The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey is a modern re-write of Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre set in twentieth century Scotland.

Livesey purposely follows the plot line of Jane Eyre quite closely for most of the book, including little details along the way that readers of Jane Eyre will recognize — like beginning the book with a near identical sentence and matching weather conditions to the beginning of Jane Eyre. In the opening of The Flight of Gemma Hardy we meet the orphaned Gemma as she is coping with the death of her uncle and the subsequent rejection by her aunt and cousins. Not surprisingly, Gemma is sent away to a nasty school for girls in the Borders of Scotland.

The time Gemma spends at the girls’ school is difficult and depressing. Despite the harsh circumstances, Gemma manages to get an education for herself and to make a friend or two along the way. Eventually the girls’ school closes and Gemma is forced to find a job to support herself. After sending out numerous inquires, Gemma finds employment as a tutor to a motherless child residing at Blackbird Hall in the Orkneys.

It is at this point in the book, when Gemma moves to the Orkney islands, that the descriptions of the Scottish countryside begin to appear and one really notices that this book is set in Scotland. Gemma heads to a farming community in the northeast part of the main island where Blackbird Hall is situated. Once at Blackbird Hall Gemma must win the trust of her charge, a wild youngster named Nell. Over time Gemma gets to know the other staff in the house and their families. Eventually the elusive Mr. Sinclair, Gemma’s true employer, comes to Blackbird Hall to visit his niece, Nell, and check on the progress she is making with her new governess.

Knowing the plot of Jane Eyre, we know that Gemma and Mr. Sinclair fall in love, and, of course, have a major falling out which results in Gemma’s moving away from the island back to the mainland. At this point the plot line diverges a bit from what we would expect. Gemma is taken in by two middle-aged women in the town of Aberfeldy and eventually finds tutoring work there. Like Jane Eyre she is drawn into a relationship with a young man but there is a different twist to how it unfolds. Part of this unfolding involves her deep interest in Iceland, the land of her mother’s birth, and her longing to return  there to see where she herself spent several years as a young child. Of course the book must end with a similar conclusion to that of Jane Eyre which means Gemma gets back together with Mr. Sinclair. Livesey throws in a little feminist-sounding twist to the very end bringing the story of Jane Eyre truly into the modern age.

“Meanwhile she punched down the dough and asked what the Borders were like. I told her about the soft, rounded hills, the remains of volcanoes — volcanoes in Scotland, she exclaimed — and the green fields. I described the abbeys the regular girls had visited on school trips, and Sir Walter Scott’s house.”

Travel Notes: this book would be ideal for reading while traveling in the Borders, during a visit to the Orkneys, or a stay in Perthshire.

Call the Nurse by Mary J. MacLeod

 Call the Nurse: True Stories of a Country Nurse on a Scottish Isle by Mary J. MacLeod is a humorous and endearing memoir of daily life on a remote Hebridean island in the 1970’s.

Mary MacLeod moved from the south of England with her family to the 20-mile long remote island known as “Papavray” — a fictionalized name used to protect the true inhabitants. Life on Papavray is a world away from life in busy, modern England. Through her work as a nurse, MacLeod travels around the island and gets to know its inhabitants on an intimate level. She and her family learn to make do with a tiny house, a remote location, a quiet pace of life, and the intriguing traditions of the islanders.

In a similar vein to the popular Call the Midwife stories, MacLeod tells of the different medical predicaments she faces as she sees to her patients. There may be a premature baby to deliver in the midst of a raging storm with no doctor able to be present. She may be called to take a boat to a remote island to see to someone going mad or senile or arrive on the scene of a near drowning. Life on Papavray is never dull despite being so far removed from the “modern world.”

Several of MacLeod’s stories are both heartbreaking and astonishing as she tells about the depths of abuse that sometimes happen when few people are about, or the difficult ends of people who have lived their lives in bitterness and isolation. MacLeod doesn’t sugarcoat her life in the Hebrides, but neither does she focus only on the hardships. This book is full of funny anecdotes and endearing portraits of some of the islanders who became regular fixtures in the lives of the author and her family as well as descriptions of the island’s natural beauty and uniqueness of the Hebridean islands.

“It was a dreary December afternoon in 1970 as I struggled up the slippery path to the croft house on the hill above. My blue uniform and the silly hat that I had anchored with a very non-uniform scarf were no protection against the rain that was being hurled in from the sea by the blustery wind. I was cold and wet, but I knew that a cheery welcome and a warm fire awaited me, and after I had attended to my elderly patient her sister would bustle about to give me a ‘wee cuppie.’

“This morning, the smell that wafted from his open croft house door as I approached was redolent of unwashed clothes, old dogs, mice, and something else that I didn’t even try to identify. He was sitting by the fire in his wellies, staring at the blank screen of his bright new ‘teleeffission’ as though awaiting the first glimmer of the evening programs.”

“The ruin of the old church on the shore resembled something from a fairy tale as its walls were coldly cushioned by the falling flakes, and the few remaining snarling gargoyles began to look ridiculous, rather than frightening, as they acquired snowy wigs. The village was becoming amorphous, as croft boundaries, pathways, and gates disappeared.”

Travel Notes: this would be excellent reading for any travel to the Scottish islands. MacLeod has also written a sequel entitled Nurse, Come You Here!

Note: this book is published under the title The Island Nurse in the UK.

My Heart’s in the Lowlands by Liz Curtis Higgs


 My Heart’s in the Lowlands by Liz Curtis Higgs is a virtual tour of some of the most beautiful and beloved places in southwest Scotland.

Liz Curtis Higgs is well-known for her historical christian fiction books set in Scotland (i.e. The Lowlands of Scotland series). In this non-fiction book Liz takes us on a 10-day journey with her around the countryside of Galloway visiting idyllic country villages, remote castles and churches, and even some of the places she used as settings in her fictional series. Liz is so enamored with the Scottish countryside that one can’t help but catch a bit of her excitement as you travel the pages of her book.

The tour begins in Glasgow as Liz collects a rental car and heads south past Sanquar to the tiny hamlet of Durisdeer. The sightseeing starts at the Durisdeer parish church and continues through the afternoon as Liz’s car winds through tiny villages and lands in the vicinity of Dumfries. We tag along as Liz gives us glimpses into each of the places she stops for a meal, throwing in Scottish vocabulary here and there to help foreigners get a feel for the words used in everyday life in the region of Galloway.

Each day is planned with historic sites, a museum or used bookstore, a handful of villages to delight any tourist, new foods to discover, and descriptions of the lush, magical countryside that enchants its visitors. Liz drives us to places like the Abbey Cottage Tearoom, the Shambellie House Museum of Costume, Drumcoltran Tower, the town of Castle Douglas, and Threave Gardens. Places full of history and overflowing with beauty appear on page after page. And Liz makes sure to tell the names of the roads she’s taking and other helpful travel info so people can find these places on their own!

Liz intersperses her touring with bits and pieces of history about the places she stops. She also includes quotes here and there from her novels. Those familiar with her books will be able to picture the places she was painting into her works of fiction. Notes are included in the back of the book so you can see what resources Liz used for her own travels (she returns to Scotland yearly) as well as for this book. She also mentions Scotland’s Gardens which is a charity listing all the private gardens open each year for a small entrance fee. It is worth checking their website for gardens in the area you may be traveling to.

Travel Notes: this would be a very helpful resource for planning a trip to the area of Galloway and Dumfries or for armchair travel in general.

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. You can listen to a song about the herrings called The Silver Darlings here.

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.

 

For the Glory by Duncan Hamilton

For the Glory: Eric Liddell’s Journey from Olympic Champion to Modern Martyr by Duncan Hamilton is a new, full-length biography of Scotland’s beloved 1924 Olympic Champion.

Many people are familiar with Eric Liddell’s story because of the popular 1980’s movie Chariots of Fire. The movie, which included beautiful running scenes on the St. Andrew’s beach, made sure everyone who watched would know the story of how Liddell gave up his chance to win the 100 meters race because of his religious convictions against running on Sunday. Instead, Liddell ran the 400 meters, despite little competitive experience, and won it to the joy and amazement of the crowds that watched. The movie tells us little of the beginning and end of  Liddell’s life, concentrating instead on Liddell’s athletic training and Olympic victory. For the Glory fills in the blanks to give us the full picture of the life of this kind and courageous man.

Eric was born in China in 1902. His Scottish parents were missionaries there. Eric loved China, the only home that he knew, and it was hard for him to adjust to life in England at a boarding school for children of missionaries. When his parents were home on furlough the Liddells could enjoy family life, mostly in Edinburgh, Scotland. When Eric was old enough for university it was to Edinburgh University that he went and it was there that he took up running and began competing.

The Olympics of 1924 made Eric forever famous. And no one knows just how many more medals Liddell may have won if something bigger and more important hadn’t gotten in the way. Eric Liddell had grown up to be a strong Christian and it was in his heart to return to the land of his birth (China) as a missionary. For this calling he had diligently prepared. In 1925 he sailed for China to take up mission work. In 1932 he was ordained as a minister and returned again to China to carry on the work with the London Missionary Society. While in China he met, and eventually married, Florence Mackenzie. The two were very happy together and had three children.

As World War II began and continued life in China became very dangerous. Eric and Florence were split up as Eric was sent to work in war-torn and highly dangerous areas. Eventually the two made the heart-wrenching decision to send Florence and the children to Canada for safety and leave Eric in China. Eric continued on with missionary work as much as the occupying Japanese would allow but was eventually interred in a prison camp with other foreigners in 1943. There, in desperate and depressing conditions, Eric became an angel of kindness and encouragement to the hundreds of men, women, and children imprisoned in the camp. His self-sacrifice and kindness spurred on by his deep faith make him a greater hero than any Olympic gold medal could do. Eric eventually died in the prison camp of a brain tumor, expressing to the end his love for his wife and family and his total trust in God.

Travel Notes: sites of particular interest to this biography would be Edinburgh and Edinburgh University and of course the St. Andrew’s beach where the famous running scene from Chariots of Fire was filmed.

The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes by Carolyn Keene

 The Clue of the Whistling Bagpipes by Carolyn Keene is a vintage Nancy Drew mystery set in Scotland. The Nancy Drew series was originally conceived in the 1930’s by American publisher Edward Stratemeyer who wanted to create a mystery series aimed at a young, female readership. The series was immensely popular and has continued in popularity into the present time. The books are written by various writers using the pseudonym Carolyn Keene.

Typical of Nancy Drew fashion, the plot is not too complicated, the action is constant, and there is a happy ending. Nancy and two friends accompany Nancy’s father to Scotland on a business trip that will also include a visit to Nancy’s great-grandmother’s ancestral home to look into some matters related to Nancy’s inheritance, including a valuable piece of jewelry that has gone missing. Even before Nancy leaves America she receives threats telling her not to go to Scotland, averts a bomb, and finds a suspicious figure stealing her autograph. It appears that Nancy’s trip to Scotland may be fraught with danger.

On the way to Scotland, during a stopover at Nancy’s aunt’s in New York, Nancy conveniently learns to play the bagpipes. Next thing they know the group have set foot in Scotland and intrigue finds them at the first hotel they stop at. Nancy also learns of sheep thievery happening in the highlands. Nancy and her friends head to Loch Lomond to see the scenery. Danger and mystery find them there and continue to haunt them as they travel first to Edinburgh and then north to Ft. William. It appears they are getting too close to the thieving operations.

Eventually, with the help of Fiona, a new friend from the Isle of Skye, and Nancy’s great-grandmother, Lady Douglas, Nancy is able to unravel what is happening to the sheep. She also discovers the missing jewel is connected to the sheep thieves. Can Nancy get the police officers to believe her and can they relocate the heirloom jewelry?

“Mrs. Drummond had a substantial supper ready. It started with cock-a-leekie soup of leeks and a boiling hen. Then came mutton stew, filled with potatoes and small white turnips. There was kale as a side dish, and for dessert a bowl of steamed bread pudding filled with currants and topped with custard sauce.”

“‘I’ve just had a brainstorm,’ Nancy declared. ‘Great-Grandmother, it’s a daring one, but I hope you won’t have any objections. I’d like to dress in the Cameron kilt and the rest of the costume I wore before, climb Ben Nevis to the point where I saw that piper, and play Scots, Wha Hae.'”

Travel Notes: This is perfect reading for elementary and middle school-aged children that are planning a trip to Scotland or learning about the country. Nancy visits Glasgow; the Castle, Royal Mile, St. Giles,  John Knox’ house, and Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh; Loch Lomond; the Highlands; Ben Nevis; and Ft. William (where they view a secret portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie at the local museum).

 

 

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey

The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey is a vintage mystery set in the highlands of Scotland. Tey was the pseudonym for Elizabeth MacKintosh, a Scottish-born mystery writer. The Singing Sands is MacKintosh’s final novel and was published after her death in 1952.

The adventure begins when Inspector Alan Grant heads north on doctor’s orders for a restful break in the highlands. His work at Scotland Yard has had a negative effect on his nerves and he hopes that several weeks of fishing and time with his cousin’s family will be just the recovery he needs. However, on his way north he encounters a dead body on the train, along with a piece of verse written on a newspaper found nearby. Although Grant is on holiday he can’t shake the dead man from his mind, nor can he erase the lines of the verse (which include “the singing sands”) from his head.

MacKintosh intersperses beautiful descriptions of the Scottish highlands with her telling of Grant’s holiday with his relatives and how he begins to casually investigate what he believes to have been a murder. Little by little Grant heads in the right direction and finds his holiday including a trip to the Hebrides and eventually a return to London where he must convince the authorities that the man on the train was indeed murdered and did not die of natural causes. The case seems impossible to solve but with the help of a fellow holiday-maker Grant is able to bring the mystery to an end.

“So Grant had the island to himself, and for five days in the company of the whooping wind he quartered his bleak kingdom. It was rather like walking with a bad-mannered dog; a dog that rushes past you on narrow paths, leaps on you in ecstasy so that you are nearly knocked over, and drags you from the direction in which you want to go.”

“He washed in the two pints of tepid water that Katie-Ann brought him and went downstairs rejoicing. He felt on top of the world. He ate the Glasgow bread, still another day older this morning, and the Edinburgh oatcakes, and the Dundee jam, and the Canadian butter, together with some sausages from the English midlands, and enjoyed them. Having given up his expectation of primitive elegance, he was prepared to accept primitive existence.”

Travel Notes: perfect reading for travels in the Highland and Islands as Inspector Grant flies over to a small Hebridean island in his quest for the “singing sands.” Apparently, the Isle of Eigg has “singing sands” which you can visit.

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.

Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson

Listening Valley by D. E. Stevenson is a delightful, vintage romance set in both Edinburgh and the Scottish Borders during World War II.

This story follows the life of Antonia Melville, a dreary little girl growing up in Edinburgh with little excitement in her life. Antonia’s sister marries early but it appears there will be no beaux for Antonia herself. Quite surprisingly, a delightful, older man (Robert) takes an interest in Antonia and with his love Antonia begins to blossom into a capable, beautiful woman. The two move to London and Antonia’s husband takes up important war work. Together they weather the bombings of London. The stress and worry of Robert’s work eventually takes a toll on him and his health declines rapidly until Antonia is left a widow.

Now Antonia must learn to stand up for herself against her leech-like sister-in-law and niece-in-law. She must find a way to live on her own without them and manage her own affairs. She finds herself in the small town of Ryddelton, a fictional town in the Borders. Antonia begins to get to know her neighbors and becomes involved in entertaining soldiers from the nearby airfield. One of the soldiers (Bay) happens to be an old friend from school. Perhaps romance might develop between them except for Bay’s fiancé, a suspicious woman from France.

Listening Valley contains all the elements readers expect from D. E. Stevenson: descriptions of Scottish life, gentle romance, a return to the way life used to be, amusing characters who seem almost as if you might have met them, and of course an element of suspense that keeps us wondering if the right people will ever get together.

Travel Notes: a great vintage novel choice for reading in Edinburgh, the Scottish Borders, or Scotland in general. For more information on D. E. Stevenson check out this website.