This battered paperback was my school class prize for English in 1983. And it sparked my passion for Scottish literature!
My teenage self devoured “Sunset Song”, the first volume in Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “A Scots Quair”. This trilogy charts the life of Chris Guthrie, a farmer’s daughter from the Mearns.
“Sunset Song” was published in 1932 and is widely considered one of the most influential Scottish novels of the 20th century. It recently topped a poll to find the nation’s favourite book.
It also spoke to me in a way no other novel ever had up to that point. Here was a book about a young woman just like me. Chris’s circumstances and experiences were very different from mine, of course, and yet we were both teenage girls, both growing up in Scotland, both trying to find our own way in the world.
I have read it so many times since, and it has never lost that magic for me.
A window on the past
Back in the 1980s, Scottish schools didn’t teach much in the way of Scottish history.
I knew more about the French Revolution and Italian Unification than I did about the events that had shaped the nation of my birth. But as I read more classic Scottish novels, fiction offered me a window on my past.
Here are just a few of the titles I would recommend. It’s by no means an exhaustive list! And it’s completely subjective, too.
James Hogg’s “The Private Memoirs And Confessions Of A Justified Sinner” is an astonishing book.
Published in 1824, the dark gothic plot and complex narrative structure make it a compelling read. And its influence on later classic writers, among them Robert Louis Stevenson, is clear.
The danger of religious fanaticism is a theme in Hogg’s book. But it’s the undue influence a charismatic teacher can have on young minds that is at the heart of “The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie” by Muriel Spark.
The character of Miss Jean Brodie is surely one of the most deftly drawn and brilliantly depicted in literature.
This story of the pupils at an Edinburgh girls’ school in the 1930s is a classic of the 20th century.
And wonderful though the film starring Maggie Smith may be, it’s no substitute for reading the original.
At university, I discovered Nan Shepherd. “The Quarry Wood”, like “Sunset Song”, is the story of a young woman’s journey to maturity, as fresh and relevant now as it was when first published over 90 years ago.
Nan Shepherd was better known as a nature writer than a novelist, and it’s been good to see her get the recognition she deserves in recent years. Her image even made it on to the Royal Bank of Scotland’s new £5 note.
My last recommendation is for a more recent classic.
Orkney writer George Mackay Brown was a poet first, novelist second, and his writing is almost breathtakingly lyrical. “Beside The Ocean Of Time”, published in 1994, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and judged Scottish Book of the Year.
It’s an evocative, beautiful novel which blends myth and history, legends, dreams and fantasy. One of my favourite novels of all time.
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