The best Scottish books about moments of madness

Why am I passionate about this?

Scotland’s greatest poet since Burns, Hugh MacDiarmid, said that there were no traditions in writing, only precedents. He was thinking that, were traditions followed, adhered to, applauded, and praised, and prized too highly, then the danger of slavish repetition rather than creative divergence was too high. We need the mad moments, when all bets are off and something truly unpredictable will happen. I write with Scots modernist, postmodernist, and experimental precedents in mind. I want there to be Scots literature that reflects a divergent, creative nation, willing to experiment with words and life, and, in Alasdair Gray’s formulation, “work as though in the early days of a better nation.”


I wrote...

This Good Book

By Iain Hood,

Book cover of This Good Book

What is my book about?

Glasgow School of Art graduate Susan Alison MacLeod wants to paint a Crucifixion using fellow graduate and installation artist Douglas MacDougal as her model for Christ. It will take her fourteen years and many failed attempts before she takes the final step and realises what she is willing to do, what she must do, to achieve the ‘good’ painting she feels has to be created. An act of madness in the eyes of the public, news media, and justice system is viewed from the inside, described from the mouths of Susan Alison and Douglas, who understand the logic and accept the consequences of their own actions, according to Susan Alison’s telling of the story.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Young Adam

Iain Hood Why did I love this book?

A Trocchi renaissance, including a film of Young Adam starring A-Listers Ewan McGregor, Tilda Swinton, and Emily Mortimer, added to a growing reappraisal of Trocchi as a great Scottish writer, his reputation having been tarnished, fairly or unfairly, with drug use, indolence, and writer’s block.

Young Adam is a Scots crime novel the way James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is a high-jinx picaresque, which is to say only technically, and on the understanding that Hogg and Trocchi sit head, shoulders and in fact a full body length above these genres. But moment of madness there is, and arrest, trial, judgment, and condemnation. But the twist is that Trocchi’s own judgment and condemnation of society is what matters.

By Alexander Trocchi,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Young Adam as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set on a canal linking Glasgow and Edinburgh, Young Adam is the masterly literary debut by one of the most important British post-war novelists. Trocchi's narrator is an outsider, a drifter working for the skipper of a barge. Together they discover a young woman's corpse floating in the canal, and tensions increase further in cramped confines with the narrator's highly charged seduction of the skipper's wife. Conventional morality and the objective meaning of events are stripped away in a work that proves compulsively readable.


Book cover of The Trick Is To Keep Breathing

Iain Hood Why did I love this book?

The moment of madness in Galloway’s novel is happening in the present continuous from the first page of protagonist Joy Stone’s narration.

Reality is happening and disintegrating right now for Joy, and we as readers are tipped into this reality, this disintegration, with her. From the off, we know we are in for a rollercoaster of storytelling as this young teacher works back to some semblance of sense that she might make from her experiences, memories, and emotions.

The hope and despair, stoicism, and fear of the title of the book may be all she and we can cling to: it might just be a trick, and a pretty flat trick at that, but our only option is to keep breathing and keep breathing and keep breathing.

By Janice Galloway,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Trick Is To Keep Breathing as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the corner of a darkened room Joy Stone watches herself. As memories of the deaths of her lover and mother surface unbidden, life for Joy narrows - to negotiating each day, each encounter, each second; to finding the trick to keep living. Told with shattering clarity and wry wit, this is a Scottish classic fit for our time.


Book cover of The Driver's Seat

Iain Hood Why did I love this book?

Is there a madder moment of madness in all of literature than that of The Driver’s Seat’s protagonist Lise?

A firecracker of a novel (most editions come in under one hundred pages of breakneck-speed story), and yet a whole firework display of literary techniques (most startlingly a third chapter opening prolepsis – flashforward – to the suicidally-invited murder of Lise). It’s the technique itself that is the star. Is this satire, parody, comedy? Can comedy be so dark?

Spark noted both that this book was an existential ‘whydunnit?’ without feeling the need to provide us with anything so simplistic as a ‘why’, and also that it was her favourite of all her novels. There is no reason on Earth why it shouldn’t also be one of your favourites.

By Muriel Spark,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Driver's Seat as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Driven mad by an office job, Lise flies south on holiday - in search of passionate adventure and sex. In this metaphysical shocker, infinity and eternity attend Lise's last terrible day in the unnamed southern city that is her final destination.


Book cover of Lanark: A Life in Four Books

Iain Hood Why did I love this book?

The most “please don’t do it” I have felt in response to a story is as Gray’s protagonist Thaw empties his pockets and throws his life documents and identifying possessions from a moving train on his way to his moment of madness. This will transpose or transform or, I suppose we must, translate Thaw into Lanark.

Critics have noted the many madcap imaginative moments in Gray’s large (in every sense) debut novel. The sequencing of the parts alone (Part 3, Part 1, Part 2, and Part 4) is enough to signal we are in no realist story of a boy and man’s life in Glasgow – more, think surrealist – and yet the book is also just that, and Glasgow is a hell called Unthank in the imagination of an artist who lived all his life in Glasgow.

By Alasdair Gray,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Lanark as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Probably the greatest novel of the century' Observer
'Remarkable' William Boyd

Lanark, a modern vision of hell, is set in the disintegrating cities of Unthank and Glasgow, and tells the interwoven stories of Lanark and Duncan Thaw. A work of extraordinary imagination and wide range, its playful narrative techniques convey a profound message, both personal and political, about humankind's inability to love, and yet our compulsion to go on trying.

First published in 1981, Lanark immediately established Gray as one of Britain's leading writers.


Book cover of Morvern Callar

Iain Hood Why did I love this book?

Ah, were you ever going to shout the famous question, “Why’d you do it!?”, at a character, it would have to be at Morvern.

Another book that grabbed the filmic imagination, this time of Lynne Ramsay, Morvern has the quietest moment of madness on this list. She finds her boyfriend, whom she never names but gives him a Godlike uppercase H whenever He is mentioned, dead by his own hand on the floor of their flat and coolly accepts the fact.

Then, as a sort of civic duty and not to cause a fuss, she chops him up and buries the pieces of him in a suitably empty Scottish landscape. As you do. The draft novel she steals from him seems obviously hers, as all her actions seem obviously Morvern.

By Alan Warner,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Morvern Callar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An utterly unforgettable novel that portrays a vast internal emptiness by using the cool, haunting voice of a young woman in Scotland lost in the profound anomie of her generation—from “one of the most talented, original and interesting voices around” (Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting). 

Morvern Callar, a low-paid employee in the local supermarket in a desolate and beautiful port town in the west of Scotland, wakes one morning in late December to find her strange boyfriend has committed suicide and is dead on the kitchen floor. Morvern's reaction is both intriguing and immoral. What she does next is even…


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Book cover of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

K.R. Wilson Author Of Call Me Stan: A Tragedy in Three Millennia

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Why am I passionate about this?

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What is my book about?

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