What do you think of when you think of Scotland (my homeland, FYI!)? Castles? Whisky, kilts, and shortbread? Trainspotting? These are the images that have been exported around the globe, and ones I've regularly sold to tourists, always wondering what impressions they leave the country with. They're the kinds of things that are celebrated around Tartan Day on April 6, both where I am in Scotland (hi from St. Andrews in Fife!) and in the States — there are week-long festivities in New York alone.
I've pandered to these national clichés myself on occasion: I've been known to sing passionately along to "500 Miles" or "Flower of Scotland" if filled with enough alcohol or swept up by the atmosphere. When it comes to it, though, there is no one standard experience of a country, or one way to live a nationality. Even a small country like Scotland has space for more than 5 million different life stories to play out in the hills, by the sea, in the country and the city. These 11 Scottish books exemplify that.
At their cores, these stories explore identity, self-determination, negotiating relationships, and finding one's place in the world — all themes that transcend the trappings of place. So whether or not you'll be embracing a Scottish connection this Tartan Day, if you feel like you could use some more Scottish literature in your life, here are a few suggestions to get you started. Shortbread not included.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
Doppelgängers! Murder! Curious happenings in darkened Edinburgh streets! There are many layers to this 1824 novel, so if you like your fiction dubious and supernatural with a heavy dose of 17th century religious politics, this is for you.
The House With The Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown
A bleak send-up of sentimental depictions of country life, this tragic tale is also a cracking study in the impact of patriarchal masculinity. There's not much positivity to this brand of realism, so you might want some cute animal videos on hand, but it's a brilliant portrayal of small-town politics.
The Christian Watt Papers by Christian Watt
As first-hand narratives go, there's not a huge amount written by working-class women on the coast of 19th century Scotland. Christian was a fisher, a domestic servant, a mother, a mourner, a woman battling with mental illness, and an avid observer of the changing world around her. From Fraserburgh to New York, her incisive, sometimes heartbreaking insight draws a vivid picture of a world seldom seen.
The Quarry Wood by Nan Shepherd
In this narrative of maturing, personal and spiritual growth, Martha's quest for education seems to be stretching her between two worlds. As she grows up and moves between both the intellectual, middle-class atmosphere of Aberdeen University and her rural home, where education is not strongly valued, she begins to see that maybe it doesn't need to be one or the other after all.
Imagined Corners by Willa Muir
Based on Willa's own experiences growing up in Montrose, the lives of two families and their intertwining dramas: marital problems, illicit romance, and the scandalous sister's return all feature. Contemporary gender politics get a bit of (not-unwarranted) bashing, featuring some fun marriage metaphors — because men are boats and women steer them, don't you know?
The Complete Short Stories by Agnes Owens
In this key collection from an "unfairly neglected" author, something sinister constantly lurks beneath the surface — but there's plenty of humor (or humour, as we Scots say) running alongside veins of hurt, grief, and violence. Each tale offers a snapshot of life in the west of Scotland, taking in a mixed cast of characters and revealing the intricacies of domestic conflict.
The Trick Is To Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway
Through a fragmented narrative riddled with mysterious flashbacks, we follow the ironically-named Joy as she wrestles with depression after the death of her lover, and much else besides. We become complicit in her own denial as she struggles to confront her feelings, and deals with gendered expectations gleaned from the world around her.
Wish I Was Here by Jackie Kay
In this stellar series of short stories, love takes many forms among a varied cast: from a woman whose daughter is a fox to a man contemplating suicide. These tales are an exploration of what we do for love and what it does to us, and there's a kernel of humor to be found in each one.
Anywhere's Better Than Here by Zöe Venditozzi
Laurie's at a dead end — she hates her job, her boyfriend, and her flat. So in and around Dundee, she goes in search of change, meeting a mysterious older man. It's easy to envision a sweeping romance and an expected happy ending, but for Laurie, as in real life, it's much more complicated. Warning: May resonate strongly with 20-somethings.
Ever Fallen In Love by Zoë Strachan
First- and third-person narration alternate in this contemporary Gothic, flipping from past to present as Richard dwells obsessively on events from his past. Richard and Luke bonded over their shared "outsider" status at an elite university (which sounds a lot like St. Andrews), but Richard's recollections gradually reveal their twisted relationship and its consequences.
A Capital Union by Victoria Hendry
Despite its wartime setting, nary an air raid warning sounds in this novel. But Agnes is still affected — just 18, her marriage to a conscientious objector and Scottish Nationalist is troublesome in more ways than one. There's a lot to take in here, but the novel is strongly informed by real historical events and encompasses the complexities of life on the home front.