Scotland´s a bit like its whiskey -
tasting it for the first time
makes you sit down
and wonder, a little bewildered:
am I really going to like this?
-------------- Frank Joussen
Scotch Whiskey has never held any attractions for me, but Scotland surely has. Mr Kafkatokindergarten has backpacked over bits of Scotland, climbing mountains and clicking envy-inducing photos. I intend to go there on a long vacation someday. But since that day is not here yet, I must make do with literature that is set in Scotland. Fortunately, there is an amazing lot of it. Scotland has borne so many legendary writers and poets like Walter Scott, W.H Auden, Robert Louis Stevenson and of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Sherlock Holmes may have been based in London but seeds of the character were undoubtedly sown in Scottish soil. Here, then are my personal favourite books set in Scotland.
The 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith
44 Scotland Street is a block of flats in Edinburgh’s New Town. The series focuses on the motley bunch of people who live there. A lot of the action takes place within these flats, the art gallery and Big Lou’s coffee bar. However, Edinburgh is a constant character in these books. Its streets, its people and its idiosyncrasies are woven into the stories seamlessly. Yet somehow, the characters stay universal, recognizable and likable (mostly). Reach for these books whenever you are in the mood for something mellow and engaging.
The Isabel Dalhousie Series by Alexander McCall Smith
This one is also set in Edinburgh and features the philosopher-sleuth Isabel Dalhousie. The mysteries she encounters take her all over Scotland and are interspersed with her musings on Scotland and the Scottish way of life. Isabel’s love of her homeland and the Scottish ethos are very evident in every book of this series. She also occasionally plays tourist guide to the Reader, talking / thinking of the historical or cultural significance of a street or region.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Now this book certainly will not serve as a tourist brochure for bonnie Scotland. There is no glorifying imagery here, quite the contrary. The author seems to delight in breaking down the romantic visions of urban Scotland and showing us the filth behind it. Obviously, I don’t believe that his depiction is the absolute reality of modern day Scotland, all great cities have their dark sub terrain and Edinburgh is probably no exception. However, Trainspotting is a mind-bending, gut-squeezing peek at a Scotland I’d never seen in literature before. Or since. The dialects used in the narratives were a bit taxing to follow but I really can’t imagine it any other way. Here’s a more detailed write-up about Irvine Welsh and Trainspotting.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
While we are on the subject of dark sub terrains, this novel delves into the darkness inside the mind of its anti hero. The Private Memoirs... is thought to be the inspiration behind Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, but I find it darker, more sinister. The book is set in the Scotland of the 17th and 18th centuries. I don’t really know how many of the geographical and cultural references are relevant today but it does give us an insight into the many religious factions of that era. I must do a proper review of this book someday. It paints a picture of a menacing Scotland, full of shadows and mist.
The Poetry of Robert Burns
No literary tour of Scotland can be complete without paying homage to Robert Burns. The Bard is Scotland’s national poet and that is saying something in a country that has borne so many of the great poets. I've read his poems in textbooks and anthologies, heard them sung in musical plays and New Years Eve bashes and I’ve even seen his poems distorted and misquoted to great effect on greeting cards and such. But the magic of Robert Burns’ words never fades. Neither does the lure of Scotland.
YE banks and braes and streams around
The castle o' Montgomery,
Green be your woods, and fair your flowers,
There simmer first unfauld her robes,
And there the langest tarry;
For there I took the last fareweel
O' my sweet Highland Mary.
Scotland image by free-desktop-backgrounds.net