Eliza for Common by O. Douglas

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 Eliza for Common, by O. Douglas, is a calm and gentle novel set in Glasgow in the early 1920’s. The story chronicles the ordinary adventures of a minister’s family, the Laidlaws, as they go about daily life over the course of several years. There is special emphasis on daughter Eliza who is leaving her teen years and entering her 20’s.

It was a delight to find a novel set in Glasgow — so many books are set in Edinburgh or the countryside. As I read I could picture the Laidlaw family walking along Pollok Road in Glasgow and taking a shortcut through the park (Pollok Country Park). I loved the vignettes of everyday life: the maid who routinely laughs at all the wrong moments, the lonely elderly lady who visits everyday, the cups of tea and the family dinners, and Mrs. Laidlaw’s worries about the congregation and her husband’s calm reassurances as well as the subtle way in which Eliza comes of age and grows into a woman.

There is not a strong plot to this book, rather it is meant to be easy, comfort reading that makes you smile with the familiar comparisons to your own daily life (although our lives are much more modern).

It is intriguing to discover that O. Douglas was merely a pen name for a woman named Anna Buchan who just happens to be the sister of John Buchan, the famous author who wrote The 39 Steps. Anna and John grew up in a minister’s family in Glasgow and the Scottish Borders and her books are windows into their real life. In Eliza for Common Eliza has an older brother who goes off to Oxford and becomes a published author and playwright. One can’t help but see the comparison to Anna Buchan’s real life.

“‘Life in Glasgow is about as ugly and drab as — as that gasometer,’ said Eliza. Walter Laidlaw laughed. ‘Poor little ‘Liza. You would like to remake the world and fill it with people with Oxford accents, well versed in belles-lettres…Life in Glasgow is drab, you say, but beauty isn’t far to seek.'”

“Mrs. Laidlaw finished her apple-tart, laid down her fork and spoon, and said with a sigh, ‘The worse thing to me about England is the want of cream: the nicest pudding is nothing without it.'”

“She seemed to be about forty or forty-five — a very comfortable age, reflected Eliza, for you could still look nice and take an interest in clothes and you were safely past the dangerous shoals and quicksands of youth.”

Travel Notes: Visiting Pollok House and Country Park in Glasgow would be just the perfect outing to accompany this book! This story is also an excellent choice for travels to Glasgow or the Scottish Borders.

 

The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge

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The Middle Window by Elizabeth Goudge is set in a remote glen in the Highlands of Scotland in the 1930’s. The story begins with the heroine, Judy Cameron, having a strange, vision-like experience in London which leads her to forcing her family and fiancé into going to the Scottish Highlands on their annual holiday. No one but Judy is happy when they arrive at a run-down manor house in the middle of nowhere with little heating, a grumpy servant who seems to know Judy already, and a boarded up “middle window” in the main sitting room.

A form of magic comes over Judy and through dreams and strange experiences she becomes as if two people living in two different time periods. Judy finds herself feeling more alive than ever. She feels strangely drawn to Ian Macdonald, current Laird of the house she is staying in who lives to create a utopian world there in the glen.

Eventually the book jumps back in time to tell the story of a Judith who lived 200 years previous. This Judith married the Laird Ranald Macdonald who was then immediately called away to fight for the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie. The book narrates the tragic and difficult life of Judith as she waits at home for her husband as well as showing the cruel hardships the Jacobite supporters were going through at the same time. The “middle window” comes into play as the house is converged on by British soldiers in hot pursuit of the worn out Ranald and Judith attempts to warn her love of the soldiers appearance before Ranald walks into the trap set for him.

Back in the present, Judy is finding it hard to connect with her tiresome London fiancé and finds it strange that she and Ian already seem to know each other so well and may actually be in love. With themes of reincarnation, time travel, and wistful muses flying all over the place the book comes to a happy ending with the right people being matched up and the mystery of the middle window being solved.

Elizabeth Goudge has a huge fan club, myself included. But the votes are out on this book as some people love it, others hate it, and many of us in the “middle” find it worth reading for the nature descriptions and feel for life during the Jacobite uprising but just don’t go completely in for all the ethereal “nonsense” or the “sentimental Jacobite treacle.” Here are a few snippets of nature quotes from the book:

“….wet bracken and bog myrtle, the roses in the garden and the peaty smell of the hills just touched with a tang of the sea.”

“Then why live in Scotland if you don’t go in for shooting and fishing? I’m dashed if I know what you can go in for, except economy and getting wet.”

“How lovely the glen was, with its crofts and white-washed cottages, like an enchanted country, so hidden away that only its lovers could find it.”

“It was a glorious day of alternate sun and shower, with the colours of the mountains shifting and changing as the clouds swept over them, and always the hint of a rainbow across the heather.”

Travel Notes: a book to read if you are headed to the Highlands or want to get a feel for the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland by Dorothy Wordsworth

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  Imagine traveling around 19th century Scotland in a horse-drawn cart, taking in the raw beauty of the countryside long before modern tourism came alive. This is just what Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the famous poet William Wordsworth, did for six weeks in 1803. She traveled with William, and their mutual friend Samuel Coleridge, driving from their home in the English Lake District up through the Scottish Lowlands, into the southern Highlands (nearly reaching Fort William), through Perthshire, down to Edinburgh, and through the eastern Lowlands as they headed homeward. She recorded this journey in Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland.

This kind of tourist travel, at this time period, was not a walk in the park. Dorothy describes the rude accommodations they often had to resort to: dirty rooms, beds of straw on the floor, little food. She describes the poverty, and sometimes misery, of the country dwellers and the hovels that many of them lived in. And of course she depicts the natural beauty of the land, such as the mountains of Glen Coe: “I cannot attempt to describe the mountains. I can only say that I thought those on our right….were the grandest I had ever seen.”

The book is written in a journal form, broken into days and weeks. The modern reader may find it almost tedious at times but this tedium is delightfully broken by the inclusion of collections of black and white photos with each week of writing (20 pages per week). The photos are modern but capture the places that Dorothy mentions in her writing so you can put words together with pictures.

William Wordsworth recorded the events of this journey in his own way — poetry. He wrote at least two poems on the journey (“To A Highland Girl” and “Degenerate Douglas!”) and continued to write many more poems in the years that followed the journey. Dorothy includes William’s poetry throughout the journal.

Travel Notes: A very helpful map is included in the front of this book giving an overview of all the towns and cities visited on this journey. Some of the most notable include: Gretna Green, Dumfries, New Lanark, Glasgow, Dumbarton, Luss, Tarbet, Ballachulish, Callander, Crieff, Dunkeld, Blair Atholl, Stirling, Falkirk, Edinburgh, Peebles, Melrose, Kelso, and Jedburgh. This book would be an excellent volume to accompany someone making a tour of similar parts of Scotland.

Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down by Nicey and Wifey

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Nicey and Wifey’s Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down is a travel guide of sorts, a travel guide for British tea and biscuits (biscuit being the British term for cookie). The book covers all the basics: tea, tea bags, teapots, tea making in the workplace, mugs, an incredible range of British biscuits, and even a few classic cakes. While there are plenty of facts given, it is the communication of the common man’s daily experience with tea that makes this book so informative for those curious about what the tea culture of Britain really looks like.

The first part of this book is devoted to discussions about tea, how it is made, the paraphernalia used, and hilarious descriptions of various mug types and how tea-making in the office generally works. Nicey can be very tongue-in-cheek but his descriptions of tea culture have a way of accurately capturing what truly goes on behind closed doors.

With the discussion about tea out of the way, the rest of the book is devoted to a very detail-orientated examination of over forty favorite biscuits including such favorites as Digestives, Rich Teas, Gingernuts, Jammie Dodgers, and Tunnock’s Teacakes. I admit that Nicey can go a little over the top in his analyses and descriptions of the various biscuits, perhaps grasping at straws here and there to draw a description out. However, it is worth overlooking this fault and making the most of this guidebook to biscuits.

Travel Notes: If you are planning a visit to Scotland you may want to read this book before you travel and make a list of biscuits you want to try during your visit! Visiting a grocery store, wandering the long aisle of biscuit offerings, and choosing several to purchase should be on every tea drinker’s list! And, “What’s your favorite biscuit?” is always a fun conversation starter.

Nicey and Wifey began their biscuit evaluations on their website which you can visit here.