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.

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.

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.

Library Booksale Haul

Last Saturday there was another library booksale and although I’ve bought a lot of books recently I just couldn’t ignore the sale, as Jack said – you never know what you might miss if you don’t go.

Anyway, I ended up buying:

Double Vision by Pat Barker
Pink Sugar by O.Douglas
Rifling Through My Drawers by Clarissa Dickson Wright
A History of Britain by Simon Schama

I’ve already read Pink Sugar but as I had borrowed it from the library I thought it would be nice to own a copy, I’d like to have a complete set of O. Douglas books. Yes, they’re twee, in fact in this book the author is really defending herself from that criticism. Her books are couthie and looking at them from this standpoint, nearly 90 years after it was first published, it is a bit of social history of the times.

I enjoyed Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy about the First World War. Double Vision still has a war theme but it’s Afghanistan this time, the modern war. I’m not sure about this one but at 50p it’s hardly a tragedy if it ends up in a charity shop.

I enjoyed the Two Fat Ladies when they were jaunting about the place in their motor-bike and sidecar, and I couldn’t resist Clarissa Dickson Wright’s book Rifling through my Drawers – what a great title!

The Simon Schama, History of Britain from 3000BC – AD 1603 book was a replay of the moment when I spotted the David Dimbleby book at the last sale. About 15 minutes into the sale I spotted it and couldn’t believe that nobody had snaffled it – so I did. I enjoyed watching the BBC series of the book.

So, not a bad haul really, considering I shouldn’t have been buying anything at all.

Book Sale at St Andrew’s and St George’s Edinburgh

We got up early on Saturday morning so that we wouldn’t be too late in getting to the book sale in St Andrew’s and St George’s Church in Edinburgh, the proceeds all go to Christian Aid. It was Linda from Edinburgh who reminded me of the sale, so a big thank you to Linda!

St Andrew's & St George's Church
By the time we got to the church it was really chucking it down with rain and the books outside the church all had plastic covers over them and everbody had packed into the church – it was heaving with folks and it made it very difficult to see the books, but I persevered, and we went our separate ways. I ran out of money, had to find Jack, found him in the crowd, waved madly, he didn’t see me, he went in the opposite direction, the woman at the stall seemed to think I was going to nick her books, but in the end it was all sorted out and the upshot was I spent a lot of money and Jack didn’t spend nearly as much, that’s usually the way of it. As you can see from the photo above, by the time we got upstairs the rain had stopped and the crowd had thinned.

I couldn’t resist taking this photo of the newly redecorated church, it has had a lot spent on it recently and the organ has been refurbished.
St Andrew's & St George's Edinburgh

It was the ceiling which really attracted me though, beautiful, but I’m glad I didn’t have to paint it. Internally the church is really lovely with pale wood, maybe golden oak and the pews all have blue velvet buttoned cushions, I’m sure in my young day that would have been seen as being un-Presbyterian and just too comfy for church-goers. How times
St Andrew's & St George'sChurch Edinburgh

Anyway, to the books, here they are.


The three in the middle are:
The House That Is Our Own by O. Douglas
The Provincial Lady in Wartime by E.M. Delafield
Hons and Rebels by Jessica Mitford. I’ve read it, but it was over 30 years ago I’m sure and was a library book.I want to read it again.

The other one which can’t be seen very well is:
We Are Still Married by Garrison Keillor. I’ve never read anything by him but I enjoy listening to him on Radio 4 extra on Sunday afternoons whilst cooking the dinner.

Two of the vintage crime Penguins I haven’t even heard of.

The Content Assignment by Holly Roth
Comes the Blind Fury by Douglas Rutherford

The third Penguin is Captain Cut-Throat by John Dickson Carr.

The Things We See is a Penguin book which just screams 1950s at you and is about design. It has some lovely photos and even the endpapers are 1950s design.

Civil To Strangers by Barbara Pym. I’ve read quite a lot of her books but most of them so long ago, I can’t remember if I’ve read this one or not. If so, it’s due a re-read.

Anna Buchan and O.Douglas by Wendy Forrester is a book which I’ve been looking for.

The Prince and the Pilgrim by Mary Stewart is one I’ve been meaning to buy for ages, it’s the last in her Merlin/Arthur series and I’m going to read it for the up and coming Mary Stewart readalong at Gudrun’s Tights.

Oasis of the North by Dawn MacLeod is about Inverewe Gardens in the north west of Scotland.

Scottish Highland Watercolours by Sutton Palmer is a collection of 16 watercolours of the Highlands, all very scenic.

I could have bought a lot more books and this week I’ve been restraining myself from getting on a bus and going back for another look because I really didn’t get a chance to look at the many gardening and craft books which were on sale. But I think I’ll be good and resist the temptaion, particularly as there is another library book sale locally on Saturday. The George Street, Edinburgh book sale continues until the end of the week.

Looking from the Harbour Master’s House, Dysart, Fife.

On Monday afternoon we went out for coffee to the Harbour Master’s House in Dysart, Fife. The coffee was very good, but I was a wee bit disappointed by the selection of cakes – there weren’t any! What they did have were all slices of tray bakes, still, I’m not complaining really because they had millionaires shortbread – and it was delicious. Jack had a coconut and lemon slice which of course I had to test out too, it was very tasty.

Jack took a couple of photos out of the two windows which were near our table, as you can see, the windows were a bit dirty, inevitable when you are so close to the North Sea. But they give you an idea of what can be seen from the house which was the one which O. Douglas used for the house which featured in her book The Proper Place. The hills which you can see in the background are the Pentlands, over Edinburgh way.

Dysart Harbour

Sadly the entire building has been modernised to hell, I think the building must have been scraped back to a shell as the walls and ceilings are all new, and the windows of course. The only thing that gives you a clue to the its age is the width of the window sills. Even the staircases are new and very modern in design. It’s all very stylish but if you are hoping for a flavour of the house which O. Douglas wrote about – well it just isn’t there. The only thing which will be the same is the view outside, but of course the boats in the harbour would all have been very different in the 1930s.

Dysart Harbour

You can see photos of the outside of the house here.

The Harbourmaster’s House, Dysart, Fife, Scotland

aHouse 2

I’ve posted quite a few photos of Dysart before, but never one of the front of the harbourmaster’s house. I’ve been meaning to get along the coast to Dysart since I read Anna Buchan’s (O.Douglas) autobiography – Unforgettable, Unforgotten. Actually it isn’t so much an autobiography as a history of the Buchan family and their childhood. I had been wondering which Fife harbourmaster’s house she had used as a model for the house in her book The Proper Place. The description sounded like Dysart to me and sure enough she mentioned that it was indeed the house at Dysart she had been writing about. It has the delicious address of Hot Pot Wynd and sits right at the bottom of a steep hill, just as she described it. It was built in the 18th century. It looks like two houses to me though, I’m not sure if the left hand side is still a private home or is part of the coastal centre and bistro.

aHouse 3

Despite the fact that the smell of coffee emanating from it this afternoon was very enticing we didn’t succumb to it because there were hordes of people going in, I had a difficult time getting photos sans folks. I remarked to Jack that it must resemble the Tardis inside because nobody came out. We decided to leave coffee for an afternoon during the week when I imagine it’ll be less heaving with humanity.

This is a back view of the house, I think that from the top of it you should get a reasonable view over to Edinburgh. Hopefully I’ll find out for sure soon.

aHouse 4

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.

The Proper Place by O. Douglas

I’m on a bit of an O. Douglas binge at the moment. The title The Proper Place is a reference to a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale in which a whistle is blown and everyone is magically whisked to their proper place in society, I must admit I don’t know that one at all.

Anyway, when I read the blurb on the dust cover fly-leaf of this old book I just had to read it because it’s about a family of women who have to move from their beloved home in the Scottish borders as they can’t afford to live in their large house now that all the men in the family are dead. Their friends want them to take a smaller house in the same neighbourhood but they think that a clean break would be best and decide to look for a house in an entirely different part of Scotland.

Mrs Rutherford, her daughter Nicole and niece Barbara end up living in an old stone harbour house with crowsfeet gables in Fife of all places, which is on the east coast of course and where I happen to live. The localities were all familiar to me although most of the place names had been changed they were still recognisable, so I spent my time saying to myself the red rocks must be the ones at Wemyss – and such like.

Nicole, the daughter is the type of person who speaks to everyone and makes friends wherever she goes (Evee!). Her cousin Barbara is more stand-offish and a bit snobbish, but Nicole is determined to settle into village life and sets about visiting the locals who are an odd set of people, including a retired couple who had lived most of their lives in India.

Towards the end the action does move back to the Peebles area, so beloved by all the Buchan/Douglas family. There’s romance of course, eventually and as O. Douglas herself said, her books are as sweet as home-made toffee, but they’re always mixed with sadness somehow, which makes these comfort books of hers more true to life really, especially when you remember that they would have been read by women who had lost sons and husbands in wars and children to what are now trivial childhood illnesses. The book was first published in 1926.

I’ve read quite a few of her books now and I’m sure that there is a wee bit of repetition now and again in them, it’s something which J.M. Barrie did too in his books, were they being thrifty Scots?!

If you know Fife at all, and the borders for that matter then it does add more to the experience I think, it is nice to recognise places and even buildings mentioned in books. I was trying to think which harbour house she had used as the house in the book and I had decided that only Dysart fitted the description, sure enough she does mention in her book Unforgettable,Unforgotten (I’ll write about that in the near future) that she used the Dysart Harbour Master’s house for the setting. The photo below is one which I took of the harbour with the back of the house in the background, it is now a musueum and bistro.

Dysart Harbour Master's House

Recent Book Purchases

We went to St Andrews on Saturday and I can’t resist a look in the second-hand bookshop there. I thought I was only going to buy one but ended up getting three as I stopped to have a look at the table of books outside the shop, I just had to have two from there too. So my haul was:

The Proper Place by O.Douglas
The Lowlands of Scotland by George Scott-Moncrieff
Till I End My Song by Robert Gibbings

I want to read all of O.Douglas’s books eventually.

I wanted the Lowlands of Scotland because that’s where I was born and although this is a book published in 1938 it does have a lot of black and white photos in it. It’s quite an interesting book although Scott-Moncrieff fairly slags off a lot of towns and villages as being ugly. I wonder what he would have thought of all the truly ghastly housing which was built around Scotland after the war.

I read about Robert Gibbings when I was doing a wee bit of research into Clare Leighton after I bought her book Four Hedges. Gibbings was an Irish artist and sculptor and illustrated a lot of books. This one is written by him and is one of his river books with nice illustrations, this was his last one published in 1957 when I suppose he knew he was very ill, he died the following year. Gibbings was apparently an influence on David Attenborough – luckily for us!

In the post during the week I received:

High Rising by Angela Thirkell which I had pre-ordered and it arrived on the 22nd. I’m really chuffed that this book has just been reprinted because it was difficult to find online in decent condition at a reasonable price. I already have a copy of Wild Strawberries which has also been reprinted.

From Abebooks I got Green Corners by Bertha Damon which is illustrated by Clare Leighton. It only has six full page illustrations but they are lovely. The book itself is about gardening and country life in New Hampshire of all places so it should be interesting to find out what sort of things grow there. It was published in 1947.

So out of my haul only one book is a new one, I must admit that I don’t often buy new books for myself although I do buy them as presents for other people.