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.

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.

 

The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes by Carolyn Keene

 The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes by Carolyn Keene is a vintage Nancy Drew mystery set in Scotland. The Nancy Drew series was originally conceived in the 1930’s by American publisher Edward Stratemeyer who wanted to create a mystery series aimed at a young, female readership. The series was immensely popular and has continued in popularity into the present time. The books are written by various writers using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene.

Typical of Nancy Drew fashion, the plot is not too complicated, the action is constant, and there is a happy ending. Nancy and two friends accompany Nancy’s father to Scotland on a business trip that will also include a visit to Nancy’s great-grandmother’s ancestral home to look into some matters related to Nancy’s inheritance, including a valuable piece of jewelry that has gone missing. Even before Nancy leaves America she receives threats telling her not to go to Scotland, averts a bomb, and finds a suspicious figure stealing her autograph. It appears that Nancy’s trip to Scotland may be fraught with danger.

On the way to Scotland, during a stopover at Nancy’s aunt’s in New York, Nancy conveniently learns to play the bagpipes. Next thing they know the group have set foot in Scotland and intrigue finds them at the first hotel they stop at. Nancy also learns of sheep thievery happening in the highlands. Nancy and her friends head to Loch Lomond to see the scenery. Danger and mystery find them there and continue to haunt them as they travel first to Edinburgh and then north to Ft. William. It appears they are getting too close to the thieving operations.

Eventually, with the help of Fiona, a new friend from the Isle of Skye, and Nancy’s great-grandmother, Lady Douglas, Nancy is able to unravel what is happening to the sheep. She also discovers the missing jewel is connected to the sheep thieves. Can Nancy get the police officers to believe her and can they relocate the heirloom jewelry?

“Mrs. Drummond had a substantial supper ready. It started with cock-a-leekie soup of leeks and a boiling hen. Then came mutton stew, filled with potatoes and small white turnips. There was kale as a side dish, and for dessert a bowl of steamed bread pudding filled with currants and topped with custard sauce.”

“‘I’ve just had a brainstorm,’ Nancy declared. ‘Great-Grandmother, it’s a daring one, but I hope you won’t have any objections. I’d like to dress in the Cameron kilt and the rest of the costume I wore before, climb Ben Nevis to the point where I saw that piper, and play Scots, Wha Hae.'”

Travel Notes: This is perfect reading for elementary and middle school-aged children that are planning a trip to Scotland or learning about the country. Nancy visits Glasgow; the Castle, Royal Mile, St. Giles,  John Knox’ house, and Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh; Loch Lomond; the Highlands; Ben Nevis; and Ft. William (where they view a secret portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the local museum).

 

 

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey is a vintage mystery set in the highlands of Scotland. Tey was the pseudonym for Elizabeth MacKintosh, a Scottish-born mystery writer. The Singing Sands is MacKintosh’s final novel and was published after her death in 1952.

The adventure begins when Inspector Alan Grant heads north on doctor’s orders for a restful break in the highlands. His work at Scotland Yard has had a negative effect on his nerves and he hopes that several weeks of fishing and time with his cousin’s family will be just the recovery he needs. However, on his way north he encounters a dead body on the train, along with a piece of verse written on a newspaper found nearby. Although Grant is on holiday he can’t shake the dead man from his mind, nor can he erase the lines of the verse (which include “the singing sands”) from his head.

MacKintosh intersperses beautiful descriptions of the Scottish highlands with her telling of Grant’s holiday with his relatives and how he begins to casually investigate what he believes to have been a murder. Little by little Grant heads in the right direction and finds his holiday including a trip to the Hebrides and eventually a return to London where he must convince the authorities that the man on the train was indeed murdered and did not die of natural causes. The case seems impossible to solve but with the help of a fellow holiday-maker Grant is able to bring the mystery to an end.

“So Grant had the island to himself, and for five days in the company of the whooping wind he quartered his bleak kingdom. It was rather like walking with a bad-mannered dog; a dog that rushes past you on narrow paths, leaps on you in ecstasy so that you are nearly knocked over, and drags you from the direction in which you want to go.”

“He washed in the two pints of tepid water that Katie-Ann brought him and went downstairs rejoicing. He felt on top of the world. He ate the Glasgow bread, still another day older this morning, and the Edinburgh oatcakes, and the Dundee jam, and the Canadian butter, together with some sausages from the English midlands, and enjoyed them. Having given up his expectation of primitive elegance, he was prepared to accept primitive existence.”

Travel Notes: perfect reading for travels in the Highland and Islands as Inspector Grant flies over to a small Hebridean island in his quest for the “singing sands.” Apparently, the Isle of Eigg has “singing sands” which you can visit.

Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson

Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson is a delightful, vintage romance set in both Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders during World War II.

This story follows the life of Antonia Melville, a dreary little girl growing up in Edinburgh with little excitement in her life. Antonia’s sister marries early but it appears there will be no beaux for Antonia herself. Quite surprisingly, a delightful, older man (Robert) takes an interest in Antonia and with his love Antonia begins to blossom into a capable, beautiful woman. The two move to London and Antonia’s husband takes up important war work. Together they weather the bombings of London. The stress and worry of Robert’s work eventually takes a toll on him and his health declines rapidly until Antonia is left a widow.

Now Antonia must learn to stand up for herself against her leech-like sister-in-law and niece-in-law. She must find a way to live on her own without them and manage her own affairs. She finds herself in the small town of Ryddelton, a fictional town in the Borders. Antonia begins to get to know her neighbors and becomes involved in entertaining soldiers from the nearby airfield. One of the soldiers (Bay) happens to be an old friend from school. Perhaps romance might develop between them except for Bay’s fiancé, a suspicious woman from France.

Listening Valley contains all the elements readers expect from D. E. Stevenson: descriptions of Scottish life, gentle romance, a return to the way life used to be, amusing characters who seem almost as if you might have met them, and of course an element of suspense that keeps us wondering if the right people will ever get together.

Travel Notes: a great vintage novel choice for reading in Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, or Scotland in general. For more information on D. E. Stevenson check out this website.

Wildfire at Midnight by Mary Stewart

Wildfire at Midnight is a murder mystery set on the Isle of Skye in 1953. It is nice, easy reading with plenty of atmospheric descriptions to help you picture the landscape in which this mystery unfolds.

The heroine, Gianetta, is a London-based model who decides to take a break on the remote Isle of Skye at a small hotel frequented by people in search of a fishing holiday. Upon arrival Gianetta is shocked to discover her ex-husband is a fellow guest at the hotel. She is further shocked to find a gruesome, ritualistic murder has just occurred on Blaven, one of the mountains on the outskirts of the Black Cuillins near to the hotel. It begins to seem probable that someone staying at the hotel is the murderer.

As the story unfolds we meet other guests at the hotel: a famous actress, a middle-aged couple on holiday, two single women on a climbing holiday together. When a second murder is discovered and then a third everyone begins to fear for their own safety. Gianetta and the police are searching for clues just as fast as they can. Will they find the murderer in time to prevent a fourth murder? When Gianetta finds some clues tucked into a book about ancient rituals she begins to fear the worst.

“At half past nine on a summer’s evening in the Hebrides, the twilight has scarcely begun. There is, perhaps, with the slackening of the day’s brilliance, a somber note overlying the clear colors of sand and grass and rock, but this is no more than the drawing of the first thin blue veil. Indeed, night itself is nothing but a faint dusting-over of the day, a wash of silver through the still-warm gold of the afternoon.”

“It had been only the most trivial of conversations, but it was my first acquaintance with the beautifully simple courtesy of the Highlander, the natural but almost royally formal bearing of the crofter who has lived all his life in the islands.”

Travel Notes: This is a great book choice for a visit to the Isle of Skye, especially if you are visiting the Black Cuillins or even Blaven itself.

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher


  Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher is Christmas reading at its best! Set in a spacious old house in a little town north of Inverness, the story brings an unlikely group of people together for Christmas, capturing the true spirit of the season.

Pilcher takes time at the beginning of the book to introduce us to the main characters one by one, giving us the background stories needed to fully appreciate the significance of each individual. The book is delightfully cozy and happy, but it is so because you understand the pain and heartache each person brings to the Christmas season and with this understanding rejoice as heartache is soothed with love and friendship and celebration.

The story follows the lives of Oscar, a new widower devastated by the loss of his wife and young daughter and now homeless, and Elfrida, an older actress with no attachments who drops everything to take Oscar to Scotland for Christmas. Through a series of events they are joined in Scotland by Elfrida’s neice and great-niece who have no other place to celebrate the holidays. A snowstorm brings one more person into the mix for the holiday week. As the story unfolds we are introduced to the idyllic town of Creagan and its inhabitants which include Mrs. Snead (the housekeeper), her husband, and Peter Kennedy (the minister) and his family. Interactions and growing friendships with these, and others, help to bring about a feeling of true community as well as ideas and support for solving the imminent question of what the future holds for each person in the house after Christmas is over.

Pilcher, a well-known English-born writer, has lived in Scotland much of her life. Her intimate knowledge of the countryside comes through in her writings. Many of the places in this book are based on real Scottish towns and buildings.

It is often difficult to find a truly well-written, satisfying Christmas story. Winter Solstice is a treasure of a book and the perfect antidote to the stress of the Christmas season.

Travel Notes: Inverness Tours offers a Rosamunde Pilcher Winter Solstice tour in which you can travel to see the principal towns and villages in this book. Otherwise, it is helpful to know that Tain is the real name for Kingsferry (shopping town in the book), Skibo Castle is the basis for Corrydale (ancestral home in the book), and Dornoch is the town on which Pilcher based Creagan (the Scottish setting for Winter Solstice)

 

 

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.

Katherine Wentworth by D. E. Stevenson

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Katherine Wentworth is a gentle romance set in mid-20th century Edinburgh and the Highlands. The book opens with a widowed Katherine living with her stepson and twins in Edinburgh. Unexpectedly, Katherine’s stepson is notified he is heir to his grandfather’s estate. After a strained and disheartening visit to the family seat in the countryside, Katherine wonders if she will lose her stepson to a life neither she nor her late husband wanted for him. Meanwhile Katherine has revived a friendship with a mostly selfish old schoolmate (Zilla) who also happens to have a kind and thoughtful brother in the picture (Alec). Zilla insists on sending Katherine to her highland cottage for a summer holiday and it is there that Katherine’s stepson must unravel his future and Alec must decide if he will take the next step with Katherine.

The author, Dorothy Emily Stevenson, was born in Edinburgh in 1892 and went on to write over 40 gentle romance novels during her career. And yes, she is related to Robert Louis Stevenson, her father being Robert’s first cousin. Dorothy’s books are comfort reading: the kind of book you want to curl up with on the couch when the gentle breezes of autumn bring a little chill to the air and you don’t have the mind strength for more strenuous readings.

Dorothy’s novels are filled with common, everyday experiences of her time. They are mostly set in little towns and villages throughout Scotland and England and many of the books echo Dorothy’s own experiences as a military wife.

Fans of Stevenson’s works are many. Thanks to some of them, you can have access to gargantuan spreadsheets that list every book, every location mentioned, characters, plots, etc. If you aren’t that interested in D. E. Stevenson, you may find this website of interest in learning more about her and her books.

Travel Notes: a good portion of this novel takes place in Edinburgh, several of the characters travel to Moffat for a day trip, and the remainder of the novel takes place in the Highlands.