Top 10 books about the Scottish Highlands and Islands

I could resist posting this – by Kerry Andrew from the Guardian, 07/10/18.

I’ve been obsessed with the Scottish Highlands and Islands since first going there on a family holiday at the age of 10. Its remote, rugged landscape has pulled me back most years since, whether to stay in the remote Moor of Rannoch hotel – where the nearest village is 13 miles away – or camping in Glen Coe and Glen Nevis .

To me, it’s the most beautiful place on Earth, but to ignore its raw, forbidding nature would be wrong. It’s a real place, and real people live there. My novel, Swansong, throws a 20-year-old English student into a disquieting world; it draws on a West Highlands version of a folk ballad, but is as much inspired by the real people I’ve encountered there as by the jaw-dropping scenery and often endless rain.

In fact and fiction, these books shine different lights on Scotland’s distant north.

1. The Crow Road by Iain Banks
With one of the best opening lines of any novel (“It was the day my grandmother exploded”), Iain Banks’s book follows a large, eccentric family, the McHoans, as the slightly feckless student Prentice plays detective within his own family to explain the disappearance of his uncle Rory. Set mostly in the West Highlands in the early 90s, there are plenty of familiar tropes here – whisky, ceilidhs, Uncle Fergus’s huge country pile – but just as many idiosyncrasies, from the looming Gulf war to the Cocteau Twins, a struggle between religion and atheism, and a massive, cement installation on the Isle of Jura. It’s a warm, witty and ultimately very poignant book.

2. The Outrun by Amy Liptrot
An impressive debut memoir by the Orcadian Amy Liptrot, who unflinchingly details a decade of addiction in London and her move back home to recover. It is not an easy retreat. The “outrun” is the name of the rough pastureland on her parents’ farm, a place on the edge of things. The islands are windswept and bleak, and it’s often achingly lonely – she ends up moving to the tiny island of Papa Westray to monitor corncrakes – but the landscape works its way in. The environment is deftly sketched, from the winter moons to greylag geese and a night-snorkelling excursion. There’s huge vulnerability here, answered by Liptrot’s bloody-mindedness and Orkney’s magic.

3. Corrag by Susan Fletcher
A historical novel set around the Glencoe massacre of 1692, in which three dozen members of the MacDonald clan were brutally slaughtered by William III’s redcoats. It is told from the perspective of Corrag, a young woman regarded as a witch who is incarcerated in Inveraray after the event, and by the Jacobite priest who is sent to interview her. Fletcher’s prose is shimmering, particularly when she writes about Corrag’s relationship with the natural world.

4. Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
A typical book by one of our wonderfully atypical writers, full of her usual play of language and her treatment of profound subjects with the lightest and most dazzling of touches. It transposes the myth of Iphis from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to modern-day Inverness, takes ecology, consumerism and gender fluidity along for the ride, and is (spoiler alert) a gay love story with a happy ending.

5. A Last Wild Place by Mike Tomkies
Mike Tomkies left his job as a Hollywood journalist to build his own cabin in Canada, before coming to the West Highlands and writing nine books about living among its wildlife. This, his best-known book, details a year in Wildernesse, his home by Loch Shiel. The house was accessible only by boat or on foot, and there he lived, off-grid, in the company of his alsatian, Moobli. Perhaps not the most lyrical example of nature writing, it is nonetheless a gripping account of the dramatically shifting seasons spent close to golden eagles, pine martens and wildcats – and is as much about his own struggle for survival as those of the creatures he observes.

6. Under the Skin by Michel Faber
This dark, eerie novel is set in the bleak north-east of Scotland, where humanoid alien Isserley cruises the A-roads looking for well-built, single male hitchhikers to drug and take back to her home planet. To go into the details of why would be to lessen the chilling and rather stomach-churning impact of the reading experience. It’s as much a satire on human consumption, business and the environment as it is a fist-in-mouth read.

7. Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting
Too often we think of Britain as a singular landmass, but we are the British Isles, Madeleine Bunting reminds us as she embarks on a search to understand some of our most distant outposts. It’s not an exhaustive journey but a closer look at a few of them, including Lewis, Iona and St Kilda. She captures the magnetism of these islands, how they have inspired some of our best-known culture – George Orwell, JM Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson – and played an essential role in history and trade. It’s beautifully written, and as much about the people that have populated these wild places as the landscapes themselves.

8. An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales by Theresa Breslin and Kate Leiper
A sublime collection of folk stories, with water kelpies, selkies, fairy folk, brownies and brave wrens among the tales from the Highlands. (There are also several from the Borders.) Theresa Breslin’s pristine, sparkling retellings are accompanied by enchanting illustrations from Kate Leiper.

9. The Sopranos by Alan Warner
Most of Alan Warner’s books are set in “the Port”, a fictionalised version of his native Oban. Here, a vibrant bunch of teenage girls from the town, who possess both excellent singing voices and vividly ribald lives, cause merry havoc on a choir trip to Edinburgh. The convent schoolteachers are no match for their admirable drinking and shagging, and there is real heart at the centre of it all. It captures this age group brilliantly, from their wardrobes to their language.

10. Natural History in the Highlands and Islands by F Fraser Darling
A classic from 1947, part of the Collins New Naturalist Series. Philosopher-naturalist F Fraser Darling worked for most of his life in the West Highlands, and made deep studies of the behaviour of its red deer and grey seal populations. This is an intensive and ecologically minded study of the flora and fauna of the north of Scotland, with some beautifully evocative lists of vegetation, if you like that sort of thing. A good thing to have in your pocket on your next trip.

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