Scottish literature: An Insider’s Guide
Posted by BookerTalk
We’re in the land of the Celts for our next country in The Insider’s Guide to literature from around the world. Our featured country is Scotland where our guide is Joanne who blogs at PortobelloBookBlog.
Let’s meet Joanne
A lot of people probably don’t realise that Edinburgh has a seaside as it is probably better known for tourist attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace and the Royal Yacht Brittania.
I’ve always lived in Edinburgh though was born and brought up in Leith, now famous thanks to The Proclaimers’ Sunshine on Leith or infamous thanks to Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.
I’ve lived in Portobello for 18 years now and it is very much home. So a natural choice when I came to pick a blog name was Portobello Book Blog. My reading consists mainly of contemporary fiction, crime, thrillers and romance novels.
I run regular features where authors can answer a set of spotlight questions or write a guest post about their work. I also feature other book bloggers every Friday in my Blogger in the Spotlight feature. You can follow me on my blog or via my Twitter account @portybelle and my Facebook page.
Q. Do you enjoy novels set in your own country or do you feel authors don’t always do a good job of representing it in their fiction?
I do enjoy books set in Scotland. It’s always fun to read about a place you know really well and spot any changes that authors make.
In general I think authors represent Scotland well.
There are some books which are rather dark and depict a side of Scotland I might not like (reference Mr Welsh above!) but that’s not to say they’re not realistic.
I think what authors sometimes don’t do very well is incorporating a Scottish character in a book set elsewhere. Quite often I find they can be quite stereotypical having red hair and saying ‘och’ a lot! And really, we don’t tend to wear kilts these days except at weddings, graduations or other special events.
Top picks from Scottish literature
Q. Who are your favourite Scottish authors?
Oh this is a difficult question.
What makes an author Scottish – is it being born here, living here or writing books set here?
I do enjoy Ian Rankin’s books, Alexander McCall Smith’s Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie series are immensely entertaining and I think James Robertson is brilliant. Doug Johnstone is a local author who I think is terrific. I’ve enjoyed all his books, they are fast paced tense thrillers and he puts his characters is some awful situations!
Q. Are there any Scottish authors who are not quite as well-known but you think are up and coming or deserve more attention?
This is also a difficult question as I have been lucky enough to have been asked by lots of local authors to read their work. So they are well known to me but perhaps not to a wider audience.
This year I really enjoyed A Fine House in Trinity by Lesley Kelly, a crime novel which was longlisted for the William McIlvanney prize (previously called the Scottish Crime Book of the Year).
Helen MacKinven is an author writer whose novels Talk of the Toun and Buy Buy Baby are full of dark humour and are both excellent. She uses dialect quite a bit which gives her characters a really authentic voice.
I might have included Graeme Macrae Burnet had you asked me this a few weeks ago but since His Bloody Project was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize, I think it’s fair to say he has a much higher profile these days. Other debut novelists I’ve read and enjoyed this year are Lesley Anderson, Jackie Baldwin, Stella Hervey Birrell, Shelley Day, Mary Paulson-Ellis
Q. Scotland seems to have made a mark when it comes to crime fiction with some really big hitters like Ian Rankin, Val McDermid. Any reasons you can think why the country is so successful in terms of crime genre?
Scotland has a bit of a reputation for ill health and hard crime and I think a lot of that comes from poverty.
As in so many areas, coal mining, the steel industry, the shipbuilding industry and the fishing industry have either vanished completely or employ dramatically fewer people. Low income and unemployment can lead to desperation and that’s when crime happens. I suspect that the dark nights and often dire weather also lead to a bit depression.
I’ve heard it said that Scots are hardened to cope with the climate and our often shocking sporting results, though Andy Murray is doing his bit to restore national pride! All these things combine to create a dark mentality which, in my friend’s words, ‘enjoys a good murder’!
But to balance that, Scotland is a country with stunningly beautiful countryside, picturesque lochs, magnificent mountains and islands and many authors make good use of this physical beauty in their work creating a more positive picture.
Q.We know about Nordic noir – is there such a thing as Scottish noir?
Tartan noir! I would say that Tartan Noir draws on Scotland’s traditions and history. There is often an element of good versus evil and the idea that there is a constant battle within each of us (like Jekyll and Hyde). Quite often the main characters are flawed and not always likeable. Then again, sometimes it’s the criminal who is drawn in a sympathetic way. That’s the Scottish contradiction for you!
The general mood can often be bleak and this can be mirrored by the weather or dark nights. Bloody Scotland is an annual crime festival celebrating crime writers from Scotland and beyond, which is growing bigger and more successful every year.
Not everyone likes the label ‘tartan noir’ though is it does somewhat reinforce the shortbread tin image of Scotland.
Q. Looking beyond crime, who are some of the classic Scottish authors?
Robert Louis Stevenson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Burns, Jessie Kesson, Neil Gunn, James Hogg are all writers I would consider classic Scottish authors. More recently I would include Nigel Tranter, Alasdair Gray, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney, Norman MacCaig Iain Crichton Smith, Edwin Morgan and Robin Jenkins.
Q. Which authors were required reading on the Scottish schools’ syllabus – people considered required reading?
My two daughters are in 4th and 6th year at High School just now and will both be taking exams in English at the end of the year.
Firstly, I have to say that I don’t think that pupils now have to read as much as I did when I was at school! I remember reading Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson and Robert Burns although there was a lot of Shakespeare and Thomas Hardy too.
I’ve just had a look at the current list for National 5 and Higher level exams and they include James Robertson, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Robert Louis Stevenson, Anne Donovan, Jackie Kay, Carol Ann Duffy, Janice Galloway, Robert Burns and John Byrne. So a lot of what I studied some years ago is still there along with more modern Scottish authors. There are definitely more women writers on the list now which is good to see.
Scottish Literature: the authors
Here is the list of Scottish authors mentioned by Joanne.
- Graeme Macrae Burnet
- Ian Rankin
- Alexander McCall Smith
- Lewis Grassic Gibbon
- Robert Louis Stevenson
- Robert Burns
- Jessie Kesson
- Neil Gunn
- James Hogg
- Nigel Tranter
- Alasdair Gray
- Muriel Spark
- William McIlvanney
- Norman MacCaig
- Iain Crichton Smith
- Edwin Morgan
- Robin Jenkins
- Lesley Anderson
- Jackie Baldwin
- Stella Hervey Birrell
- Shelley Day
- Mary Paulson-Ellis
- Lesley Kelly
- Helen MacKinven
- Irvine Welsh
- Doug Johnstone
About BookerTalkWhat do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation
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