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)

 

 

Hedderwick Highland Journey by Mairi Hedderwick

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Hedderwick Highland Journey: A Sketching Tour of Scotland by Mairi Hedderwick is a lovely travel diary of eight rambles around Scotland following in the footsteps of 19th century artist John T. Reid and his original Art Rambles in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Mairi Hedderwick is a well-known Scottish author and illustrator whose sketching style is easily recognized and loved by many. Hedderwick is most famous for her Katie Morag children’s series but has also written and illustrated a handful of books for adults based on her travels around Scotland.

In Hedderwick Highland Journey Mairi decides to take the artwork and writings of John T. Reid and retrace the journeys he took in the highlands and islands in an attempt to illustrate the very same places and scenes in the twentieth century. Hedderwick intersperses descriptions of her own wanderings, mishaps, and adventures with direct quotes from Reid’s original book. It is both interesting and amusing to see the change (or lack of change) that is discovered in various places 114 years after the original rambles. Most enjoyable is seeing the art of Reid side by side with that of Hedderwick.

The book contains eight rambles which are as follows:

Ramble One: Leith, Bo’ness, Stirling, Down, Callander, The Trossachs, Loch Lomond, Tarbet, Arrochar

Ramble Two: Glasgow, The Clyde, Arran, Bute, Ardrishaig, Crinan Canal, Oban, Staffa, Iona, Mull, Coll, Tiree

Ramble Three: Oban, Ballachulish, Glencoe, Fort William, Caledonian Canal, Invergarry, Fort Augustus, Loch Ness, Inverness

Ramble Four: Skye, Portree, Sligachan, Coruisk, Staffin

Ramble Five: Dingwall, Kinlochewe, Torridon, Gairloch, Dundonnell, Ullapool

Ramble Six: Isle of Lewis, Stornoway, Gress, Garrynahine, Barvas, Ness, Butt of Lewis

Ramble Seven: Isle of Lewis, Wick, Thurso

Ramble Eight: Aberdeen, Bridge of Don, Ballater, Balmoral, Braemar, Devil’s Elbow, Spittal of Glenshee

All in all this is a beautiful book of Scottish art along with mostly interesting travel writing and an intriguing look at Scotland both historic and modern.

Travel Notes: This book would make a great travel companion if you are planning to visit any of the places mentioned in the “Rambles” above.

The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee

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The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee is a unique celebration of the beauty of Edinburgh from the pen and paintbrush of a Chinese resident of the UK. Reading this book is to see the same landscape of Edinburgh but to see it through different eyes and a new perspective. It is to experience the scenes of Edinburgh through a new medium — that of the Chinese paintbrush and Chinese painting technics.

Chiang Yee came to England in the 1930’s as he was not excited about the way things were heading in China. He began publishing a series of travel books titled after his pen name which translates into English as “Silent Traveller.” His books are gentle descriptions of the landscape he sees and the people he meets laced throughout with his quiet humor and of course accompanied by Yee’s own artwork. Yee travelled to Edinburgh in 1943 and published this book in 1948.

Yee enjoys interspersing his text with quotes from famous Chinese philosophers and poets. “There must surely be some charm in everything and, that being so, we should find pleasure in any experience, however small, and not be forever looking for the exceptional.” (Chao-Jan-Ting) It seems Yee took this advice to heart as he endeavors to enjoy each aspect of his visit to Edinburgh, from the majestic castle on the hill (he admits to falling under its spell) to the incessant rain he experiences.

Chiang Yee covers most of Edinburgh and its close environs in his visit: the castle, St. Giles and the Royal Mile, the University, Calton Hill, Princes Street, Holyrood Palace and Park, Arthur’s Seat, and the Royal Botanic Garden. He is quite taken with Arthur’s Seat but insists that rather than a resting lion the ancient hill most certainly looks like a sleeping elephant!

“I like Edinburgh. But I hestitate to state the fact thus boldly lest some day I meet a Glaswegian.”

Yee was told: Scott was to Scotland what Shakespeare was to England. In response: “… but from my little experience I must say that one might be able to leave England without hearing of Shakespeare but never [leave] Scotland without hearing of Scot.”

Yee’s description of Edinburgh Castle at night: “…the Castle perfectly silhouetted in the moonlight, like an enthroned queen in a black velvet gown with a wide spreading skirt, with spires and towers of her courtiers making obeisance to her.”

Travel Notes: This is a lovely companion guide for a trip to Edinburgh, stretching the mind a bit and opening the eyes to see ordinary beauty.

This is Edinburgh by M. Sasek

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This is Edinburgh by M. Sasek is an exceptional children’s guidebook/storybook about Edinburgh. It is a large book (12.5in by 9in), filled with truly beautiful illustrations of this beloved city. First published in 1961, this book has become a classic. It is just the book to read with a child if you are taking him/her to Scotland, or have gone yourself and want to share your journey.

The book is 61 pages in length but very quick reading because only one to two sentences are included on each page. The main attraction is the vintage-like artwork in full yet muted colors.

The book begins with an airplane or train arrival to Edinburgh and takes you into the city centre from there: onto Princes Street, the Scott Monument, the National Gallery, the Floral Clock, into a tartan shop, below the Castle, past Usher’s Hall, beside a group of bagpipers, up to the Castle Esplanade and the famous gun named “Mons Meg,” around the Castle grounds and down the Royal Mile and its important sites right to the bottom of the Mile and Holyrood Palace. The tour continues in the Grassmarket, Greyfriars Churchyard, Victoria Street, the Zoo, Dean Village, and out to the bridge over the Firth of Forth and the villages near the bridge. Finally the book returns to Calton Hill and one last glimpse of the beloved Edinburgh skyline.

This book is a celebration of a cherished city for both young and old alike!

Travel Notes: This book is perfect for travel to Edinburgh.

The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh by Allan Foster

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The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh by Allan Foster is a guidebook for the die-hard literature lover headed to Edinburgh.  With over 275 pages of information, this book gives you places relevant to famous authors and their works, bookstore locations (including many, many used bookstores), literary tours, as well as lists of publications and writers’ groups based out of Edinburgh.

The book is organized by area, beginning with the Old Town and moving out from there to the Canongate, Holyrood and Calton, then further afield to places like Morningside, Abbeyhill, and the West End. The organization makes it easy to choose one section of the city to visit and then plan your sites accordingly. A helpful index in the back of the book aids in finding your favorite authors and thus all the places in Edinburgh relevant to their life.

To give you an idea of content, here are a few places listed under “Canongate”: 22 St John Street: Lodgings of Tobias Smollett (1721-71), Historian and writer of picaresque comic novels and Canongate Kirkyard: graves of Adam Smith (Scottish philosopher), Robert Fergusson (Scottish poet influencing Burns), Mary Brunton (Scottish novelist), and James Ballantyne  (friend of Sir Walter Scott).

Unless you are extremely well read in Scottish literature you may find yourself overwhelmed by all of the unknown characters showing up on the pages of this guide. Don’t let that deter you. Rather, use this book as a springboard to discovering new-to- you authors and their works. Included in each site entry is a quote from the pertinent work/author as well as a section for further information and further reading as well as links to other places in the guidebook that may be of interest. This book is also a great resource for the armchair traveller interested in finding more authors to become familiar with.

Travel Notes: This book is all about Edinburgh and its environs. If you are headed to Edinburgh and love literature, check this book out!

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.

Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland by Dorothy Wordsworth

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  Imagine traveling around 19th century Scotland in a horse-drawn cart, taking in the raw beauty of the countryside long before modern tourism came alive. This is just what Dorothy Wordsworth, sister of the famous poet William Wordsworth, did for six weeks in 1803. She traveled with William, and their mutual friend Samuel Coleridge, driving from their home in the English Lake District up through the Scottish Lowlands, into the southern Highlands (nearly reaching Fort William), through Perthshire, down to Edinburgh, and through the eastern Lowlands as they headed homeward. She recorded this journey in Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland.

This kind of tourist travel, at this time period, was not a walk in the park. Dorothy describes the rude accommodations they often had to resort to: dirty rooms, beds of straw on the floor, little food. She describes the poverty, and sometimes misery, of the country dwellers and the hovels that many of them lived in. And of course she depicts the natural beauty of the land, such as the mountains of Glen Coe: “I cannot attempt to describe the mountains. I can only say that I thought those on our right….were the grandest I had ever seen.”

The book is written in a journal form, broken into days and weeks. The modern reader may find it almost tedious at times but this tedium is delightfully broken by the inclusion of collections of black and white photos with each week of writing (20 pages per week). The photos are modern but capture the places that Dorothy mentions in her writing so you can put words together with pictures.

William Wordsworth recorded the events of this journey in his own way — poetry. He wrote at least two poems on the journey (“To A Highland Girl” and “Degenerate Douglas!”) and continued to write many more poems in the years that followed the journey. Dorothy includes William’s poetry throughout the journal.

Travel Notes: A very helpful map is included in the front of this book giving an overview of all the towns and cities visited on this journey. Some of the most notable include: Gretna Green, Dumfries, New Lanark, Glasgow, Dumbarton, Luss, Tarbet, Ballachulish, Callander, Crieff, Dunkeld, Blair Atholl, Stirling, Falkirk, Edinburgh, Peebles, Melrose, Kelso, and Jedburgh. This book would be an excellent volume to accompany someone making a tour of similar parts of Scotland.

Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down by Nicey and Wifey

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Nicey and Wifey’s Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down is a travel guide of sorts, a travel guide for British tea and biscuits (biscuit being the British term for cookie). The book covers all the basics: tea, tea bags, teapots, tea making in the workplace, mugs, an incredible range of British biscuits, and even a few classic cakes. While there are plenty of facts given, it is the communication of the common man’s daily experience with tea that makes this book so informative for those curious about what the tea culture of Britain really looks like.

The first part of this book is devoted to discussions about tea, how it is made, the paraphernalia used, and hilarious descriptions of various mug types and how tea-making in the office generally works. Nicey can be very tongue-in-cheek but his descriptions of tea culture have a way of accurately capturing what truly goes on behind closed doors.

With the discussion about tea out of the way, the rest of the book is devoted to a very detail-orientated examination of over forty favorite biscuits including such favorites as Digestives, Rich Teas, Gingernuts, Jammie Dodgers, and Tunnock’s Teacakes. I admit that Nicey can go a little over the top in his analyses and descriptions of the various biscuits, perhaps grasping at straws here and there to draw a description out. However, it is worth overlooking this fault and making the most of this guidebook to biscuits.

Travel Notes: If you are planning a visit to Scotland you may want to read this book before you travel and make a list of biscuits you want to try during your visit! Visiting a grocery store, wandering the long aisle of biscuit offerings, and choosing several to purchase should be on every tea drinker’s list! And, “What’s your favorite biscuit?” is always a fun conversation starter.

Nicey and Wifey began their biscuit evaluations on their website which you can visit here.

A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller

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A Childhood in Scotland by Christian Miller tells life as it truly was for one family living in a Scottish castle in the 1920’s. Miller’s book is written in one long chapter of only about 112 pages. It was first printed in The New Yorker in 1979 and was later published as a book. The story is easy and, for the most part, quite delightful reading, except for the occasional sketches of the harsh realities of growing up with a difficult father.

Christian Miller describes for us the castle and its properties, the ghosts that inhabited the castle, the rooms and furnishings, the castle staff (butler, housemaids, cook, etc.), mealtimes, the cadence of a typical day, governesses, the yearly shooting events on the estate, the lack of medical care, holiday traditions, and the arrival of the telephone. In many ways Miller describes the life we see depicted in Downton Abbey minus all the grand clothing and sumptuous eating and warm-ish parental involvement.

Often people imagine that life in a castle was filled with privilege and excess. In some ways that was true. However, it seems that more often than not castle owners were more “property rich” and “cash poor.” Miller grew up receiving very little food at meals and feeling hungry much of her day. She had five older siblings to interact with but it seems her parents thought it best to keep them isolated from other children. Miller explains the harsh upbringing of her father which sheds light on her own upbringing and the remnants of Victorian Era behavior that pervaded it.

This book is not all harsh reality. Miller recounts many happy memories of going into the village with her mother to shop, attending the Highland games, running about in the castle gardens, and playing with her siblings. Miller’s story is a gem of insight into a bygone world of which many of us still long to catch a glimpse.

Travel Notes: Christian (Grant) Miller grew up on the Monymusk Estate in Aberdeenshire. The Estate is still privately owned but you can drive through the village and explore the area. Or, you can hire out the castle for a wedding! This book is relevant reading for just about any castle tour in Scotland.