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.

B is for Bagpipes by Eve Begley Kiehm

B is for Bagpipes: A Scotland Alphabet by Eve Begley Kiehm is the ideal book to introduce children to Scotland and give them a taste for this country. Set in the format of the multitude of other similar “alphabet books,” there is a page for each letter of the alphabet along with a corresponding Scottish word (i.e. B is for Bagpipe, H is for Haggis). A four line piece of verse gives the definition for the word and the beautiful illustrations help to show what that definition means. Even better, several paragraphs of more detailed explanations are included for each letter in the margin of the page making this book suitable for very young ages all the way to middle school.

B is for Bagpipes covers all the important Scottish topics one would want to communicate to children: bagpipes, clans, the sword dance, Edinburgh and the castle, Greyfriar’s Bobby, haggis, the islands, the Jacobites, the kilt and all that accompanies it, the Loch Ness monster, Mary Queen of Scots, wildlife, porridge, the Picts, Robert Burns, Robert the Bruce, golf, tartan, William Wallace, and more!

This book is well illustrated and the pictures capture the beauty of the country and her classic features.

Travel Notes: this book would make a great introduction to the land of Scotland for any child and would help prepare him or her for their own journey there.

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

Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher


  Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher is Christmas reading at its best! Set in a spacious old house in a little town north of Inverness, the story brings an unlikely group of people together for Christmas, capturing the true spirit of the season.

Pilcher takes time at the beginning of the book to introduce us to the main characters one by one, giving us the background stories needed to fully appreciate the significance of each individual. The book is delightfully cozy and happy, but it is so because you understand the pain and heartache each person brings to the Christmas season and with this understanding rejoice as heartache is soothed with love and friendship and celebration.

The story follows the lives of Oscar, a new widower devastated by the loss of his wife and young daughter and now homeless, and Elfrida, an older actress with no attachments who drops everything to take Oscar to Scotland for Christmas. Through a series of events they are joined in Scotland by Elfrida’s neice and great-niece who have no other place to celebrate the holidays. A snowstorm brings one more person into the mix for the holiday week. As the story unfolds we are introduced to the idyllic town of Creagan and its inhabitants which include Mrs. Snead (the housekeeper), her husband, and Peter Kennedy (the minister) and his family. Interactions and growing friendships with these, and others, help to bring about a feeling of true community as well as ideas and support for solving the imminent question of what the future holds for each person in the house after Christmas is over.

Pilcher, a well-known English-born writer, has lived in Scotland much of her life. Her intimate knowledge of the countryside comes through in her writings. Many of the places in this book are based on real Scottish towns and buildings.

It is often difficult to find a truly well-written, satisfying Christmas story. Winter Solstice is a treasure of a book and the perfect antidote to the stress of the Christmas season.

Travel Notes: Inverness Tours offers a Rosamunde Pilcher Winter Solstice tour in which you can travel to see the principal towns and villages in this book. Otherwise, it is helpful to know that Tain is the real name for Kingsferry (shopping town in the book), Skibo Castle is the basis for Corrydale (ancestral home in the book), and Dornoch is the town on which Pilcher based Creagan (the Scottish setting for Winter Solstice)

 

 

Hedderwick Highland Journey by Mairi Hedderwick

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Hedderwick Highland Journey: A Sketching Tour of Scotland by Mairi Hedderwick is a lovely travel diary of eight rambles around Scotland following in the footsteps of 19th century artist John T. Reid and his original Art Rambles in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Mairi Hedderwick is a well-known Scottish author and illustrator whose sketching style is easily recognized and loved by many. Hedderwick is most famous for her Katie Morag children’s series but has also written and illustrated a handful of books for adults based on her travels around Scotland.

In Hedderwick Highland Journey Mairi decides to take the artwork and writings of John T. Reid and retrace the journeys he took in the highlands and islands in an attempt to illustrate the very same places and scenes in the twentieth century. Hedderwick intersperses descriptions of her own wanderings, mishaps, and adventures with direct quotes from Reid’s original book. It is both interesting and amusing to see the change (or lack of change) that is discovered in various places 114 years after the original rambles. Most enjoyable is seeing the art of Reid side by side with that of Hedderwick.

The book contains eight rambles which are as follows:

Ramble One: Leith, Bo’ness, Stirling, Down, Callander, The Trossachs, Loch Lomond, Tarbet, Arrochar

Ramble Two: Glasgow, The Clyde, Arran, Bute, Ardrishaig, Crinan Canal, Oban, Staffa, Iona, Mull, Coll, Tiree

Ramble Three: Oban, Ballachulish, Glencoe, Fort William, Caledonian Canal, Invergarry, Fort Augustus, Loch Ness, Inverness

Ramble Four: Skye, Portree, Sligachan, Coruisk, Staffin

Ramble Five: Dingwall, Kinlochewe, Torridon, Gairloch, Dundonnell, Ullapool

Ramble Six: Isle of Lewis, Stornoway, Gress, Garrynahine, Barvas, Ness, Butt of Lewis

Ramble Seven: Isle of Lewis, Wick, Thurso

Ramble Eight: Aberdeen, Bridge of Don, Ballater, Balmoral, Braemar, Devil’s Elbow, Spittal of Glenshee

All in all this is a beautiful book of Scottish art along with mostly interesting travel writing and an intriguing look at Scotland both historic and modern.

Travel Notes: This book would make a great travel companion if you are planning to visit any of the places mentioned in the “Rambles” above.

The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee

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The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee is a unique celebration of the beauty of Edinburgh from the pen and paintbrush of a Chinese resident of the UK. Reading this book is to see the same landscape of Edinburgh but to see it through different eyes and a new perspective. It is to experience the scenes of Edinburgh through a new medium — that of the Chinese paintbrush and Chinese painting technics.

Chiang Yee came to England in the 1930’s as he was not excited about the way things were heading in China. He began publishing a series of travel books titled after his pen name which translates into English as “Silent Traveller.” His books are gentle descriptions of the landscape he sees and the people he meets laced throughout with his quiet humor and of course accompanied by Yee’s own artwork. Yee travelled to Edinburgh in 1943 and published this book in 1948.

Yee enjoys interspersing his text with quotes from famous Chinese philosophers and poets. “There must surely be some charm in everything and, that being so, we should find pleasure in any experience, however small, and not be forever looking for the exceptional.” (Chao-Jan-Ting) It seems Yee took this advice to heart as he endeavors to enjoy each aspect of his visit to Edinburgh, from the majestic castle on the hill (he admits to falling under its spell) to the incessant rain he experiences.

Chiang Yee covers most of Edinburgh and its close environs in his visit: the castle, St. Giles and the Royal Mile, the University, Calton Hill, Princes Street, Holyrood Palace and Park, Arthur’s Seat, and the Royal Botanic Garden. He is quite taken with Arthur’s Seat but insists that rather than a resting lion the ancient hill most certainly looks like a sleeping elephant!

“I like Edinburgh. But I hestitate to state the fact thus boldly lest some day I meet a Glaswegian.”

Yee was told: Scott was to Scotland what Shakespeare was to England. In response: “… but from my little experience I must say that one might be able to leave England without hearing of Shakespeare but never [leave] Scotland without hearing of Scot.”

Yee’s description of Edinburgh Castle at night: “…the Castle perfectly silhouetted in the moonlight, like an enthroned queen in a black velvet gown with a wide spreading skirt, with spires and towers of her courtiers making obeisance to her.”

Travel Notes: This is a lovely companion guide for a trip to Edinburgh, stretching the mind a bit and opening the eyes to see ordinary beauty.