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.

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.

In The Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski


In The Footsteps of Sheep by Debbie Zawinski is just the book to read if you are interested in knitting, spinning, Scottish sheep breeds, or remote Scottish hillwalking and camping!

Zawinski began with a dream of journeying “around Scotland spinning and knitting the fleece of the Scottish sheep breeds in their native haunts.” Out of this dream came her travels, eleven pairs of knitted socks and their patterns, and this beautiful book with color photographs to chronicle the adventure. It is a truly inspiring book.

Zawinski’s travels took her first to the Shetland isles in the far north where she planned to obtain wool from the “Shetland” sheep. Joan’s method of collecting wool is to walk around fields collecting tufts of wool stuck to fences, bushes, and buildings. It is these tufts that she then spins with her drop spindle and subsequently knits into socks (often while walking to her next destination). Zawinski’s companions on her trip are her rucksack, tent, and her spinning and knitting paraphernalia. Undeterred by cold or wet weather, she camps alone in the remotest of places as she progresses on her journey to collect wool.

The pilgrimage continues in search of Scottish Blackface near Loch Sween on the west coast, Hebridean sheep in the Hebrides, the Borerays on Boreray isle, the Soays on the isle of St. Kilda, the North Country Cheviots in the northwest of Scotland, the North Ronaldsays in the Orkney isles, the Castlemilk Moorits, Bowmonts, and the Cheviots in the Borders.

All along the journey Zawinski chronicles the people she meets, the hardships she encounters, the nature she observes. It is hard not to be inspired by the courage and fortitude it takes to embark on such a journey and see it through to the end.

Travel Notes: this is definitely a must-read for any knitter or spinner planning to travel to Scotland. It is also inspiring for anyone planning to hike and camp in Scotland’s remote places. Most of this book takes place in Shetland, the Orkneys, the Hebrides, the northwest, and the Borders of Scotland.

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.