Classics Club Round-Up 5 – Scottish

When I joined the Classics Club back in June 2016, I created a list of 90 books which I planned to read and review during the next five years. I divided the original list into five sections: American, English, Scottish, Crime and Science Fiction. So rather than trying to summarise the whole thing in one post, I’ve decided to give each section a post to itself as I complete it. Here’s the fifth and final…


As I’ve said many times, I’m ashamed of how few Scottish classics I’ve read, partly because we were mainly taught English literature in our education system and so English classics have always been my comfort zone. But this isn’t a good enough excuse to cover the several decades since I left school! So I was keen to have a Scottish section on my CC list – 20 books, some of which are well known and many others I’d never heard of, selected from various Best Of lists or from the recommendations of family and fellow bloggers. As well as reading the novels, I’ve read a little along the way about the history of Scottish fiction and its characteristics, and learned the meaning of the wonderful phrase “Caledonian antisyzygy” – “the existence of duelling polarities within one entity” or, more simply, duality or opposites – which features in different forms throughout Scottish fiction and, indeed, life: Jekyll and Hyde, good and evil twins or siblings, Highlander/Lowlander, Jacobite/Hanoverian, Protestant/Catholic, nationalist/unionist, etc., etc.

Starting with the bad and working up towards the good then – the quotes are from my reviews or, in the case of abandoned books, from my notes on Goodreads:


Annals of the Parish by John Galt – removed from the list to make room for one I acquired and wanted to include, Marriage.

Grey Granite by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “I wonder what happened to Lewis Grassic Gibbon? Sunset Song is undoubtedly great, Cloud Howe is mediocre and dull, and this one is dreadful. Did he only write the other two to cash in on the success of the first?” Replaced by The White Bird Passes.

The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett – I know loads of people love Dunnett, but I hated her writing style, and gave up on this one at a very early stage. Replaced by The Silver Darlings.


Bad is, of course, a subjective term…

Children of the Dead End by Patrick MacGill – “It wasn’t long after this point that I decided I’d had enough of the adventures of Mr Misogyny and his dog-kicking boots.”

The Bull Calves by Naomi Mitchison – “It has its good points, but it fails in the major criterion of what makes a good novel – it has no plot to speak of, certainly not one that builds any suspense or tension, or makes the reader care about the outcome.”


Marriage by Susan Ferrier – “One can tell Emily’s opinion of Mary’s constant moralising and rejection of fun is rather similar to my own – i.e., one suspects she often wants to slap Mary with a wet fish. But for some reason, despite this, Emily grows to love Mary and indeed, (to my horror), even occasionally wonders if she should emulate her.”

The House with the Green Shutters by George Douglas Brown – “Well, I’m willing to bet Brown would have got on well with my old friend John Steinbeck. They could have had misanthropy competitions to see who could be the most miserable. I’m tempted to suggest that Brown might have won.”

Cloud Howe by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – “There’s a lot of drunkenness which would certainly have been true of Scottish society, but a lack of warmth and generosity of spirit, which doesn’t ring true to me and seems in direct contrast to the feeling of community in Sunset Song.”

Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie – “It takes about half the book before the shipwreck happens, and for most of that time we are introduced to a variety of quirky caricatures . . . and listen while they tell each other how awful life is because they have no whisky.”

The Cone-Gatherers by Robin Jenkins – “…religious symbolism abounds in an Old Testament, Garden of Eden corrupted by nasty humanity kind of way, but it’s all a bit simplistic – the good people are so very innocent, and the bad people are hissably dastardly villains.”


Flemington by Violet Jacob – “Jacob takes us from high society to low, into the drawing-rooms of Edinburgh in the company of the self-important Lord Balnillo and his friends, and into the world of intrigue carried out in inns and back streets under cover of night…”

Imagined Corners by Willa Muir – “As Ned descends into madness, and William wrings his hands helplessly and looks unavailingly to his God for help, their sister, Sarah, rolls up her sleeves and gets on with the job of trying to hold all their lives together. It’s not made explicit, but Muir clearly implies that, in a crisis, forget God and man – it’ll all end up on the shoulders of the womenfolk.”

No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – “Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers…”

The Silver Darlings by Neil M. Gunn – “His portrayal of the sea as a heartless mistress, dealing out wealth and death arbitrarily, is wonderful, and the sailing scenes are some of the best parts of the book.”


The Expedition of Humphry Clinker by Tobias Smollett – “To Matthew, Bath is a dreadful place, full of riff-raff and the nouveau riche, and he is deeply concerned about the unsanitary conditions prevailing in the famous spas where people drink the waters for their health.”

The Fair Maid of Perth by Sir Walter Scott – “Rothsay’s followers include some great baddies – Ramorny, who has a personal reason to want vengeance against Henry; Bonthron, Ramorny’s beast-like assassin; and the marvellous Henbane Dwining, a skilled physician who uses his arts for evil as well as for good and is deliciously sinister and manipulative.”

Catherine and Ramorny in the dungeon

The Master of Ballantrae by Robert Louis Stevenson – “When Bonnie Prince Charlie arrives in Scotland in 1745 to reclaim the lost Stuart crown, the Durie family of Durrisdeer must decide where their loyalties lie. If they make the wrong choice, they could lose everything, but pick the winning side and their future is secure.”

The New Road by Neil Munro – “First published in 1914, Munro is clearly setting out to drag some realism back into the narrative of the Jacobite era, in contrast to the gradual romanticisation that took place during the 19th century both of the risings and of Highland society in general.”

The Valley of Fear by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – “The background story takes us to the Pennsylvanian coal-mines of the 1870s, where we meet Jack McMurdo, an Irishman who has just arrived there after fleeing justice in Chicago. He quickly becomes involved in the Scowrers, a gang of unscrupulous and violent men who control the valley through fear, intimidation and murder.”

The Gowk Storm by Nancy Brysson Morrison – “The quality of the writing and characterisation; the beautiful descriptions of the wild landscape and weather of the Highlands; the delicately nuanced portrayal of the position of women within this small, rather isolated society; the story that manages tragedy without melodrama and hope without implausibility – all of these mean it richly merits its status as a Scottish classic.”

The White Bird Passes by Jessie Kesson – “…allowing the reader to find amusement, along with Janie herself, in the scrabbling existence of the women of the Lane and the hardships of Janie’s life. And Janie’s uncomplicated love for her neglectful, inadequate mother makes the reader see her with sympathetic eyes too, for, whatever Liza’s flaws may be, she loves her daughter.”

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – “Spark skewers this Edinburgh society with its fixation on class, its soul-destroying respectability, still suffering from the blight of Calvin’s and Knox’s self-righteous, unforgiving Protestantism, obsessed by immorality and sin.”

The wonderful Maggie Smith in her prime…


Oh, this was a tough decision! The Gowk Storm, The Master of Ballantrae, The New Road, The White Bird Passes – all wonderful books, all eminently Scottish. But my winner has to be the most Scottish of all, full of that Caledonian antisyzygy stuff! It’s a satire on the idea of predestination, an examination of the origins of the sectarianism which still disfigures Scotland today, a tale of sibling rivalry, a story of madness, murder and the devil. And surprisingly, it’s also full of humour…

The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg – “The justified sinner of the title is the younger brother, Robert. Abandoned by the man the law says is his father, and subjected to the religious fanaticism of his guardian and his mother, it’s perhaps not surprising that the boy grows up to be somewhat twisted and jealous of his elder brother, who seems to have a golden life. But Robert’s problems really begin when Reverend Wringhim informs him that God has decided Robert should be one of the elect, predestined for salvation. The question the book satirises is – if one is predestined for salvation, does that mean one can sin free of consequences? In fact, is it possible for the elect to sin at all or, by virtue of their exalted status, do things that would be sinful if done by one of the damned cease to be sins when done by one of the elect? The book is not an attack on religious faith in general, but Hogg has a lot of fun with all the gradations of extremity within this particularly elitist little piece of dogma.”

Portrait of James Hogg by Sir John Watson Gordon

* * * * *

In summary, then, too many Jacobites in the historical fiction, too many miserable drunks in the 20th century batch. But also loads of great reads and it’s been a thrill seeing a few of my fellow bloggers read some of the books I’ve loved, and mostly loving them too. I also enjoyed doing a review-along of one of the books on the list, The Silver Darlings, which surprisingly my fellow review-alongers enjoyed even more than I did. I still wouldn’t count myself as well-read in Scottish classics, but I’m better than I was!

And that, as they say, is a wrap for my first Classics Club list!

Thanks for your company on my journey!

37 thoughts on “Classics Club Round-Up 5 – Scottish

  1. Oh, I’ve always wanted to read The Master of Ballantrae, FictionFan! I haven’t done that yet, and I really ought to. Some of the others you’ve mentioned appeal to me, too. You make an interesting point about the literature you read in school. I wonder how many schoolkids read one or another country’s literature instead of their own, if that makes any sense.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Master of Ballantrae is excellent – I hope you have a chance to get to it sometime! Yes, I suspect a lot of the English-speaking countries are fed a diet of English and American books in school, especially since some of them haven’t really had enough time to develop classic English-language literature of their own. But it’s changed here now, I believe – I think our schools give more space to Scottish writing than in my day, thankfully.

      Liked by 1 person

    • A lot of them were ones I’d never heard of either. When I made my list originally I really felt ashamed of how few Scottish classics I could think of, and had to spend ages looking at lists and other people’s recommendations. I don’t think Scottish fiction writing has traditionally had as much breadth as many other cultures. We seem to have concentrated on poetry and factual writing for most of our history.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. The only one of these I’ve read is Miss Brodie, which I absolutely loved. I do have Silver Darlings and Humphry Clinker waiting for me on my shelves as a result of your reviews though!

    I don’t think we read any Scottish novels at school, but we definitely did a module on Scottish poetry, where we read a lot of Burns and then some contemporary poems written in Scots, and looked at the way language use evolved. It’s always struck me as an odd curriculum choice by my English teacher. She had a plummy, old-fashioned, Received Pronunciation accent and used to get very flustered when she had to read poems written in Scots out loud!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good choices! I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy Silver Darlings, and Humphrey Clinkr is good fun although being so early it is one of these ones that you have to tune your mind into the language.

      Haha, I can just imagine someone with received pronunciation trying to read Burns! But I’m really impressed that you had a Scottish poetry module. We did read some Scottish poetry at school but I can’t remember reading any Scottish novels at all. I do think we have more of a tradition of poetry than fiction, though – I was disappointed at how few classics there are when I started to look for them. Thank goodness for Walter Scott! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Well, I did read The Gowk Storm (because of your review) and loved it! So now I may have to put The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie and The Private Memoirs on my TBR list. But I have to say (again) that I love reading excerpts from your reviews of the bad ones. They do such a fine job of summing up each book in ways that leave me smiling.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, doing this has made me realise how mean I am to books that annoy me! 😉 Excellent choices, but I think you need to add The White Bird Passes to your list too… I’m so glad you enjoyed The Gowk Storm – I think it’s the one I’ve recommended most often. Although it’s distinctly Scottish it’s also very approachable for non-Scots, which some of the others perhaps aren’t so much because they rely on some background knowledge.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Well done, FF! I have loved following along as you worked through your list and you’ve encouraged me to try a fair few from your list along the way! Here’s to the next list!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Sandra! I hope you enjoy any of the ones I’ve tempted you to add to your list! Haha, the second list is already well under way, and I’m loving having some new titles to look at!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Congrats on reaching your goal! I don’t think I’ve read very many of the Scottish authors either — perhaps it’s a flaw in our educational system that we focus mostly on American and English writers. Some of these sound interesting, so I should remedy my “ignorance,” huh?!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! To be fair I don’t think Scotland can really claim to have a lot of real classics – we seem to have had more poets and philosophers than fiction writers. But it’s been fun getting to know a bit more about what we do have!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Congratulations! (now you can concentrate on your second list 😉) I was going to say I don’t think any of these will ever make my list, but realized I have one of them sitting in my Kindle: The Fair Maid of Perth. Whether I ever get to it remains to be seen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Haha, yes, I’m already about six books into my second list and still writing posts about my first list! Phew, it’s over at last! 😉 The Fair Maid of Perth is great – you should definitely get to it! I think you need to add The Valley of Fear too. And The Master of Ballantrae – pirates! And America! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Congratulations on finishing your list! The Private Memoirs and Confessions is a great book, so I’m pleased to see it was your favourite, although I did really enjoy The Master of Ballantrae as well. Sorry you didn’t like Dorothy Dunnett – I love all of her books, but I know a lot of people don’t get on with the writing style.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I was sorry I didn’t get on with Dorothy Dunnett but I quickly knew her style was going to drive me crazy, so there didn’t seem much point in continuing. I loved The Master of Ballantrae and it could so easily have won, but somehow The Private Memoirs seemed like the most Scottish book I’ve ever read, so it really had to take the prize! All that religious stuff – we still haven’t recovered from John Knox… 😉


  8. Congratulations, FictionFan!
    Laughing at you wanting to slap a character from Marriage with a wet fish 🙂
    I’m embarrassed to say the only book I’ve read from this list is The Silver Darlings, which as you know I love, love, loved!!!! but have several of them on my wish list as a result of your reviews along the way.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Scottish list is full of pretty obscure stuff so I’m not surprised you haven’t read any of it except The Silver Darlings, but I’m delighted to hear you’ve added some to your TBR! Haha, that moralising little madam would have been vastly improved by a fishy slap… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. At first I was ashamed to say I had never heard of ANY of these books (aside from reading your reviews of course) but it appears as though many were new to you as well, so I don’t feel too terribly about that. My favourite of the bunch still looks to be No Mean City, because I just love the look of that cover and the mystery it promises!

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’ve been a good influence on me, I’ve read nine of the books you mention, including four of the greats: I’ll have to catch up on the other greats! Of the books I have read, there were no misses for me (even amongst some that weren’t your favourites). The Gowk Storm, The White Bird Passes, The New Road, Flemington and The Silver Darlings are particularly memorable.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Good to hear you’ve been enjoying a lot of the Scottish classics too! I must admit that really anything with three stars or above is a hit for me – really the star rating often makes books look as if I’ve liked them less then I have, simply because I have to differentiate between the ones that I really love and the ones that I just quite like. But the five stars obviously are the ones that I think are best and in this Scottish section they are often the ones that I think are most Scottish too, or say most about some aspects of Scottish life or history. If you go on to read some of the others I do hope you enjoy them! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, despite being considered “classics” lots of these aren’t well known even in Scotland, so don’t feel bad about never having heard of them! Haha, No Mean City’s cover is a bit misleading, I think – its a vicious look at Glasgow gangs!

      Liked by 1 person

    • It always gives me added pleasure when someone reads a book that I’ve recommended and loves it too, especially when it’s a Scottish book! So thank you for reading The Gowk Storm! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  10. You’ve got some wonderful books on here with lots of ideas to explore further. I also loved Confessions of a Justified Sinner – a terrific read. Though I came to Dorothy Dunnett’s work late (not too many years ago), I love it. It’s no surprise that so many writers think so so highly of her two series, I think they recognize a master storyteller at work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I had always assumed that Justified Sinner would be a really serious heavyweight book about religion. And I suppose in a sense it is, but what I hadn’t realised was that it’s also highly entertaining! I was sorry that I didn’t take to Dorothy Dunnett’s style since a lot of people whose tastes are often in tune with mine really like her, but I’m afraid she and I just were not destined to be kindred spirits!

      Liked by 1 person

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