Okay, so your reading list to keep up with your studies is already long, but if you’re going to do a lot of travelling then you need something else in your bag which brings you entertainment and never needs re-charging.
As students to Scotland are the first to arrive, it’s only fair that you get some reading recommendations first! Scotland is a place with a rich heritage of myths, magic and a whole lot of battles–it’s no wonder it’s spawned so much great literature. Here are six to get you started…
1) James Hogg, Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The story of a murder told two times from two totally different perspectives—once as a crime report, then again by a religious zealot who considers his crimes to be religiously ‘justified’. Whether you read it as a supernatural tale about demonic posessions or a psychological study of religious extremism and mental illness is entirely up to you… Features some memorable scenes up on Arthur’s Seat.
2) David Nicholls, One Day (2009) A lighter, romantic read but quite a smart and witty one as the genre goes, with an emotional punch that might catch you by surprise. It’s the story of two students at Edinburgh University, living on Rankeillor Street, who go on to meet on the same day each year throughout their adult lives, with each reunion forming a chapter of the novel. But will they ever be more than just friends…? This was adapted into a film in 2011 with Anne Hathaway—though her accent caused some sniggering, it’s not bad overall.
3) Robert Louis Stevenson, The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) A Scottish novel disguised as an English one! Inspired partly by the wild exploits of Deacon Brodie (you can check out his story on the wall of the pub which bears his name on The Royal Mile), Scottish Stevenson set his novel in London but it’s Scottish to the core. This famous story of a man who can’t control his dark alter ego is sometimes compared to the split nature of Edinburgh, a town that celebrates the cool, calm spirit of the Enlightenment but is also rife with tales of ghosts, ghouls and murder most foul. Hatch your own theory as to just what it is that Dr Jekyll is repressing, literary critics have been doing it for years!
4) Walter Scott, The Heart of Midlothian (1818) Yes, he of the enormous monument and a dozen other statues besides—Scotland loves Sir Walter Scott. He documented a lot of Scotland’s history in his Waverley novels, or rather wove together a bit of history with a whole lot of romantic imagination and came up with something that Scottish people could really feel emotionally invested in. This novel takes place against the backdrop of the Porteous Riots and will help you to understand why you’ll see people spitting on those heart-shaped stones on the Royal Mile…
5) Irvine Welsh, Trainspotting (1993) If you’re having trouble understanding the Scottish accents around you, this probably isn’t for you. Welsh’s novel is written phonetically and is full of Scottish words, cadences and swearing. A cult hit in its time, it follows a group of young friends in Edinburgh who lose themselves to heroin addictions. Filthy, surreal and funny it’s story which doesn’t moralise about its character but has a political undertow and something to say about consumer driven society in the 1990s. It’ll show you an Edinburgh which is a long long way away from the one you see on the postcards.
6) J K Rowling, Harry Potter… all of them (1997-2007) Okay, so you’ve probably either read them already or you have made a concerted decision to boycott them, but there’s nowhere that has as much Harry Potter in its fabric as Edinburgh and the countryside around Scotland. The baronial architecture, the twisting narrow alleys, the grave of Thomas Riddle in Greyfrier’s churchyard—it’s all very Potteresque. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child—a collaboratively written play rather than one of the books, is pretty absorbing too.
Other names you might want to look into: Janice Galloway, Alasdair Gray, Luke Sutherland, Suhayl Saadi, Luke Williams… and you can never go wrong with a bit of Robert Burns poetry.
Here’s a list of some of my favourite British books, books about Britain, and a few about travel/European history in general to get you going:
Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility; Pride and Prejudice; Emma
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations
Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles
Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography
Kate Fox, Watching the English
Ian Rankin, Inspector Rebus novels (there are a lot)
JK Rowling, Harry Potter series (into 21st c.)
Dava Sobel, Longitude
Zadie Smith, White Teeth
Sarah Waters, Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith
Andrea Levy, Small Island
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall; Bring up the Bodies
Grayson Perry, The Vanity of Small Differences (exhibition catalogue)
If you’ve never read War and Peace, make that your travel book if you have a Kindle. Otherwise don’t lug it around!
If you go to Italy, Tom Holland’s Rubicon: The Last Years of the Roman Republic was good.
If you go anywhere in Europe, R. I. Page’s Chronicles of the Vikings, as they went nearly everywhere.
Send me your recommendations and I’ll add them to the list.