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.

Huntingtower Castle, Perth, Scotland

Huntingtower from north

It’s a couple of months since we went to visit Huntingtower Castle near Perth and I had forgotten that I hadn’t blogged about it until Joan of Planet Joan mentioned that she had just finished reading John Buchan’s book Huntingtower. I read it a while ago and you can read what I thought of it here. You can read Joan’s thoughts on Huntingtower here.

Actually I’m not at all sure now if it is the same Huntingtower as the book was set mainly in the south west of Scotland, but I imagined they moved the action here, I can’t see anything linking this place to the book though.

Huntingtower from south

Parts of the tower have windows and other bits are quite open to the elements. Below is a doorway which still has some of the original painted decoration around it, I think it’s quite modern looking.

Hall close; painted door lintel


And what do you think of the painted ceiling? A few of the rooms had designs like this painted on the roof beams. This ceiling dates from around 1540.

painted ceiling 1

Below is a vaulted ceiling on the top floor.

ceiling +

Can you see the rabbit painted on this wall? It has been covered with thick perspex to protect it from the weather.

painted rabbit

Below you can see the holes where the wooden beams of the floor/ceiling were originally.

upper windows

Most Scottish castles/tower houses seem to have these cute wee window seats, they must have been lovely to sit in in the summer anyway, a perfect spot for reading or sewing. You have to imagine the rooms would have been hung with tapestries and cushions or fur would have been on the seats.

window seat

There are loads of spiral staircases to investigate in Huntingtower and one of them leads up to this part of the roof.

a view from roof 3

Although there’s now a shopping centre very close to Huntingtower most of the surrounding countryside is still farmland, so not too different from how it would have been when John Buchan set part of his book Huntingtower here.

a view from Huntingtower roof in Perth, Scotland

a view from roof 2

The castle is now home to a large colony of pipistrelle bats, but we didn’t see any evidence of them, it was too early for them to be out and about.

Mary Queen of Scots lived here for a while with her husband Lord Darnley, she seems to have been in just about every castle in Scotland, often as a prisoner. She was a woman who should have copied her cousin Elizabeth of England’s style and stayed well away from marriage!

Edinburgh Botanics and books

On Thursday we had a family dinner date in Edinburgh so as it was a lovely bright day we decided to go early and have a walk through the Botanic Gardens. As you can see the crocuses were enjoying the sun.


Then it was on to the Stockbridge area of Edinburgh. If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll realise that Stockbridge is usually a dangerous destination for me, due to the secondhand bookshops in the vicinity. Mind you it was only about three weeks since we had been there so I did think (half hope) it might be a case of slim pickings book wise, but I was wrong!

Books Again

China Court by Rumer Godden
The Princess Sophia by E.F. Benson
The Three Hostages by John Buchan
The Hand of Ethelberta by Thomas Hardy
Harding’s Luck by E. Nesbit
The Herb of Grace by Elizabeth Goudge

I know I read China Court way back in the 1970s but I’ll read it again and I seem to be collecting the Goddens that I read when I was a teenager but then I borrowed them from the library.

I have a horrible feeling that I gave my Nesbit books away before we moved house, when I was trying to de-clutter. But they might still be in a box in the garage, I live in hope, I definitely haven’t read Harding’s Luck anyway. The House of Arden comes before it so I think I’ll have to read that one first, I might just put that one on my Kindle.

I don’t think I’ve read anything by Goudge before but I know she is well loved by some people.

The Princess Sophia was written in 1900, long before Benson wrote his Mapp and Lucia books that I love.

I seem to be collecting John Buchan books although it’s a good long time since I actually read any.

I read a lot of Thomas Hardy books as a teenager and I loved them although they are often quite grim, especially the endings. The Hand of Ethelberta is apparently a comedy in chapters – could be interesting, but then again, might not be. Anyway it’s one of those wee books with thin paper and gold topped pages, like most of my other Hardy books, so it’ll fit in well – after I’ve had a bit of a shuffle around of that bookcase!

Have you read any of these books?

John Macnab by John Buchan

 John Macnab cover

John Macnab by John Buchan was published by Chambers Journal in 1924, I’m presuming that it was published in weekly parts there as it was apparently published as a book in 1925. I read this one for The 1924 Club which is being run by Simon@ Stuck in a Book

John Buchan is of course known for his tales of adventure, sort of adult versions of ‘Boys’ Own Adventure’ books and John Macnab is no different, except you could say it’s multiplied by three as there are three men being hunted down in the Scottish Highlands.

The tale begins in London in midsummer where a successful man has gone to see his doctor because he has lost his zest for life. He’s a successful lawyer with no money worries and he’s just bored out of his skull. His doctor advises him to do something quite outrageous for a man in his position, to pull himself out of his despondency.

When he discovers that two of his friends who are equally as successful as him are also feeling exactly like him, they cook up a plan to drag themselves out of their depressive moods.

The plan involves all three gentlemen travelling to the Highlands where they intend to do some poaching on three neighbouring country estates, having sportingly informed the lairds of their intentions in a ‘catch us if you can’ way. The fact that if the men are caught it would spell disaster to their careers and reputations only adds to the adrenaline rushes.

The book is quite political really with young Janet Raden, the daughter of a laird, denouncing the status quo of forelock tugging to aristocracy in favour of a more democratic society. But the reality is that as the three men are regarded as gentlemen and they are discovered to be Old Etonians, it puts everything in a totally different light from if they had been just plain old penniless poachers. This is quite an enjoyable read but as I always seem to say when I write about a John Buchan book – it’s not as good as Greenmantle.

I suspect that one of the reasons that John Buchan wrote this one was because when he went back home to Scotland after completing his first term at Oxford his siblings were very amused that he had developed a very posh ‘Kensington’ accent, they teased him mercilessly but Buchan had obviously decided that if he wanted to get on in life he would have to pose as an upper class Englishman – thank God those days are gone! – What am I saying, just look at the UK Cabinet Members!

Scottish non fiction books


This post is so long overdue, I had meant to get around to writing about some of my Scottish non-fiction books at the beginning of the year, but life and moving house somehow got in the way.

Anyway, better late than never, and of course as the Read Scotland 2014 challenge is continuing in 2015 and probably forever and a day, I should manage to get these ones read eventually.

There’s a biography of John Buchan – by his wife and friends. This one was published in 1947. I really like John Buchan’s adventure/spy/mystery books but the man himself was just amazing – what a career he had! I hope to learn more about him through this book.

Montrose by John Buchan. Buchan won the James Tait Black memorial prize for this biography of the Marquess of Montrose.

Maritime Scotland by Brian Lavery is a Historic Scotland publication. As you would imagine, the sea in Scotland is important. It’s impossible to live more than 40 miles from salt water according to this book. It should be interesting.

Mary Queen of Scots by Jean Plaidy
. Until I saw this book I had no idea that Jean Plaidy had written anything other than her historical novels which I enjoyed as a youngster. I wonder what she thinks of Mary Stuart?

Hand, Heart and Soul by Elizabeth Cumming is about the Arts and Crafts movement in Scotland. This book has some nice photographs in it but also an awful lot of text. It’ll be one for dipping in and out of I think.

Scottish Gardens by Sir Herbert Maxwell was published in 1908 and it’s a gorgeous book with lovely illustrations by Mary G. W. Wilson. This was one which I said to Jack – buy that for my birthday! I don’t go in for surprise presents, after all these years it’s sensible to make sure that you get what you want and Jack is happy to oblige as it means he doesn’t have to rack his brains for gift ideas. Anyway, I think the book is quite a rare one and I intend to carry out some research to see what has happened to all the gardens which are mentioned and illustrated in the text.

Then there’s The Scottish Gardener by Suzi Urquhart, another birthday present.

So that’s my first batch of Scottish non-fiction books. I have a lot of Scottish travel books but I’ll keep them for another time. Those are the sort of books which are good for dipping into when you want to know more about the area which you are going to visit.

I think you’ll agree that this lot should keep me busy for a while anyway.

Read Scotland 2014

Have you signed up for Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge yet? If not then have a wee think about doing it as I’m sure you could read at least 3 or 4 books which would qualify for it without even realising. For instance did you realise that Ian Fleming would fall into the category of Scottish author, and almost all of the children’s classic authors were Scottish or of Scottish descent. Now that Jack has actually retired he is going to do this challenge, his first ever, he should have much more time for reading now, have a look at his post about it here. We will both be doing the Ben Nevis which is 13 books but we’ll end up doing far more than that I’m sure. In fact I think I might manage a purely mythical Jings, crivens and help ma boab category, and if you’ve ever read Oor Wullie you’ll know that those are all words which are used to mean flabbergasted, astonished, for goodness sake! Because I plan to read about 50 books for this challenge.

To begin with I’m reading Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe over the month of January, doing it in four chunks and writing about it each week. Join in with me if you think you’re hard enough! Judith are you still up for it?

At the same time I intend to read Lanark by Alasdair Grey as a respite from Ivanhoe. Lanark was voted the second best Scottish book recently, the first was Irvine Walsh’s Trainspotting but I don’t fancy that one at all. Below is a list of some of the Scottish fiction authors that I’ll definitely be reading during 2014, I’ll be adding more though. Books with a Scottish setting are also eligible for the challenge. Have a look at the Scottish Books Trust for more inspiration.

Iain Banks
William Boyd
John Buchan
Andrew Crumey
Alasdair Grey
A.L. Kennedy
Dennis Mackail
Compton Mackenzie
Allan Massie
James Oswald
Rosamund Pilcher
James Runcie
A.D. Scott
Walter Scott
Mary Stewart
Jessica Stirling
Josephine Tey
Alison Thirkell
Angela Thirkell

If I read just one by all of these writers then I’ll have bagged Ben Nevis and then some, but I still have my non fiction books to look through and list, it looks like 2014 is going to be a very Scottish (parochial) year for me!

Oh and I’ll be writing about some of the many children’s classics which are suitable for this challenge. You’re never too old for a good children’s book. Remember that you don’t have to have a blog to take part in this challenge.

Thanks for setting this up Peggy Ann.

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.

Witch Wood by John Buchan

You might have noticed if you look at my Library Thing widget that this book had featured on it for quite a while. The fact is that although I usually stick to reading one fiction book at a time, I was finding Witch Wood to be harder going than the other John Buchan books which I’ve read. So I ended up reading about four other books whilst reading it, just to give myself a wee break from the subject matter.

I think I’ve been reading too much about the religious struggles of seventeenth century Scotland and England recently. This one of course is set in the Scottish border country and is all about the Covenanters and the upheaval in the countryside with the defeated Montrose’s men (for the King) trying to avoid being caught by the supporters of the Covenanters.

There’s romance too of course with the young Presbyterian minister David Sempill falling for Katrine Yester, and if that isn’t enough for you there’s witchcraft going on too. It seems to have been something which afflicted every country at that time, from Britain, mainland Europe and to America, a sort of madness and hysteria which persecuted any poor souls (most often women) who were a nuisance to others, with women being called witches through the jealousy and wickedness of others. There were quite a few ‘witches’ done to death in Fife, near where I live.

Anyway, as you would expect, this is a well written book but the subject matter didn’t grab me as within my own family there were people who were still very much aggrieved that it was not the Episcopalians who won that ecclesiastical battle, consequently they were very bitter towards Presbyterians, (mainly me!) I can’t be bothered with that sort of religious bigotry nonsense.

My copy of the book is a paperback Canongate Classic and it has a glossary at the back – and I can tell you that I needed it, as there were a lot of Scots words in the book which I had never heard of before, the dialogue is very broad at times. Greenmantle is still my favourite John Buchan book.

The Island of Sheep by John Buchan

The Island of Sheep cover

I hope to work my way through all of Buchan’s books so when I saw this one for sale in the library I snapped it up. It’s a continuation of Richard Hannay’s adventures, a good few years on from The Thirty-Nine Steps, and the now Sir Richard Hannay is married to Mary and they have a 14 year old son called Peter John.

He’s in a very comfortable rut and living a pleasant country- gentleman’s existence when the past pops up and Hannay finds himself embroiled in another adventure with his old friend Sandy, now Lord Clanroyden. Years before whilst on another jaunt in South Africa they had taken an oath to protect the explorer and prospector Haraldsen and his descendants, they hadn’t really taken it seriously at the time but when they discovered that Haraldsen’s son was being hunted down by a nasty set of characters, they feel obliged to go to his aid.

The action moves from Buchan’s beloved Scottish border country to the Norlands and The Island of Sheep (The Faroe Islands). Another enjoyable ‘Boys Own Storybook’ sort of a romp ensues.

I enjoyed this one even more than The Thirty-Nine Steps although towards the end it does feature a whaling ship and its crew, it was a surprise to me that it was sort of frowned upon, even in 1936 when the book was published.