The best books about Scotland

47 authors have picked their favorite books about Scotland and why they recommend each book.

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Witch-Hunting in Scotland

By Brian P. Levack,

Book cover of Witch-Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion

The distinctive selling-point of this work is summed up by its sub-title: a focus on law, politics and religion as causal factors, not just for humdrum witchcraft accusations but for major, sustained witch-hunts. Brian Levack has made a huge contribution to our understanding of witch-hunting, and here brings his specialist expertise to bear on Scotland, which experienced the most intense, and devastating panics anywhere in the British Isles (and worse even than most places in continental Europe).

Historians have long learned not to see witch-hunts as hysterical spasms of pre-Enlightenment ‘superstition’. Demonology was a serious subject in the sixteenth and seventeeen centuries, and was logically coherent within the mentalities of the time. Witchcraft, then, wasn’t some insane sideshow to the dominant legal, political and religious issues of the day, but central to those issues.

Embedding witchcraft in these mainstream contexts is essential to understanding what it once meant, not just…


Who am I?

I am an Emeritus Professor of Early Modern History at the University of East Anglia and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. I taught history for many years at several UK universities, and I was the Director of Studies in History at Churchill College, Cambridge. I am the author of six books, including Hellish Nell: Last of Britain’s Witches and Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction. His latest book, The Ruin of All Witches: Life and Death in the New World, will be published in November by Penguin. I live in Cambridge, England, and I am married with three children.


I wrote...

Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

By Malcolm Gaskill,

Book cover of Witchfinders: A Seventeenth-Century English Tragedy

What is my book about?

By spring 1645, two years of civil war had exacted a dreadful toll upon England. People lived in terror as disease and poverty spread, and the nation grew ever more politically divided. In a remote corner of Essex, two obscure gentlemen, Matthew Hopkins and John Stearne, exploited the anxiety and lawlessness of the time and initiated a brutal campaign to drive out the presumed evil in their midst. Touring Suffolk and East Anglia on horseback, they detected demons and idolaters everywhere. Through torture, they extracted from terrified prisoners confessions of consorting with Satan and demonic spirits.


This is the chilling story of the most savage witch-hunt in English history. By the autumn of 1647 at least 250 people—mostly women—had been captured, interrogated, and hauled before the courts. More than a hundred were hanged, causing Hopkins to be dubbed ‘Witchfinder General’ by critics and admirers alike. Though their campaign was never legally sanctioned, they garnered the popular support of local gentry, clergy, and villagers. While Witchfinders tells of a unique and tragic historical moment fuelled by religious fervour, today it serves as a reminder of the power of fear and fanaticism to fuel ordinary people’s willingness to demonize others.

The Living Mountain

By Nan Shepherd,

Book cover of The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland

"The thing to be known grows with the knowing." This slim book is the distillation of a whole lifetime spent knowing the Cairngorms. Every page is radiant with wisdom, and I think it’s close to perfection. A book all about matter and spirit, and how paying close attention to creation is an endlessly rich and rewarding devotion. 


Who am I?

I did a master's in Environmental Policy, and at the end of that year, I thought, "this is all very well, but there’s no point designing these policies if no one wants them." My response to the environmental crisis is to try to open people’s eyes to the beauty and wonder of Nature. If you pay close attention, you start to develop an expansive sense of the ordinary: Creation is stranger, more mysterious, and more wonderful than we can imagine. This in turn helps us to love the world more deeply, and we tend to look after things that we love. 


I wrote...

Talking Through Trees

By Edward Picton-Turbervill,

Book cover of Talking Through Trees

What is my book about?

Talking Through Trees was supposed to be a rather dry history of the gardens in St John’s College, Cambridge, but what came out when I sat down to write it was altogether more unexpected. The book is a rhapsody on the trees in the college’s garden, flowing between anecdote, history, biology, poetry, and philosophy. It was augmented by 35 wonderful woodcuts produced by Angela Lemaire for the book and printed by hand at the Old Stile Press. My favourite lines are "A tree is a river in reverse. A river converges on its trunk, and a tree diverges from its source. Humans are both wood and water, since our arteries are trees, and our veins are rivers."

This book is available here.

The Steel Bonnets

By George MacDonald Fraser,

Book cover of The Steel Bonnets: The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers

By the author of the wonderfully wicked Flashman novels, this is simply the best book I know on the Reivers (Rustlers) of the Scottish-English Borderlands C14-16th. I referred to it often when constructing Rose Nicolson and Fair Helen. As with Flashman, it depicts resourceful, desperate men and women, trying to survive and prosper amid the shambles of History – in this case, the ungovernable Borderlands. Finely researched, vivid and balanced, Fraser brings to life the extraordinary people of Borders myth and history. Imagine a Wild West that lasted some 300 years of horse and cattle rustling, kidnap and ransom, protection rackets (the words gang and blackmail - black meal or black rent - come from the reivers exploits), with some great narrative poetry and jokes grim or hilarious. A Borderer himself, Fraser gets the romance and the less romantic necessities that governed these intensely-lived, skillful, precarious lives.


Who am I?

I was born in rural Bannockburn in Scotland, two fields from the site of the famous Battle (a rare victory over England) of 1314. From the start, the Past has always been very present to me. I have written 22 books: novels, non-fiction memoir, and poetry. In differing ways they all explore aspects of Scotland and being Scottish – our landscape, geology, history, culture, and psyche. I was brought up in East Fife, near St Andrews, and live in Edinburgh and Orkney; my mother was English, as is my wife, novelist Lesley Glaister. Which is by way of saying I am interested in writing the joys, aches, and complexities of being human, in the universal and the local, in our present and the Past that shapes it.


I wrote...

Rose Nicolson: Memoir of William Fowler of Edinburgh

By Andrew Greig,

Book cover of Rose Nicolson: Memoir of William Fowler of Edinburgh

What is my book about?

Set in St Andrews, Edinburgh, and the Western Marches, in the unstable years following the C16th Reformation and the flight of Mary Queen of Scots, this story follows the struggles of a group of young people to survive and even prosper amid the shambolic governance of a riven society. They fall in love, make jokes, study, get caught up in plots and become enlisted in cross-Border reiving raids. Narrated in old age by real-life William Fowler of Edinburgh - student, businessman, sometimes poet, and would-be lover - we live his conflicts, the battles between faith and reason, love, friendship, and self-interest, told with high seriousness and low wit. It is a companion piece to the acclaimed Fair Helen, Greig’s earlier novel that lived out the romantic-tragic Border Ballad Fair Helen of Kilconnel Lea. To read this novel is to enter a world so different yet so present and suggestive of our own.

Witch Wood

By John Buchan,

Book cover of Witch Wood

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.


Who am I?

I am an award-winning author and journalist, specialising in social history and gardening. I have an M.A. in Modern History from Cambridge University and a Diploma of Horticulture from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I have written for many British newspapers and magazines, most notably The Spectator, The Observer, The Independent, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Telegraphand The Garden.


I wrote...

Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan

By Ursula Buchan,

Book cover of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan

What is my book about?

My latest book is a critically-acclaimed biography of my grandfather, entitled Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan. This explores his extraordinary and multifarious life, his public prominence - including his years as Governor-General of Canada - and the more than 100 books that he wrote: historical fiction, biography, short stories, poems, essays, and, of course, spy thrillers and adventure stories.

Most famous of these are the Richard Hannay stories, such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was turned into a memorable film by Alfred Hitchcock, and has never been out of print in over a hundred years. Since I am a historian and have Scots forbears, my choices are five fine historical novels about Scotland, written in the 20th century.

Kidnapped

By Robert Louis Stevenson,

Book cover of Kidnapped

I read Stevenson’s A Childhood Garden of Verses and then Kidnapped the novel which I enjoyed far more than Treasure Island. In Kidnapped the hero David Balfour is beset by challenges that ‘doubles’ his adventures. Kidnapped is more intensely engaging because instead of imagining yourself part of a group, you ‘become’ David Balfour alone beyond mere suspense into elements of horror and which he survives. It was my first experience with a Gothic novel. This is the sort of book where you forget everything and are transported within David Balfour’s journeys by land and sea.

What I still remember is the compelling nature of the narrative: how his Uncle plans to destroy him, how he loses his inheritance, how he is captured and thrown into the hold of a ship, how he lives as an innocent fugitive, and as a warrior fighting for his life. Stevenson’s method is…


Who am I?

This is very simple as to why there is passionate engagement with the themes listed within each of the five titles chosen. It's about engagement with the story which immediately comes from strongly identifying with the characters and events. The ‘identity factor’ is vital in drawing the reader in, and it's the mystery when writing a story or book which doesn’t begin with a prescribed plan. The mystery is really what creates the story and its characters, wanting to see what happens on the next page. With the reader, after having read a few pages, feeling the compulsion to read on, fully committed, emotionally involved, intrigued, and passionately caught up in the story.


I wrote...

A Horse Called El Dorado

By Kevin Kiely,

Book cover of A Horse Called El Dorado

What is my book about?

Pepe Carroll, the hero of A Horse Called El Dorado, has to leave his father during a military conflict and escape through the jungles of Colombia with his mother which is the first part of his story of survival. His adventures are continual survival. How he finds his grandparents in a far away country and good friends of his own age who identify his dream which will take him into “the world of horses.” How he survives. How he discovers what he must achieve and achieves it is his story. Told in a way that makes it real in every way. There is hardship, trouble, breakthrough and joy at least for Pepe, despite what he is witness to on his journeys.     

The New Road

By Neil Munro,

Book cover of The New Road

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.


Who am I?

I am an award-winning author and journalist, specialising in social history and gardening. I have an M.A. in Modern History from Cambridge University and a Diploma of Horticulture from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I have written for many British newspapers and magazines, most notably The Spectator, The Observer, The Independent, The Sunday Telegraph, The Daily Telegraphand The Garden.


I wrote...

Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan

By Ursula Buchan,

Book cover of Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan

What is my book about?

My latest book is a critically-acclaimed biography of my grandfather, entitled Beyond the Thirty-Nine Steps: A Life of John Buchan. This explores his extraordinary and multifarious life, his public prominence - including his years as Governor-General of Canada - and the more than 100 books that he wrote: historical fiction, biography, short stories, poems, essays, and, of course, spy thrillers and adventure stories.

Most famous of these are the Richard Hannay stories, such as The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was turned into a memorable film by Alfred Hitchcock, and has never been out of print in over a hundred years. Since I am a historian and have Scots forbears, my choices are five fine historical novels about Scotland, written in the 20th century.

Sunset Song

By Lewis Grassic Gibbon,

Book cover of Sunset Song

I received this as a prize at school when I was fifteen and passages like this spoke to me: “...you wanted the words they'd known and used, forgotten in the far‑off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart, how they wrung it and held it.” My Ayrshire community spoke Scots so it was life changing to read this message by an author from a different time and a different place who was  intensely relevant to my own situation. Being discouraged or even punished for speaking Scots in school, led us to learn English pretty quickly and this bi-lingual tension gave us an advantage learning other languages like French and German which I studied at University. But I will always be grateful to Sunset Song for making me aware of how important the Scots language was to our identity as Scots: “And the next minute that passed…


Who am I?

I grew up in a strong Scots–speaking environment just before the advent of television, so very much a Scottish village rather than the global village. Speaking several foreign languages and being able to study Scots language and literature at Edinburgh University gave me confidence and the realisation of how special Scots was, and how closely it is tied to the identity of the people and the land. The book is local, national, and international in outlook and is written from the heart and soul, with a strong influence of the Democratic Intellect thrown in to balance the passion. You can also hear me reading the book on Audible.


I wrote...

Scots: The Mither Tongue

By Billy Kay,

Book cover of Scots: The Mither Tongue

What is my book about?

Scots: The MitherTongue is a classic of contemporary Scottish culture. It is a passionately written history of how the Scots came to speak the way they do and acted as a catalyst for radical changes in attitude towards the language. Kay vigorously renews the social, cultural, and political debate on Scotland's linguistic future, and argues convincingly for the necessity to retain Scots for the nation to hold on to its intrinsic values. Language is central to people's existence, and this vivid account celebrates the survival of Scots in its dialects, literature, and song. The newspaper Scotland on Sunday chose Scots: The Mither Tongue as one of the best 100 Scottish books ever written. 

A Rush of Wings

By Laura E. Weymouth,

Book cover of A Rush of Wings

A poignant, passionate retelling of The Seven Wild Swans set in an alternate Scotland, this gorgeous book stars a prickly, fierce girl who will do anything to save her brothers from a wicked enchantment. Rowenna’s mother Mairead dies before she can teach Rowenna the magical craft she is so desperate to learn. But when Mairead seemingly comes back from the dead, Rowenna is powerless to defeat the evil creature wearing her face, who proceeds to curse Rowenna, her brothers, and the boy named Gawen Rowenna rescued from the sea. The boys are turned into swans by day, only shifting back to their human forms at night. Rowenna herself is robbed of her voice by day. There is only one thing that can save her brothers and herself—shirts woven out of stinging nettles. But can she weave the shirts before time runs out?


Who am I?

I have been a passionate devourer of fairytale retellings ever since I happened upon Robin McKinley’s Beauty at the library when I was eleven years old. Fairytales have such a timelessness to them that allow them to be retold over and over, reinterpreted, and reimagined in seemingly countless ways, and I’m honored to have now written a few of my own. Fairytales have shaped my own writing from the beginning.


I wrote...

Echo North

By Joanna Ruth Meyer,

Book cover of Echo North

What is my book about?

Echo is an outcast in her village because of the scars on her face. Her only solace is her books and the warmth of her father’s love. So when her father goes missing and she finds him half-frozen at the feet of a mysterious white wolf, she’ll do anything to save him—even promise to live with the wolf for one year.

The wolf’s house is magical and ever-changing. If its many wondrous and perilous rooms aren’t routinely cared for, they unravel and are lost forever. The wolf teaches Echo how to tend the house, and when she discovers an enchanted library filled with book mirrors—and the dashing reader Hal inside of them—she determines to help however she can. But time is running out, and if Echo doesn’t unravel the mystery of the wolf’s enchantment before the year is up, she’ll lose the wolf—and Hal—forever. A retelling of “East of the Sun and West of the Moon”, set in a Russian-inspired world.

Scotch Whisky

By Charles MacLean,

Book cover of Scotch Whisky: A Liquid History

Charles MacLean MBE is without any doubt the number one expert on Scotch whisky in the world. His writings are always a joy to read. Charlie, as he is known by friends and family, has a penchant for history and pouring it in highly entertaining sentences, avoiding facts like figures cluttering up the story line. He has been researching and writing whisky books & articles since 1981, and shares his enthusiasm and knowledge by giving talks and tastings around the world, by leading ‘whisky expeditions’ in Scotland and by presenting training programmes and Masterclasses for whisky companies, clubs and individuals. Without wanting to pay short on his many other books, Scotch Whisky: A liquid history, is a seminal work.


Who am I?

Hans Offringa has written 25 books about whisky in one way or another, among which the international bestseller A Field Guide to Whisky. He has been contributing editor of Whisky Magazine and American Whiskey for a number of years, and is a Keeper of the Quaich, Kentucky Colonel, Lifetime International Ambassador of the Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival, Founder of International Whisky Day, Honorary Ambassador of the Scotch Malt Whisky Society, and Patron of the Whisky Festival North Netherlands. Together with his American spouse Becky Lovett Offringa, who is co-author and contributing photographer to at least ten of Hans’ books, he conducts tastings and presentations.


I wrote...

A Field Guide to Whisky: An Expert Compendium to Take Your Passion and Knowledge to the Next Level

By Hans Offringa,

Book cover of A Field Guide to Whisky: An Expert Compendium to Take Your Passion and Knowledge to the Next Level

What is my book about?

In A Field Guide to Whisky, published by Artisan/Workman, NYC, Hans accumulated his vast knowledge of whisky and whiskey worldwide, built up during more than 30 years of research, visiting over 150 distilleries and interviews with many people who make the stuff. In 320 pages, attractively set up as a comprehensive Q&A, you will find almost anything you may want to know about whisky, with and without the “e”.

A Field Guide to Whisky is lavishly illustrated with hundreds of images and photographs, mostly taken by The Whisky Couple themselves.

The Scottish Enlightenment

By Alexander Broadie,

Book cover of The Scottish Enlightenment: The Historical Age of the Historical Nation

I think understanding the intellectual background to a historical period is always important, and I was introduced to the Scottish Enlightenment at West Virginia Wesleyan College through this book. I have since had the pleasure to meet and work with Alexander Broadie while at Glasgow, and he is a kind, generous, and supportive scholar.

The Scottish Enlightenment covers the significant breakthroughs in the thought of the movement, and the contributions of the characters behind it such as David Hume and Adam Smith. The importance of studying history, morality in civil society, religion, and art. The Enlightenment laid the groundwork for our modern society, so how could anyone not study it?


Who am I?

I dropped out of law school to pursue a PhD in music at the University of Glasgow and to write the history of the flute in Scotland. Essentially, I wanted to know that if Scotland was a leader in Enlightenment thought, and if there were hundreds of publications with flute on the title page, and since the flute was the most popular amateur instrument in the eighteenth century, why was nothing written about the flute. I obsessively read Scottish mythology as a child, and was always drawn to the stereotypical wild misty landscapes of Scotland without knowing much about it. 


I wrote...

The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

By Elizabeth Ford,

Book cover of The Flute in Scotland from the Sixteenth to the Eighteenth Century

What is my book about?

This is the first (and only) book devoted to the flute in Scottish music history. It explores the rich history of the flute in Scottish musical life through people who played it, made it, and offers in depth analysis of surviving flute manuscripts.

This might sound dry, but it has pictures, and has been called “required reading” and “groundbreaking.” I suspect this is because the common misconception is that no one in Scotland played flute, that flute in traditional music is an Irish thing. I debunk that, along with the other myth about ladies not playing flute. The flute’s use in Scottish music gets moved much earlier than previously thought along the way. 


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