A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller

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A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller tells life as it truly was for one family living in a Scottish castle in the 1920’s. Miller’s book is written in one long chapter of only about 112 pages. It was first printed in The New Yorker in 1979 and was later published as a book. The story is easy and, for the most part, quite delightful reading, except for the occasional sketches of the harsh realities of growing up with a difficult father.

Christian Miller describes for us the castle and its properties, the ghosts that inhabited the castle, the rooms and furnishings, the castle staff (butler, housemaids, cook, etc.), mealtimes, the cadence of a typical day, governesses, the yearly shooting events on the estate, the lack of medical care, holiday traditions, and the arrival of the telephone. In many ways Miller describes the life we see depicted in Downton Abbey minus all the grand clothing and sumptuous eating and warm-ish parental involvement.

Often people imagine that life in a castle was filled with privilege and excess. In some ways that was true. However, it seems that more often than not castle owners were more “property rich” and “cash poor.” Miller grew up receiving very little food at meals and feeling hungry much of her day. She had five older siblings to interact with but it seems her parents thought it best to keep them isolated from other children. Miller explains the harsh upbringing of her father which sheds light on her own upbringing and the remnants of Victorian Era behavior that pervaded it.

This book is not all harsh reality. Miller recounts many happy memories of going into the village with her mother to shop, attending the Highland games, running about in the castle gardens, and playing with her siblings. Miller’s story is a gem of insight into a bygone world of which many of us still long to catch a glimpse.

Travel Notes: Christian (Grant) Miller grew up on the Monymusk Estate in Aberdeenshire. The Estate is still privately owned but you can drive through the village and explore the area. Or, you can hire out the castle for a wedding! This book is relevant reading for just about any castle tour in Scotland.

You Never Knew Her as I Did! by Mollie Hunter

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You Never Knew Her as I Did! tells the thrilling story of Mary Queen of Scots daring escape from her island prison on Loch Leven. Written as historical fiction by one of Scotland’s most talented writers, Mollie Hunter, this book is both delightful entertainment and insightful history. The book is aimed at young adults and children but can be equally enjoyed by adults.

img_1265 The story is narrated by Will Douglas, a seventeen year old page and bastard son of Sir William Douglas, owner of Loch Leven Castle. Mary Queen of Scots is brought to the island as a prisoner in 1567 after surrendering to her noblemen and abdicating the throne to her infant son. Will Douglas is a young man with little hope for the future and a great desire for excitement. The advent of Queen Mary to the island brings excitement to daily life, especially when the idea of helping the Queen escape the island becomes a real possibility to Will.

The book is filled with descriptions of daily life in the castle, the people who went in and out of its walls, the food that was eaten, and the business that was conducted. Mollie Hunter certainly did her research before writing this book and endeavored to stay as close to history as possible. The book keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if the escape plot will be found out or if it will be safely executed.

img_1252Travel Notes: Visitors can take a boat across Loch Leven to the Castle and tour the very ruins where Mary Queen of Scots was held captive and where the events in this book took place. It works well to pair this tour with a visit to nearby Falkland Palace where Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed spending time.

 

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

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The Five Red Herrings is a classic mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, a well-known British crime writer of the previous century. This book is set in the beautiful, rolling countryside of Galloway in the towns of Kircudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet, an area favorited by artists for many decades. Sayers picks up on this in her novel, choosing to make the murder victim and the six suspects local artists.

It is Sayer’s favorite hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is vacationing in the Kirkcudbright area and almost immediately becomes entangled in helping to solve the murder of a local artist whom no one likes. Wimsey embarks on investigating the six local artists closest to the situation and all the details of their alibis and suspicious movements. This plot is all about the details: exact train times, where trains stop, and how long it takes to bike between various locations. It leaves one with a great respect for the knowledge previous generations must have had of the means of transportation available to them.

Each of the six suspects’ alibis and movements are gone over in great detail and then various theories are hatched by the Scottish police before Lord Peter Wimsey reveals his own complicated, but perhaps ingenious, hypothesis. A murder reconstruction is ordered in the hopes that this reenactment will reveal the veracity of Wimsey’s theory, and perhaps even the killer himself.

The book becomes even more interesting knowing that Dorothy Sayers routinely spent time in the Kirkcudbright area herself and dedicates this volume to the inn keeper of whose inn she frequented. Sayers admits the locations and landscapes in this book, and the trains mentioned, are all real. For more information on Dorothy Sayers and her connection to Galloway, check out this site.

The Five Red Herrings is an excellent piece of classic mystery writing and is also an ideal book to read before visiting the Galloway region. It is also the kind of book that benefits from multiple readings as this allows the details of the story to be more deeply understood.

Travel Notes: You can stay at, or visit, the Ship Inn in Gatehouse of Fleet where Dorothy Sayers first stayed when she came to Galloway and to whose proprietor she dedicated this volume (it was known as the Anwoth Hotel in those days).

Island: Diary of a Year on Easdale by Garth and Vicky Waite

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Island: Diary of a Year on Easdale is a beautiful volume chronicling twelve months of natural life as observed by Garth and Vicky Waite on the tiny island of Easdale just off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Those familiar with The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady will recognize a similar layout of handwritten pages decorated with watercolor, well-chosen nature quotes, and personal insights into the authors’ daily lives.

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The introduction to the book shares the happy and coincidental circumstances of the couple’s meeting, how they decided to retire to Easdale, and their decision to put their talents together into this volume. Reading through the volume gives a gentle look at what life is like living in a fairly remote area as well as the varieties of plants, flowers, animals, and birdlife one might find in this part of Scotland.IMG_3617

“The normally shy otter which evaded us on our early morning vigil in June, gave us a delightful surprise at mid-day today……” So begins the pages belonging to September. As fun as it is to read this book straight through from beginning to end, it would also be the perfect kind of book to pull out at the beginning of each new month and read a chapter, comparing life where you live to life there on Easdale.

Travel Notes: You can travel to Easdale Island! Check out the island’s website here. Of course this book is applicable to many of the Scottish islands including the isles of Mull and Skye.