A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
St Andrew’s Night is the lesser-known Scottish cultural festival. The big one is, of course, Burns’ Night, on 25 January, and is usually a feast, with poetry and music. St Andrew’s Night, on 30 November, is more of a dancing event. Heuchs will be heard across the land as fine linen and tartan garments are brought out for pressing and the dancing pumps are laced (and that’s just the men). If you’re not within earshot of a St Andrew’s Night ceilidh, have a wee try at these nine excellent Scottish novels. They’re all over forty years old, so they’ve matured nicely.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg (1824)
For a Romantic novel this is astonishingly readable, and unforgettable. A man is haunted by his evil self, or is it the devil? Calvinism colours the criminal acts of this anti-hero narrator, as he explains why he does his dreadful deeds. It was published only six years after Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, so there was obviously something going around.
Kidnapped, by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886)
The archetypal romp through the heather, and still a cracking good read. David Balfour sets out to seek his fortune in the troubled years after the failed 1745 Rebellion (or Uprising, depending on your politics), and falls into a twisted Highland plot of betrayal and principled poverty. Also contains pirates. I’ve reviewed it at much greater length here.
Crossriggs, by Jane and Mary Findlater (1908)
The story of Alexandra Hope, a young woman growing up in a censorious Scottish small town, who finds that life is not going to be as she wants it to be. Her gently tyrannical father has bizarre schemes and wastes his money, her widowed sister Matilda moves in with her children, and Alex has to run the house and support them all, to the destruction of all her hopes and dreams. Or does she? A classic Edwardian plot of the unmarried daughter at home, subverted by its energetic heroine who will not be thwarted.
Huntingtower, by John Buchan (1922)
My favourite Buchan novel for Scottish dialogue and witty impudence. A freshly retired Glasgow grocer goes on a walking holiday in south-west Scotland, falls in with a failed Modernist poet, they discover a plot to steal the jewels of two imprisoned Russian princesses, and lead the rescue with a gang of Gorbals urchins. The surprise heroes are Dickson McCunn, the fifty-something provisions king who finds romance and adventure in the hills, and Mrs Morran, a formidable countrywoman whose dialect cadences are pure poetry.
The Quarry Wood, by Nan Shepherd (1928)
Martha grows up on a farm in the cold and beautiful eastern agricultural plain of Scotland. She goes to the university and trains to be a teacher, but everything she wants is endangered by gossip and the schemings and mistakes of other people. I reviewed it here for Vulpes.
The Silver Darlings, by Neil Gunn (1941)
Set in the nineteenth century, this is a story of how a crofting village was resettled on the coast, to make way for the incoming sheep, and had to learn fishing instead of farming. The men go out in their boats and gain confidence and skill, and the women learn the shore crafts of gutting and net-making. The novel is about storytelling to keep culture and hope alive, and the herring are the silver darlings that bring the community a livelihood again.
The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey (1948)
Tey’s greatest mystery novel, perfectly executed with rich and believable characters, and with a solution that will resonate in your mind every time you see a young girl waiting for a lift, or a bombed-out building, or the view of a manor house from over its surrounding high walls. Not set in Scotland, but Tey was from Inverness, so she counts.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark (1961)
The subtle wickedness of an Edinburgh schoolteacher’s life in the 1930s, as she moulds her set of adolescent schoolgirls and directs them towards the life of art and sex she thinks they must have to fulfil her own dreams. I love this novel for the details of this particular Scottish life, and for the beautifully handled untangling of Miss Brodie’s downfall.
Greenvoe, by George Mackay Brown (1972)
This novel should be read alongside Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood: mythic, symbolic, uproariously life-affirming and packed with small lives and passions. Hamnavoe in Orkney is threatened by the oil business, so the prehistoric rituals of farming and fishing are invoked to protect the islands and their people.