Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome

Great Northern? by Arthur Ransome is an adventure book for children set in the Outer Hebrides. It is the twelfth and final book in the beloved Swallows and Amazons series that Ransome wrote during the 1930’s and 40’s.

The book begins at what appears to be the end of a grand sailing adventure in the Outer Hebrides. Uncle Jim has pulled the boat into an inlet for the children to spend time scrubbing barnacles off its sides before the boat is returned to its owner. While the older members of the party are hard at work, some of the younger members go off exploring, only to discover what Dick thinks may be a Great Northern Diver bird nesting in a loch nearby. Great Northerns were not known to nest in the British Isles so this is a great discovery.

The children soon make the acquaintance of Mr. Jemmerling, an avid birder who is extremely eager to hear about their discovery. Through a series of events it becomes clear to Uncle Jim that Mr. Jemmerling is up to no good. Not only does he want to find and kill the Great Northern Diver and claim its eggs for his collection but he wants to be known as the person who made this unbelievable discovery. Uncle Jim will have none of this and immediately postpones their departure until Dick can get some proper photographs of the bird and nest to use as proof that the children were the original discoverers of the Great Northern Diver nesting in Britain.

Uncle Jim and the children attempt to lead Mr. Jemmerling on a wild goose chase and lose him at sea before finding a quiet inlet to hide in while Dick makes a proper hide for his camera and time is given to get the photographs. Eventually the local highlanders get involved. Unaware of what is going, on they unknowingly foil the children’s attempts to keep the birds from Mr. Jemmerling. The story ends with plenty of high adventure which involves bagpipes, guns, and a chase. Will the children be in time to save the lives of the birds and their eggs?

Travel Notes: this is delightful reading for a visit to any of the Scottish islands. The West Highland Museum in Fort William has a wonderful collection of stuffed birds on display including many of the ones mentioned in this book as well as the Great Northern Diver.

 

 

 

The Lady of the Lakes by Josi S. Kilpack

The Lady of the Lakes by Josi Kilpack is historical fiction recounting the love story of Sir Walter Scott, one of Scotland’s most famous authors.

This easy-to-read tale begins in Edinburgh in 1791. Walter Scott is attending the Sunday morning service at Greyfriar’s Kirk when he is besotted with a beautiful girl in the congregation. Walter connives to introduce himself to this girl after the service, discovers her name is Mina, and obtains permission to walk her home under his umbrella. Thus begins a friendship that would lead to something more as the years, and the letters, went by.

In the ensuing years Walter spends his time working hard to find a way to be able to support a wife and family and thus be in a position to propose to Mina. Meanwhile Walter and Mina’s families both get wind of the romance and see trouble ahead if the two, who are from different social backgrounds, pursue a permanent union. Eventually Mina is persuaded by her family, and the attentions of a wealthy young suitor, to abandon her first love and let Walter go. Blindsided by this misfortune, Walter is utterly crushed and grows despondent.

Mina soon marries her wealthy suitor and Walter is left wallowing in his grief. A year later Walter’s brother and a friend convince him to accompany them on a trip south to England to explore the Cumberland lakes. While staying in Gilsland, a small town near Carlisle, the men happen upon a dance at the hotel where they are staying. There they glimpse a captivating Frenchwoman who appears to be on her own. Thus begins a whirlwind week of getting to know Miss Charlotte Carpenter.

Walter is quite taken by Charlotte, but Charlotte realizes his heart is still mourning Mina. Urged by her maid, Charlotte leaves Gilsland suddenly for Carlisle and tells Walter not to follow her. The relationship seems to be over until Walter is given advice to pursue what might be growing in his heart. Walter leaves for Carlisle immediately.

By the time Walter reaches Charlotte in Carlisle he has devised a plan. If Charlotte will agree, they will spend the next fifteen days in each other’s company and at the end of that time come to a decision as to whether or not they are suitable for each other and should marry. Charlotte receives wise counsel from her hostess to proceed with this arrangement and willingly accepts Walter’s proposition. Thus commences fifteen days of dinners, horse rides, and trips to the theatre. As the time draws to a close Walter finds his heart no longer aching after Mina but has been drawn deeply to Charlotte. Will Charlotte reciprocate his feelings for her? Will she agree to marry him, leave England, and move to wild Scotland?

Kilpack is careful to note at the back of this book what parts of each chapter are based on facts and what parts are of her own imagination. This book makes for an enjoyable way to learn more about the life of Sir Walter Scott and the women who shaped his life.

Travel Notes: this book would be an excellent choice to read before a visit to Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s home in the Scottish Borders.

 

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey is a modern re-write of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre set in twentieth century Scotland.

Livesey purposely follows the plot line of Jane Eyre quite closely for most of the book, including little details along the way that readers of Jane Eyre will recognize — like beginning the book with a near identical sentence and matching weather conditions to the beginning of Jane Eyre. In the opening of The Flight of Gemma Hardy we meet the orphaned Gemma as she is coping with the death of her uncle and the subsequent rejection by her aunt and cousins. Not surprisingly, Gemma is sent away to a nasty school for girls in the Borders of Scotland.

The time Gemma spends at the girls’ school is difficult and depressing. Despite the harsh circumstances, Gemma manages to get an education for herself and to make a friend or two along the way. Eventually the girls’ school closes and Gemma is forced to find a job to support herself. After sending out numerous inquires, Gemma finds employment as a tutor to a motherless child residing at Blackbird Hall in the Orkneys.

It is at this point in the book, when Gemma moves to the Orkney islands, that the descriptions of the Scottish countryside begin to appear and one really notices that this book is set in Scotland. Gemma heads to a farming community in the northeast part of the main island where Blackbird Hall is situated. Once at Blackbird Hall Gemma must win the trust of her charge, a wild youngster named Nell. Over time Gemma gets to know the other staff in the house and their families. Eventually the elusive Mr. Sinclair, Gemma’s true employer, comes to Blackbird Hall to visit his niece, Nell, and check on the progress she is making with her new governess.

Knowing the plot of Jane Eyre, we know that Gemma and Mr. Sinclair fall in love, and, of course, have a major falling out which results in Gemma’s moving away from the island back to the mainland. At this point the plot line diverges a bit from what we would expect. Gemma is taken in by two middle-aged women in the town of Aberfeldy and eventually finds tutoring work there. Like Jane Eyre she is drawn into a relationship with a young man but there is a different twist to how it unfolds. Part of this unfolding involves her deep interest in Iceland, the land of her mother’s birth, and her longing to return  there to see where she herself spent several years as a young child. Of course the book must end with a similar conclusion to that of Jane Eyre which means Gemma gets back together with Mr. Sinclair. Livesey throws in a little feminist-sounding twist to the very end bringing the story of Jane Eyre truly into the modern age.

“Meanwhile she punched down the dough and asked what the Borders were like. I told her about the soft, rounded hills, the remains of volcanoes — volcanoes in Scotland, she exclaimed — and the green fields. I described the abbeys the regular girls had visited on school trips, and Sir Walter Scott’s house.”

Travel Notes: this book would be ideal for reading while traveling in the Borders, during a visit to the Orkneys, or a stay in Perthshire.

Call the Nurse by Mary J. MacLeod

 Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle by Mary J. MacLeod is a humorous and endearing memoir of daily life on a remote Hebridean island in the 1970’s.

Mary MacLeod moved from the south of England with her family to the 20-mile long remote island known as “Papavray” — a fictionalized name used to protect the true inhabitants. Life on Papavray is a world away from life in busy, modern England. Through her work as a nurse, MacLeod travels around the island and gets to know its inhabitants on an intimate level. She and her family learn to make do with a tiny house, a remote location, a quiet pace of life, and the intriguing traditions of the islanders.

In a similar vein to the popular Call the Midwife stories, MacLeod tells of the different medical predicaments she faces as she sees to her patients. There may be a premature baby to deliver in the midst of a raging storm with no doctor able to be present. She may be called to take a boat to a remote island to see to someone going mad or senile or arrive on the scene of a near drowning. Life on Papavray is never dull despite being so far removed from the “modern world.”

Several of MacLeod’s stories are both heartbreaking and astonishing as she tells about the depths of abuse that sometimes happen when few people are about, or the difficult ends of people who have lived their lives in bitterness and isolation. MacLeod doesn’t sugarcoat her life in the Hebrides, but neither does she focus only on the hardships. This book is full of funny anecdotes and endearing portraits of some of the islanders who became regular fixtures in the lives of the author and her family as well as descriptions of the island’s natural beauty and uniqueness of the Hebridean islands.

“It was a dreary December afternoon in 1970 as I struggled up the slippery path to the croft house on the hill above. My blue uniform and the silly hat that I had anchored with a very non-uniform scarf were no protection against the rain that was being hurled in from the sea by the blustery wind. I was cold and wet, but I knew that a cheery welcome and a warm fire awaited me, and after I had attended to my elderly patient her sister would bustle about to give me a ‘wee cuppie.’

“This morning, the smell that wafted from his open croft house door as I approached was redolent of unwashed clothes, old dogs, mice, and something else that I didn’t even try to identify. He was sitting by the fire in his wellies, staring at the blank screen of his bright new ‘teleeffission’ as though awaiting the first glimmer of the evening programs.”

“The ruin of the old church on the shore resembled something from a fairy tale as its walls were coldly cushioned by the falling flakes, and the few remaining snarling gargoyles began to look ridiculous, rather than frightening, as they acquired snowy wigs. The village was becoming amorphous, as croft boundaries, pathways, and gates disappeared.”

Travel Notes: this would be excellent reading for any travel to the Scottish islands. MacLeod has also written a sequel entitled Nurse, Come You Here!

Note: this book is published under the title The Island Nurse in the UK.

My Heart’s in the Lowlands by Liz Curtis Higgs


 My Heart’s in the Lowlands by Liz Curtis Higgs is a virtual tour of some of the most beautiful and beloved places in southwest Scotland.

Liz Curtis Higgs is well-known for her historical christian fiction books set in Scotland (i.e. The Lowlands of Scotland series). In this non-fiction book Liz takes us on a 10-day journey with her around the countryside of Galloway visiting idyllic country villages, remote castles and churches, and even some of the places she used as settings in her fictional series. Liz is so enamored with the Scottish countryside that one can’t help but catch a bit of her excitement as you travel the pages of her book.

The tour begins in Glasgow as Liz collects a rental car and heads south past Sanquar to the tiny hamlet of Durisdeer. The sightseeing starts at the Durisdeer parish church and continues through the afternoon as Liz’s car winds through tiny villages and lands in the vicinity of Dumfries. We tag along as Liz gives us glimpses into each of the places she stops for a meal, throwing in Scottish vocabulary here and there to help foreigners get a feel for the words used in everyday life in the region of Galloway.

Each day is planned with historic sites, a museum or used bookstore, a handful of villages to delight any tourist, new foods to discover, and descriptions of the lush, magical countryside that enchants its visitors. Liz drives us to places like the Abbey Cottage Tearoom, the Shambellie House Museum of Costume, Drumcoltran Tower, the town of Castle Douglas, and Threave Gardens. Places full of history and overflowing with beauty appear on page after page. And Liz makes sure to tell the names of the roads she’s taking and other helpful travel info so people can find these places on their own!

Liz intersperses her touring with bits and pieces of history about the places she stops. She also includes quotes here and there from her novels. Those familiar with her books will be able to picture the places she was painting into her works of fiction. Notes are included in the back of the book so you can see what resources Liz used for her own travels (she returns to Scotland yearly) as well as for this book. She also mentions Scotland’s Gardens which is a charity listing all the private gardens open each year for a small entrance fee. It is worth checking their website for gardens in the area you may be traveling to.

Travel Notes: this would be a very helpful resource for planning a trip to the area of Galloway and Dumfries or for armchair travel in general.

Colouring Edinburgh by Helen Stark

Colouring Edinburgh by Helen Stark is an adult (or children’s) coloring book filled with whimsical illustrations of Scotland’s beloved capital city.

Over the course of 110 pages, this book gives a comprehensive tour of Edinburgh’s most iconic and historic landmarks, making it not just any coloring book but rather an artistic form of guidebook. A lovely map at the beginning of the book shows the locations of many of the sites on the pages that follow. The book is further broken down by season to give a flavor of the city during the winter, spring, summer, and autumn.

Beginning with winter, the book invites you inside Jenner’s Department Store to see its Christmas decorations, gives a view of many of the festive doors of Edinburgh, makes you thirsty for a cup of mulled cider at the German Market in the Princes Street Gardens, and reminds you of the amazing fireworks on Hogmanay (the Scottish New Year’s Eve celebration).

With spring we move to the Royal Mile, Dean Village, and Victoria Street. Doctor Neil’s Garden and Arthur’s Seat are alive with new growth and an abundance of new flowers. Cherry blossoms grace The Meadows and an ice cream van shows up in Portobello. Each season comes with clothing items to color. Spring brings a page of “wellies” in all kinds of patterns and designs.

Summer takes us to the water’s edge at Leith, a picnic in The Meadows, and the outside of the Scottish Parliament. Circus Lane is in its glory with climbing roses and blooming shrubs. The Princes Street Gardens become a shaded haven for resting on an almost-hot day. The Royal Yacht Britannia beckons from Ocean Terminal, and the statue of Greyfriar’s Bobby is framed by the colorful window boxes behind it.

In the autumn we return to Dean Village for the show of foliage, then stop at The Sheep Head in Duddingston for some refreshment. Ramsay Garden, sitting up nearly to the Castle, is surrounded by autumn colors and the John Knox House on the Royal Mile awaits the next round of tourists.

This coloring book is such a lovely way to dream about a trip to Edinburgh, to get to know the well-known sites as well as the hidden gems, and it is a keepsake to enjoy long after you’ve made the journey.

Travel Notes: Use this as an inspiration for planning your trip to Edinburgh!

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.

 

For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton

For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton is a new, full-length biography of Scotland’s beloved 1924 Olympic Champion.

Many people are familiar with Eric Liddell’s story because of the popular 1980’s movie Chariots of Fire. The movie, which included beautiful running scenes on the St. Andrew’s beach, made sure everyone who watched would know the story of how Liddell gave up his chance to win the 100 meters race because of his religious convictions against running on Sunday. Instead, Liddell ran the 400 meters, despite little competitive experience, and won it to the joy and amazement of the crowds that watched. The movie tells us little of the beginning and end of  Liddell’s life, concentrating instead on Liddell’s athletic training and Olympic victory. For the Glory fills in the blanks to give us the full picture of the life of this kind and courageous man.

Eric was born in China in 1902. His Scottish parents were missionaries there. Eric loved China, the only home that he knew, and it was hard for him to adjust to life in England at a boarding school for children of missionaries. When his parents were home on furlough the Liddells could enjoy family life, mostly in Edinburgh, Scotland. When Eric was old enough for university it was to Edinburgh University that he went and it was there that he took up running and began competing.

The Olympics of 1924 made Eric forever famous. And no one knows just how many more medals Liddell may have won if something bigger and more important hadn’t gotten in the way. Eric Liddell had grown up to be a strong Christian and it was in his heart to return to the land of his birth (China) as a missionary. For this calling he had diligently prepared. In 1925 he sailed for China to take up mission work. In 1932 he was ordained as a minister and returned again to China to carry on the work with the London Missionary Society. While in China he met, and eventually married, Florence Mackenzie. The two were very happy together and had three children.

As World War II began and continued life in China became very dangerous. Eric and Florence were split up as Eric was sent to work in war-torn and highly dangerous areas. Eventually the two made the heart-wrenching decision to send Florence and the children to Canada for safety and leave Eric in China. Eric continued on with missionary work as much as the occupying Japanese would allow but was eventually interred in a prison camp with other foreigners in 1943. There, in desperate and depressing conditions, Eric became an angel of kindness and encouragement to the hundreds of men, women, and children imprisoned in the camp. His self-sacrifice and kindness spurred on by his deep faith make him a greater hero than any Olympic gold medal could do. Eric eventually died in the prison camp of a brain tumor, expressing to the end his love for his wife and family and his total trust in God.

Travel Notes: sites of particular interest to this biography would be Edinburgh and Edinburgh University and of course the St. Andrew’s beach where the famous running scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed.