Books to read on Burns Night

Hello everyone! So Burns Night is tomorrow on 25th January and before I get stuck into my haggis, neeps and tatties (with perhaps a cheeky bit of whisky sauce) I thought I would make a recommendations post involving Scottish authors. Way back in 2017 I wrote a post about Scottish literature for St. Andrew’s Day and I’ll leave a link for that here. There isn’t an overlap between the two posts so if you would like more recommendations you can head over there; it has a mixture of novels, poetry, and plays so hopefully something for everyone. Here I have novels and poems; I’ve linked the poems if you wished to read them. But without further ado I will head into this year’s selection:

Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

sunset song

This was named Scotland’s favourite book back in 2016 and it is easy to see why. The first part in a trilogy called ‘A Scots’ Quair’, the novel follows our young protagonist Chris Guthrie from a farmer’s daughter through the First World War. Not only do we focus on her life but on the wider community where she lives and the impact the war has on it. Sunset Song, like the rest of the trilogy, looks at a changing Scotland through this small farming community as they struggle to come to terms with the war, later looking at the effects of WW2 and industrialisation. But what makes the novel so impactful for me is Chris. She is a wonderfully written character; strong, clever, and determined, but with this vulnerability, this weakness that makes her human. Her loves for both reading and education, and also the land where she lives, are opposing forces in her life and watching her struggle with them is fascinating. Sunset Song does deal with difficult themes (it certainly can’t be described as cheery) plus some of it is written in Scots dialect, so it won’t be for everyone, but it is certainly worth the time and effort for the beautiful writing and excellent characterisation.

The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

the trick is to keep breathing

A more modern Scottish classic but no less depressing, The Trick is to Keep Breathing centres around drama teacher Joy Stone. Despite her name, her life is anything but joyful; an anorexic alcoholic who self-harms and suffers from depression, Joy has dealt with a lot in her life. Mental health is obviously a key theme in the novel and I think Galloway manages to address the subject with sensitivity but doesn’t shy away from showing the ignorant attitudes that make sufferers not seek help. Whilst other characters ignore Joy’s problems, Galloway doesn’t. The Trick is to Keep Breathing is a very visceral look not just at mental health but also the way women are expected to act in society and how they are treated. Galloway is being satirical at some points and that helps to emphasise the point she is making, and makes the characters’ dismissal of Joy all the more rage-inducing. This is a good place to start if you’ve never read Galloway before along with her short stories.

The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins

the cone gatherers

Set in 1943, two brothers Neil and Calum are the eponymous cone gatherers that work in the forest of a Scottish country house, run by Lady Runcie-Campbell. Calum is a hunchback, a fact that gamekeeper Duror loathes as he detests anything he describes as ‘misshapen’. Duror’s growing hatred for the brothers, particularly Calum, leads to a heartbreaking climax. This is a gripping, tense novel, one which pulls you in slowly until you realise you can’t tear yourself away. Jenkins also manages to cram massive themes – from nature to sacrifice to prejudice to class – and effortlessly weaves them into the narrative. The characters as well are deftly drawn. The relationship between the two brothers is so tender and thoughtful that you hope that they can escape from this stifling environment; and Duror is one of the most despicable characters I’ve ever read. I found him so revolting and I still shudder when I think of him. The Cone Gatherers is an interesting look at class in Scotland but also just a really good, enthralling story. The final images linger long in the mind after the novel is finished.

‘The Last Supper’ by Liz Lochhead

It was hard trying to decide which of the former Makar’s (National Poet of Scotland) works I should include, but eventually I settled on ‘The Last Supper’ which is linked here. This is probably one of her more famous poems so I’m sure many people have already read it, but I choose to include it because I find it the most evocative and emotional work she’s written. The descriptions of food are so vivid and so perfect for the dissecting with friends of a failing relationship you can almost taste them. The alliteration and word choice is wonderfully done and slowly unpack the layers that Lochhead has woven in.

‘Ae Fond Kiss’ by Robert Burns

I couldn’t not mention Burns on Burns Night could I? Similar to Lochhead, there are many poems I could have picked but I decided to go with ‘Ae Fond Kiss‘ simply because it is my favourite. I find it both heartbreaking and romantic at the same time; there feels like an incredible amount of passion and love bursting through his words. It is incredibly emotive; Burns pouring out his soul for the love that got away (Agnes Maclehose, who left Scotland for Jamaica to reunite with her estranged husband) that it easy to see why it has been recorded numerous times.  Possibly one of my favourite poems/love songs ever and a bittersweet testament to their relationship.


And that’s it for Burns Night recommendations! As I said before I hope there is something here for everyone and do let me know in the comments below which Scottish book or writer you like! I’ll be back to reviewing on Monday so until then have a great weekend.