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9 must-read books about Scotland

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Photo by Naia Lebrun

Leakey’s Bookshop, Inverness

Ah, bonnie Scotland. The mere sound of the word is enough to make you daydream of big skies and rugged Highlands; the cobbled streets of its ancient cities and legendary castles; gazing out across windswept coastlines and heavenly islands sprinkled with purple heather, sipping a dram of the finest malt whisky.

Unfortunately, we’re not quite sure when you’ll be able to set foot again on one of our snow-white sandy beaches, or step inside a whisky distillery. But you can still escape to Scotland with help of a good book.

Literature inspired by Scotland – both fictional and fact-based – has long drawn visitors to our shores. Take the time to lose yourself between the pages of these remarkable stories set in Scotland and envision a time when you too will be free to journey through this endlessly enchanting country, collecting your own tales along the way.

We’ve pulled together some fantastic Scottish books you can read to pass the time, spanning everything from evocative travelogues to best-selling thrillers and much-loved classics. Read on and enjoy!

In light of COVID-19, everyone’s health and safety is the most important thing. We want to be able to share our beautiful country with everyone near and far but only when it’s safe to do so. We’d ask everyone who is considering future day trips and overnight stays to please plan ahead carefully and check opening arrangements with the businesses directly.

Until the situation changes, stay home and stay safe. Watch our heartfelt message to you during this challenging period.

 

The Outlander Series, Diana Gabaldon

Catriona Balfe as Claire Fraser © Sony

Amazingly, American academic Gabaldon had never actually visited Scotland prior to penning the first installment of her romantic chronicles set in Jacobite-era Scotland. Having captured the imaginations of millions of readers, the Outlander series is a literary phenomenon which has inspired countless visits to Scotland. Now a hugely successful TV series, return to the pages where it all started and get swept up in this time-travelling saga of a 1940s nurse and her love affair with a handsome 18th century Highlander.

Find out more the Jacobite Risings which inspired the novels and appear in the show.

The Easton Press, dianagabaldon.com

Love this? Try Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson which follows the adventures of David Balfour on his quest to reclaim his family inheritance in the wake of the 1745 Jacobite Uprising.

 

Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey, Madeleine Bunting

The Isle of Iona as viewed from the Isle of Mull, Inner Hebrides

Lewis, Iona, St Kilda; for many the names of these Hebridean islands are shrouded in mystery and legend. Madeleine Bunting shows what life is really like on some of the most secluded islands in the British Isles. Capturing the captivating pull of the islands which have inspired great writers such as George Orwell, JM Barrie and Robert Louis Stevenson, this beautifully written book is as much a character study of the people who choose to live here as it is a depiction of the unique landscape.

Find out more about the Argyll & The Isles.

Granta Books, madeleinebunting.com

Love this? Try Sea Room: My Love Affair with the Islands by Adam Nicolson. This spellbinding memoir recounts life spent on the Shiants – three tiny Hebridean islands off the coast of Lewis – which only puffins for company.

 

Rebus’s Scotland: A Personal Journey, Ian Rankin

The skyline of Edinburgh’s Old Town

Lovers of crime fiction around the world were long ago introduced to the streets of Edinburgh through the eyes of world-weary Detective Inspector John Rebus. In this fascinating tome that fuses both the author’s own life with that of his fictional creation, Rankin reveals the places hidden off the well-worn tourist trail which inspired the complex protagonist and cases of his best-selling novels. In short, it’s a compelling tour through contemporary Scotland by one of our most successful writers.

Find out more about Edinburgh.

Orion, ianrankin.net

Love this? Try 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith. Enjoy this more light-hearted depiction of life in Edinburgh, following the lives and loves of the residents of a New Town tenement.

 

Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie

The Isle of Barra, Outer Hebrides

Whisky Galore is one of Scotland’s all-time favourite books which inspired the 1949 British comedy film of the same name. Set during the Second World War at the height of rationing, it tells the story of a small Hebridean community attempting to liberate 50,000 cases of whisky from the wreck of a cargo ship while evading the authorities. Based on a real-life incident which happened on Mackenzie’s adopted home of Barra, this classic tale of traditional island life turned upside down will charm you with its dry Scottish wit.

Find out more about the beautiful island of Barra which Mackenzie used as a model for the fictional islands of Great Todday and Little Todday.

Vintage Publishing UK

Love this? Try The 39 Steps by John Buchan. This action-packed classic, later filmed by Alfred Hitchcock, follows an innocent man framed for murder on the run through Edinburgh, Glencoe and other Scottish settings.

 

Findings, Kathleen Jamie

This collection of essays by the award-winning poet and bird-watcher Kathleen Jamie brings to life the landscape and wildlife of the north east of the country, as well as Orkney, the Hebrides, and many other places. Discover the wonders of Scottish nature through her eyes as she sails from island to island, searching for precious sightings of rare birds, chasing dolphins, and more. Highly lyrical, Findings is also a powerful meditation on the importance of conserving Scotland’s natural spaces and wildernesses.

You can connect with Scotland’s nature virtually with the wonders of modern webcam technology and see all kinds of wildlife.

Sort of Books, kathleenjamie.com

Love this? Try Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon. This captivating novel has its courageous young heroine growing up in rural Scotland during the First World War. Gibbon’s evocation of the natural world is considered among the best in Scottish writing.

 

The Summer Isles, Philip Marsden

In this gripping and deeply personal account, The Summer Isles charts a one-man sailing trip from the west coast of Ireland to the  Inner Hebrides and the archipelago of the Summer Isles off the north west coast of Scotland. Vividly depicting the striking coastline and seascapes of the voyage while weaving the captivating myths, poetry and lore of the islands throughout, travel writer Marsden wonderfully conveys the timeless atmosphere and otherworldly beauty of this secluded part of the world.

Granta Publications, philipmarsen.co.uk

Love this? Try Bothy Tales: Footsteps in the Scottish Hills by John D Burns. This volume of stories by a life-long mountaineer about his gripping, hilarious and sometimes surreal experiences in the bothies of Scotland’s uplands and Highlands will have you hooked.

 

The Lewis Trilogy, Peter May

Looking over Gearrannan Blackhouse Village. home to Gearrannan Hostel, Isle of Lewis

Gearrannan Blackhouse Village, Isle of Lewis

This Lewis Trilogy is an addictive murder-mystery series set on the Hebridean island of the same name. It also shines a light on authentic daily life on an island where traditional Gaelic culture is proudly preserved, and English remains a second language for many. In May’s writing, the wild and dramatic landscape of Lewis is as much a character as the hero, Detective Inspector Fin Macleod, and is a fitting backdrop for the tense plots which unfold.

Learn about Scotland’s Gaelic language.

Quercus Books, petermay.co.uk

Love this? Try the Shetland series by Ann Cleeves which has been adapted into a crime drama by BBC One.

 

Raw Spirit: In Search of the Perfect Dram, Iain Banks

Strathisla Distillery, Highlands

Ever dreamt of a whisky-tasting tour through Scotland? This written account of a road-trip around the country’s distilleries in search of the ‘perfect dram’ is the best substitute for the real deal. Join the celebrated novelist as he travels the length and breadth of the country – via island ferries, single-lane Highland roads and even bicycle – on his mission to visit some of Scotland’s most famous distilleries as well as its hidden gems. Filled with insightful and witty observations about the whisky-making process and the people and places encountered along the way, this is a rip-roaring and informative delve into the unique history and enduring appeal of this iconic spirit.

Learn more about Scotch whisky.

Century, britishcouncil.org

Love this? Try Under the Skin by Michael Faber. Take a different kind of road trip with this science-fiction novel about an extraterrestrial disguised as a woman preying on unsuspecting hitchhikers in the north east.

 

Mary Queen of Scots, Antonia Fraser

The dramatic life of Mary Queen of Scots has entranced writers, artists and film makers quite unlike any other famous Scot. Of all the books written about her, Antonia Fraser’s biography remains the authoritative text on the subject. As far from a dull history book as you can get, this best-selling page-turner of a biography is exciting, moving and meticulously researched. It’s a fantastic companion for anyone wanting to retrace the steps of the tragic Queen while visiting Scotland.

Orion Publishing Co, curtisbrown.co.uk 

Love this? Try How Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman. This highly readable tome makes the case for Scotland producing many of the great ideas of our time which shaped the modern world today.

 

Scotland has produced an impressive array of world-renowned writers. Discover the places and attractions you can visit connected to your favourite Scottish writers and works of literature.

Do you have a favourite book set in or about Scotland? Let us know in the comments below.

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