Scots not to be missed
From thrillers to memoirs, our top Scottish interest books of 2018
Made In Scotland: My Grand Adventures In A Wee Country by Billy Connolly (Ebury Publishing, £20)
More a collection of observations, recollections, conversations and lists of favourite things than a memoir or autobiography, Made In Scotland’s rationale is essentially to pick away at what it means to be Scottish and especially Glaswegian. Connolly being Connolly it’s laugh out loud funny, of course, but there’s plenty of ballast here too: the conversations are exactly that, transcribed chats between Connolly and old friends such as artist and playwright John Byrne and screenwriter Peter McDougall but to add weight there’s also one with Sir Ian Wilmut, best known as the man who cloned Dolly the Sheep but who, like Connolly, has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. It’s as life-affirming as you’d expect from the Big Yin.
Legend Eternal by John Ferguson, Lydia Praamsma, Toni Doya Heredia and Rebecca Horner (Diamondsteel, £19.99)
St Andrews-based comic and graphic novel company Diamondsteel publishes in English, Gaelic and Scots and, unusually, most of its artists, colourists and writers are women. Saltire, the protagonist of its Legend Eternal series, clearly isn’t a woman: ripped and bearded, he’s a Scottish superhero – the first, apparently – who ranges across time in stories blending folklore and fantasy with historical fact. This bumper, 180-page edition collects every story in the series so far.
The Way Of All Flesh by Ambrose Parry (Canongate, £14.99)
Who is Ambrose Parry? Well, if you’re a fan of thriller writer Chris Brookmyre then you probably already know. If not, it’s the pseudonym cooked up by him and his wife Marisa Haetzman, a consultant anaesthetist, for a new series of historical mysteries with a medical theme. Haetzman has a Masters degree in the History of Medicine and she puts her knowledge to good use in this macabre murder mystery set in Edinburgh in 1847. It features privileged medical student Will Raven and one Sarah Fisher, a housemaid in the establishment where Raven is about to start as an apprentice – the home of a certain Dr Simpson, the pioneer of anaesthetics.
101 Gins To Try Before You Die by Ian Buxton (Birlinn, £12.99)
Sure, Christmas and New Year are traditionally the time to enjoy a dram or three, but you can’t move for gin distilleries in Scotland these days and it’s a little-known fact that a great deal of British gin comes from north of the Border. Ian Buxton certainly knows his whiskies – he’s the author of Whiskies Galore, a guide to Scotland’s distilleries – but here he tackles the drink that used to be called “Mother’s Ruin” in a book that’s newly revised and updated to take into account some of the new kids on the block. Among the pages you’ll find Buxton’s learned take on products such as Harris Gin, which comes from the Hebridean island of that name, and Achroous, made by Leith-based craft distillers Electric Spirit Co. and served up in a bottle coloured a sort of electric orange. And don’t think your choice of tonic water is any less open to innovation and variety.
Rival Queens: The Betrayal Of Mary, Queen Of Scots by Kate Williams (Hutchinson, £25)
With Josie Rourke’s starstudded film about the ill-fated queen opening in January
– Saoirse Ronan plays Mary, Margot Robbie is Elizabeth and David Tennant gets to climb into a monstrous beard for his role as old funbags himself, John Knox – Christmas is probably a good time to mug up on the actual history before you’re faced with the screen version. For her new re-telling of the story, history professor and TV presenter Kate Williams has gone back to the archives and to Mary’s letters, focussing in particular on the murder of Mary’s husband, Lord Darnley, in 1567.
Love Is Blind by William Boyd (Viking, £18.99)
The latest novel from the Scottish novelist and a welcome return to the epoch- and continentspanning format of his standout novels The New Confessions and Any Human Heart. Like The New Confessions, Love Is Blind begins in Edinburgh where we find young Brodie Moncur, a 24-year-old son of the manse, working as a pianotuner with Channon & Co., supposedly Britain’s fourth largest makers of pianos. The year is 1894. Over the next decade, we follow Moncur as he travels first to Paris and then to pre-Revolutionary St Petersburg, and embarks on a series of adventures fuelled by his consuming passion for a Russian opera singer.
St Kilda: The Silent Islands by Alex Boyd (Luath Press, £20)
Using a battered old medium format camera that once belonged to Fay Godwin, doyenne of British landscape photographers, German-born and Ayrshire-raised photographer Alex Boyd documents the forbidding terrain of the remote archipelago. As shrouded in story and controversy as its monumental sea cliffs are obscured by cloud and mist, it’s no longer deserted – there’s an ever-changing community of military personnel, scientists, volunteers and conservationists – so Boyd is able to also turn his camera on St Kilda’s 21st century inhabitants.
Nutmeg: The Scottish Football Periodical (Nutmeg Magazine, £40 for a
Christmas gift subscription)
A quarterly publication devoted to all aspects of the beautiful game as viewed from our chilly northern latitudes, Nutmeg boasts a rolling roster of topclass writers – William McIlvanney, Archie Macpherson, Stuart Cosgrove and Lawrence Donegan have all graced past issues – and adds exquisite design and layout to the mix. Don’t think it’s all Old Firm either: you’re as likely to find hymns to the joys of the Scottish Junior Cup team and erudite discussions about the finer points of away strips as you are anything Rangersor Celtic-related. They even print poetry, for heaven’s sake. The Christmas gift subscription gives you all four 2019 editions plus the current edition – so your kids, wife, husband (or manager?) have something to wrap for the big day.
The Scottish Clearances: A History Of The Dispossessed by TM Devine (Allen Lane, £25)
A giant of Scottish intellectual life, Professor Sir Tom Devine is an always clear-eyed guide to the country’s history and a firm believer in this simple truth: that to understand the problems of today and the situations that arise from them, you need to look to the past. Here he tackles a transformative period of Scottish history which changed even the landscape and saw the forced mass migration of thousands of people, much of it at a time when the Scottish Enlightenment was birthing the idea of Scotland as a forwardthinking and modernising society. It isn’t just a Highland story. Devine looks at dispossession in the Borders – clearances began there two generations before they did in the Highlands – and, just as sobering, the 300-year span of his story runs up to 1900 and the dawn of the 20th century. Not an easy read, but you have some downtime over the festive period why not educate yourself? This is a history that still matters.
Macbeth by Jo Nesbo (Vintage, £5.99)
There probably isn’t much crossover between fans of Virginia Woolf and fans of Norwegian crime writer Jo Nesbo, whose most famous creation is maverick Oslo cop Harry Hole. But that didn’t stop the high heid yins at Hogarth Press, the publishing house Woolf co-founded in 1917, from asking Nesbo to join literary luminaries such as Margaret Atwood, Jeanette Winterson and Edward St Aubyn in their ongoing project to re-tell and reimagine Shakespearean classics. Here, Nesbo turns to “the Scottish play”, turning the titular Macbeth into a police officer and the world of the original play into a dystopian alternative Scotland where the second biggest city is called Capitol, the year might be 1970. We’re told in the opening chapter that it’s a quarter of a century since the end of the Second World War – and much of the action takes place in Fife. A great introduction to the play for devotees of Scandi crime novels – and a whip-smart take on the original for those who their Banquo from their Fleance.
The Last Wilderness: A Journey Into Silence by Neil Ansell (Tinder Press, £9.99)
Shortlisted for the 2018 Wainwright Book Prize, awarded to the best British-based travel book about nature or the outdoors, The Last Wilderness is Neil Ansell’s account of his journey through the Rough Bounds, that area of the west Highlands which stretches from Loch Moidart to Loch Hourn and takes in the Knoydart peninsula. Wild, rugged, inaccessible and sparsely populated, its silence is the silence of wilderness, though Ansell’s subtitle has a second meaning: the Brighton-based journalist, TV presenter and author made five visits to the Rough Bounds over the course of a calendar year and with each one his hearing, problematic since his 20s, became rapidly worse. “My hearing is a retreating glacier that is shrinking unconscionably fast,” he writes. Or, even more poignantly, he lists the birds whose songs he can no longer hear.
A Year Of Spark (Birlinn, £200)
We celebrated the centenary of the birth of the great Scottish novelist Muriel Spark throughout 2018 but if you happen to find this bumper collection of her works in your Christmas stocking you’ll be celebrating her well into 2019 too. Although expensive, this package from Scottish publisher Birlinn contains all 22 novels, reprinted and repackaged in beautiful centenary editions with newly-commissioned introductions from leading authors. They’re also throwing in a copy of Herald journalist Alan Taylor’s memoir about Spark, Appointment In Arezzo, in which he details his many visits to the author’s Italian home and the friendship that grew up between the pair over the years.
Main image: St Kilda. Top, Muriel Spark and, above, Sir Tom Devine – our guide has something for everyone