Yesterday’s leading news story was Scotland’s vote against independence from Great Britain. As I watched the morning news, my thoughts turned away from politics and economics and went straight to literature. I thought of Macbeth, and wondered what the current-day residents of Cawdor Castle think of Scotland’s decision. (As I’ve mentioned, Macbeth — always referred to as “the Scottish play” by superstitious theater people — is my favorite Shakespeare play. Perhaps because it’s the first one I ever read?)
Several years ago, I read a fascinating memoir by Liza Campbell called A Charmed Life: Growing Up in Macbeth’s Castle. Campbell, the daughter of the real-life Thane of Cawdor, was the last child born in the actual castle associated with Shakespeare’s play. The memoir itself is garden-variety family dysfunction: drugs, domestic abuse, extramarital affairs, money problems. What interested me was the history of the Cawdor estate. Today, Liza Campbell is a vocal member of the Hares, a group of aristocratic British women supporting the Equality (Titles) bill, also known as the “Downton Abbey” law, which would allow first-born daughters to inherit titles.
As I thought more about books set in Scotland, I realized I haven’t read many. I’ve read countless books set in England and Ireland, but I’ve neglected Scotland. I’ve never read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series . . . or Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series. I haven’t read anything by Kate Atkinson, Ian Rankin, or Irvine Welsh. Also, I have never been to Scotland. A friend and her daughter went to the Edinburgh Book Festival last month and had a marvelous time. Jeff has always wanted to play golf in Scotland; maybe next summer we could combine a trip to Edinburgh with a visit to St. Andrews?
If we do visit Scotland, the first book on my reading list will be How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created the Modern World and Everything In It by Arthur Herman. Everything? Sounds like a bold claim, and certainly warrants further investigation.
I did a quick Google search on “Scottish literature” and found that most of the recommended books are bodice-rippers featuring handsome and lusty Scotsmen. Apparently the Scottish highlands are the place to go if you’re looking for romance. A few of the suggested titles are: To Tame a Highland Warrior, In Bed With a Highlander, Taming the Scotsman, How to Abduct a Highland Lord, Thirty Nights With a Highland Husband. Need I go on?
I did recently read an absolutely charming novel that takes place in Scotland — specifically, on the remote Isle of Skye. Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye is written entirely in letters, starting just before World War I and ending after World War II. Publishers Weekly says that it’s a “remarkable story” in which “the beauty of Scotland, the tragedy of war, the longings of the heart, and the struggles of a family torn apart by disloyalty are brilliantly drawn, leaving just enough blanks to be filled by the reader’s imagination.”
After I read Letters from Skye, I remembered that Virginia Woolf’s masterpiece, To the Lighthouse, is set on the Isle of Skye. It’s one of my most beloved books; my old paperback copy is falling apart. Here’s one of my favorite passages:
What is the meaning of life? That was all — a simple question; one that tended to close in on one with years. The great revelation had never come. The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark; here was one.
Three Junes, the debut novel of Julia Glass (one of my favorite authors), won the National Book Award for fiction in 2002. The book is actually three linked novellas about a Scottish family, the McLeods. The story develops over the course of three Junes in the late 20th century, and in Scotland, the United States, and Greece. Many of the characters reappear in Glass’s later novels.
Bill Bryson is always entertaining and informative. In Notes from a Small Island, Bryson recounts his trip exploring — using only public transportation — the nooks and crannies of England, Scotland, and Wales. Here’s his description of arriving in Edinburgh:
And so I went to Edinburgh. Can there anywhere be a more beautiful and beguiling city to arrive at by train early on a crisp, dark Novembery evening? To emerge from the bustling, subterranean bowels of Waverley Station and find yourself in the very heart of such a glorious city is a happy experience indeed. I hadn’t been to Edinburgh for years and had forgotten just how captivating it can be . . . Every bookshop window was full of books about Scotland or by Scottish authors. And of course the voices were different. I walked along, feeling as if I had left England far behind . . .
I’d like to see those bookshop windows myself. I just hope they’re not packed with piles of Ravished by a Highlander and Seduction of a Highland Lass.