The Final Curtsey by Margaret Rhodes

The Final Curtsey by Margaret Rhodes is a memoir of life as cousin to Queen Elizabeth II and Lady-in-Waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Margaret Rhodes was born in London but her heritage was Scottish on both her father’s side (the Elphinstone’s of Carberry Tower) and her mother’s side (the Strathmore’s of Glamis Castle). As most titled families of the time the Elphinstone family moved around to various dwellings. This meant that Margaret spent much of her childhood in Scotland either at the family home of Carberry Tower or at Glenmazeran in Inverness-shire.

Margaret’s mother, being sister to Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, meant that Margaret and her siblings grew up in close proximity to their cousins Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret. Margaret even served as a bridesmaid to Princess Elizabeth. The Elphinstones also hosted various members of the royal family in their family home  — Queen Mary and George V among many other lesser royals. Because of this intimacy, Margaret has many endearing and humorous anecdotes she shares from these family times. The book contains many color photographs of the royal family from throughout Margaret’s life.

Margaret describes meeting and marrying her husband, Denys Rhodes, and their years of raising four children together. In Margaret’s later years, at retirement age, she takes up the call to join her aunt’s household and become Woman of the Bedchamber. She functioned in this role of both companion and aide for eleven years and was there at the Queen Mother’s bedside when she passed away in 2002.

This memoir is not written by an accomplished writer but it is interesting and endearing because of the first-hand accounts Margaret gives of the royal family and their daily lives. For those who are avid followers of the royal family this book is a good way to learn a bit more about the Scottish connections to the throne via the Strathmore family.

Travel Notes: Glamis Castle is a lovely day out and as the ancestral home of the Strathmore family would be the perfect outing to accompany this book. You can visit the grounds of Margaret’s childhood home at Carberry Hill and even stay overnight at Carberry Tower.

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.

Dr. Finlay’s Casebook by A. J. Cronin

Dr. Finlay’s Casebook by A. J. Cronin is a fictional account of a small-town Scottish doctor and his adventures caring for his patients during the 1920’s.

Dr. Finlay works as the junior partner in a medical practice set in the fictional town of Tannochbrae. Very similar in format to James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small, each chapter revolves around a new medical case or community problem.

Together with senior partner, Dr. Cameron, and usually-devoted housekeeper, Janet, Dr. Finlay cares for the patients of this typical Scottish community. One day Dr. Finlay may find himself helping with a surprise pregnancy and the next he could be working out a solution to Dr. Cameron’s feigned appendicitis. At every turn Dr. Finlay grows more and more beloved by the residents of Tannochbrae.

Throughout the stories Dr. Finlay is plagued by apparently devoted but ultimately faithless women who seek to attach him in romantic relationships. This provides some comic relief to a book that at times could be just on the verge of growing too slow.

This book and others by A. J. Cronin became the basis for a long-running and very popular BBC production by the same name in the 1960’s followed by a radio program in the 1970’s. The idyllic town of Callander was chosen to film the tv series.

Travel Notes: Callander, the filming location of fictional Tannochbrae, is a beautiful town to visit. A later series was filmed in Auchtermuchty.

 

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.

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.

The Guynd by Belinda Rathbone

The Guynd by Belinda Rathbone is a modern day memoir set in the Scottish countryside outside Arbroath. Rathbone, born American, meets and marries a member of the Scottish aristocracy and moves with him to his run-down ancestral home in the countryside. This book tells the story of her adjustment to Scottish country life, of her relationship to a man tied to his family home, and of her endeavors to build a life for her family in these circumstances.

It is great fun to open the pages of this book and begin to read the story of how Belinda met her future husband at a cousin’s wedding. Soon the pair are living together in Scotland and Belinda is exploring the many rooms of her husband’s ancestral house, the Guynd. Unfortunately, the house has fallen into disrepair over the years as the previous generation died and John (Belinda’s husband) finds it necessary to be living elsewhere. The couple decides to make this their permanent home and together begin renovations.

Restoring the Guynd is not going to be as easy as Belinda hoped. John becomes sidetracked over and over again by his obsession with saving things that should be thrown out, or saving money by doing without. Belinda finds herself freezing in the cold Scottish autumn because radiators are never turned on until a certain date in November no matter what. It is hard to come to a unified agreement on what the restorations should look like and how they should be accomplished.

Meanwhile Belinda works on getting to know the people living on their estate, the other landed families who live in the area, and the general Scottish way of living life. There are both delights and disappointments to be found as Belinda learns the way things are done in this part of the world. She also begins to understand the downside of having a large family home — the money required for upkeep, the problems with tenants, a garden that has been overgrown for decades.

Sadness creeps in as we realize that Belinda and John’s marriage has a shaky future and the life that Belinda is working so hard to build at the Guynd is not going to remain for the long haul. Her time there has been another chapter in the long history of this family home.

Rathbone’s memoir is unique in that it gives a modern day look at the realities of life for those living in large, ancestral homes. For those of us in love with shows like Downton Abbey and Monarch of the Glen this is an excellent way to experience vicariously this kind of life. The daily life of the average Scottish citizen would need to be found in a different memoir.

Travel Notes: The Guynd is privately owned so it is not possible to visit the house. However, you can see a few pictures and find information about the house on this site. This book is great reading if you plan to visit any country homes in Scotland or have an interest in Scottish life.

Red Sky at Night by John Barrington

Red Sky at Night by John Barrington is an enchanting account of one shepherd’s year herding Scottish black-face sheep in Glengyle in the Trossachs near Loch Katrine. Following the rhythms of nature, Barrington takes us on a journey deep into the countryside where we behold the joys and heartbreaks of shepherding work, catch glimpses of the world which foxes, badgers, and hawks inhabit, and vicariously relish the bountiful country fare his wife serves up for dinner.

John Barrington is highly respected in Britain (and beyond) for his work with sheep and sheepdogs. He communicates his vast knowledge in a humble and subtle way that leaves the reader in awe of the skill required to be a successful shepherd. Barrington celebrates the high points of the shepherd’s year and the many joys that come with working with animals. He also does not shy away from the necessary hardships and heartaches that inevitably arise. As each season comes around Barrington includes in his narrative details about weather changes, bird migrations, flora and fauna, and community happenings.

This book is an excellent way to gain a true picture of the life of a Scottish shepherd, the important yet hard work that involves, and the beauty and joy it brings.

“The blizzard struck from the north without warning, as sudden and brutish as a Viking raid. The wind tore at everything, searching out any weak point in a quest for absolute destruction. The stout walls of Glengyle house stood firm, but outside, who could tell what havoc the furies of the night were wreaking.”

“By the time I reach the house, the other herds are already seated around the dining-table, tucking into one of Maggi’s magnificent meals. Rich steaming soup is followed with roast leg of lamb accompanied by mint sauce. A set of big bowls containing cabbage, carrots, roast potatoes and one holding a mountain of creamy mashed potatoes, together with a giant jug of thick gravy, sit in the middle of the table….Maggi follows on well with generous helpings of rhubarb crumble and custard.”

“It is not only on the arable land that a bountiful harvest is manifesting itself but along every hedgerow and in every thicket hips, haws, nuts and berries are maturing into full colour and ripeness. This wild harvest is every bit as important as that of the farmer.”

Travel Notes: If you are at all interested in Scottish sheep, shepherding, or nature this is the book to read. The book would be pertinent to many areas of Scotland but is itself set in the Trossachs, near Loch Katrine. You can find information about Glengyle House, which John Barrington lived in, here. You can even find lodgings at the nearby Glengyle Steadings.

Further Reading: It is worth noting several other titles on shepherding in the British Isles for those interested in more reading on the subject:

The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks — just out a few years ago this is an excellent choice for learning about modern shepherding in the Lake District (note: there is some language)

 

 

 

 

The Illustrated Herdwick Shepherd by James Rebanks — Rebanks’ second book including many of his own photos

 

 

 

 

The Shepherd’s View by James Rebanks — the most recent Rebanks book, again including many photos taken by Rebanks

 

 

 

 

A Shepherd’s Watch by David Kennard — lovely reading and very endearing, this book tells the life of a Devon shepherd through the seasons of the year

 

 

 

 

The Dogs of Windcutter Down by David Kennard — continues the life of a shepherd on his farm with focus on his sheepdogs

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!

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.