The 30th of November is almost upon us. As someone living in St Andrews for the first time, I’ve been excited about this date all semester. No, it’s not because the day after I can make a start on my advent calendar (because let’s face it, I’m sure you already have). It’s St Andrew’s Day, and as a University of St Andrews student it’s an excuse to get excited and see some fireworks! Be sure to check out all the events in town and beyond and get in the spirit of the day. Whilst you’re counting down the days in anticipation, why not pick up some Scottish Literature and really get yourself in the mood for the big day!
Iona: Poems by Kenneth Stevens: Something my October reads seemed to be lacking was poetry, so I’ve kicked this list of with a beautiful little book of poetry based on the Island of Iona on the West Coast of Scotland. I received this collection as a gift, and whilst I must admit I have a heavy bias given this Island is my namesake, this is truly a breath-taking celebration of Scotland’s finest scenery. The Island of Iona is associated with peacefulness and tranquillity which is the tone of these poems. This collection explores childhood, spirituality and inner peace, all through imagery of the beautiful natural landscape of Scotland. This collection is easy to delve into and is light to read, making it the perfect way to unwind; perhaps a collection to delve into on the night of the 29th when you’re so excited about St Andrew’s Day that you just can’t get to sleep!
The World’s Wife by Carol Anne Duffy: A name you might recognise from your school days all those years ago, but don’t let this put you off. Duffy’s poetry is far more interesting than GCSE English made it out to be. Nothing says Scottish pride quite like reading the work of a Scottish-born Poet Laurette. This collection explores the erasure of women’s histories, telling the stories of the wives of great men in history and literature. This clever collection subverts gender expectations and challenges the confinements of gender, giving a voice to the hidden figures we don’t tend to think about. These poems are witty and subversive, I would recommend reading the collection as a whole to get a feel for the powerful message, but if you’re short on time I would recommend ‘Frau Freud’, ‘Queen Herod’ or ‘Medusa’.
Collected Poems by Robert Burns: It would be a sin to omit the big name in Scottish poetry from this list. Everybody is familiar with the work of Burns (flash forward to New Year and ‘Auld Lang Syne’; Robert Burns wrote this). It’s worth reading ‘Auld Lang Syne’ away from the whole party culture of New Year; this poem is actually a lovely read and the Scottish dialect really creates a warm pride at being a part of this beautiful countries culture. Another poem worth reading is ‘Address to a Haggis.’ If you’ve ever celebrated Burns night, this is the classic poem: if you’re not familiar with it, definitely give it a read. There’s nothing more classically Scottish to celebrate with than a haggis! ‘To a Mouse’ is another wonderful poem; you can’t go wrong with a poem which rhymes “beastie” with “breastie”!
100 Favourite Scottish Poems to Read Out Loud by Gordon Jarvie: If you want a quick fix of varied Scottish poetry, then this is the anthology for you. Jarvie carefully selects different Scottish poets, giving a nice equal dedication to both modern and classical writers. The oral tradition is one which is important to Scottish poetry in particular, as dialect plays a large role in the sound of the poems, hence why I gravitate towards a collection so focused on sound. This collection includes classics worth delving into from Robert Burns, Stuart Kermack and Tessa Ransford. The beauty of this collection is that it doesn’t move via time period, but by tonality. Rather than getting a picture of a changing Scotland, there is a continued sense of the everlasting and timeless beauty of Scottish landscape and the evolution of culture. This is a really wonderful collection for finding popular poems by Scottish poets and is a good starting point for finding new authors whose work you can delve into if you like what you read here.
Ashland & Vine by John Burnside: No list on Scottish literature would be complete without the inclusion of St Andrews very own academic and writer John Burnside. His latest novel explores a grieving alcoholic film student’s production of a documentary. Although this novel is set in America, I had to include it in this list because of its sheer power to evoke emotion. Exploring an unlikely friendship, the power of words and listening, and the very nature of memory and its influence on how life pans out, this book is sure to have you questioning what shapes your identity and feeling a lot of conflicted and difficult emotions.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: Set in Edinburgh in the 1930s, teacher Miss Jean Brodie sets herself the task of giving a group of 10-year-old girls a traditional education to follow in her footsteps, teaching them about her love life, art history, classics and ultimately fascism. She selects out girls whom she deems elite and could one day grow up to be like her. The story follows Miss Brodie’s teaching of these girls over the years till they turn 17, seeing how they develop and the influence education has on the young mind and shaping opinion. This novel is politically interesting, with the career paths and politics of the girls not always matching up to what we would expect from said education. This is a story of love, betrayal, politics and the importance of the education system being balanced and fair. Though set in the 1930s, this novel is so witty and well-written that it is easy to imagine the school and the events which unfold within its walls vividly.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh: This novel is where the famous “choose life” speech, which most people will have seen on a t-shirt at some point in their lives, originates. This book is definitely not for the faint hearted. Written in a heavy Scottish dialect, Welsh presents the lives of different drug addicts living in Edinburgh, Leith and the surrounding areas. Each chapter comes from the perspective of a different addict, with their stories becoming intertwined as the novel progresses. This novel explores the harsh reality of drug addiction and is powerful and emotive in both what it says and what it omits. Whilst perhaps not a book to get you in the mood for celebrating, it is such a fine piece of Scottish literature that it felt like a betrayal to omit it from this list. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in class politics and drug culture in Scotland. There’s nothing more powerful than the raw emotion and gruesome occurrences in this novel. If you don’t have time to read the novel, there is a wonderful film adaptation which is worth a watch.
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series by Alexander McCall Smith: I’ve decided to recommend this entire series rather than choosing just one book. The global nature of the series means you can travel the world and choose whether you read a crime mystery set in Botswana (The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency) or in Scotland (44 Scotland Street). Light reads, but nonetheless entertaining, if you like a good who-dun-it mystery then this series is well worth a read. This series contains eighteen books from 1998-2017, so if you enjoy them there is plenty to keep you going! Each novel is about Mma Ramotswe, a Botswanan woman who sets up a detective agency. She solves different cases in different places, with each novel presenting a fresh new mystery to get your head around. The protagonist is well written enough that you’ll want to continue through eighteen books worth of her journey. Each case is so different- from the personal, to the cultural, to the gendered; there really is a case to cater for everyone’s taste in this series.
Reunion: A Search for Ancestors by Ryan Littrell: For anyone with even the slightest bit of Scottish heritage, your identity is tied to a clan. If, like me, you’ve found yourself trawling through the many shops in St Andrews searching for a scarf made from your family’s tartan (perhaps this is a bit of a niche problem) then this is a read for you. Littrell explore the history of Scottish clans, plotting their development through the centuries and discusses their importance in the twenty-first century. If you’re interested in the environmental history of Scotland, this novel gives you that in an almost poetic way, viewing natural landscape within the formation of identity. This is worth a read to get a flavour for clan history and culture and how the meaning this has to people develops over time. Plus, you might find out some interesting information about your own heritage and the clan your surname ties you to.
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen: This one is for all you historical fiction lovers. If you like Downton Abbey, then this is a read for you. This novel has everything you could ask for from a period drama: love, lust, heartbreak, desire, war – all set with the backdrop of the breath-taking Scottish Highlands. The main plot of the novel follows Maddie and her husband Ellis searching for the Loch Ness Monster to reinstate Ellis’ family name following a scandal whereby his father faked photos of Nessie. This search for a monster is plagued by the ongoing terror of World War Two and the harsh realities of being a woman in this society. Upper class family struggles are conveyed harshly through the female first person narrative, exploring the social position of an upper class woman in a war torn society, both trying to find a monster and deal with her own personal monsters.
This St Andrew’s Day, whether you’re donning a kilt, eating haggis, wearing a red gown, or simply picking up a piece of Scottish literature (whether that’s set in Scotland or written by a Scot); enjoy the festivities and make the most of what this beautiful historic town has to offer. Happy reading, but most of all Happy St Andrew’s Day!