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.

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid

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Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey is such a fun book choice if you want to read fiction set in modern Edinburgh. Part of “The Austen Project,” Northanger Abbey is a re-write of the Jane Austen classic by the same title. In keeping with the terms of the project, Northanger Abbey maintains the same plot and the same characters Austen created but creatively takes the setting to 21st century Edinburgh during the annual Edinburgh Festival.

Following the original plot, Catherine (Cat) Morland is invited to join her friends the Allens in Edinburgh for the Festival. There she keeps company with the Thorpe siblings who appear to like her but don’t seem to have her best interests at heart. Cat meets the handsome and well-mannered Henry Tilney (who happens to have an ancient home in the country named Northanger Abbey) and upon becoming best friends with his sister, Ellie, secures an invitation to stay with them at the Abbey. Along the way Cat’s brother is engaged to Bella Thorpe but Cat begins to question Bella’s sincerity. Will things turn out right for Cat’s brother and will Henry ask Cat to marry her? (And why is the death of Henry’s mother shrouded in so much darkness and silence?)

Of course there is no surprise ending or twist of plot in this book. Rather, the surprise is in how McDermid reinterprets 18th century personalities and events into modern day Scottish life. Edinburgh comes alive in a special way during the month of August each year when it hosts the Edinburgh Festival. This Festival includes music, theatre, opera, books, art, and street performers. One could spend their entire day (for three weeks) hopping around the city to various performances, lectures, and exhibits. There is a buzz in the air as the city swells with visitors eager to feast on the arts at the largest cultural festival in the world. McDermid captures some of the excitement and aura of the Festival in this story.

Plenty of place names are included in the book which helps to make it seem more real: all kinds of locations in Edinburgh (West End of Queen Street, Morningside, Lawnmarket, Arthur’s Seat, Haymarket, and Princes Street to name a few) as well places beyond (Glasgow, Linlithgow Palace, Stirling, Kelso, Loch Lomond, Jedburgh, and Melrose).

One of my favorite parts of the book is the constant mention of literature. You will find authors, books and series such as: Ian Rankin, Kate Atkinson, Swallows & Amazons, Famous Five, Harry Potter, Dracula, Middlemarch, Jane Eyre, Twilight, The Wasteland, Hunger Games, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, William Letford, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Burns, Henryson, Sir Walter Scott, Muriel Spark, and Pride & Prejudice Zombies.

McDermid ends the book with this quote: “The moral or message of this story is hard to discern. And that is as it should be, for as Catherine Morland found out to her cost, it is not the function of fiction to offer lessons in life.” I’m not quite sure I agree with that statement, at least not completely. It seems quite clear that the message of this Northanger Abbey is not to let your imagination run away with you to such an extent that you deny reality.

I have never been a fan of “re-writes,” but I found Northanger Abbey such fun that I’ve read it twice now! If I were packing for a trip to Edinburgh this is a book I’d considered putting in my suitcase!