Books to dip into this St. Andrew’s Day

Hi everyone! Today I thought I would do something a bit different. As it is the 30th November aka St Andrew’s Day here in Scotland, I thought I would share some of my favourite books written by Scottish authors or set here. I have a mixture of novels, poetry and plays so hopefully there is something here for everyone. I have linked all the texts I talk about at the very end if you wanted to find out more, though sadly I couldn’t find publishers for some of them. Instead I have either linked to Amazon or a review so you can still get a bit more information. So grab an Irn Bru or even a wee dram and let’s get going.

Novels

Joseph Knight by James Robertson

If you like your historical fiction you should definitely check this one out. Set between Jamaica and Scotland, the novel tells the true story of Joseph Knight, an enslaved man who is bought by John Wedderburn, a Scottish plantation owner. When Wedderburn decides to return home to the outskirts of Edinburgh, he takes Knight with him. When there Knight files a freedom suit against his owner. The court case that ensued would be a significant landmark in Scots law.

The novel darts back and forth between Wedderburn as a young man and when he is much older and becomes curious about what happened to Knight after the trial. The revelations unveiled by this way of narrating reveals a horrifying account of Scotland’s participation in the slave trade, as well as presenting a gripping court drama and literary mystery. Robertson paints this world so vividly that you feel you are with these characters, whether they are in the high street of Dundee or on a sugar plantation in Westmoreland. It is such a fascinating, though sadly largely forgotten, part of our history. If you haven’t checked out this author’s work I would really recommend it.

The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan

I know this book and Logan’s short story collection, A Portable Shelter, were quite popular on Booktube, so I imagine a few people will know this one. It is set in a future where the majority of the Earth has flooded, with only a few pockets of land left where the privileged stay. Everyone else, known as ‘damplings’, live on water. Gracekeepers are isolated individuals who perform the burial rites for damplings. The novel follows two protagonists, North who lives and works with her bear in a travelling circus, and Callanish, a gracekeeper who is harbouring a dark secret.

I think this book has something for everyone. There are romance, adventure, fantasy aspects woven into the narrative so flawlessly by Logan, that even if you’re not a fan of one of those genres you will still get something out of it. There are plenty of twists and turns that you never know what will happen next, and you’re left at the end of a chapter desperate to read the next. Also Avalon, the wife of the circus ringleader, is one of my favourite villains of the last couple of years. Her ambition and ruthlessness makes The Gracekeepers such a thrilling read. I think Logan has a new book coming out next year and I can’t wait to pick it up.

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg

A slim book (despite the mouthful of a title) that really packs a punch. Published in 1824, the story follows anti-hero Robert Wringhim, the (supposedly) illegitimate son of the Laird of Dalcastle. Shunned by the Laird, he lives with his mother and a Calvinist reverend, who claims that Robert is one of the few predestined by God to enter heaven. Not long after hearing this revelation, Robert is befriended by a young man. Gil-Martin (an old Scottish term for the Devil) persuades Robert that given he is going to heaven no matter what, he can surely do whatever he likes. Including murder.

This book is absolutely, brilliantly bonkers. I have reread it numerous times and studied it at University, and still find something new when opening the pages. Is Gil-Martin real or a mere figment of Robert’s imagination? Is Robert an unreliable narrator? Can we even trust the fictional editor who is in charge of Robert’s diary? The reader is left to figure these out for themselves. The dialogue, written in Scots, is incredibly witty and clever. Hogg’s turns of phrases at points seem inspired. Despite the sometimes difficult language however it is very readable. Reading about Robert and Gil-Martin is so thrilling, and there is so much stuff crammed into here, that The Private Memoirs… is impossible to put down. Lovers of Gothic stories will find plenty to enjoy here. Part crime fiction, part religious satire, this book is a fascinating read, and one of my favourites.

Poetry

The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy

Moving from one of my favourite novels to one of my favourite poetry collections, this is the first themed collection by the current Poet Laureate. As you can guess from the title, each poem centres around a famous wife or lover in history. They are all named after the woman in the poem and Duffy has used a mixture of real and fictional people. So for example we have people like Anne Hathaway and Mrs Darwin, to Mrs Lazarus and even Queen Kong.

I love this collection of poetry (obviously). I think it is such a clever idea. You are seeing famous men portrayed in such a different way than normal, and the often forgotten women beside them finally gaining a voice. To read about their perspective gives you another way to approach these famous figures or stories and I found it really refreshing. Duffy also switches between drama and comedy very well. One poem can be a very sombering experience, whilst the next can be very witty and charming. Despite the differences in tone, the collection still holds up under Duffy’s deft hand. My two favourites are complete opposites and illustrate my point; ‘Medusa’ and ‘Mrs Darwin’. The World’s Wife is a clever, fun read and one you should definitely check out even if you’re not a massive fan of poetry. In fact, I would say this is perhaps a good starting place if you would like to get into poetry.

The Adoption Papers by Jackie Kay

Another debut collection which feels much more personal than the last. Rather a new narrator for each poem there are only three; a black girl adopted into a white family, her adoptive mother and her birth mother. As the collection unfolds, it is like we gain little snippets of their thoughts and feelings. I imagine Kay is drawing on her own experiences here, as she was adopted by a Glaswegian couple when she was a child.

This is a very raw collection. Kay’s prose is beautiful, very lyrical and at points almost dream-like. Her word choice is incredible. Yet there still feels like there is an anger bubbling away beneath the surface. That may sound a bit strange to say, but I think Kay pulls it off remarkably. While the main theme is adoption and the effects it has, there is plenty more to discuss in the collection. Kay touches on what it means to be Scottish, what it means to be black and living in Scotland and to come from a working-class background. She combines all these themes of nationalism, class, race and sexuality and does so effortlessly. The collection never feels muddled or trying to say too much. Kay handles these complex topics really well, and it is hard to believe this is a debut. I don’t know if I can necessarily single out one poem, as I think they work much better as a whole, but the last one broke my heart.

Drama

In My Father’s Words by Justin Young

Set in Canada, our protagonist is University Classics lecturer Dr Louis Bennett, whose elderly father Don has dementia. When Don’s speech turns to gibberish, Louis hires a carer Flora to look after his ailing father. However Flora discovers that Don isn’t speaking gibberish at all, it is in fact Gaelic which she can also speak. This comes as a shock to Louis; he didn’t know his father spoke Gaelic or even came from Scotland. As we watch the three characters struggle to cope with the worsening dementia, Louis reflects on his turbulent relationship with his father.

Warning: you will need tissues for this one. This is a heartbreaking story, from Don’s illness to Louis’ revelation he never really knew his father. However nothing feels ‘in your face’. The topic of dementia is sensitively handled and it is clear that Young researched and put a lot of thought into the topic. It isn’t a melodramatic or maudlin portrayal; just a painfully realistic one. The theme of language and its significance also plays a large part in the play. The discovery of Don’s return to Gaelic, his mother tongue, is a powerful moment; instead of talking of nonsense as Don suspected, he is in fact reliving his past. Don himself also struggles with language; not just in trying to communicate with his father but also in his work, as he attempts to translate Homer. Young contrasts these two really well, with Flora acting as a go-between the two men. I saw this play performed when it first opened in Scotland and found it incredibly moving. If you ever get the chance to read or see it live then I highly recommend you check it out.

The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil by John McGrath

If you want to know a wee bit more about Scottish history then this is the play for you. Set in the Highlands from the 1700s to the 20th century, the play opens with crofters being banned from wearing tartan or speaking Gaelic, and later being ousted from their land to make way for Cheviot sheep farming. Over the course of the narrative we witness the changing landscape of Scotland. The sheep farming and gentry’s stag hunting take over acres of land, with many working-class people living in slums. Then we have the oil boom of the east coast.

The play does have an unusual structure, which appears odd at first. Whilst the timeline is linear there isn’t really a plot per se. Instead there is a series of sketches, capturing brief moments of a period of time. It is like watching a history documentary spent up. However once you get into it, there is a lot to enjoy. It is fast-paced and McGrath’s way with words is such a joy to read or listen to. It also includes elements of a ceilidh, so there is plenty of dancing and traditional music, which works as a contrast between the grim subject matters. Like I said history buffs would enjoy this play immensely, but even if you don’t know anything about Scottish history I think you will like it. The Cheviot…deals with themes such as class, dispossession and the question of identity which I think anyone can relate to.

And there you have it! My favourite stories linked to Scotland. I can already hear half the nation screaming at me. Where is Rabbie Burns? Why no How Late It Was, How Late? How could you have missed Sunset Song, you complete moron?! To be honest I considered talking about all of these, but I figured no one wants to read a blog post the size of a Game of Thrones novel. Perhaps I’ll save those for next year, or even Burns Night.

The reviews will return early next week so keep your eyes peeled. Until then, let me know in the comments which Scottish novel/author is your favourite.

Happy St. Andrew’s Day!

Links

Joseph Knight
The Gracekeepers
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner
The World’s Wife
The Adoption Papers
In My Father’s Words
The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black OilThe Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil

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