12 Books That Capture the Fierce Spirit of Scotland

12 Books That Capture the Fierce Spirit of Scotland

Tuesday, 4 February, 2020

Scotland’s terrain is just as dramatic as its tumultuous history. There are the higgledy-piggledy cobbled streets of Edinburgh and Glasgow and the striking lowlands coastline in the south. Head north, and you’ll find yourself among the rolling green highlands and the craggy Atlantic islands off the coast. And wherever you roam, the weather is sure to have plenty of character.

The fight for Scottish independence from English rule makes for thrilling tales of derring-do, starring larger-than-life heroes, honored traditions, and ghosts that still haunt churches, towers, hallways, and cellars.

These books will take you from the wind-bashed islands of the Hebrides to the haunted lanes of Edinburgh, with stops along the way at a castle on the east coast and a peat bog that’s coughing up long-buried secrests. With modern settings and forays into the past, these books are populated with compelling characters who each have a unique story to tell.

To hear us discuss these books and more about Scotland, listen to our podcast Scotland: Wraiths, Rebels, and Royalty.


The Crofter and the Laird - John McPhee

In this vivid memoir, American writer John McPhee turns his eyes and his pen to the small island of Colonsay in the Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. The island — still grappling with the feudal system of lords and farmers — is seventeen square miles of damp, descendants, and drama.

McPhee has written 29 books, and he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He’s been the Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University since 1974 — and he’s a son of the Colonsay McPhees, a family that lived on the island for centuries until they were run out by the MacDonalds.

In 1969, curious about his ancestry and the Hebridean way of life, McPhee packed up his family and ‘went to live for a while on Colonsay.’ That turned into a year-long experience among the 138 people who still work the land on this wind-battered island.

It’s a small town like any other — and drastically different than anything that might seem familiar. Separated from the mainland by geography and custom, it’s an incubator for grudges, gossip, and an undeniable dependency on each other. McPhee has an ear for dialogue — you’ll hear the brogue — and his gift for description means you’ll also smell the salt air and feel the bite of the wind as you peek behind the curtains of the islanders’ parlors. {more}

Colonsay is less like a small town than like a large lifeboat. By a scale of things that begins with cities and runs to hamlets, the island is some distance off the end. The usual frictions, gossip, and intense social espionage that characterize life in a small town are so grandly magnified on Colonsay that they sometimes appear in surprising form… Everyone is many things to everyone else and is encountered daily in a dozen guises. Enmeshed together, the people of the island become one another. Friend and enemy dwell in the same skin… — John McPhee

His Bloody Project - Graeme MaCrae Burnet

His Bloody Project
> Graeme Macrae Burnet

There is no dispute: 17-year-old Roderick Macrae has murdered his village neighbor Lachlan Broad along with Broad’s daughter and son. So we know the what. This dark, involving thriller examines the why and the how of this gruesome murder. Is Roddy evil, misunderstood, or insane?

We learn Roddy’s story through the pages of his diary, and it’s a heart-breaker. Downtrodden and abandoned by the people he loves, he’s a sensitive soul — kind to animals, smitten with a local girl. But in his dangerously insular, deeply religious village, might makes right and the sensitive suffer. You’ll ache for Roddy as you read his account of the untenable situation he faced, and you might even understand why he lashed out in a moment of confusion.

But as the story continues to unfold — through police statements from the other villagers, medical records, the report of a criminal psychologist, court transcripts — the view of what really happened becomes foggier.

The salty sea air, the withering cold, the claustrophobic confines of the crofters’ existence, the petty squabbles that define village life — all are brought to vivid life through the distinct voices that argue Roddy’s innocence and guilt. {more}

The outlook in these parts is that if one is to be visited by misfortune, there is nothing that can be done to avoid it. — Graeme Macrae Burnet

The Blackhouse - Peter May

The Blackhouse
> Peter May

This murder mystery — set in the outer Hebrides — turns into a psychological character study as the crime is being solved. It’s filled with messy people you’ll grow to care about, and it delves into fascinating local history. Plus, it’s darker than the bottom of a cup of espresso.

The action kicks off with a gruesome murder on the remote Isle of Lewis, just off the northwestern coast of Scotland. The crime is similar to a killing in Edinburgh, so detective Fin Macleod, a Lewis native, is dispatched back to the island to investigate. No one is happy about it: not Fin, not his disappointed wife, not the commander on the island, and not the native islanders who are wholly justified in their grudges, resentments, and tender feelings when Fin resurfaces.

As he digs into the details of the crime, Fin is immersed in the dark events of his childhood in this unforgiving landscape. The island’s terrain and raw, primal weather shape the narrative as much as the people who populate it. This is a riveting look at the damage secrets can do to the living and the dead, but Fin’s humanity keeps it from falling into despair. {more}

This is the first installment in the Lewis Trilogy; Fin’s story continues in The Lewis Man and The Chessmen.

Just beyond our landing point, the rock folded away into one of its cathedral caves. It was dark and creepy, with the eerie sound of water sucking on rock echoing from somewhere deep within its blackness like the rasping breath of some living creature. It was easy to imagine how legends of sea monsters and dragons had grown out of such places. — Peter May

The Winter Sea - Susanna Kearsley

The Winter Sea
> Susanna Kearsley

It’s the 1700s in Scotland, and King James III is hiding out in France, biding his time until he can return and reclaim the throne from England. Meanwhile, two clever women are doing their part — in a beautiful castle by the sea — to ensure the future of their homeland.

The machinations that get James from France to Scotland provide the backdrop for the action in this book — and that action is sea battles, political intrigue, thrilling seductions, and expert-level back-stabbing.

The story unfolds along two alternating paths, both set at Slains Castle along the rugged cliffs of northeastern Scotland. One thread takes place in the twenty-first century; the other in the 1700s.

Carrie, our modern heroine, is writing a historical novel about her distant relatives and the Jacobite Rebellion. She soon learns that what she thinks is fiction may actually be grounded in reality. People she meets and things she experiences eerily mirror the life of her ancestor, the lovely Sophia of the 1700s. The weaving of the two storylines gives the novel a slight sheen of time-travel.

There’s plenty of suspense and swash-buckling adventure — and both women get their shot at true love with appropriately steamy, albeit corseted, romance. {more}

There is no sight so melancholy as the winter sea, for it does tell us we are truly at the ending of the year, and all its days are passed, its days of joy and sorrow that will never come again. — Susanna Kearsley

Made In Scotland: My Grand Adventures in a Wee Country - Billy Connolly

Made In Scotland
> Billy Connolly

Billy Connolly is an actor, comedian, musician, and proud Glaswegian. In this very personal and moving memoir, he reflects on his life and what it means to him to be Scottish.

Equal parts travelogue and memoir, this book transports you to Billy’s Scotland: the northern Highlands, the urban Lowlands, and the clubs where he honed first his musical chops and, later, his comedic timing.

Though he’s performed all over the world — and was knighted in Buckingham Palace by Prince William in 2017 — the stories told here are about the essential stuff: love and sex, friends and family, the poetry of swearing. All recounted with humor, insight, and a refreshing vulnerability that counters the toughness required by being a Scotsman and Glaswegian. {more}

After my knighthood was announced, a woman from the BBC came to Glasgow to interview me. We sat down in a lovely hotel in a nice part of town, and she hit me with her first question: ‘This must mean a lot to you, with you coming from nothing?’

I looked at her, and I laughed.

‘I did’nae come from nothing,’ I told her. ‘I come from something.’ … The early years of my life were spent in grinding poverty… but it wasn’t nothing. It was something — something very important. — Billy Connolly

The House Between Tides - Sarah Maine

The House Between Tides
> Sarah Maine

It’s 2010, and Hetty’s life is kind of a mess. She has a boyfriend who’s just a little too controlling, and she’s still reeling from the recent deaths of her parents and her grandmother. When she inherits a ruined estate called Muirland House in the Outer Hebrides, she flees London and her day-to-day worries to lose herself in a possible new future.

She plans to transform the crumbling mansion into a 5-star hotel. But then a skeleton is found buried under the floorboards in the conservatory. The search to identify the remains takes Hetty deep into the isolated community of Muirland Island and her own family’s history.

The mansion, the dramatic landscape, and the raging weather of the island are as much characters as the people. This book has everything we want in a story set on a lonely estate: dark family secrets, passionate love that drives people to foolish acts, betrayal, loyalty, class wars, and the healing power of nature. {more}

This is how he had described Muirlan Island to her. ‘And beyond there be dragons!’ he had said, his eyes glinting in the way she had grown to love. It was his refuge, he had said, a place of wild beauty, a special place, with endless stretches of bone-white sand, vast skies, and the sea — an ever-changing palette. — Sarah Maine

Broken Ground (A Karen Pirie Novel) - Val McDermid

Broken Ground
> Val McDermid

Detective Chief Inspector Karen Pirie can be quite pushy, and she’s as well known for her sarcasm as for her solve rate. But when she’s on the case, she’s unstoppable. Her specialty is cold cases: ‘I believe people deserve answers. There are few things harder to live with than not knowing the fate of people we love.’

When a preserved body — with a bullet hole between the eyes and Nike sneakers on its feet — is uncovered in a peat bog in the Highlands, she’s sent to investigate. Each clue raises more questions than it answers. And her investigation is complicated by a would-be suitor named Hamish MacKenzie, a ‘magnificent,’ gentleman with a plaid kit and flowing locks. Naturally suspicious, she’s not sure what to make of MacKenzie or his interest in her.

In addition to the bog body, she’s still mourning the death of her husband, sparring with her overbearing boss, and dealing with another violent crime in which she may be an unwitting player.

Taut and well-paced, this story could only take place in the Scottish Highlands and Edinburgh with plenty of dramatic weather, sweeping landscapes, and the contemporary pleasures of the Scottish Capital. {more}

He probably hadn’t deserved what had happened to him. But he’d chosen the road that had taken him there. — Val McDermid

Haunted Voices: An Anthology of Gothic Storytelling From Scotland - Rebecca Wojturska

Haunted Voices
> Rebecca Wojturska

This enthralling collection of gothic tales celebrates Scotland’s rich tradition of oral storytelling. It’s available in print, ebook, and audio — and we 100-percent advocate for the audiobook. It features both archival recordings and new performances that will cause delicious little tingles up the back of your neck.

Soulmates, told by Gavin Inglis, is a bittersweet story about a goth couple who frequent the paths of Greyfriars Kirkyard (a historical cemetery in Edinburgh) and a love that will not die. When you listen to the The Stolen Winding Sheet by Fran Flett Hollinrake, you will feel the wind and rain of the storm on your face.

Throughout the 27 stories, you’ll encounter shadowy demons, ephemeral ghosts, mysterious shapes in the darkness, undying love, wry humor, dramatic weather, poor decisions, well-deserved comeuppances, and the other elements that make Gothic stories so jubilantly dark and unsettling. The vocal performances are seductive and immersive, with an urgency and intimacy that can only be found when one human tells a story to another. {more}

He was sitting in Greyfriar’s Kirkyard at sunrise, watching mud creep up the cover of Descartes’ Passions of the Soul and wondering if it would be too much of a cliché to throw himself off North Bridge. She came past in clumpy boots and a velvet skirt, took her headphones out and yelled at him for letting a library book get stained. After that they were friends. — Gavin Inglis, ‘Soulmates’

City of Ghosts - Victoria Schwab

City of Ghosts
> Victoria Schwab

Cassidy Blake is a fairly normal 12-year-old — except for the fact that she can move through the Veil between this world and the next, and her best friend Jacob is a ghost.

Her parents are on a quest to visit the world’s most haunted places for their reality TV show Inspectres. When they visit Edinburgh, Cass and Jacob experience strange happenings — even stranger than usual — and are soon face to face with an evil spirit known as the Raven in Red.

From Greyfriars Kirkyard to the White Hart Inn, and up the Royal Mile to Mary King’s Close and Edinburgh Castle, Cass, Jacob, and the TV crew tour all of the best historical sights — and confront the supernatural and bloody history of the Scottish capital. {more}

People think that ghosts only come out at night, or on Halloween, when the world is dark and the walls are thin. But the truth is, ghosts are everywhere. In the bread aisle at your grocery store, in the middle of you grandmother’s garden, in the front seat on your bus. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. — Victoria Schwab

To the Hilt - Dick Francis

To the Hilt
> Dick Francis

Our hero Alexander Kinloch, descended from Scottish nobility, wants nothing more than to be left alone to paint. An introvert to his core, he lives alone in a primitive bothy — without electricity or a telephone — where he spends his days painting canvases, playing the bagpipes, and wandering in the Highlands.

But when his stepfather is threatened with financial ruin, Al is forced back into society to bail out the family business. And the people he runs into are most uncivilized.

Dick Francis is the author of 42 thrillers, mostly set in the world of horse racing. Where there are horses and family fortunes and Francis, you’ll also find ill-mannered thugs, spoiled offspring, a respectable father figure or two, and a no-nonsense woman who helps save the day.

The fresh air and craggy mountains of the Scottish Highlands are vividly rendered; it’s easy to see why Al prefers his bothy to the too-tidy and too-precious flats of London. But like all good Francis heroes, he’s willing to risk the life he wants to help others in need. {more}

I heard their heavy feet scrunching on the stony ground behind me but still didn’t truly believe in disaster until they clutched and spun me around and purposefully and knowledgeably punched… One of the men kept saying insistently, ‘Where is it? Where is it?’ but his colleagues made it impossible for me to answer. — Dick Francis

The Hunting Party - Lucy Foley

The Hunting Party
> Lucy Foley

It’s a tradition: Every December 31, nine thirty-something friends from Oxford travel to an exotic location to ring in the new year together. This time, they’re vacationing at an isolated hunting lodge in Scotland — and their celebration goes horribly, fabulously wrong.

The trip begins, as a thrilling adventure should, on a train from London to Scotland. There’s a decided party atmosphere on board as the old friends drink bubbly and get caught up on each others’ lives. But by the time they reach the snow-bound lodge of Loch Corrin, it’s painfully evident to all of them that something is off among their formerly tight-knit crew. As the year slowly winds down, tensions ratchet up until eventually, one of them is dead — and another one of them did it.

Author Lucy Foley gleefully vamps on the tropes of Golden-Age mysteries — the train, the isolated manor house, the epic snowstorm, the secrets, the muuurrrder — but it’s all got a modern and lethal edge. The characters are gossipy and backstabbing, their friendships are corrupted, and what looks like love is really obsession, habit, and tradition. Plus, there’s a questionable (but distractingly handsome) caretaker, an unpredictable hostess with secrets of her own, and the forbidding landscape of the Scottish highlands. {more}

New Year’s Eve. The loneliest night of the year, even if you’re with people. Even before my life fell apart. — Lucy Foley

Payment in Blood - Elizabeth George

Payment in Blood
> Elizabeth George

Elizabeth George is an American master of the art of British-style mystery novels. Her Inspector Lynley novels (20 so far) are populated with intelligent, beautifully flawed characters that are guided by their innate sense of what’s right.

Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (posh, wealthy, good looking) and his unconventional partner Barbara Havers (very smart, but kind of a mess and always getting in her own way) usually work in the bustle of London. In this installment, they travel to the isolated Scottish loch-side house of Westerbrae, where a group of actors has gathered for the reading of a new play.

As snow piles up outside, someone drives an 18-inch Scottish dagger — known as a dirk — through the playwright’s neck as she sleeps. Tensions run high, and emotions are deep as everyone in the house becomes a suspect.

To get to the truth, the detectives pry out long-held secrets, arrange emotional confrontations, and find themselves the catalysts and participants in searing, heart-breaking moments. It’s all terribly good, deadly fun. {more}

I know she caused you grief. But for God’s sake, did she deserve to die alone, with an eighteen-inch dagger plunged through her neck? — Elizabeth George

Top image courtesy of Caleb Fisher.

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