What to Read

‘You can cover a great deal of country in books’
Andrew Laing (1844-1912) Scottish writer and poet.

This blog explores the idea that a sense of a nation can be ascertained simply by reading indigenous poems, novels, histories, or even travel guides.   In a series of blogs, I want to create lists of novels, poems, plays and non-fiction books that provide an insight into Scottish culture, history, landscape, and society.  I hope this reading list will provide an ‘aide memoir’ to guests to Powdermills B&B, readers of the blog, and listeners to the podcast, Sue and Johnny – Everything and Anything, and that it will enhance their understanding and pleasure of Scotland.  

I have compiled these lists, as suggestions that will give insight and enjoyment.  This blog will concentrate on the Scottish novel and create my Top 20 list based on what I’ve read myself, which is likely to be limited, and what others have suggested, and with reference to numerous lists online. In addition, I intend to ask friends, fellow students, and subscribers what are their favourites, and why.  Furthermore, I will discuss these choices in our weekly podcast, Sue and Johnny – Everything and Anything with local guests from the community to discover their ‘must reads’. 

Johnny’s Top 20

Robert Louis Stevenson
This is a great introduction to Scottish history, as it details the aftermath of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 and the transformation of Scotland, the start of the highland clearances, the outlawing of the clan culture, and the mass migration of impoverished highlanders to many parts of the world. The novel tracks the griping tale of David Balfour cheated out of his inheritance by his uncle and his subsequent escapades and friendship with Alan Breck Stuart.
The Citadel
A J Cronin
This book is not based in Scotland, so is strictly outside the criteria. However, it is written by a Scot and covers a period in the 1930s in the UK where there was no provision for health services. The book details the life of Andrew Manson, a young idealistic Scottish doctor working in Wales, in poor industrial and mining communities. It is a book that exposes inequality and was part of the movement that led to the demand for the formation of the National Health Service in 1945. It is a salutatory tale of the loss of idealism.
Whisky Galore
Compton Mackenzie
A comic tale based on the islands of Great and Little Todday during rationing of World War II. Life is tough, with not much to drink until one night a ship runs aground on the island with a cargo of whisky. This novel is a fantastic introduction to war time bureaucracy, islanders and mainlanders and the English commander of the military unit based on the island. It shows the unique spirit of the island community and follows the capers of the community to salvage the cargo.
39 Steps
John Buchan
This thriller is based in Scotland and concerns adventurer Andrew Hannay and how he stumbles into the world of espionage and secrets of the state. It was written in 1915 and the language and attitudes reflects that time, Nonetheless, it describes a hectic chase through Scotland of that time.
Alisdair Gray
Gray was a hugely influential Scottish writer and artist in the second half of the twentieth century. Lanark is viewed as a landmark of fiction. It is a playful narrative that conveys a message, political and personal, of people’s inability to love against the human compulsion to keep trying. The work combines realism, fantasy and science fiction with the use of his own illustrations.
Sunset Song
Lewis Grassic Gibbon
Divided between her love of the land and the harshness of farming life, young Chris Guthrie finally decides to stay in the rural community of her childhood. Yet World War I and the changes that follow seem to mock the emotions and experiences of her youth. The novel is a beautifully written evocative view of rural life in North East Scotland and the role of women in society. Lewis Grassic Gibbon was the pseudonym of James Leslie Mitchell. He started working as a journalist for the Aberdeen Journal at age 16. He started full time writing in 1929 until his early death in 1935.
The Laidlaw Trilogy
William McIlvanney
I have included three books from McIlvanney under the guise of the trilogy, because they are brilliant, poetic, humorous and enthralling. Truth is, I would have included all of his books, short stories and his poetry due to its quality. His work speaks of an industrial Scotland of the 1970s on the verge of mass factory closures and redundancy. It concerns the the working classes and the belief that ordinary folk will win over capitalism. He was a committed socialist and this is reflected in all his writings. Based in the west of Scotland, his characters are authentic, hard, and endure poverty, in sharp contrast to the picture postcard tourists are allowed, and want to observe. But to read McIlvanney is to gain a real insight into the Scottish psyche. The Laidlaw Trilogy is a gritty view of the Glasgow criminal fraternity and this body of work earned him the accolade of being the father of Tartan Noir and as Scotland’s Camus
Irvine Welsh
This is an iconic novel that shows the often hidden but real side of Edinburgh in 80s and 90s Scotland. It is a city where I grew up and I recognise, the despair of Westminster Tory Government’s disregard for communities. No jobs, a lack of opportunity for young people and a spiraling descent into heroin addiction. It is a terrible legacy, with parts of Edinburgh having the worse addiction rates in Europe, which has provided an horrendous legacy, There remains an epidemic of heroin deaths of that age group. But don’t be put off, this novel is gritty, thought provoking and funny, in the traditions of post colonial Scottish writers such as McIlvanney and Kelman The language can be difficult for non Scots, but persevere, as its tone, pace and rhythm sings off the page..
The Bridge
Ian Banks
A darkly brilliant novel of self-discovery the cutting edge of experimental fiction. It leads from nowhere to nowhere, the mysterious world-spanning structure on which everyone seems to live. Rescued from the sea, devoid of personality or memory, all John Orr knows is the Bridge, his persistent dreams of war, and his desire for Chief Engineer Arrol’s provocative daughter, Abberlaine.
A Place of Execution
Val McDermid
A taut psychological thriller that explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multilayered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know. Val McDermid is a No. 1 bestseller whose novels have been translated into more than thirty languages, and have sold over eleven million copies.
Black and Blue

Ian Rankin
Born in the Kingdom of Fife in 1960, Ian Rankin graduated from the University of Edinburgh in 1982 and published his first Rebus novel in 1987. The Rebus books are now translated into 22 languages and are bestsellers on several continents. The Bible Johnny case would be perfect for Inspector John Rebus, but after a run-in with a crooked senior officer, he’s been shunted aside to one of Edinburgh’s toughest suburbs, where he investigates the murder of an off-duty oilman. His investigation takes him north to the oil rigs of Aberdeen, where he meets the Bible Johnny media circus head-on. Written with Ian Rankin’s signature wit, style and intricacy, Black and Blue is a novel of uncommon and unforgettable intrigue.
The New Confessions
William Boyd
In this extraordinary novel, William Boyd presents the autobiography of John James Todd, whose uncanny and exhilarating life as one of the most unappreciated geniuses of the twentieth century. Ambitious and entertaining, Boyd has invented a most irresistible hero.
The Lewis Trilogy
Peter May
The Isle of Lewis is a land of strange beauty, harsh living and inhabitants of deep-rooted faith. Detective Inspector Fin Macleod returns from Edinburgh to the island of his childhood to investigate a series of brutal killings. As old memories resurface and old friends reappear, Fin realises that returning to the past will lead him into danger. This is in the Tartan Noir tradition that dates back to McIlvanney, but instead of Glasgow, this novel explores the Outer Hebridean culture, its connection to the landscape and the people.
Jackie Kay
In her starkly beautiful and wholly unexpected tale, Jackie Kay delves into the most intimate workings of the human heart and mind and offers a triumphant tale of loving deception and lasting devotion. The death of legendary jazz trumpeter Joss Moody exposes an extraordinary secret. His widow Millie flees to a remote Scottish village, where she seeks solace in memories of their marriage. The reminiscences of those who knew Joss Moody render a moving portrait of a shared life founded on an intricate lie, one that preserved a rare, unconditional love.
Kieron Smith, boy
James Kelman
The triumph in Kieron Smith, boy is to bring us completely inside the head of a child and remind us what strange and beautiful things happen in there. Here is the story of a boyhood in a large industrial city during a time of great social change. Kieron grows from age five to early adolescence amid the general trauma of everyday life. A whole world is a brilliantly realised vision of Glasgow, the sectarian football matches; ferryboats on the river; the unfairness of being a younger brother; climbing drainpipes, trees, and roofs; dogs, cats, sex, and ghosts. This is a powerful, often hilarious, startlingly direct evocation of childhood.
A Question of Loyalties
Allan Massie
Etienne de Balafré, half French, half English, and raised in South Africa, returns to postwar France to unravel the tangled history of his father. Was Lucien de Balafré a patriot who served his country as best he could in difficult times, or a treacherous collaborator in the Vichy government? This novel explores the complexities of loyalty, nationality, and family legacy after the horrors of World War II. Allan Massie is a Scottish journalist, sports writer and novelist.
Shuggie Bain
Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings. A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction.
The Living Mountain
Nan Shepard
The Living Mountain is a lyrical testament in praise of the Cairngorms. It is a work deeply rooted in Nan Shepherd’s knowledge of the natural world, and a poetic and philosophical meditation on our longing for high and holy places. Drawing on different perspectives of the mountain environment, Shepherd makes the familiar strange and the strange awe-inspiring. Her sensitivity and powers of observation put her into the front rank of nature writing.

George Mackay Brown
This is the story of the saintly Earl Magnus of Orkney who walked calmly, knowingly and completely unarmed to a terrible death at the hands of his cousin Hakon Paulson. Even the hardened Vikings who were at the fateful meeting in 1116 turned away in horror at the brutality of what took place. George Mackay Brown, the poet, novelist and dramatist, spent his life living in and documenting the Orkney Isles.
Consider the Lilies
Iain Crichton Smith
The Highland Clearances, the eviction of crofters from their homes between 1792 and the 1850s, was one of the darkest episodes in Scotland’s history. Consider the Lilies captures its impact through the thoughts and memories of an old woman who has lived all her life within the narrow confines of her community. Alone and bewildered by the demands of the factor, Patrick Sellar, she approaches the minister for help, only to have her faith shattered by his hypocrisy. Written with compassion, in spare, simple prose, Consider the Lilies is a moving testament to the enduring qualities which enable the oppressed to triumph in defeat.