Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times

For this week’s Bookshelf Travelling in Insane Times meme which is hosted by Judith at Reader in the Wilderness I’ve chosen some much older books.

The photo below is of a couple of my shelves for Scottish books. These ones are all of fairly ancient titles, but ones that I have loved reading in the past and will never get rid of.


I went through a phase of reading J.M. Barrie’s books, it’s probably about 15 or 20 years ago now. Hardly anyone reads his work nowadays, beyond Peter Pan which is such a shame. In his day he was incredibly successful with his novels and his plays were wildly popular in the theatre. I particularly loved his The Little Minister, Tommy and Grizel and Sentimental Tommy.

John Buchan wrote a lot more books than The Thirty Nine Steps, I have just a few of them really. I haven’t read all of these ones yet, but Greenmantle is my favourite so far.

A.J Cronin was a local GP in Dumbarton where I grew up, although at some point he gave that up to concentrate on his very successful writing career – and moved to Switzerland, probably for tax reasons. But he still supported the local football team. Possibly his best known book is The Spanish Gardener which was made into a film starring Dirk Bogarde. It’s well worth watching too.

O. Douglas who was also known as Anna Buchan was John Buchan’s sister. Her books are real comfort reads, a step back to what seemed to be a simpler time, on the surface anyway. Like many Scottish female novelists she often writes about the making of a home and there’s usually a group of children to be loved by someone who isn’t a mother, but becomes a mother figure. One little boy is usually absolutely adored. I couldn’t help thinking that it was a real pity that Anna Buchan never married and had children, but she wrote her own families, which might have been some solace I suppose.

These authors are all well worth reading and Anna Buchan, John Buchan and J.M. Barrie’s books are available on Project Gutenberg, it’s strange that Cronin’s aren’t, but maybe they are still in copyright.

The House That Is Our Own by O. Douglas

As usual this is another book about houses and homes. O. Douglas seems to have been writing her dreams. As a spinster I suppose she spent most of her life living in her parent’s homes and longing to have a place of her own, so until she could do that she fulfilled her wishes by building fictional homes.

Kitty and Isobel are living in an hotel, as people sometimes did especially during World War 2 – this book was first published in 1940. But they are both hankering after something more permanent.

Surprisingly they don’t pool their resources and buy a home together, Kitty decides to take a service flat in London, but Isobel falls for a ramshackle old historic house in the Scottish Borders which she finds when she is on holiday there.

The House that is Our Own is full of wit and wisdom, such as:- you’re much too easily pleased with everything. The world will simply make a footstool of you if you ask so little from it. I wish I had realised that many moons ago!

Kitty and Isobel look at lots of flats in London. Are there really people who would live in a basement, always in artificial light, and be willing to pay £150 a year for the privilege?
How shocked they would have been if they were told how much it would cost to rent a flat in central London in 2013!

This was another enjoyable comfort read from O. Douglas which I chose deliberately when we were having our house put in order prior to putting it on the market, it was a shock to us because we had been under the impression that the house was perfect and ‘ready to go’. So I could have done without the fictional workmen which turned up in the book at a time when we were dealing with actual workmen unexpectedly. Such is life.

Unforgettable, Unforgotten by Anna Buchan

This book was first published in 1945 and as Anna Buchan says, it’s a chronicle of the Buchan family. Anna is of course better known by her pen name of O. Douglas and as you can imagine a lot of this book is about the life of the most famous member of the family – her brother John Buchan of The Thirty-Nine Steps and Greenmantle fame.

The Buchan’s hailed originally from the Peebles/Broughton area of the Scottish Border country and it’s obvious that it was an area which the whole family loved although they had to live in Fife (Kirkcaldy) and in Glasgow for large chunks of their lives. It looks to me as if it wasn’t possible for their father the Rev. John Buchan to get a church in the Borders and so he had to go elsewhere, or perhaps he felt a calling to work amongst the poor where he could be of most use to people in need.

John Buchan himself said that he made up his adventure stories entirely from his imagination but his sister was happier to write about things which she had experienced, she just put down her memories on paper, quite true, if you have read some of her books it’s obvious that she put so much of her family life into them. The Buchan children were wild ones and I can well imagine that the church congregation would have been forever complaining about them, although maybe not to their parents!

This is a must read if you are into reading O. Douglas’s fiction but it was a bit disappointing because I had hoped to learn about her private life but she doesn’t give any personal information away. No stories of lost loves or anything, she writes about the personal lives of the other family members but when it comes to herself she only writes about her own writing career and about lecturing to women’s groups during the war.

I feel that she must have had a lost love, like the one which she writes about in The Proper Place. She was a woman who had a penchant for cheeky wee boys and she had to make do with the ones which her siblings added to the family, instead of providing some of her own.

Anna took up writing because her mother was one of those women who only wanted to read about ‘nice’ things in books, she complained that her son John’s books were full of swear words so she never got very far into them before giving up. So Anna’s books were written for her mother really. John read the manuscripts for his sister and sent them back to her with suggestions for changes – it’s obvious that he didn’t think she should have the preachy Christian/Biblical bits in them but Anna stuck to her guns, probably for her mother’s sake.

Like almost all of her books, this one has its sad moments too, it isn’t all pink sugar. World War 2 hadn’t come to an end by the time she finished this book but the Buchans had already had a sad loss by then, with the unexpected death of her brother John, following an accident. I think that must have spurred her on to write this family history, as for her the most important of them was gone.

If you know Peebles at all then you’ll probably be able to pin-point the various houses which family members lived in within the town. But maybe they already have blue plaques on them.

Ann And Her Mother by O. Douglas

This book was first published in 1922, it was the fourth book to be written by O.Douglas and it comes in between Penny Plain and Pink Sugar. It is exactly as the title says, all about Ann and her mother, the Ann being O.Douglas (Anna Buchan)herself. The mother was of course also mother of John Buchan.

I really enjoyed this one, apart from anything else it gave me so much information on the Buchan family and answered a lot of questions I had had. By this time Mrs Douglas is a widow who misses her husband a lot and is becoming quite depressed and ready for her own appointment at the pearly gates. Ann has decided to write her mother’s ‘life’, it’s a way of getting her mother to talk about happier times and her three children who have already been ‘taken’.

The family originally came from Peebles (Priorsford) of course but they moved to Kirkcaldy (Kirkcaple) when Mr Buchan (Douglas) became the minister of the Free Church of Scotland in the town.

I had often wondered how they managed to survive such a change of scene from the soft hills and river scenery of the borders to the icy North Sea blast of Kirkcaldy, and this book has the answer. The family seems to have been full of wild children, not what you would expect from the children of the manse at all.

They did move away after staying in Kirkcaldy for about 13 years but I can imagine that when this book was first published the townsfolk must have been quite thrilled as there are so many local streets mentioned and even the names are local ones, I wonder if they were the real people or the names had been changed.

Glasgow was their next destination and that must have been an even bigger shock to them as they found themselves in a very poor and deprived neighbourhood with not much of a congregation. There is an inevitable churchiness and biblical quotations abound in these books but they are very readable and I think that O.Douglas would have made a good agony aunt for a magazine because she is full of good common sense and helpful observation. Given the time this was published I imagine that it was read by many a woman who had lost sons in the Great War, and it might have given them some solace to read about another woman in their position.

The Buchans were members of the Free Church of Scotland which is the very strictest form of Presbyterianism, so I was surprised to see that a Christmas tree was mentioned. They must have been a fairly lax set of ‘Wee Frees’ – as they’re nicknamed. It was only a few years ago that a minister was on the news because he had banned a Christmas tree from outside a primary school. They’re seen as pagan symbols and so I suppose the work of the devil. It was also mentioned that they sang hymns, something else which I thought was unheard of as they don’t allow music – it’s also the work of the devil.

The only thing the Wee Frees really seem to enjoy is fighting amongst themselves and every ten years or so they have a big fight and break into yet another schism, then they have a big argument about who owns the church and manse.

Anyway, none of that nonsense goes on in this book and I think this is my favourite of her books so far.

Olivia in India by O. Douglas

This is the first book which O.Douglas, sometimes known as Anna Buchan, had published (in 1912). It’s very autobiographical and it’s written in the form of a series of letters, the first of which is written from a ship in Liverpool which is ready to set off on the long voyage to India. Olivia is going to India to spend time with her bother, affectionately nicknamed Boggley. He is in India doing some sort of Empire related job.

We only read the letters which Olivia is writing and it’s very near the end before we learn who she’s actually writing them to. There are never any replies, although she sometimes alludes to something which has been mentioned in a letter to her. Obviously the early letters are all about the voyage and the other passengers but when Olivia reaches India she’s all over the place, experiencing as much of the life there as she can, taking trains across the country, visiting the Taj Mahal and meeting all sorts of people, good and bad.

So it’s all very different from her other books which are set in Scotland but she does write about home and reminisces about the past. She even mentions that she’s writing a book, encouraged by her brother John’s books’ good reviews.

So I started wondering how much of this book was fiction and I had a look at the index of O.Douglas’ biography “Unforgettable, Unforgotten” and sure enough she did go to India to visit one of her brothers. I’ll have to get around to reading that one soon.

I enjoyed Olivia in India and I think it is probably a realistic account of life in India for Anglo-Indians, the fear of mutinies and disease and the odd bomb or two being thrown as Indians became more and more dissatisfied with their position as part of the British Empire.

I borrowed “Olivia in India” from the library but I’ve promised myself that I’m not going to look at books when I return the ones I have out. Last week I went to two libraries in two different towns and apart from this book I also borrowed:

Symposium by Muriel Spark
The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts
Augustus Carp Esq. by Himself
The Murders in the Rue Morgue by Edgar Allen Poe

The Poe book is one of those ones that I feel I should have read years ago and for some reason or other I haven’t.

So, with an eye on the due back dates I’m neglecting my own books and Mary Stewart’s The Ivy Tree in particular has been glowering at me from the top of a pile of books which are balanced on a cantilevered sewing box near my bedside. I’m banning myself from the library!

Priorsford by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan)

Priorsford is a sequel to Penny Plain which you can read about here. It was published ten years after Penny Plain and the story has moved on just about the same amount of time. Jean now has three children and is living in England at her husband’s estate. It’s years since she has been to visit the folks back in Priorsford (Peebles) in Scotland so when her husband has to go away for the winter with a friend who is very ill, she takes the chance to move her family back to where she grew up so that she can catch up with all her old friends and neighbours. Mrs. Duff Whalley thinks the worst, of course, as that type always does.

I think I enjoyed this one more than Penny Plain which was a wee bit too preachy in parts for my liking. This is an enjoyable comfort read but there are plenty of mentions of the hard times which so many people were experiencing in the 1930s. The problems were all so similar to what’s going on today and I briefly thought to myself that we’ve always had periods of unemployment and poverty – and then I remembered what it was that got us out of the 1930s depression – war! They’re going to have to come up with a better solution this time around!

This excerpt is towards the end of the book when Jock is complaining about his office job:

‘It’s a good opening,’ Betty reminded him. ‘Just think how many there are who would be thankful for it.’

‘Oh, I know,’ Jock agreed. ‘There are dozens of men who were with me at Oxford, most of them better scholars, all of them quicker in the uptake, and they simply can’t get a bally thing to do. And people rave about the youth of our country having lost the spirit of adventure, and asking why they don’t go to the Colonies and carve out careers for themselves. But these men have little or no capital, and the Colonies don’t want them.’

As you can see, Priorsford is more than a comfort book, it delves into the problems of the day, but the inhabitants of Priorsford are much the same as before so they’re all recognisable ‘types’. Jean as a wife and mother is rivalling the mother in Little House on the Prairie books for being mild mannered and almost saintly, the way she puts up with her husband and family!

I’m looking forward to going to Priorsford (Peebles) soonish and I want to go to where the Laverlaw meets the Tweed, local legend has it that Merlin is buried there! Have you heard about that Evee, and did you ever discover the location of The Riggs?

More from Evelyn

Just a quick one tonight!

I discovered recently that Evelyn of Evee’s blog is an even busier bee than I thought she was as she also has a blog called Peebles for Pleasure which is obviously about the Scottish Borders town of Peebles and is just full of gorgeous photos of the area, by Iain Mackay.

I really don’t know the area all that well as I’ve only been to the town itself for very short walks along the high street whilst on our way to visit nearby relatives. I’m going to have to give Peebles more time next time we’re there because we’ve been missing all the great bits. Just going by the photos I’d definitely move there if it wasn’t so far away from Perth and Dundee.

If you read books by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan, John Buchan’s sister) you’ll be interested in Peebles for Pleasure. It’s easy to see why Anna loved the place and wrote about it, giving it the name of Priorsford in her books.

The Buchan family moved to Kirkcaldy in Fife when their father, who was a Scottish Free Church minister was preaching at a church here. I think they lived in Fife for at least eleven years and Mrs Buchan in particular must have been ‘pining for Peebles’ all that time as the blast from the north sea must have come as a shock to her. They did eventually get back to the Peebles area.

It’s a bit of a miracle that I found Peebles for Pleasure because I don’t think Evelyn has it on her sidebar, unless I just can’t see it for looking at it – if you see what I mean. If you haven’t found it before and you like lovely photos do yourself a favour and hop over.

Pink Sugar by O. Douglas (Anna Buchan)

I had no intention of reading this book any time soon but it sort of jumped out at me when I went up to the library to snaffle The Slaves of Solitude last week before anyone else got to it. I thought I might as well give it a go, I’m sure I saw it mentioned favourably on a blog quite recently. The book was first published in 1924 and it runs along similar lines to her earlier book Penny Plain.

Kirsty Gilmour is just 30 years old and is quite well off but for most of her life she has had to travel around with her very demanding and selfish step-mother who liked to live her life just moving from hotel to hotel. The hotels were never in Scotland because the step-mother hated that country so Kirsty hadn’t been home for 22 years. In all that time Kirsty longed to go back to Scotland, her place of birth so when her step-mother died Kirsty rented a lodge house in Muirburn, a small village in her beloved Scottish border country. It’s the first real home which she has ever had and the house goes by what I think is a wonderful name – Little Phantasy.

Kirsty’s whole life has revolved around her step-mother and she finds it difficult to live just for herself so when her elderly Aunt Fanny suddenly finds that she has to give up her own home Kirsty is delighted to offer her a room at Little Phantasy. Then Kirsty hears about three motherless Scottish children who are relatives of a friend and the poor wee things are having to spend the summer in London. Before you know it they are at Little Phantasy too and the usual servants of that time complete the household.

The children provide the humour and it’s almost exactly the same as Penny Plain really. It’s a sort of Mapp and Lucia meets Just William at a Scottish Cranford. Quite enjoyable in a way and something that you can safely recommend to any delicate souls of your acquaintance. If you enjoy Scottish settings of the early 20th century then you’ll probably like this one. The landscape is painted with real affection and becomes as important as any characters, which is usual in most fiction by Celtic writers, I think.

The title Pink Sugar comes from the pink sugar hearts which Kirsty wanted to eat as a child but she was never allowed to because it wasn’t wholesome. Ever since she has had a weakness for pink sugar.

“Surely we want every crumb of pink sugar that we can get in this world. I do hate people who sneer at sentiment. What is sentiment after all? It’s only a word, for all that is decent and kind and loving in these warped little lives of ours…”

I think from that that O. Douglas must have been condemned by reviewers for being too sentimental and she was determined to have her right of reply.

O. Douglas was John Buchan’s sister but she didn’t want to use the family name in case people thought that she was trading on his name as he was already very successfull as a writer.

Penny Plain by O Douglas (Anna Buchan)

I wanted to read something by O. Douglas, or Anna Buchan as was her real name, and I came across Penny Plain recently in a second-hand book shop. It’s the easiest to find and also the cheapest by far, but I’ve just discovered that I could have downloaded it for free, such is life!

Anna Buchan was John Buchan’s sister but she didn’t write thrillers. I think she would be best described as a romance writer and Penny Plain comes under that category ‘kailyard’ which was so popular in the early years of the 20th century.

The novel was first published in 1920. My edition was published in 1922 and it is the 12th edition which gives you an idea of how popular the book was in its day.

It’s set in the Scottish border country in a small town called Priorsford and is the story of Jean Jardine whose parents have died and she has to bring up her two younger brothers and a very small boy who is no blood relation at all, but as he is an orphan she feels obliged to look after him. They all live in a small cottage by the banks of the River Tweed which they rent from a man who lives in London, and Mrs McCosh from Glasgow helps with the housework.

The next-door neighbour, Bella Bathgate, takes in lodgers and Pamela Reston who is an ‘honourable’, a lord’s daughter from London, takes up residence as her guest and becomes great friends with the Jardines, which leads to big changes for all concerned.

There are times when the book gets just a wee bit too religious and Presbyterian, but I suppose that was to be expected from the daughter of a Wee Free minister. The Free Church of Scotland is the strictest form of Presbyterianism, no singing, no music, no dancing, do nothing on a Sunday except go to church and read the bible, don’t even cook a meal!! But then again her brother John never felt the need to bring it into his books.

Having said that the book is full of great characters who all ring true to me as typical Scots, especially Mrs McCosh the Glaswegian and even the dog Peter is a ‘card’. There’s plenty of humour as well as sentimentality.

If you do take a look at this book you might like to know that the wee boy is nicknamed ‘the Mhor’ which is Gaelic for ‘the great one’ and in Gaelic ‘mh’ together is pronounced as a v.