Load up your TBR list with this list of books set in Scotland and then get inspired to go there!
Scotland has a literary tradition that is a lot like it’s weather; stormy and unpredictable. Outlander’s hot and hunky Scottish countryside has created a resurgent interest in books set in Scotland. This list of Scottish books, prepared by me, a recovering bookseller, will help you explore more of it’s culture, landscape, dark humor and idiosyncratic slang.
(Some of the links below are affiliate links. This means that if you chose to purchase, I’ll get a small commission.)
Historical Fiction Set in Scotland
Scotland was founded in in 843 AD and even the “new” part of Edinburgh is four hundred years old, so there is a LOT of history to explore. This Scottish historical fiction will take you back in time and help you explore some of that history.
Waverly, Sir Walter Scott
From Amazon– The book…”tells the story of Edward Waverley, a naïve young man who is posted to Scotland with his regiment. Edward must decide whether he will follow the civilization he has always known, or be drawn into an older world of honor.” Edinburgh’s own Waverly Train station is named for this novel and it has the distinction of being the only train station with a literary name. The station and the Sir Walter Scott monument are must see for literary tourists.
Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
Outlander is responsible for a resurgent interest in Scottish books. It has the right mix of fantasy, romance and bloody Scottish clan wars. A British combat nurse, just back from World War II is reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon in Scotland. She steps between two stones in an ancient standing circle and is whisked away to a warring and dangerous Scotland of 1743. The book offers a fictional backdrop to Scotland’s Highland history and it’s a rollicking adventure. And if you like the first one, there are seven more novels and a TV series to keep you busy.
At the Water’s Edge, Sara Gruen
The author of Water for Elephants comes back with the story of a couple who, after disgracing themselves in the Philadelphia society scene, are banished to the highlands on a scheme to track down the Loch Ness monster. From the reviews, “a story about opening up to our inner self.”
The Highland Witch, Susan Fletcher
This book (which is sometimes called Corrag), tells the story of an accused witch who has been imprisoned in the Scottish highlands in 1692. She witnessed the Massacre of Glencoe. She tells her story to the Reverand Charles Leslie, exposing themes of… “the love of nature, getting in touch with one’s heart, futility of hatred and violence, tolerance of others’ values and compassion for all living creatures.”
Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott
If you like Waverly, then keep going with Rob Roy. The title character is the Chieftain of the MacGregor clan. He’s trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers while also helping his cousin put the kibosh on a dastardly plan to steal the family business. Rebellious and swashbuckling.
Scottish Crimes & Misdemeanors
Scotland has very moody weather and I suspect that the resulting seasonal affective disorder has driven Scottish authors a bit over the edge because these murder mystery books set in Scotland have a very dark and edgy tone.
Inspector Rebus Series, Ian Rankin
Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is a perceptive, fragile curmudgeon of a detective. In this classic police procedural series, the detective asserts his independence, much to the annoyance of his “betters”. And he usually get his man. You can start anywhere in the series but the first book is Knots and Crosses.
Jack Parlabane Series, Christopher Brookmyre
The series features wisecracking journalist Jack Parlabane, who investigates murders while poking at class structure and social hubris. Described as a “highball cross between Carl Hiasson and Elmore Leonard”, these books offer a fast-paced, sardonic page-turner with a twist.
The Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy series), Peter May
Edinburgh cop Fin Macleod is sent out the outer Hebrides to Lewis Island in order to investigate a hanging. Fin was raised on the remote island and finds that his return puts an uncomfortable grip on his psyche.
Eye for an Eye (DCI Gilchrist Series), T. Frank Muir
Gilchrist is a motivated and ambitious DCI who would rather work alone than with others, which is a common enough trope for UK DCIs. In the first book of the series, Gilchrist and his partner are tasked with investigating a series of vicious killings that only occur during thunderstorms. A media uproar and vengeful boss conspire to pull Gilchrist from the case. But his own fear of failure forces him to continue solo work work the case. It’s tightly written with a fast pace and a good sense of place.
Lanark, Alasdair Gray
“A man wakes up on a train with no memory and seashells in his pockets. He finds himself arriving in a peculiar place called Unthank—where the sun only comes up part-way and the inhabitants are prone to disappearing. He names himself Lanark and soon encounters a gallery of characters who suffer from joblessness, alienation, and strange maladies”.
This book is part fantasy, part dystopia, part bindungsroman, and it’s guaranteed to short-circuit your brain.
A Strange Scottish Shore, Juliana Grey
If you like the time travel and romance aspect of Outlander, then you may like A Strange Scottish Shore. In it, Emmaline Truelove is off to the Orkney Islands to work on an archaeology dig. While there, she and her colleague, the Duke of Olympia run across a mystery involving a suite of clothing, a selkie legend and a missing friend.
Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
Private investigator Jackson Brodie takes on three seemingly unrelated crimes. Brodie is a complex character who manages to be both dark and funny. And Scotland’s moody landscape is also a major character. If you like the first one (and I did very much), then you can read the whole series.
The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell
“Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved”.
And so begins this strange and touching story of two sisters who, left parentless, are trying really hard to hide it. They are taken in by their neighbor, who has issues of his own. It’s a dramatic, chilling and touching tale of family, loyalty and secrets.
Literary Fiction Set in Scotland
These novels all circle around themes of family dynamics, identity and secrets. So, so many secrets. I like that some of these more modern works don’t flinch from identity politics and that the locals are spread throughout Scotland’s diverse landscape.
Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
In this quiet story, five people, who are each dealing with a personal tragedy find themselves together in Scotland. They are each trying to find a way forward and are helped by mutual company, a cozy old house, wood fire and whiskey.
“Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. A brief time, when darkness predominates. Yet in this brief time, Rosamund Pilcher has set a story filled with light and warmth.”
The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy Tallack
This community on the rugged west coast of Shetland is facing extinction. David has lived there all his live but he’s worried that as elders like him die, no young families will come to take care of the valley. The book deals with issues of community identity and sense of place. It offers up a slice of Shetlands life with the islands themselves playing a major character in this novel.
Trumpet: A Novel, Jackie Kay
When Joss Moody, a jazz trumpeter dies, he leaves a big secret behind. His wife Millie has always known but their adopted son Coleman does not. After Coleman works with a journalist to find out the truth, it throws into question everything he ever thought about his family. Even though this book was written in 1998, it’s themes of family love and gender identity make the book very of the moment.
Bone Deep, Sandra Ireland
This atmospheric page turner starts harmlessly enough when Mac (a historian) hires Lucie to be her assistant. There is the historical perspective concerning Mac’s research into a local legend about jealousy between two sisters. And there is the modern perspective which explores Lucie’s secrets and Mac’s obsessions. Mac and Lucie soon begin circling each other– things are discovered and lines are crossed. The book is Gothic and spine chilling.
Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith
Smith has taken Ovid’s Metamorphosis and given it a 21st century twist. Girl meets Boy who is really a Girl. The story follows Andrea, who falls in love with Robin, a gender fluid protester. Andrea’s sister Imogen struggles to come to terms with both their relationship and her own low self esteem. The book is ostensibly about love, but the story itself morphs into a powerful message about consumerism and the state of our world.
The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan
In this apocalyptic story, the world is freezing, not warming. The heaviest winter in 200 years has arrived and it threatens the whole world. There is a huge glacier headed for Scotland when Dylan heads to the Highlands to bury his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes. He washed up in a caravan park and meets Constance and Estella, who are trying to prepare for survival. It’s a literary novel about their relationships, set against a backdrop of destruction. Wear a sweater and drink some hot tea while you read it.
‘’It’s old Mother Frost. She wants her wolves back.’’ –Fagan
Scottish Literature That’s Dark and Twisty
The following authors are definitely not shying away from Scotland’s cloudy underbelly. These dark characters are drunks, drug-addled thugs, unorthodox dictators, loner cranks, crappy husbands and just plain bad neighbors. They are some of the craziest characters that you’ll find in Scotland.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
Mark Renton, (Rent), is a petty thief and a world class heroin addict. He and his equally degenerate band of junkies, nuts and thugs paint a gritty but colorful picture of Edinburgh in the late ’80’s. Reading the book will give you a great primer on the hard to decipher Scottish accent and insight into the darker side of Edinburgh.
Morvern Collar, Alan Warner
Movern Callar is a low-paid supermarket clerk who wakes up one morning to discover her boyfriend’s grisly suicide. Rather than responding as one might expect, with tears and a quick ring to the police, Movern takes another tack entirely. She strips her boyfriend of his money, an unpublished manuscript and his beloved Walkman. Then she hides the body and walks away. The vivid and buzzing prose keeps you trying to figure out if what she is experiencing grief, or simply detachment.
“By turns naïve and knowing, under-educated but sure of what she wants, her voice is direct, colloquial, dialectal, instantly believable.”
How Late it Was, How Late, James Kelman
Kelman won a Booker Prize award for this Kafkaesque stream of consciousness journey in 1994. At the time, it was controversial, with reviewers sniffing at the copious swearing and the “the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”. But that’s the point. Kelman’s edgy story follows an ex-con man who wakes up from a 2-day bender badly beaten, blind and accused a crime that he’s kinda sure he didn’t commit.
“The steady, crazy, profane, beautiful voice of Sammy never relents, never pauses, and this is one deliriously fast read”
44 Scotland Series, Alexander McCall Smith
Inspired by Maupin’s Tales of the City, this series features quirky characters who bumble through life in their beloved Edinburgh. McCall follows the neighbors and residents of 44 Scotland street and “delivers plenty of twists and turns as he skewers the puffery, the pretense, the tedium and self-defeating moves in his characters’ daily lives”.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Sparks
Miss Jean Brodie applies unorthodox teaching methods to her cadre of boarding house students with devastating effects. “Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth and beauty come first. Follow me”
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
Except that Eleanor Oliphant is not fine. She struggles with social skills and avoids social interactions. She and the other “not completely fine” characters in this book come together to help rescue one another from their lives of isolation. Honeyman writes with a light touch and is very subtle about how she reveals Eleanor’s secrets, so be sure to read every word…it’s worth it!
If you do Eleanor Oliphant as a group read, be sure to use these book club questions and discussion guide.
The Crow Road, Iain Banks
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
This opening line of The Crow Road tells you right up front that you are in for some serious gallows humor. This first person narrative of Prentice McHoan presents his ever so Scottish family dynamics as they deal with “death, drink, sex, God, illegal substances, and whatever happened to Uncle Rory (who disappeared a decade earlier)”.
The End of the World Running Club, Adrian J. Walker
Out of all of these books on Scotland, this dystopic family love story is my favorite. The book is a cross between The Road and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Edgar Hill, a loving but crappy husband and father finds himself separated from his family after a catastrophic meteor shower wipes out much most of Edinburgh (and the rest of the northern hemisphere). The story follows him as he literally runs to find his family and he has to deal with the mess of both the landscape and his own emotional baggage along the way.
Travelogues, Guides and Blogs
Surfacing, Kathleen Jamie
This series of essays are a blend of memoir, cultural history and travelogue. Jamie covers three excursions to Tibet, Alaska and the Links of Noltland in Orkney, Scotland. During her time in Scotland, she works on the excavation of a neolithic site once settled by people who managed to tough it out on the relentlessly windy landscape. The poetic prose explores “… looking and seeing; examining space, light, nature, pondering history and the remembering of that which has been forgotten.”
You really should visit Scotland. The country has the trifecta of great European offerings: epic landscapes, cool cities and castles. What more do you want? Plan your trip there with one of the following great guide books on Scotland.
Rick Steves, Scotland Guide
Rick is a goofball, but I likes his guides because they are thorough, practical and budget friendly. The guide for Scotland does a good job of not only calling out cool spots to visit, but also offering itinerary suggestions for different trip lengths.
If you are interested in whiskey or castles or both, these Collins maps do a great job of showing you where to find them. They cover all regions of Scotland, so if you are in a particular area for other kinds of sightseeing, you can reference these maps for the whiskey and castles.
Here are some of my own blog articles and also some links from travel bloggers who live in Scotland.
- If you also like Rick Steves, you should check out my guide to Disobeying Rick Steves in Edinburgh for an alternative itinerary.
- Then take an urban stroll on the Water of Leith walkway and take a tour with Dobby of Harry Potter.
- Check out Two Scots Abroad’s Guide to Scotland.
- Watch Me See has a resource featuring 16 epic road trips and she also offers itinerary consultations.
- Scots 2 Travel has advice on family travel in Scotland, including a long list of suggestions for family-friendly accommodation.
- Migrating Miss has some solid reasons why you should add Shetland to your itinerary.
Expand your literary borders this year and take the Travel Reading List challenge. Learn more here.
READ MORE BOOKS!
Start with this list of the very best travel books. It includes great reads about how travel is transformative, offering wacky tales of derring do, epic quests and stories of authentic travel.
You should also check out the following series of book lists for specific destinations:
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