whisky

A Taste of Scotland

Tom Sharpe|July 29, 2020|Blog Post

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Tom Sharpe

If you’re considering a visit to Scotland, (which I highly recommend!) here are a few personal recommendations to get you into a Scottish frame of mind

Reading

You might like to think about reading some of the Waverley novels of Sir Walter Scott such as Rob Roy, Waverley, or The Lady of the Lake. We did his stuff in school, so just thinking about reading his books is as far as I go these days. They can be hard going, but they are classics. Easier to read are the works of Robert Louis Stevenson such as Kidnapped and The Strange case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Fun tales, although the dialect can be a struggle at times if you’re not used to it, are the Para Handy Tales of Neil Munro, the adventures of the captain of a little cargo steam ship plying the coastal waters of the west of Scotland in the 1930s. These can be found in various editions, but there is a good 1992 compendium, Para Handy Complete Edition, published by Birlinn. Also fun to read are Whisky Galore and The Monarch of the Glen by Compton Mackenzie.

There’s a whole swathe of classic twentieth century Scottish literature, from novelists like Neil Gunn, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and George Mackay Brown once you get into it, but it’s not really my cup of tea. 

Modern classic Scottish novels would include The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) by Muriel Spark and Lanark by Alasdair Gray (1981).

For contemporary fiction, I suggest any—or indeed all—of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus novels which are set in Edinburgh. I’m working my way through all of them at the moment. The novels cover Rebus’ career, so it’s best to begin with the first, Knots and Crosses, from 1987 through to the most recent, In a House of Lies, from 2018.

For non-fiction, you should begin with Samuel Johnson and James Boswell’s 1775 A Journey through the Western Islands of Scotland and The Journal of a Tour to the Highlands, available in a number of modern editions.

For history, take a look at A History of Scotland by Neil Oliver and/or The Scottish Nation: A Modern History by T.M. Devine. Also by Tom Devine are The Scottish Clearances: A History of the Dispossessed 1600-1900 and Scotland’s Empire: The Origins of the Global Diaspora. For Bonnie Prince Charlie and that story, check out Jacobites: A New History of the ’45 Rebellion by Jacqueline Riding.

A good general guide to the coastline of Scotland is A Handbook of Scotland’s Coasts edited by Fi Martynoga (2015). For a feel of the place, try Madeleine Bunting’s Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey (2016). In the same vein for the other side of the country is Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain. A modern bestseller of life in Orkney is The Outrun by Amy Liptrot.

For an explanation of the rocks and scenery, the most readable account is Con Gillen’s Geology and Landscapes of Scotland. Look for the second edition.

If you’re crafty, in the sense of knitting, then I have it on good authority that these books by Kate Davies are worthwhile: Colours of Scotland (2012), Buachaille. At Home in the Highlands (2015), Inspired by Islay (2017) and The West Highland Way (2018).

Watching

What movies come to mind when you think of Scotland? Maybe Gene Kelly in Brigadoon? Or Braveheart with Mel Gibson? If so, let me give you some others. Whisky Galore, based on the novel by Compton Mackenzie is one of the classics, and very funny. I believe it was released in the US under the title Tight Little Island. The original version is from 1947, which is the one I’d recommend, but there is a more recent remake that I’ve not seen. In a similar vein, from the same studio is The Maggie from 1954. Also capturing the atmosphere of the western Highlands and islands, but more of a romance than a comedy, is I Know Where I’m Going from 1945.

The modern equivalent of Whisky Galore, and my favorite film of all time is Local Hero, a 1983 movie by the Scottish director Bill Forsyth and starring, surprisingly, Burt Lancaster. A real, feel-good film, it’s one of those fun movies that you can watch over and over and each time spot something in it that you hadn’t noticed before. It also benefits from stunningly brilliant music by Mark Knopfler. A recent movie, that I’ve not yet seen, but of which I hear good things is Wild Rose (2018) about a Glasgow woman, just released from prison, who wants to be a country and western singer.

There’s also a TV series called Outlander, I believe…..

Listening

Speaking of music, Mark Knopfler’s music for Local Hero was released separately and is a favorite, as is the music he produced for the Irish movie, Cal. There’s a lot of good contemporary Scottish folk music around at the moment (it’s not all bagpipes!). I’d recommend any or all of the albums of Julie Fowlis, Karen Matheson, or Catherine-Ann Macphee. For contemporary bagpipe music, have a listen to The Red Hot Chili Pipers. Other bands well worth seeking out are The Tannahill Weavers, the Battlefield Band, Capercailie, and, of course Runrig. For fiddle music, anything by Shetland fiddler Aly Bain, especially where he performs with Phil Cunningham.

Drinking

Of course, what better way to get into a Scottish frame of mind than by having a wee dram while you read, watch, and listen. We’re talking here of Scottish single malt whisky of which there is a huge range (and there’s an equally huge range of literature on the subject too: the most useful I find is Ingvar Ronde’s Malt Whisky Yearbook). And as you indulge your interest in things Scottish, make sure that you drink your whisky the Scottish way, either neat or with a wee splash of water. No ice. I repeat: NO ICE. Save that for whiskey; if it’s spelt with an ‘e’ like the stuff made in Ireland, feel free to put ice in that. Never in the good stuff. Always look for the words ‘Made in Scotland’ for the best. But, that applies to most things, really…

Slàinte!