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.

 

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.

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.