Edinburgh by Robert Louis Stevenson

Edinburgh cover

Edinburgh by Robert Louis Stevenson was first published in 1878 but my copy is a lovely edition published by Seeley and Co in 1905. It’s leather bound, gold edged with thick cream pages. Obviously this one comes under his travel writing, not that he had to do much travelling to write about his home town of Edinburgh.

In Chapter 1 Stevenson describes the beauty of Edinburgh and there’s no doubt it is beautiful, as well as being unique, in fact I’ve witnessed tourists’ jaws actually dropping when they see the castle rock from Princes Street.

The ancient and famous metropolis of the North sits overlooking a windy estuary from the slope and summit of three hills. No position could be more commanding for the head city of a kingdom; nor better chosen for noble prospects. From her tall precipice and terraced gardens she looks far and wide on the sea and broad champaigns. To the east you may catch at sunset the spark of the May lighthouse where the Firth expands into the German Ocean; and away to the west, over all the carse of Stirling, you can see the first snows on Ben Ledi.

But it’s not long before R.L.S. goes on to describe the downside of living in Edinburgh – and it’s hilarious.

But Edinburgh pays cruelly for her high seat in one of the vilest climates under heaven. She is liable to beaten upon by all the winds that blow, to be drencched with rain, to be buried in cold sea fogs out of the east, and powdered with the snow as it comes flying southward from the Highland hills. The weather is raw and boisterous in winter, shifty and ungenial in summer, and a downright meteorological purgatory in the spring. The delicate die early, and I, as a survivor, among bleak winds and plumping rain, have been sometimes tempted to envy them their fate.

So there you have it, R.L.S. obviously had a love/hate relationship with his place of birth, and no doubt Edinburgh’s atmospheres of genteel civility on one hand – and dark and menacing on the other played a huge part in his writing, particularly of Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde.

The contents of this book include chapters on:

Old Town – The Lands
The Parliament Close
The New Town – Town and Country
The Villa Quarters
The Calton Hill
Winter and New Year
To the Pentland Hills

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd

 The Weatherhouse cover

The Weatherhouse by Nan Shepherd was first published in 1930 and it seems to be something of a Scottish classic, although I must admit that I hadn’t heard of Nan Shepherd until it was on the news that she was going to be featuring on the new £5 Bank of Scotland note. Jack read this book before me and he seems to have enjoyed it a lot more than I did. I do however really like the book cover!

The setting is a very small town called Fetter-Rothnie in north-east Scotland during World War 1. Captain Garry Forbes has returned home from the front, he’s had some terrible experiences there, including the death of his best friend David Grey. When he realises that Louise (Louie) Morgan (the late minister’s daughter) is claiming that she was engaged to David Grey, Garry is incensed. He knows it isn’t true and it feels like the memory of his friend is being besmirched. Louisa is using his death to give her a sense of importance within the community, a dead love being better than no love at all. She’s a compulsive liar and thief so has never been popular.

Garry becomes obsessed with getting Louisa to admit that she’s lying, but most of the inhabitants are happy to let Louisa have her moment in the limelight and believe what Louisa says.

The Weatherhouse of the title is a house full of women, three generations of them and Garry is in love with Lindsay Lorimer, who is related to the women in the house, but his obsession is getting in the way of their relationship.

I was fairly underwhelmed by this book from a storyline point of view, in fact when I got to about page 80 I asked Jack when the book was going to get interesting and he just gave me A LOOK! Each to their own I thought!

Yes it is well written, quite poetic at times, but crucially for me all those female characters weren’t well enough drawn and as a result I never felt that I cared much about what happened to them – or didn’t.

I’m the sort of reader that really inhabits a book as I read it, but as there was nobody in this one whose company I was keen to be in – it wasn’t for me. I seem to be unusual in this as the book has been called ‘Spellbinding’ by Ali Smith. Mind you I’m never led to love anything just because I’m told to!

If you want to read what Jack thought of this one have a look here. For him, it’s almost a rave review.

The Pirate by Sir Walter Scott

November's Autumn

I read The Pirate as part of the November’s Autumn classic challenge.
All the nice girls love a sailor, so THEY say – but what sort of girls like a pirate? My sort of course, I’ve always had a bit of a yen for the pirate type, in fiction anyway, which is why I opted to read this book. I can’t even read the word pirate without saying – aarrr Jim lad to myself, that’s Long John Silver of Treasure Island fame of course.

As I said previously this book was a very slow starter and I kept wondering when there would ever be some pirate action. It didn’t come until about two thirds of the way through the book. I was reminded of a heart monitor because The Pirate is very wordy and Scott does quite a lot of rambling for no good reason really, so it sort of flatlines and then there’s the odd spike of interest or excitement. But those bits are good and in the end I was glad that I hadn’t given up on it.

The action is set on Zetland, which is what we call Shetland nowadays, a group of islands off the north coast of Scotland. Mordaunt Mertoun is a young man who has never known his mother and has been brought up by a very cold and unloving father. When Mordaunt sees a ship being wrecked on the rocks near his home he has to save a sailor who is in danger of drowning, despite the fact that the Zetlanders don’t approve of such actions. In a harsh landscape where scavenging for goods from wrecked ships helps the islanders to survive, so they don’t want the complications which shipwreck survivors bring.

The survivor is a young man called Clement Cleveland and as predicted by the Zetlanders he brings no good to Mordaunt, in fact Cleveland turns Mordaunt’s friends and neighbours against him, particularly the sisters Brenda and Minna.

It’s a long book and I’m not going to say much more about the storyline but I have to say that although it dragged along slowly at times I did enjoy the atmosphere and descriptions of Shetland and later Orkney. The story is set not all that long after Shetland became part of Scotland, you might not know that up until the 15th century Shetland was part of Norway but it was given to Scotland as part of a dowry payment from King Christian of Norway on his daughter’s marriage. So there was a big Scandinavian influence and at the time The Pirate is set the islanders see the Scots as foreigners.

Walter Scott has woven Norse mythological tales into the storyline with the result that I want to read more about them, so that’s a plus point I think. I especially liked the character of Norna of Fitful Head who is a sort of white witch/soothsayer and makes a good living selling fair winds to fishermen and sailors, what a great idea! The population is generally wary of her and wants to keep in her good books.

Fitful Head is an actual place and you can see some wonderful images of it here and here.

So as I said before, reading The Pirate was a bit like wading through porridge at times, without the benefit of sugar or syrup but on balance it was worth it, if only to find out about Fitful Head, it might be added to our places to visit list!