The best Scottish historical fiction written in the 20th century

Ursula Buchan Author Of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan
By Ursula Buchan

The Books I Picked & Why

The Flight of the Heron

By D.K. Broster

Book cover of The Flight of the Heron

Why this book?

Much Scottish historical fiction is set at the time of the 1745 uprising against the Hanoverian King George II by supporters of Charles Edward Stuart, known as Bonnie Prince Charlie. This is not surprising since it was a deeply traumatic time, which has left scars to this day. The first I read as a young teenager was written by an Englishwoman, D.K. Broster, in the 1920’s: The Flight of the Heron, the first of a trilogy (the others were The Gleam in the North and The Dark Mile). 

This book made me into a Jacobite, despite my own forbears being mostly Lowlanders, who would probably have fought for King George. It tells the exciting, tense, and tragic epic of the ’45 through the stories of Ewen Cameron of Ardroy, a kinsman of Cameron of Lochiel, and a discontented army officer called Keith Windham; their paths cross several times and, despite themselves, they become friends. Since loyalty to chieftain was an article of faith to Highlanders in the 18th century, Ewen (who has ‘the second sight’) has some very stark and difficult choices to make. Dorothy Broster did not shrink from using Gaelic words, which adds to the strangeness and mystery of the tale.

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By Violet Jacob

Book cover of Flemington

Why this book?

D.K. Broster dedicated The Flight of the Heron ‘To Violet Jacob in homage’. Violet Jacob’s Flemington (published in 1909) must be the most underrated novel about the Jacobite rising written in the 20th century. Jacob (probably best known these days as a vernacular poet) was born and bred in Angus on the east coast of Scotland, and her tale is set there; unusually it is mostly told from the Whig point of view. Again it is one of agonisingly divided loyalties. The descriptions of the landscape are pure poetry, but there is humour, nerve-jangling tension, and apt characterisation as well.

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The New Road

By Neil Munro

Book cover of The New Road

Why this book?

Neil Munro’s Scottish tales, especially the Para Handy stories, were very popular in his lifetime, but I prefer his historical novels. In my opinion, the best is The New Road. The title refers to the military road into the Highlands, made in the 1730s by General Wade, which was a major reason why the Highlanders were defeated, since it enabled the army to bring artillery to bear at the Battle of Culloden in April 1746. But the road also brought the possibility of greater prosperity, through trade, to the benighted Highlands. Munro came from Inverary in Argyll, and so does the hero in this thriller, who sets out to find the killer of his Jacobite father years before, during the uprising in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie’s father, James. It is an exciting story but with underlying serious themes, for example about progress and change in traditional societies.

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Witch Wood

By John Buchan

Book cover of Witch Wood

Why this book?

Witch Wood tells the story of a high-minded, ardent and scholarly young Presbyterian minister, David Sempill, who is called to a benighted Tweeddale parish in 1645 at the time of the War of Three Kingdoms, and how his desire to root out covert witchcraft amongst some of his most ‘devout’ parishioners at a time of civil war and plague leads to tragedy and exile. The Marquis of Montrose, on whose biography John Buchan was working at the same time, has a walk-on part in the story. John Buchan considered this his best work of fiction, and I agree.

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Sunset Song

By Lewis Grassic Gibbon

Book cover of Sunset Song

Why this book?

Sunset Song is, like Flemington, set in the northeast of Scotland, this time in a farming community before, during, and after the First World War. It unsentimentally chronicles the hard life of an independent-minded, sympathetic woman, at a time when mechanisation was crowding out the old rural ways, and the Great War had taken away the men and changed the survivors almost out of recognition. It is a tale of many tragedies and limited redemption, written with a powerful depth of feeling and sense of place.

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