A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

A Lovely Way to Burn cover

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh is the first book in her Plague Times trilogy. I must admit that I didn’t realise this when I started reading it. As I only recently finished reading Station Eleven it was too soon for me to embark on another ‘end of the world as we know it’ book, but I had started – so I finished.

Stephanie/Stevie Flint has just turned thirty and has been living in London for seven years. Her career as a journalist has come to a halt and she’s now working as a presenter for a TV shopping channel and doing very well at it – at least the money is good. Her current gentleman friend Simon is a surgeon and when he doesn’t turn up for a date with her after work she just assumes that he’s probably going off her. But when she goes to his flat she discovers that he is dead.

Very quickly the bodies begin to pile up as the whole world seems to be in the grip of a pandemic which is being called ‘The Sweats’. Stevie contracts it but eventually recovers, one of the very few to do so, for most people it’s a quick death sentence.

But Simon didn’t die of The Sweats and Stevie suspects that he was murdered despite the fact that he supposedly died of natural causes – and so begins her investigation which leads to attacks on her life, while London descends into chaos. The people who haven’t yet succumbed to the illness either load up their vehicles and head out of the city, or begin drinking their way to oblivion.

For me the whole plot didn’t quite hang together so I’m not sure if I’ll carry on with this series.

The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter

 Bruce Trilogy cover

The Path of the Hero King by Nigel Tranter is the second book in his Robert the Bruce trilogy. The first one The Steps to the Empty Throne ended with the disastrous battle of Methven in Perthshire, when Bruce and his army were attacked during the night as they slept. That made Bruce realise that he would have to ditch his chivalric behaviour and adopt dirty tactics as the English King Edward I did. Previously The Bruce and King Edward I had been fairly friendly and the two countries had been on good terms.

In this book Scotland’s main castles are inhabited by the English as are many smaller castles and strongholds. King Robert is having a hard time with people who don’t recognise him as king and as usual the many clans in Scotland who have been at each other’s throats for generations are still causing problems. When he learns that his wife, daughter and sister have been taken prisoner by King Edward, and that they and his brothers had been handed to the English by a fellow Scot – the Earl of Ross – the gloves are off so to speak, especially when he’s told that the women have been hung in cages which dangle from various city and castle walls.

The Bruce begins the task of slowly grabbing back the smaller castles from the English invaders, using the guerilla tactics he learned from William Wallace. Slashing and burning the lowland parts of Scotland which the invading English army had to pass through, making sure that there was nothing left for the army to eat or even any shelter for them. That must have been heartbreaking for Bruce as the Border country had been his. There’s a lot of fighting in this book, interspersed with some bedroom action which I suppose is Tranter’s attempt to sex it up and bring in some variety.

This was a good read which ends on a high with the Battle of Bannockburn where Bruce used his knowledge of the surrounding land close to Stirling to win against a massive English army led by Edward II. I hadn’t realised quite how huge the English army had been, when the first of them marched into the Stirling area the end of the army was still marching through Edinburgh over twenty miles away! It must have been a terrifying sight.

Unfortunately I’ll have to wait a while before reading the last of this trilogy as I had to take the omnibus edition back to the library instead of updating it as someone else had requested it. I have plenty of other books to choose from though and will take a rest from historical fiction for a wee while.

The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter

 Bruce Trilogy cover

The Steps to the Empty Throne by Nigel Tranter was first published in 1969 and it’s the first of a Bruce trilogy. I do think though that Tranter was a bit generous with what is known of the history regarding Robert the Bruce, at one point Bruce comes to the aid of William Wallace at the end of a battle, something which almost certainly didn’t happen. In the early days Bruce was known for not being where he should be – when it came to battles. I suspect this was because he had had quite a close relationship with Edward I of England – before Edward became known as ‘The Hammer of the Scots’.

Scotland had always been an independent country but when King Alexander III fell off his horse and died at Kinghorn in Fife (see his memorial at the location here) and then his daughter (The Maid of Norway) – who had been his heir died, that left a power vacuum and that’s what this book is about. The Scots made a huge mistake in asking their neighbour King Edward of England to help to choose between the candidates. Edward decided that John Balliol should get the top job but he had decided to take over himself in Scotland and Balliol was really just Edward’s puppet. As you can imagine this didn’t go down well with the Scots who ended up getting rid of Balliol and signed a treaty with France, always England’s enemy. Edward took this as an excuse to invade Scotland and so began the Wars of Independence. As ever though the Scots were as much at each other’s throats as at war with the English.

A few battles are fought but the book is much more than that. Bruce is a widower but by the end of the book he has remarried so there’s romance too, despite Edward’s manipulations. There’s the difference between William Wallace’s guerrilla warfare and Bruce’s chivalric leanings which he had to give up when Edward’s dirty tricks led to Bruce’s defeat in battles. The manner of Wallace’s execution also enraged so many Scots – so the gloves were off. Bruce had always been keen to avoid being excommunicated by the pope, but inevitably that happens, he was reminded that the Scottish church had originally been a Celtic church and it had been obliterated by Queen Margaret (King Malcolm’s wife) who replaced the Culdees with the Benedictines that she had grown up with. Suddenly excommunication didn’t matter any more.

I’m really looking forward to the next one in this trilogy The Path of the Hero King.

Homespun by Annie S. Swan

Homespun cover

Homespun by Annie S.Swan was first published in 1893 and its subtitle is – a study of simple folk. The setting is the small village of Beild, supposedly the lowlands of Scotland but this was one of the two books that she got material for while she lived in the very small village of Star of Markinch in Fife where her husband James Burnett-Smith was the schoolmaster, before he left so that he could pursue his ambition of studying to become a doctor.

Beild is a typical wee Scottish place where gossip is the main occupation of the inhabitants and there are the usual village rivalries. The pub is frequented by many but particularly by four old bachelors for whom it’s a home from home. In one of their more drunken moments they decide that it’ll be a good laugh if one of them proposes marriage to a local spinster, no doubt expecting her to be outraged by the drunken man. It doesn’t go as hoped though as the spinster accepts the proposal – well, she had discovered that he had some savings and she believed she could control his boozing. He’s stuck.

This is a typical sentimental book of its day, plenty of romance, sorrow and a local cossetted son who has been away studying to be a minister packs the church out at his first sermon as a probationer. He’s so disliked they’re all hoping for a disaster of course. This book is quite entertaining in an old and coothie way.

I think that the author’s reaction to living in Star/Beild for two years as she did is summed up below.

To fully master the intricacies of the Beild character, old or young, you have to be brought up in the place; no stranger has half a chance.

You can read a bit more about her here.

INDEPENDENCE An argument for Home Rule by Alasdair Gray

 Independence cover

INDEPENDENCE An argument for Home Rule by Alasdair Gray was published in 2014, so before the Independence referendum of 2014 and it contains eleven chapters and a postscript.

It was Jack who gave me this one to read and you can read his thoughts on it here.

The book begins with Alasdair Gray’s prologue in which he writes: This book is written for Scots, by whom I mean anyone in Scotland who will vote in the September referendum to make Scotland a more or less independent nation.

The chapter titles include:
National Geology – How Lands Make People Behave

Anglo-Scots Differences

Old and New Corruption 1800 – 1976

UK Parliament, North Sea Oil A New Chapter in Old Corruption

Settlers and Colonists A Controversial Topic

A Small Stir of Correspondence More Controversial Matter

In Settlers and Colonists he writes about being asked to write an article on the subject and the result of that was that he was called a racist by people who had never even read the article and questions were asked in the Scottish Parliament. In this chapter he clarifies the situation, explaining the differences between the two. Basically Settlers are people who arrive in Scotland from another country but are happy to embrace the place, people and culture – in my experience these people often cheerfully end up becoming more Scots than the native Scots.

Colonists move to Scotland as a sort of smash and grab raid, often being given high profile jobs in Scottish culture, knowing nothing about the subject, but for them it’s a stepping stone to getting a similar position in England, they usually stay a very short time. In my experience these people usually come to Scotland and grouse about everything – declaring loudly how much better everything is elsewhere – in their opinion. Not the way to win friends and influence people.

The next chapter – A Small Stir of Correspondence was the upshot of Gray mentioning the difference between Settlers and Colonists. Pete Selman who was the Director of Properties and Visitor Services at the National Trust for Scotland and took umbrage at what Gray had said at something he was invited to. It’s a bullying letter from him demanding an apology from Gray and threatening to remove his books from the National Trust shelves because as far as he knew they weren’t selling any of his books anyway.

Alasdair Gray’s reply to Selman is a cracker, needless to say that he didn’t get a reply to it. Among many things Gray pointed out that his mother’s parents were both English and he has never had any problem with English people choosing to live in Scotland or indeed the many Scots who live in other parts of the world – only the carpetbaggers.

It’s all about peoples’ attitude to others or as one of our English friends says – some English people come to Scotland and ‘do the English thing’ – by which he meant they throw their weight about.

This is an interesting read, and what with all this Brexit chaos it highlights the differences between the two so-called united kingdoms. If Scots had known that Brexit would become UK Government policy within two years the outcome of the 2014 Independence Referendum might have been very different.

Gone Are The Leaves by Anne Donovan

 Gone Are the Leaves cover

I’ve been away for a long weekend down to the north of England, visiting Lindisfarne, a place I’ve been meaning to get to for years – but the tide was never right when we went past, and we also dropped in on some friends who live a bit further south from there.

Before leaving I managed to finish reading Gone Are The Leaves by Anne Donovan. It’s the first book I’ve read by this author and Jack recommended it. She wrote Buddha Da which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize. I really enjoyed this one and although some of it is written in fairly broad Scots I think it will be quite easy for non Scots to understand. In fact those parts are the most melodic and poetic parts of the book with lovely descriptions and I don’t think it would take long for any reader to get their ‘ear’ into it. There’s a small glossary at the back.

The setting is medieval Scotland to begin with but then the action moves to a mysterious castle in France.

Deirdre is in her thirteenth year and she’s apprenticed to her mother who is an embroiderer in the household of an aristocratic lord and lady. Deirdre is a talented embroiderer despite being so young, a talent which would be of use if she joined a convent. Should she do that or marry a much older man?

When a group of young people arrive from France it’s clear that the lady of the house (never named) is keen on the pretty young males – well her husband is very much older than she is. Feilamort is one of the young boys and he sings like an angel. He and Deirdre become great friends but he knows that as he grows older his singing talent is going to be lost. They both have difficult choices to make.

Deirdre ends up in a convent, it isn’t long before she realises that the life isn’t for her, she misses her mother but that isn’t her only problem.

The action then moves to France, to a castle built into rocks by an eccentric relative of Deirdre’s aristocratic employers. They have high hopes that their daughter will inherit from the childless man, but it isn’t as simple as they had hoped.

This story is told by Deirdre, Signor Carlo and Sister Agnes, but it’s Deirdre’s voice which brings the book to life. I really enjoyed it.

Off In a Boat by Neil Gunn

Off in a Boat cover

Off In a Boat by Neil Gunn is an account of the journey that he and his wife embarked on in 1937 after he decided to give up his safe job in the civil service, sold their house and bought a 27 foot wooden boat so that they could explore the Inner Hebrides. It seems that neither of them knew much about sailing but they had charts and read books before they set off. The boat that Neil Gunn bought was in need of a lot of work as it was in bits when he viewed it first but that didn’t put him off buying what was a far from ideal vessel. If you look at the book cover you’ll see that the living space must have been cramped to say the least and Gunn’s wife – affectionately known as the Crew had a hard time of it, and wore out her trouser knees as she had to crawl around so much while she did the cooking.

It could be said that the pair were foolhardy in their ambition as if the engine had stopped while in wild water they would have been toast – but they survived. Half-way through the journey they were joined by his wife’s brother who was known as the Mate and luckily he had more experience of sailing and engines although he was happier when he was able to hoist the sail and turn the engine off.

Although this book was written in 1937 I imagine that the actual journey part of it would be much the same today although the landmarks used in the navigation will be very different, but it isn’t just an account of a journey and adventure through beautiful scenery, he also incorporates Celtic and Norse legends, references Boswell and Johnson and highlights the hospitality and kindness that they experienced from the ordinary local people. Sadly the same could not be said for the rich landowners, some of whom had the delusion that they owned the sea and any fish in it and also had the right to steal oars from anyone who happened to have had the temerity to beach their rowing boat near their land. In some ways the new landlords were even worse than those who had cleared their land of crofters, forcing them to sail to America and Canada – and replacing them with more lucrative sheep.

I was unsure about this book when I bought it but I ended up enjoying it even more than Neil Gunn’s most famous novel The Silver Darlings.

My Life by Annie S. Swan

 My Life cover

Have any of you ever read any books by the Scottish author Annie S. Swan? Between 1878 and her death in 1943 she wrote over 200 novels, short stories and serials. She has been called “one of the most commercially successful popular novelists of the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” but only a few of her books have been recently reprinted. She began her career writing serials for the wildly popular Peoples’ Friend which is still going although they can’t be selling nearly as many copies as in earlier times as it used to be sent all over the British Empire. She also wrote under her married name Annie Burnett-Smith and as David Lyall she wrote serious newspaper articles about politics, including the Boer War.

I’ve read a few of her books and quite enjoyed them, but she’s a bit of a local hero among some people here in Fife as for a couple of years she lived in the teeny village of Star of Markinch when her husband was a schoolteacher there. In this book she says very little about her time there but to be fair it must have seemed like the back of beyond for her as even now it’s a bit of a backwater.

Apparently she wasn’t all that keen on writing her autobiography as inevitably ‘the Ego, which I don’t very much like abounds’. But she had an eventful life, considering that she was born into a farming family near Edinburgh, but her father wasn’t a very good businessman and failed even at growing potatoes. With really no encouragement from her family Annie got stuck into writing short stories and when she got married it wasn’t only a couple of years until her husband was able to give up his teaching job and study medicine, something he had always wanted to do but it hadn’t been affordable.

Annie discovered that she was good at public speaking, addressing hordes of women, often they were keen to get a sneak preview of her ongoing serial. This talent for speaking led her to be asked to go to America during World War 1 to tell them how urgently the UK needed food that only they could supply as we only had six weeks’ worth of provisions left. After a difficult start she ended up being invited all over the place and meeting ‘high heid yins’ such as Herbert Hoover. She also met Howard Heinz and I imagine his beans were deployed against the Kaiser.

She felt most at home in Boston of course, but “wished that American history books could be more accurate in their accounts of certain events in which the British were also involved.” Hmm yes I know what she means!

The war woke her up to politics and she stood for the Liberals in the 1922 General Election, but came in last. This didn’t put her off though and she later became a founder member of the Scottish National Party. I wish they had been more careful when choosing a name for it and hadn’t stuck in that word ‘national’.

When she was speaking to one poverty stricken woman she was told “Ah, weel, I dinna understand it a’. We’ll vote for onybody that will mak’ us better.” – and that’s the problem with democracy. People believe all the promises that rarely come to fruition. Nigel Farage said as soon as the poll booths were closed that he regretted things said in his campaign, but they get away with it.

She has quite a bit to say about marriage and specifically her own as she and her husband often held very different views on things and as they both had tempers things were often fraught I think but she thought that that was much better than being a part of one of those couples who agree on everything. I agree with that, in my experience that just means that one person is always suppressing their feelings and being a doormat.

Despite having a full and successful career her happy family life ended when her 15 year old son died in a shooting accident while packing to go back to Rugby School at the end of school holidays. I always have my doubts about those teenage ‘accidents’. It’s obviously something that she and her husband and their daughter never quite got over.

When her husband Dr Burnett-Smith was working up his business (pre NHS obviously) they moved down to England and ended up in London where they moved in literary circles, in this book she does drop a lot of names, but she had lots of friends among other writers such as J.M. Barrie and Thomas Hardy. Scotland always pulled them home though and they built a large house in Kinghorn on the east coast not far from me in Fife. Annie, her husband and their son are apparently buried there so I plan to go there soon to see their graves and track down the house they built – The Anchorage.

I found this to be an interesting read but I’m not sure how easily obtainable it is, my friend Maureen kindly loaned me her copy.

Chronicles of Carlingford by Mrs Oliphant

Chronicles of Carlingford cover

Chronicles of Carlingford by the very prolific Scottish author Mrs Oliphant is a Virago publication which consists of two novellas – The Rector and The Doctor’s Family, originally published in 1863. There’s an introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald.

The blurb on the back of this book compares Margaret Oliphant with Jane Austen, George Eliot and Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire Chronicles. I would include Mrs Gaskell too.

The Rector is only 35 pages long, the setting is mid 19th century Carlingford which is a small town close to London. A new rector/minister is coming to the town and his parishioners are anticipating what sort of preacher he will be. Surely he won’t be as low church as the last rector. He had gone to the canal and preached to the bargemen there – that didn’t go down at all well with his snooty congregation. Most of them are hoping for something a bit more stylish – and preferrably a bachelor as there are several unmarried ladies apparently in need of a husband. The new rector has spent the last 15 years cloistered in All Souls and this is his first living. He may be a great theologian but he’s absolutely at sea when it comes to human nature and dealing with his parishioners.

Difficult or awkward men seem to have been Oliphant’s forte. There’s no doubt she had plenty of experience of them within her own family, and in fact she came to believe that her managing and competent character contributed to the weakness in her menfolk.

The Doctor’s Family is 157 pages long. Young Doctor Rider has just moved to a newly built part of Carlingford, he doesn’t know it but that is not going to do his business any good. The old established Carlingfordians look down on that area. His older brother had gone to Australia under some sort of cloud and he had married and had a family out there. Things didn’t go any better for him in Australia – well – he is a drunkard – so he had come home and was living at his young brother’s expense.

Dr Rider had decided that although he wanted to marry a young woman he couldn’t afford to look after his brother and a wife and children, so he had given up hope of marrying at all. Imagine his horror when his brother’s wife and children and her sister turn up and billet themselves on him!

Even worse – it turns out that his brother’s wife is feckless and doesn’t even take any notice of their badly behaved children, and for some reason she blames her brother-in-law for the situation that she and her husband are in.

This one is much stronger I think, but they’re both well worth reading and have moments of comedy as well as frustration at enraging characters.

I read this one for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2019

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh

Naming the Bones by Louise Welsh was published in 2010. Louise Welsh was born in England but I think she counts as a Scottish author as she has lived in Scotland for years and she went to The University of Glasgow.

The setting of this book is Glasgow and Edinburgh but it eventually moves to the Island of Lismore in the inner Hebrides.

Murray Watson is a lecturer in English at The University of Glasgow but his career is not really going anywhere and he has decided to do some research on the poet Archie Lunan who had died in mysterious circumstances 30 years previously. Did he commit suicide or was it an accident? But Lunan had only written one slim volume of poetry and there doesn’t really seem to be any more material for Murray to be able to write anything that would be of interest to anyone.

It looks like Murray’s career is on a downward spiral and when he realises that Fergus the head of the department has discovered that Murray has been having an affair with his wife Rachel, Murray thinks he’ll probably lose his job at the university. In a desperate effort to find out something new about Archie Lunan, Murray contacts the old head of department hoping that he can give him some information on Archie Lunan when he was one of his students. It seems that he can’t but he does imply that the person to ask would be Fergus as he knew Archie well. But Fergus had claimed that he didn’t know Archie at all.

Murray takes himself off to Lismore, the island where Lunan had lived for a while and where he had died. The ‘dry’ island is not a place of joy. Archie isn’t the only person to have come to grief there and during a howling winter gale things go from bad to worse.

This thriller was mildly entertaining but not as good as the other books that I’ve read by the author.