Reading Scotland

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Selected by Victoria Best

You’d think everything there is to say about Scotland has been said in the media over the past couple of months. But there’s been a suspicious dearth of articles on Scotland’s rich literary history – let SNB put that right! Here are some of our favorite Scottish authors and their most popular books.

The Gritty Ones

Trainspotting by Irving Walsh, published in 1993, is actually a collection of short stories about addicts (mostly heroin) living in Leith in Edinburgh. Longlisted for the Booker it offended two of the judges so much they refused to let it onto the shortlist, though that may have enhanced its reputation. It was made into an cult film in 1996 starring Ewan McGregor. Apparently when the film was shown in America it contained sub-titles… James Kelman, another controversial Scottish proponent of dirty realism, managed to win the Booker in 1994 with How Late It Was, How Late, despite his use of bad language horrifying the female Rabbi on the panel. Whilst we’re having a shout out to dangerous Scotmen, let’s also include The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks, which due to its violence against animals and children was described as ‘a work of unparalleled depravity’ by the Irish Times. But the literary reputation of these Scots giants remains impressive.

The Charming Ones

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was published to wide acclaim in 1961. Jean Brodie became an icon for a generation of Edinburgh women and lifted her creator into the top rank of novelists. Time magazine chose it in 2005 as one of its hundred best novels in the English language. It’s been adapted for stage, film and television – with Maggie Smith winning an academy award in the title role of the 1969 film. Reminding me somehow of Muriel Spark, perhaps in her deliciously dark wit, is Kate Atkinson, though Atkinson is an assimilated Scot rather than one born and bred. One Good Turn, her second Jackson Brodie novel, takes place in and around the wonderful Edinburgh Festival. Atkinson’s good friend, Ali Smith, was born in Inverness, though she has lived most of her life in Cambridge. Her novels Hotel World and The Accidental have both been shortlisted for the Booker, as is her most recent, How To Be Both (read our review!). Erudite, playful, witty and insightful, her novels display a constant delight in language. Finally a quick mention of Anne Donovan’s Buddha Da, a novel written entirely in Glaswegan Scots about a decorator who becomes a Buddhist. Unexpected and surprising and rather lovely.

The Criminal Ones

Anyone for tartan noir? That was the name given to a new breed of crime fiction writers who exploited the socially compromised landscapes of Scotland. Ian Rankin’s novel Knots and Crosses was the first to feature his now famous detective, Rebus. Equally dark but funny is Christopher Brookmyre, whose books are a mix of comedy, politics and action. Try One Fine Day In The Middle of the Night, about a deadly school reunion on an island off the Scottish Coast. If you’re wondering where the women are, there’s Denise Mina, whose first novel set in Glasgow, Garnethill, grew out of her research for a PhD on mental illness in female offenders. If you fancy something completely different, and altogether more gentlemanly, there’s always the classic John Buchan novel, The 39 Steps, which persuaded the reading public back in 1915 that engineers could be adventurous.

The Classic Ones

I have to mention Whisky Galore (1947) here by Compton Mackenzie as it’s my brother’s favorite novel. They had him at the word ‘whisky’. The story concerns ill-gotten gains from a cargo vessel shipwrecked on a remote Scottish island in wartime, which locals must manage to hide from the prying eyes of authority. Sunset Song (1932) by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (one of Ali Smith’s favourite novels) is a coming of age novel, following the fortunes of its heroine as she grows up in a dysfunctional family and finds herself torn between farming on the land and the lure of the town. The granddaddy of Scottish fiction, though, must surely be Sir Walter Scott, who was the first English-writing author to have a properly international literary career, selling books in his lifetime in Europe, Australia and America. His first novel, Waverley (1814), is the story of a Jacobite uprising in 1745, in which the idealistic hero is persuaded to cross allegiances into Bonnie Prince Charlies’ camp through a love affair.

The Modern Classic Ones

How could we not mention Lanark by Scots legend, Alasdair Gray, a book which took him 31 years to write and which charts his protagonist’s decline into a dystopian and disease-ridden Glasgow. His novels often contain elements of science fiction and are visually innovative with unorthodox typography and his own illustrations. He’ll have been disappointed by the Independence vote. On the other end of the scale, we also have to mention Alexander McCall Smith, and his 44 Scotland Street series, episodic fiction inspired by Armisted Maupin’s Tales of the City and featuring the various tenants of a shared house in Edinburgh.  And what about Orcadian poet and novelist, George Mackay Brown, whose recurrent tuberculosis kept him from a normal life but gave him time and space to write? His most famous work is arguably Greenvoe, described as ‘one of the greatest prose poems of the 20th century’ it concerns a fictional Orkney community threatened by an enigmatic project, ‘Operation Black Star’. Finally, two wonderful contemporary women writers: Janice Galloway, whose novel The Trick Is To Keep Breathing is a moving and funny meditation on depression, and Candia McWilliam, whose brave memoir, What To Look For In Winter describes her struggle with blepharospasm, a condition which prevents the eyelids from opening fully, brought on in McWilliam’s case by severe alcoholism. These are tough topics, but written with such delicacy, beauty and sensitivity that suffering becomes poetry.

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Compiled by Victoria Best, one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

Do share your favourite Scottish books and authors with us – we look forward to hearing from you. And check out our review of Ali Smith’s How To Be Both‘If I say that this novel is experimental, radical, innovative, you may think it’s probably not for you. But you’d be making a huge mistake.’