… five gold (but not obvious) reads
When you first think of the great Scottish canon, your first thought might conjure the image of Mons Meg guarding the ramparts at Edinburgh castle. While the ancient bombard is an object of fascination for many, including Sir Walter Scott who championed its return to the capital from the Tower of London, in this offering for the SWC’s Blogmas I will be discussing something I bet Scott had even more interest in: the Scottish literary canon.
In recent years, debates over the greatest, essential or most adored pieces of Scottish literature have gained widespread recognition across the nation’s media. A quick Google brings up countless listicles such as the Scotsman’s ‘20 Scottish books everyone should read’ or The List’s seemingly exhaustive selection of the ‘100 Best Scottish Books’. However, this year has brought particular attention to the nation’s favourites with the BBC conducting a public vote to determine that Scotland’s favourite book is Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song. Yet, even though I cried as much as the next person at Ewan’s death in Gibbon’s text, who’s to say that the novel should be part of the canon?
Literary canon is often touted as an authoritative list of the must-have, must-read books that any discerning connoisseur of the written word should have stored in their bookshelves (but what I find, most often, remains in the ‘Yet to Read’ pile in the imaginary bookshelf). These lists often position themselves as reflecting readers’ selections, but more often than not perpetuate the ideas of what should count and, thus, what definitely should not. When discussing ‘The Classics’, there exists elitism to many of these choices. Think: how many times have you heard ‘You’ve not read Dickens?!/ Tolstoy?!/ Shakespeare?!’ while flipping your mental rolodex to the catalogue of Dan Brown books you’ve read about three times each? I have.
However, sometimes you want something a bit different; something either a bit less serious or a bit more cerebral than the current literary zeitgeist. That’s ok! To paraphrase one of Tom Hanks’ most famous characters (the one that’s not Dan Brown’s amazing symbologist, Robert Langdon) life is indeed like a box of chocolates, but your bookshelf is a selection box, and we all like different ones best.
So here we come to it: my selection box of alternative Scottish reads that might inject some flavour into your reading palette. Rather than be didactic, I encourage you to just give some of them a taste. You might find you like it; but hey, if you don’t like Burns’ Bounty, there’ll be no finger wagging here
- The Bruce by John Barbour (c. 1375)
Barbour’s epic poem begins ‘Storys to rede ar delitabill’, however this story is especially delightful as it’s the earliest surviving Scots poem of any length. Written in 20 books (so tell that to your friends who say they read books, not verse) the poem details the chivalric actions of Robert the Bruce and James Douglas throughout the Scottish Wars of Independence in the early fourteenth century, and leads up to an account of the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314. The narrative poem was written in the 1370s and generally thought to have been composed to inspire and remind nobles during the reign of Robert II of his grandfather’s patriotic courage. It’s a real rollercoaster – trick victories, sieges, guerrilla tactics, castles. If you like Game of Thrones you should like Barbour’s offering; for a while you even go over the Narrow Sea to the mythic locus of Ireland.
- And the Land Lay Still by James Robertson (2010)
So Robertson as a choice is not so left field: his novel The Testament of Gideon Mack came in at #14 on the BBC’s ‘Scotland’s Favourite Book List’ and was long-listed for the Man Booker prize in 2006. Thus, ‘And the Land Lay Still’ could be seen as Robertson’s ‘other novel’, but it would be such a loss to relegate this gem based on its big brother’s success. In the novel, Robertson writes across a 50-year span and weaves the seemingly separate stories of his characters together beautifully. The text presents a panoramic view of the nation and offers insight into the personal and political lives of his diverse studies, including immigrants, politicians, natives and spies who all attempt to navigate the rapidly changing country in which they live. Although sweeping in its epic scope and scale, Robertson never fails to include engrossing details that make the 670 page tome a delight. This is a book that makes Scotland seem very big and incredibly small at the same time.
- Selected Poems by Robert Fergusson (2007)
Robert Fergusson’s story is as tragic as they come and absolutely crying out for a biopic: a young man at the peak of his creativity who, after bouts of depression and a terrible fall, is submitted into Edinburgh’s Darien House (Edinburgh’s version of Bedlam) against his will. He died only a few weeks after his internment in 1774, sadly not long after turning 24. Despite his sad tale, he left a legacy of cutting, hilarious and insightful poems that were highly influential to many writers, especially Robert Burns, who referred to him as ‘my elder brother in the muse’. Included in this anthology of Fergusson’s work is his best known poems ‘Auld Reikie’, ‘Ode to the Gowdspink’ and The Daft Days’. However, I would recommend ‘The Ghaists: A Kirk-Yard Eclogue’ for some witty commentary on Edinburgh’s politics of the era, and ‘To My Auld Breeks’, a poem that’s anything but pants.
- A Beleaguered City And Other Tales Of The Seen And The Unseen by Margaret Oliphant (2000)
Margaret Oliphant was an interesting lady, and another one on this selection whose life story warrants a biopic. Upon her husband’s death in 1859, Oliphant found herself without resources and turned to writing to provide for her three children. From this point on, Oliphant worked with amazing industry and produced over 90 novels in around 50 years – it’s a wonder how she isn’t better known. Her most prominent novels include Hester and Miss Marjoribanks, but I recommend you try some of her spooky short stories ‘The Open Door’ and ‘The Portrait’.
- Psychoraag’by Suhayl Saadi (2004)
Like Oliphant, Saadi will also put you to shame with his work ethic – Psychoraag was written after his shifts at the hospital working as a doctor. The story is a linguistic and formal firecracker: it runs over the course of a single evening as Zaf, presenting his last show at Radio Chaadni, ignores listener requests and plays songs that send him reminiscing into the past. The language is as relentless as Zaf’s recollections, with the Scots-Urdu lilting across the narrative like each song on Zaf’s playlist. Psychoraag is a rhapsody of a novel, and if you can keep up with its sheer energy, you will be rewarded greatly with tales of lost loves, pain and passion, and shifting identity.
Words by Abigayle Brown.
Image credit: Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium