Strictly speaking, these are two books – the modern editions obligingly come with both narratives, recording the tour of the Highlands and Islands made in 1773 by Dr Samuel Johnson, the famous lexicographer, and his biographer Samuel Boswell. The travellers headed out from Edinburgh up the east coast to Aberdeen and Inverness, then into the Highlands and onto the Hebridean islands of Skye and Mull. The pair recorded Highland society at an extraordinary moment in history, with the defeat of the Jacobites in 1746, traditional Highland dress had been banned, the clan system was starting to decay, the Highland Clearances were beginning. The travellers saw the Highlands on the cusp of modernity when it remained a great wilderness – they met wild Gaelic chieftains and their warrior followers, slept in hovels and encountered bandits. Their narratives are frequently funny – especially Boswell’s – as he describes his corpulent companion attempting to ride a donkey over rough territory.
Walter Scott was the father of the historical novel and the man responsible for our Romantic vision of Scotland – tartans, bagpipes, noble Highlanders and all. Waverley was the original historical novel, widely celebrated when published in 1814. It tells the story of Edward Waverley, a young English soldier who visits Jacobite friends of his family in the Lowlands. It transpires that the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion breaks out and the young Waverley heads north with the Highlanders. Rather than returning to his regiment, he meets the clan chief Fergus Mac-Ivor and his beautiful sister Flora, encounters Bonnie Prince Charlie and fights with the Highlanders against the Hanoverians at Prestonpans, where he saves the life of commanding officer in the Hanoverian army.
One of the strangest pieces of fiction of the 19th century, Private Memoirs is part-gothic horror story, part-detective story, and part-theological investigation. In short, the novel examines the Calvinism that took root in Scotland during the Reformation and the question of moral responsibility amongst those who were said to be born to the elect and were already predestined to reach heaven on their deaths. The novel consists of two narratives – that of an ‘editor’ and that of the sinner that contradicts and prevents any absolute narrative emerging. This makes the novel almost prefigure postmodern metafictional techniques. Demonic possession, doppelgangers, a shape-shifting Satan who goes by the name of Gil-Martin, and Brocken spectres on Arthur’s Seat – altogether these factors make Private Memoirs an unforgettable and unfathomable read.
Kidnapped is one of the great adventure tales written by Robert Louis Stevenson – one of the finest prose stylists of the 19th century. The novel was admired by the likes of Jorge Louis Borges and Henry James for its brilliantly paced action narrative. Set in the wake of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, Kidnapped is an adventure story and an examination of Scotland itself. The innocent young Lowlander David Balfour suffers the death of his parents and must live with his uncle who has the boy kidnapped and bound for the Carolinas and a life of slavery. En route, the ship rescues a mysterious Highlander, the outlaw Alan Breck Stewart, before being wrecked off the coast. Balfour survives only to become inadvertently involved in the killing of a government agent and finds himself on the run with Stewart.
Compton Mackenzie was one of the founders of the Scottish National Party in 1928 and a passionate Scotsman. On his death he was buried on the island of Barra. His story Whisky Galore revolves around the national drink of whisky, the word being derived from the Gaelic uisge beatha, or water of life. Mackenzie drew on the true story of the S.S.Politician which set out from Liverpool for Jamaica in 1941 only to be wrecked off the Outer Hebrides. The Scottish locals plundered the ship for 28,000 cases of whisky. In the novel, the fictional islanders of Great and Little Todday take advantage of a wreck in wartime but have to thwart the attentions of the officious English Home Guardsmen who want to get hold of the whisky. The story is an affectionate and funny portrayal of island life and readers will pick up a bit of Gaelic from the glossary.
The eponymous island is St Kilda, 40 miles west of North Uist in the Atlantic and one of the most isolated places in the UK – also one of the most fascinating. St Kilda was inhabited for over 2000 years, until the early 20th century. There developed an extraordinary social structure amongst the few hundred St Kildans. Each morning was held the parliament at which all adult men of the island aired their views and decided on the work for that day. They lived from the few crops they could grow on the windswept islands and from scaling the cliffs to catch fulmars. The only communication with the outside world was with a buoy with messages attached, tossed into the sea – often it ended up in Norway. The book documents the island story up until the 19th century when missionaries and brought with them disease and the suggestion of a better life elsewhere. The last St Kildans left in 1930.
Some of the best postmodern works of fiction have come out of Scotland, in the books of A.L.Kennedy, Irvine Welsh and Iain Banks. The very best, though, is often regarded to be the brilliant, zany, and rather dark Lanark, written over the course of three decades by Alasdair Gray. With a blend of surrealism, black comedy and realism, it is set in Glasgow in the middle decades of the 20th century. It features lead characters Duncan Thaw and Lanark – perhaps one and the same person, though this is never clear – and bizarre diseases and skin complaints, where people develop scales. The author Alasdair Gray even makes an appearance and rebuts what he foresees as criticism of the novel.
It is fair to say that the Celtic countries of Scotland and Ireland still celebrate poets far more than the English. Edwin Morgan died in 2010 and was mourned by, amongst others, the First Minister of Scotland Alex Salmond. In his lifetime he was known as the National Makar, the Poet Laureate of Glasgow and one of the great figures of 20th century Scottish poetry, alongside Hugh MacDiarmid, Ian Crichton Smith, and Robert Garioch. Morgan’s work has been translated in countless languages and is known for being accessible and for engaging with current events and popular culture such as Glasgow gang culture, the opening of the Scottish Parliament and the death of Marilyn Monroe. Perhaps his most well-known work is the love poem ‘Strawberries’ that begins: ‘There were never strawberries/like the ones we had/ that sultry afternoon…’
Electric Brae is a tangled love story that explores the dependence between lovers and also the distance that inevitably stands between them. The novel follows Jimmy Renilson, an engineer on an oil rig in the North Sea, his complex relationship with his temperamental, artist girlfriend, as well as his obsession with rock-climbing. Andrew Greig is best known as a poet and his descriptions of the Scottish landscape are particularly brilliant – especially of the Old Man of Hoy, the famous sea stack in the Orkneys that Jimmy and his climbing partner Graeme are desperate to climb but never achieve. The title is drawn from an extraordinary natural phenomenon in Ayrshire where it seems that the laws of gravity have been suspended and cars appear to be drawn uphill by a mysterious force – perhaps an optical illusion and a metaphor for the complexity of the relationships at the heart of the novel.