel is a fantastic read and one of my favourite books of all time. When I first read it as a teenager, the scenery, the characters and the ending of the novel stayed with me for a long time. If you do read it, and feel that it is too dramatic to be real, then you must visit Scotland for yourself. Then you will discover what a truly dramatic country this is.
How about you? What did you think of my selection? Are there any Scottish novels or films you’ve enjoyed? Please let me know your comment – I’d love to hear from you!