From the archive: Best Scottish books of all time

  • The List
  • 27 April 2020
From the archive: Best Scottish books of all time


In 2005, some well-known names picked their favourite Scottish books for us

Back in 2005, we published 100 Best Scottish Books of All Time, a jam-packed guide that set out to celebrate the depth and diversity of Scottish literary culture. As we all remain on lockdown and inevitably, are looking for new reads during this strange period, we've decided to delve into our archives to highlight some picks from the publication from some well-known figures in the Scottish arts scene.

Stuart Cosgrove on Robin Jenkins's The Cone-Gatherers (1955)

In what circumstances is kleptomania acceptable; almost certainly when a nation's culture is at stake? It hardly rates as the crime of the century but I once stole a conifer from the floor of the Tramway, after a memorable production of Communicado's The Cone-Gatherers. The stage had been scattered with cones and the audience sat amongst autumnal logs watching a piece of Scottish theatrical history unfold. Something impulsive made me want to keep a memento of the performance so, pathetically, I stole one of the props, and now have it hidden away in a drawer like a relic of understanding.

I had read Robin Jenkins' The Cone-Gatherers years before, but it was the theatre adaptation that encouraged me to read it again. Sometimes it is on the second or third visitation that you really begin to understand a great book. Superficially, this is a story about the land and the mundane localness of its characters, but at a more metaphoric level it's about renewal, future growth and the capacity of Scotland to rebuild itself.

World War II is still raging in Europe when two brothers arrive at a forest to gather cones so that the seeds can be used to replant trees destroyed by the conflict. The younger brother Calum is a mentally retarded hunchback forced into being a runner for the hunt, racing for his life against a rural landscape at once ugly and spectacular.

Jenkins has not enjoyed any of the attention heaped upon many other Scottish writers and it may be that he's an acquired taste rather than a minor literary afterthought; but, in an era in which there is renewed interest in Scottish literature he's an author rich in potential.

It would not be too demonstrative to claim that The Cone-Gatherers is Scotland's Cherry Orchard, a great Chekhovian masterpiece that uses forests and the natural landscape to capture a moment of profound social change. It feels as eerily prescient today as it did when it was first published in the 1950s and is the kind of book that offers up new, modern meanings with every reading. Once you have read the book, it will then seem natural to follow it with Jenkins' other significant work, A Would-Be Saint, possibly the only great work of contemporary fiction that alludes to St Johnstone in its title. Or so I desperately like to think. Buy The Cone-Gatherers now.

From the archive: Best Scottish books of all time

Ron Butlin on Alasdair Gray's Lanark (1981)

Alasdair Gray's Lanark is one of the finest novels written in English. Its unique blend of realism and wild surrealism was greeted with great acclaim when it was first published, especially abroad. In France, for example, it sold out within four weeks and had to be immediately reprinted. In the US, it was originally marketed as sci-fi and flopped: Lanark is no more sci-fi than is the work of Dante or Blake. American publishers rebranded it for their second edition, and it is now recognised there as a major 20th century classic. In Scotland, it towers over all other contemporary fiction.

Arranged in four books, the novel opens with Book Three, set in the ever-darkening Unthank, a city not so far removed, spiritually speaking, from Glasgow. Here, in a wonderfully evoked present-day hell, Lanark emerges – a man without a past, it seems – to begin his search for love in a loveless place. Time and again he tries to remember the concept 'hope'; even the memory of 'dawn' takes on a near-heartbreaking poignancy. The message is clear: the more Lanark refuses to be crushed, the greater will be his suffering.

Books One and Two are realistic, set in post-war Glasgow. In straightforward flashback they relate the very Scottish upbringing of young Duncan Thaw and his subsequent struggles as a would-be artist. Struggles that end in tragedy. Gradually we learn that Duncan Thaw and Lanark are two stages of the same person, a kind of death and resurrection. Then, with an almost miraculous inevitability, the novel begins to fit together. The whole works magnificently, carrying us from the personal to the universal, culminating in a searing satire that is surely one of the finest political allegories ever penned.

Thanks to the power of Gray's vision, image becomes narrative, allowing him to tell a greater truth than mere events. The dragonhide, the mouths, the flesh-eating are perfect metaphors for what it is to be human; Unthank is sunless Glasgow, and the psychological and spiritual darkness is real and physical. Lanark is a masterpiece and, though very serious, it is also very, very funny. At one point the author himself appears and is asked to explain himself. Most of all, it is a testament to the human spirit. Alasdair Gray shows us the moral courage that is our only hope in this increasingly despairing world. Buy Lanark now.

Denise Mina on George Orwell's 1984 (1949)

George Orwell wrote 1984 on the Isle of Jura, having moved there to escape the sudden, blistering fame that followed the publication of Animal Farm. This, somehow, makes it a Scottish book. No more tenuous a claim, I suppose, than lines scribbled on maps by toffs defining a nation. 1984 isn't about a totalitarian future; the title came from reversing two of the digits in 1948 when he wrote it. The book was, and is, about the present and universal dangers inherent in authority. He outlines a society dominated by television screens, the death of privacy, and greasy gin.

The government prohibition on sex seems odd now. Perhaps if Orwell had written it after the sexual revolution the characters would have been subjected to incessant compulsory clumsy sex with a sweaty holiday rep. Winston and Julia would have snuck off to the woods for a bit of celibacy or hand holding. Still, Room 101, now the stuff of parlour games, is a terror as relevant now as then. The concept of tailoring torture by using psychological profiles later became a prototype for the bushtucker trials in I'm a Celebrity …

Orwell crammed so many elements into the book that every age picks out something else he got right. Of particular relevance now is the social value of a common enemy and governments defending breaches of civil liberties by instilling fear of attack by a foreign enemy. Substitute the rebel leader Goldberg with bin Laden (or before him Saddam and Gaddafi), and you'd have an analogy bigger than Michael Moore's trousers. Having failed as a literary writer, Orwell turned his hand to social and political comment. He's sometimes looked down on for using cheap tricks (such as interesting the reader or being shocking to get attention), but important stuff can't always be whispered with a small mouth.

When I was young and bad, I stole this book. It was such a good read I stole Keep the Aspidistra Flying, too. I can think of no higher accolade. Orwell made me think fiction could be about something other than how awful things are in Hampstead. In Why I Write, he said: 'It seems to me nonsense, in a period like our own, to think that one can avoid writing of such subjects.' He's the literary equivalent of the Clash. Buy 1984 now.

From the archive: Best Scottish books of all time

Ian Rankin on Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961)

Jean Brodie is one of the most complex characters in modern literature. As a teacher, she is passionate about her pupils, even if her methods are frowned upon by the authorities. This makes her a rebel, and we should love her for that. But her influence is malign; she attempts to cajole one of her girls into an affair with the art master, as a surrogate for herself, and another of her wards races to her doom in the Spanish Civil War, fighting on Franco's side. Brodie is a great supporter of Hitler and Mussolini, and this is one of her most shocking characteristics.

But The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie isn't just about its protean, Jekyll-and-Hyde hero/villain. The schoolgirls are also beautifully drawn, intriguing personalities in their own right, and the book has a complex narrative structure, flowing backwards and forwards in time. Muriel Spark's earliest incarnation was as a poet, and this is very much a poet's work: short and pungent, with no excess fat. An early champion of the 'nouveau roman', Spark was a great admirer of the elliptical novels of Robbe-Grillet. She fuses her knowledge to a very Scottish theme – the twinning of good and evil; the inability of each to exist without the other – and to a lilting east coast style of writing.

If all this makes the book seem worthy and literary, think again. There's a lightness of touch throughout, with an abundance of comic set-pieces. Two of Miss Brodie's 'set', Sandy and Jenny, imagine a series of letters between Miss Brodie and a fictitious lover, one of which ends: 'Allow me, in conclusion, to congratulate you warmly upon your sexual intercourse, as well as your singing.' Such a construction not only makes us laugh, but reminds us that these are impressionable young girls.

Brodie is not in itself a love letter to Spark's native city. There is a tough argument contained at its heart as to the validity of a Scottish education system which, in the 1930s, owed much to Dickens' Gradgrind. Brodie wants her girls to learn about beauty and culture, Giotto and Da Vinci. In effect, what their teacher wants is a fresh batch of mini-Brodies, who can play out in reality the dreams she has harboured throughout her spinsterhood. This heralds her final undoing. It's a book which repays many readings. I was a late convert, having seen the Maggie Smith film first. But it has become a favourite, one of the greatest Scottish books of all time. Buy The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie now.

Ali Smith on Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song (1932)

I read Sunset Song first when I was 16 at Inverness High School. I picked it up grudgingly because it looked like a girls' book, like we were being made to read a soppy classic; it had a line-drawing of a windswept girl on the front which had put me off considerably. I started it resentfully, and became more and more amazed. It was about near where we lived. At that point nothing else was about near where we lived. Chris Guthrie, the main character, wasn't just Scottish, she was actually a Highlander who, astonishingly, liked books. It sounded like nothing else I'd ever read, and at the same time sounded weirdly like the northern-Scottish-English words and syntax we all helplessly spoke. I read way past the place we were supposed to read to for school, and by the end of the next day I'd finished the book.

I've just re-read Sunset Song, and its great gripping hybrid of melodrama and realism has left me scorched. There's Chris again: the self split by country and language; the book-lover who's also totally sensual, regardless of both the dark, abusive religion of her father (and forefathers) and the she's-no'-better-than-she-ought-to-be community all round her. And while we're talking about a sense of liberation, Grassic Gibbon's language in the Quair freed me to think language could do anything and everything, could be poetic and realist and dark and soaring and local and strange all at once, with sentences longer than breath; but still all about breathing, or how the heart works.

Its real technical (and democratic) achievement is his use of 'you' to mean so many things. It means the protagonist, Chris; it means the communal voice, the local folk voice; it means, and includes, all its readers; it signals an openness in the face of things more usually kept closed: selves, communities, localities. Not that Grassic Gibbon isn't sharp to a too-sentimental reading of his folk-voice: it celebrates the goodness of folk but equally the nastiness and harshness.

Reading Sunset Song this time, I was actually thanking goodness for the comic spite at the centre of its communal voice, a relief from the almost untakeable adolescent richness of this first book of three. It goes for the emotional jugular. It has to; this is how lament works. This is the rightful rich ceremony of loss after the war and the end of a kind of innocence. Buy Sunset Song now.

From the archive: Best Scottish books of all time

Christopher Brookmyre on Jeff Torrington's Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)

A confession: it took me what I now regard as a wastefully long time to get around to reading Swing Hammer Swing!; wastefully because I would probably have managed to read what became my favourite Scottish novel several more times had I not been so foolishly reluctant. The obstacle was one of expectation, created by the terms in which the book had been recommended – 'it's about a man's house in the Gorbals being demolished'; 'documents the end of an era, the squalor of tenement life and all that'; 'took 30 years to write'; 'immense achievement'; 'ordinary chap, worked in a car factory don'cha know' – and thoroughly cemented by its winning a major literary award.

I eventually picked it up out of a sense of Glaswegian civic duty, anticipating a dose of grim urban miserablism that would depress Maxim Gorky. Two pages in, I was swiftly disabused of my misconceptions. Five pages in I was reading through tears. Swing Hammer Swing! is the spirit of Glasgow distilled into 400 pages, each tiny drop intoxicating – and thus to be slowly savoured – but you can't help just necking half the bottle at one go.

There is no story – 'plots are for cemeteries' quoth its protagonist – only the meanderings and misadventures of Tam Clay as he awaits the birth of his first child in the final few days before the world he knows is pulled down. I am not going to attempt any kind of summary; suffice it to say this is a book diverse enough to accommodate events such as Tam drunkenly stumbling into a psychopaths' card-school before inadvertently setting fire to the place, alongside Death paying a fruitless visit to the local public toilet, or Shug Wylie's Bum Boutique, to give it its correct title.

No novel has ever encapsulated so much of the language, humour, attitude, philosophy, character and restless energy of the dear green place. I love it passionately, though I still maintain the Whitbread judges gave it the nod for two reasons: one, they didn't get the humour and therefore failed to disqualify it for the literary high crimes of being funny and entertaining; and two, it being the early 90s, they thought the more bizarre passages were actually a Scottish equivalent of Latin American magical realism, rather than merely an accurate depiction of Glasgow on any given Saturday night. Buy Swing Hammer Swing! now.

Louise Welsh on Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting (1993)

Much imitated but never bettered, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting is my personal numero uno 20th century Scottish book. This novel is now so embedded in Scottish culture that it's hard to remember it's only been around since 1993. In that time, it's spawned Harry Gibson's excellent stage play, a seminal album that introduced Iggy Pop to a new generation, and a major movie, which helped establish several Scottish movie stars including Ewan McGregor, Kelly Macdonald and Robert Carlyle.

The novel wasn't an obvious candidate for success. Its initial print run of 3000 copies was tiny and its contents were allegedly too offensive for the Booker shortlist. Ignored and unhyped, the book filtered into the mainstream through readers, many of whom – even those whose biggest exposure to drugs was scamming a bit of puff from their big brother's mate – were seeing people they recognised represented in literature for the first time. The whisper started somewhere on Leith Walk and swelled like a George Romero movie crossed with a disaffected Proclaimers video until Trainspotting's popularity and unexpected commercial potential made it impossible for the literary establishment to ignore. The Leith branch of Woolworths began upping its order for jotters as every down-on-their-luck doley and alienated office worker started turning their hand to writing. Trainspotting empowered a new generation of Scottish writers, myself included.

The book didn't come out of the blue. The likes of Burroughs and Trocchi had already written about drugs. Leonard, Kelman and others had written in the voices of Scottish working people. But Irvine Welsh built on these existing literary innovations to create a completely original work. He wrote about drug users who didn't have the cushion of a middle-class education and for a generation who had never known apprenticeships, shipyards or slums. Here was the voice of the schemie.

Trainspotting is now an international phenomenon. It blew me away when I read it back in the 90s and even without the shock of the new, it still stands up as a hilarious, moving, stylish and intelligent novel. The Rebel Inc quote on the cover of my battered paperback copy is no word of a lie: 'the best book ever written by man or woman … deserves to sell more copies than the Bible'. Buy Trainspotting now.

From the archive: Best Scottish books of all time

Alan Bissett on Jackie Kay's Trumpet (1998)

Scotland's writers are a cheeky lot when it comes to sampling. Irvine Welsh and Alan Warner couldn't move for E'd-up Face scribes wielding references to acid house. The lilting tones of folk balladry drape the narrative voice of Sunset Song. My own debut, Boyracers, was as much influenced by the cars and girls epics of Bruce Springsteen as by any book I'd read. Scotland's first foray into the 'Jazz Novel' – a quite formidable canon already containing JD Salinger, F Scott Fitzgerald, Jack Kerouac and Toni Morrison – comes courtesy of Jackie Kay.

Based on the true life story of Billie Tipton, the subject of Trumpet is Joss Moody, a jazz musician who, shortly after his death, is discovered to have been a woman. What could have been a one-joke gig or, worse, a routine fictionalised biography, becomes a witty, wiry, cutting, kinetic blast of a book, as emotionally moving as it is formally experimental. A rich cavalcade of perspectives come and go: Moody's grieving widow; their son, simmering with resentment; a scandal-hungry ghost writer; even the confounded coroner who first notices something odd, and whose frantic search for a penis is the novel's biggest laugh.

The effect of this wide range of tones, moods and voices reads like music itself – a shift through scenes that are a kind of blue or a fine romance or strange fruit – until we reach the startling moment which breaks the narrative right down into a freeform jazz work-out. Kay deftly equates the freedom and fluidity of jazz not only with literary pyrotechnics, but with the instability of the self. This is a book which examines not who we are but, more crucially, what makes us who we are; Kay is equally as ambiguous on identity as a Miles Davis solo is hard to write down. And this is her point: we invent ourselves as we go along. We improvise. We just play. Which is exactly what Jackie Kay does in this book, in precise, beautiful notes.

As a debut Scottish novel, it has few rivals. As a Scottish novel about race and gender it has absolutely no rivals. It is a book of rare charm and confidence, as universal in its message as it is Scottish in its locale. And her poetry is even better. Now that's what I call music. Buy Trumpet now.

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