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.

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.