Books for Homecomers

Novelist and historian Maggie Craig presents a personal selection of Books for Homecomers, featuring history, fiction, poetry and more.

Being Scottish is a state of mind. So says Arthur Herman, American author of How the Scots Invented the Modern World. Fiercely proud as we are of our great inventors, engineers, medical and other innovators, few Scots would argue with him about that magnificent title. Mr Herman is clearly a man of great taste and discernment.

His erudite and entertaining book has certainly convinced many non-Scots, including the Wall Street Journal, which described it as 'absorbing and fascinating. There's hardly a facet of modern Western life in which the Scots didn't play a leading role.'

That holds true for writing also, of course. There are the age-old Scottish fairy tales and legends, the much-loved, read and sung poems and songs of Robert Burns, the historical novels and tales written and collected by Sir Walter Scott, the rollicking adventures and classic horror stories penned by Robert Louis Stevenson. Many more talented writers before and since their times have contributed to Scotland's sense and image of itself.

If you're proud of the Scottish blood which runs in your veins – 5 million of us in Scotland, 40 million people of Scottish descent around the world – you may be planning a visit to the old country in this Homecoming year. Here are a few suggestions for books which might help ease you into that Scottish state of mind.

Scottish History

Caledonication: A History of Scotland With Jokes

For a concise and very readable overview of the 'long brawl' of Scottish history, it's worth seeking out Ronald Hamilton's A Holiday History of Scotland. For a more light-hearted approach, try Caledonication by John K V Eunson, subtitled A History of Scotland. With Jokes.

The subtitle of James Webb's Born Fighting is How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. This moving and often lyrical book traces the history of those Scots who migrated to Ireland in the bitterly resented Protestant plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. The author argues that those who moved on across the Atlantic, by now calling themselves Scots-Irish, defined many aspects of life in the modern United States.

The King's Jaunt

The three-centuries-old union between Scotland and England is currently under intense scrutiny. John Prebble's The King's Jaunt sheds considerable light on how that union was cemented back in 1822, when King George IV visited Edinburgh, famously wore a kilt, and infamously wore flesh-coloured tights beneath it to preserve his modesty.

Battling manfully against a succession of end-of-the-world downpours such as are not entirely unknown in Edinburgh in August, Sir Walter Scott stage-managed the whole event. The city exploded into a riot of pageantry and tartan, fixing Scotland's image as a somewhat sanitised Highland one, a point of contention for many Scots to this day.

The Thistle and the Crescent

The history through which we're all living now informs The Thistle and the Crescent, a scholarly new book by Bashir Maan. The elder statesman of Scotland's 50,000-strong Muslim community says links between Scotland and the Arab and Islamic world go way back. There's Helen Gloag, the girl who left Perthshire in the 18th century, was captured by Barbary pirates and subsequently became Empress of Morocco. Hundreds of years before she did that, mediaeval Scottish scholars John Duns Scotus and Michael Scott translated and studied the works of their Arab counterparts. This deeply sincere and even-handed book passionately puts the case for mutual respect and understanding between communities of different faiths and cultures.

Homage to Caledonia

That Scots have always looked outwards to the world, and that so many working-class Scots in particular have always felt that an injury to one is an injury to all, is demonstrated by Daniel Gray's recently published Homage to Caledonia. Proportionately more Scots joined the International Brigades fighting fascism in the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s than any other nationality. Many of them lost their lives in this vicious conflict. Scotswomen went too, those who were nursing volunteers earning themselves the nickname of the Red Nightingales. Told through the words and experiences of those who were there, this meticulously researched and beautifully written book is simultaneously heart-breaking and uplifting.

Scottish Fiction

Buddha Da

Bringing us right up-to-date with the authentic flavour of 21st century Glasgow is Buddha Da by Anne Donovan. This modern fairy tale of a father who finds himself on a spiritual quest via Buddhism is told in vigorous but easy-to-read Glaswegian. Even those who had the misfortune to grow up without a guid Scots tongue in their heids will find it takes only a couple of pages to sink comfortably into the rhythm of the language.

The Naming of the Dead

Scotland has darker stories to tell, too. The tartan noir genre is full of mean streets and urban grittiness, and Ian Rankin is undisputed king of this castle. For me the best of his Rebus books is The Naming of the Dead, set in Gleneagles and Edinburgh during the controversial G8 summit of 2005.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

Dark literature has a long pedigree in Scotland. Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde may ostensibly be set in London, but in its highly atmospheric depiction of day and night, light and shade and good and evil, it's pure Edinburgh.

A Lost Lady of Old Years is a bleak but beautiful tale revolving around the Jacobite Rising of 1745. Its author John Buchan also wrote The Thirty-Nine Steps, much lighter but just as enjoyable. It's a perfectly crafted little thriller, set in the lovingly evoked countryside of Dumfries and Galloway.


The homeland of Robert Burns continues to produce wonderful poets. One of them is Kathleen Jamie. In Jizzen, she presents a collection of verses which brilliantly and movingly reflect Scotland and other places besides.

The Scots Kitchen

For a taste of Scotland, try F Marian McNeill's hugely-entertaining The Scots Kitchen. First published in 1929 and still in print today, it's full of recipes, kitchen lore and practical tips. You never know when you might want to make your own sheep's heid broth, otherwise known as powsowdie. It's helpful too to find out that you'll have to take a large, fat, young head to the local blacksmith first and ask him to singe it.

Cross Stitch

After that, you might want to curl up with an epic Scottish romance. Cross Stitch by American author Diana Gabaldon should fit the bill. Women around the world have lost their hearts to her handsome Highland hero, Jamie Fraser.

Kidnapped the Graphic Novel

And finally, we return to the master of high romance and thrilling adventure: Robert Louis Stevenson, whose stories are as vibrant and as vital today as they were when he wrote them. Thanks to Alan Grant and the fantastically engaging and energetic illustrations of Cam Kennedy, Kidnapped can now be read as a graphic novel. Thanks to Scots author Matthew Fitt, it can also be read in Scots too, as Kidnappit.

Robert Louis Stevenson remains a tangible presence in Edinburgh. You can almost feel you might catch a glimpse of him out of the corner of your eye as he disappears round a corner, or plunges down a shadowy close in the Old Town. As a young man exploring its nooks and corners, RLS is said to have always carried two books - one to write in and one to read: a fine example to us all.

  • Cover scan of Buddha Da
    Buddha Da
    Anne Donovan - Paperback - Canongate
    Anne Marie's Da has always been game for a laugh. So when he first takes up meditation at the Buddhist Centre, no one takes him seriously. As he becomes more involved his beliefs start to come into conflict with the needs of his wife.
  • Cover scan of Kidnappit
    Alan Grant; Cam Kennedy - Paperback - Itchy Coo
    'Kidnappit' is a Scots version of Robert Louis Stevenson's 'Kidnapped', a dramatic adventure story about a 17 year old, desperate to secure his inheritance, that culminates in a chase from the islands in the west of Scotland to Edinburgh.
  • Cover scan of The King's Jaunt
    The King's Jaunt: George IV In Scotland, August 1822
    John Prebble - Paperback - Birlinn
    George IV's journey to Scotland in 1822 is one of the defining moments in the creation of the country. The Highland clans were the subjects of eviction and persecution and this work shows the corruption behind the ceremonial of that great occasion.
  • Cover scan of The Naming Of The Dead
    The Naming Of The Dead
    Ian Rankin - Paperback - Orion
    The assorted leaders of the G8 countries have gathered in Scotland and with daily marches, demonstrations and scuffles on the streets, the police are stretched to the limits. When a young politician plunges from the walls of Edinburgh Castle, suicide must be proved, and quickly, to avoid distraction from the main event.
  • Cover scan of The Thistle And The Crescent
    The Thistle And The Crescent
    Bashir Maan - Paperback - Argyll
    Islam is now the second largest religion in Scotland and Muslims form an integral part of Scottish society. However, information on the long and varied relationship between Islam and Scotland that began as early as the seventh century is non-existent. This book has been written to fill this gap.