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 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.

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.