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.

You Never Knew Her as I Did! by Mollie Hunter

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You Never Knew Her as I Did! tells the thrilling story of Mary Queen of Scots daring escape from her island prison on Loch Leven. Written as historical fiction by one of Scotland’s most talented writers, Mollie Hunter, this book is both delightful entertainment and insightful history. The book is aimed at young adults and children but can be equally enjoyed by adults.

img_1265 The story is narrated by Will Douglas, a seventeen year old page and bastard son of Sir William Douglas, owner of Loch Leven Castle. Mary Queen of Scots is brought to the island as a prisoner in 1567 after surrendering to her noblemen and abdicating the throne to her infant son. Will Douglas is a young man with little hope for the future and a great desire for excitement. The advent of Queen Mary to the island brings excitement to daily life, especially when the idea of helping the Queen escape the island becomes a real possibility to Will.

The book is filled with descriptions of daily life in the castle, the people who went in and out of its walls, the food that was eaten, and the business that was conducted. Mollie Hunter certainly did her research before writing this book and endeavored to stay as close to history as possible. The book keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering if the escape plot will be found out or if it will be safely executed.

img_1252Travel Notes: Visitors can take a boat across Loch Leven to the Castle and tour the very ruins where Mary Queen of Scots was held captive and where the events in this book took place. It works well to pair this tour with a visit to nearby Falkland Palace where Mary Queen of Scots enjoyed spending time.

 

The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

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The Five Red Herrings is a classic mystery novel by Dorothy L. Sayers, a well-known British crime writer of the previous century. This book is set in the beautiful, rolling countryside of Galloway in the towns of Kircudbright and Gatehouse of Fleet, an area favorited by artists for many decades. Sayers picks up on this in her novel, choosing to make the murder victim and the six suspects local artists.

It is Sayer’s favorite hero, Lord Peter Wimsey, who is vacationing in the Kirkcudbright area and almost immediately becomes entangled in helping to solve the murder of a local artist whom no one likes. Wimsey embarks on investigating the six local artists closest to the situation and all the details of their alibis and suspicious movements. This plot is all about the details: exact train times, where trains stop, and how long it takes to bike between various locations. It leaves one with a great respect for the knowledge previous generations must have had of the means of transportation available to them.

Each of the six suspects’ alibis and movements are gone over in great detail and then various theories are hatched by the Scottish police before Lord Peter Wimsey reveals his own complicated, but perhaps ingenious, hypothesis. A murder reconstruction is ordered in the hopes that this reenactment will reveal the veracity of Wimsey’s theory, and perhaps even the killer himself.

The book becomes even more interesting knowing that Dorothy Sayers routinely spent time in the Kirkcudbright area herself and dedicates this volume to the inn keeper of whose inn she frequented. Sayers admits the locations and landscapes in this book, and the trains mentioned, are all real. For more information on Dorothy Sayers and her connection to Galloway, check out this site.

The Five Red Herrings is an excellent piece of classic mystery writing and is also an ideal book to read before visiting the Galloway region. It is also the kind of book that benefits from multiple readings as this allows the details of the story to be more deeply understood.

Travel Notes: You can stay at, or visit, the Ship Inn in Gatehouse of Fleet where Dorothy Sayers first stayed when she came to Galloway and to whose proprietor she dedicated this volume (it was known as the Anwoth Hotel in those days).

Island: Diary of a Year on Easdale by Garth and Vicky Waite

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Island: Diary of a Year on Easdale is a beautiful volume chronicling twelve months of natural life as observed by Garth and Vicky Waite on the tiny island of Easdale just off the west coast of mainland Scotland. Those familiar with The Country Diary of an Edwardian Lady will recognize a similar layout of handwritten pages decorated with watercolor, well-chosen nature quotes, and personal insights into the authors’ daily lives.

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The introduction to the book shares the happy and coincidental circumstances of the couple’s meeting, how they decided to retire to Easdale, and their decision to put their talents together into this volume. Reading through the volume gives a gentle look at what life is like living in a fairly remote area as well as the varieties of plants, flowers, animals, and birdlife one might find in this part of Scotland.IMG_3617

“The normally shy otter which evaded us on our early morning vigil in June, gave us a delightful surprise at mid-day today……” So begins the pages belonging to September. As fun as it is to read this book straight through from beginning to end, it would also be the perfect kind of book to pull out at the beginning of each new month and read a chapter, comparing life where you live to life there on Easdale.

Travel Notes: You can travel to Easdale Island! Check out the island’s website here. Of course this book is applicable to many of the Scottish islands including the isles of Mull and Skye.

 

 

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.

The 39 Steps by John Buchan

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The 39 Steps by Scottish author John Buchan is a classic spy thriller included on many great Scottish reading lists. Written in an easy-to-read style, and at just 149 pages, this little novel is an excellent choice for light holiday (vacation) reading.

The story begins in the summer of 1914 in London where Richard Hannay is minding his own business but feeling he “was the best bored man in the United Kingdom.” Intrigue and adventure fall into his lap when he allows a man from the street into his flat (apartment). The man, Scudder, claims to have faked his own death in order to escape an international spy ring out to steal British political secrets. When Hannay finds his houseguest dead, he feels compelled to flee for his own life. He rushes off to the area of Galloway in southwestern Scotland, a fugitive on the run from the police.

More adventures ensue as Hannay flees from both the police and what now appears to be the international spy ring Scudder was afraid of. Hannay meets various people who help him allude his pursuers just in the nick of time. After many harrowing situations, including the need to build a simple bomb to escape imprisonment, Hannay is able to return to London where he alerts the government to the impending danger. However, it turns out the only way to prevent the top secret intelligence from leaving England is to decipher the meaning of the phrase “the 39 steps.” Can Richard Hannay find the answer in time?

This is a great vintage read, and if you find yourself becoming attached to the character of Richard Hannay you will be delighted to find that John Buchan wrote four more novels starring Hannay!

Travel notes: Much of this novel takes place in the region of Galloway. Richard Hannay takes dinner at a pub in Moffat on his way south to London.