The Final Curtsey by Margaret Rhodes

The Final Curtsey by Margaret Rhodes is a memoir of life as cousin to Queen Elizabeth II and Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Margaret Rhodes was born in London but her heritage was Scottish on both her father’s side (the Elphinstone’s of Carberry Tower) and her mother’s side (the Strathmore’s of Glamis Castle). As most titled families of the time the Elphinstone family moved around to various dwellings. This meant that Margaret spent much of her childhood in Scotland either at the family home of Carberry Tower or at Glenmazeran in Inverness-shire.

Margaret’s mother, being sister to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, meant that Margaret and her siblings grew up in close proximity to their cousins Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Margaret even served as a bridesmaid to Princess Elizabeth. The Elphinstones also hosted various members of the royal family in their family home  — Queen Mary and George V among many other lesser royals. Because of this intimacy, Margaret has many endearing and humorous anecdotes she shares from these family times. The book contains many color photographs of the royal family from throughout Margaret’s life.

Margaret describes meeting and marrying her husband, Denys Rhodes, and their years of raising four children together. In Margaret’s later years, at retirement age, she takes up the call to join her aunt’s household and become Woman of the Bedchamber. She functioned in this role of both companion and aide for eleven years and was there at the Queen Mother’s bedside when she passed away in 2002.

This memoir is not written by an accomplished writer but it is interesting and endearing because of the first-hand accounts Margaret gives of the royal family and their daily lives. For those who are avid followers of the royal family this book is a good way to learn a bit more about the Scottish connections to the throne via the Strathmore family.

Travel Notes: Glamis Castle is a lovely day out and as the ancestral home of the Strathmore family would be the perfect outing to accompany this book. You can visit the grounds of Margaret’s childhood home at Carberry Hill and even stay overnight at Carberry Tower.

The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn

The Silver Darlings by Neil Gunn is an epic novel set in Caithness during the highland clearances at the beginning of the herring boom.

The novel follows the life of Finn beginning before his birth with his father’s sudden capture by a press gang while out fishing for herring off the coast of Scotland and continuing through to Finn’s coming of age and eventual marriage. As Gunn weaves this story of history, heartache, and a culture’s attachment to the sea we get a glimpse into the life of the men and women who learned to make a living from the unpredictable sea.

Catrine, Finn’s mother, is a major character in the novel. It is Catrine who must forge a way for herself and her child after her husband’s abduction. Together she and Finn survive the plague that hits their village and when Finn comes of age and longs to become a fisherman it is Catrine who must face her dread of the loss which the sea can cause.

One major theme of the novel is how Catrine and Finn’s relationship plays out, especially as a close friend of the family, Roddie, makes known his intentions to marry Catrine. This intention affects Finn’s relationship with his boyhood hero, Roddie, and with his mother.

Another major theme of the novel is Finn’s coming of age and how he grows into the responsibilities of adult. The reader watches as Finn is drawn inexplicably to the sea and becomes a leader among the other boys at sea. And we watch Finn wrestle with his attraction to Una, one of the young herring gutters. Finn must rise to maturity in all his relationships and come out ready to take on responsibility for his own household.

At nearly 600 pages long this book is no quick read. But, it is a worthwhile and enjoyable novel and Gunn has done a good job of keeping the book moving along. The reader will come away with vivid pictures of sailing on the open sea, of the crowds of women that met the boats as they returned with fish to process, and of the old way of life these fisher families belonged to.

Travel Notes: this is an excellent historical fiction choice if you want to learn more about the fishing that took place all around the Scottish coastline. This book is set in the area of Caithness but also includes travel to the Stornoway and the Outer Hebrides. This book was made into a movie by the same name in 1947. You can listen to a song about the herrings called The Silver Darlings here.

Dr. Finlay’s Casebook by A. J. Cronin

Dr. Finlay’s Casebook by A. J. Cronin is a fictional account of a small-town Scottish doctor and his adventures caring for his patients during the 1920’s.

Dr. Finlay works as the junior partner in a medical practice set in the fictional town of Tannochbrae. Very similar in format to James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, each chapter revolves around a new medical case or community problem.

Together with senior partner, Dr. Cameron, and usually-devoted housekeeper, Janet, Dr. Finlay cares for the patients of this typical Scottish community. One day Dr. Finlay may find himself helping with a surprise pregnancy and the next he could be working out a solution to Dr. Cameron’s feigned appendicitis. At every turn Dr. Finlay grows more and more beloved by the residents of Tannochbrae.

Throughout the stories Dr. Finlay is plagued by apparently devoted but ultimately faithless women who seek to attach him in romantic relationships. This provides some comic relief to a book that at times could be just on the verge of growing too slow.

This book and others by A. J. Cronin became the basis for a long-running and very popular BBC production by the same name in the 1960’s followed by a radio program in the 1970’s. The idyllic town of Callander was chosen to film the tv series.

Travel Notes: Callander, the filming location of fictional Tannochbrae, is a beautiful town to visit. A later series was filmed in Auchtermuchty.