Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson

Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes by Robert Louis Stevenson is a short, beautifully written description of Edinburgh by a classic author with a deep connection to this, his place of birth.

This book is divided into ten chapters. Stevenson gives particular attention to Edinburgh Old Town, Parliament Close, Greyfriars Kirk, New Town, Calton Hill, and the Pentlands. Stevenson describes the views, the buildings, the people that walk the streets, the legends that abound, the weather. He vividly captures in words the feelings that Edinburgh creates in the hearts of those who traverse her streets.

Robert Louis Stevenson was born in Edinburgh in 1850 and grew up in the city, eventually becoming famous for such works as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He possessed a winsomeness with the pen that has been enjoyed by readers the world over. It is fitting that he should pay tribute to the city of his birth in the pages of this book.

“Half a capital and half a country town, the whole city leads a double existence; it has long trances of the one and flashes of the other; like the king of the Black Isles, it is half alive and half a monumental marble.”

“It was a grey, dropping day; the grass was strung with rain-drops; and the people in the houses kept hanging out their shirts and petticoats and angrily taking them in again, as the weather turned from wet to fair and back again.”

“There is no Edinburgh emigrant, far or near, from China to Peru, but he or she carries some lively pictures of the mind, some sunset behind the Castle cliffs, some snow scene, some maze of city lamps, indelible in the memory and delightful to study in the intervals of toil. For any such, if this book fall in their way, here are a few more home pictures. It would be pleasant, if they should recognize a house where they had dwelt, or a walk that they had taken.”

Travel Notes: This is an ideal book to read while you are in Edinburgh as it provides one with a beautiful introduction to each part of the city and some history behind the various sections of the city and its most famous buildings. It is also a delight to read after a visit to Edinburgh as each chapter will bring to mind memories of what was enjoyed in person.

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.

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.

 

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.

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.

 

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!