Whether it’s a memoir, a natural history book, or a story about alien hitchhikers, the north of Scotland has been a source of inspiration for writing for centuries.
Robert Burns said, “Wherever I go, wherever I roam, the hills of the Highlands will always be my favorite.” I give him a big high-five.
My parents took me to the Scottish Highlands and Islands when I was 10 years old. I’ve been in love with them ever since. Its remote, rugged landscape has drawn me back to the area many times since. I’ve stayed at the Moor of Rannoch hotel, where the nearest village is 13 miles away, or I’ve gone camping in Glen Coe and Glen Nevis.
Because of its raw, forbidding nature, I think it’s the most beautiful place on Earth, but not to pay attention to it would be wrong. It’s a real place, and people live there, too. My book, Swansong, is about a 20-year-old English student who finds herself in a strange world. It’s based on a West Highlands version of a folk ballad, but it’s also based on the real people I’ve met there and the jaw-dropping scenery and often endless rain.
Whether they’re true or not, these books show different things about Scotland’s far north.
The Crow Road by Iain Banks
Prentice, a somewhat naive student, plays detective in his own family to find out what happened to his uncle Rory, who hasn’t been seen for a long time. Banks’s book starts with one of the best opening lines in literature: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.” The book is set mostly in the West Highlands in the early 1990s. There are a lot of familiar things in it, like whisky, ceilidhs, and Uncle Fergus’s huge country house. There are also a lot of unique things, like the Gulf War, the Cocteau Twins, and a huge, cement installation on the Isle of Jura. It’s a warm, funny, and at the end very moving book.
The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
It’s Amy Liptrot’s first book, and it’s very good. She talks about a decade of addiction in London and how she moved back to Orkney to get clean. It’s not easy to leave. It’s called the “outrun” because it’s a place on the edge of things on her parents’ farm. When she moves to a small island to monitor corncrakes, it’s often lonely and windswept. But the landscape works its way in and makes her feel more at home. The landscape is very well drawn, from the winter moons to greylag geese and a night-snorkelling trip. There’s a lot of vulnerability here, but Liptrot’s bloody-mindedness and Orkney’s magic can help.
Corrag by Susan Fletcher
A book about the Glencoe massacre of 1692, in which three dozen members of the MacDonald clan were killed by William III’s redcoats. People who know Corrag, a young woman thought to be evil, and the Jacobite priest sent to interview her are both told the story. It is told from both of their points of view. Fletcher’s writing is beautiful, especially when she talks about Corrag and the natural world.
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
A typical book by one of our most unique and brilliant writers. It’s full of her usual play with words and the way she treats important issues with the lightest and most dazzling of touches. Ovid’s Metamorphoses myth of Iphi, which is about a woman who turns into a fish, is moved to modern-day Inverness. It also talks about ecology, consumerism, and gender fluidity, and it’s a gay love story with a happy ending.
A Last Wild Place by Mike Tomkies
Leaving Hollywood, Mike Tomkies built his own cabin in Canada. Then, he moved to the West Highlands and wrote nine books about living with wildlife. In this, his best-known book, he talks about a year in Wildernesse, his home near Loch Shiel. Boats and walking were the only ways to get to the house. He and his dog, Moobli, lived there without electricity or running water. It’s not the most beautiful nature writing, but it’s still a gripping account of the dramatic changes in the seasons that he spends with golden eagles, pine martens, and wildcats. It’s also about his own struggle for survival as much as the animals he sees.
Under the Skin by Michel Faber
If you like dark and creepy stories, this one is for you. It’s set in the dark, eerie north-east of Scotland, where a humanoid alien named Isserley is looking for well-built, single male hitchhikers to drug and take back to her home planet. I don’t think it’s a good idea to go into the reasons why, because that would make it less scary and stomach-churning. It’s as much of a satire on human consumption, business, and the environment as it is a book that makes you want to punch it in the face.
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting
This is what Madeleine Bunting wants us to remember as she goes on a journey to understand some of our most remote outposts. We are the British Isles, she says. It’s not a long trip, but a closer look at a few of them, like Lewis, Iona, and St Kilda, that we’ll talk about. She shows how these islands have attracted some of the best-known people in the world, like George Orwell, JM Barrie, and Robert Louis Stevenson. They have also played an important role in history and trade. It’s very well written, and it talks as much about the people who have lived in these wild places as it does about the landscapes.
An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper
Among the stories from the Highlands are tales about water kelpies, selkies, fairies, brownies, and brave wrens. This is a wonderful collection of folk stories. Also, there are a lot of people from the Borders there as well. Theresa Breslin’s clean, sparkling stories are paired with beautiful illustrations by Kate Leiper.
The Sopranos by Alan Warner
His books are mostly set in “the Port,” a fictionalized version of his home town, Oban. A group of teenage girls from the town, who have both good singing voices and racy lives, caused a lot of trouble on a choir trip to Edinburgh. Their drinking and sex is impressive, and there is real heart at the heart of everything they do. There are many things that show how well this picture shows this group, from how they dress to how they speak.
Natural History in the Highlands and Islands by F Fraser Darling
Part of the Collins New Naturalist Series, this book is from 1947 and is a favorite. This is what F Fraser Darling, a naturalist and philosopher, did. He spent most of his life in the West Highlands, where he studied the behavior of red deer and grey seals. This is a very detailed and ecologically-minded study of the plants and animals of the north of Scotland. There are some beautiful lists of vegetation if you like that kind of thing. A good thing to have on your next trip.