Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff

Bonnie Dundee cover

Bonnie Dundee by Rosemary Sutcliff was first published in 1983 and it’s a Puffin book. Previously I’ve enjoyed quite a few of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books for adults and I found this one to be well written and informative, very early on in the book I learned that a lorimer was a maker of spurs and horse accoutrements. I had just thought of lorimer as being a surname.

Young Hugh Herriott is an orphan and is living in the Highlands with his mother’s family. His mother had more or less been cast off by her family as she had married a travelling artist against their wishes. Hugh’s grandfather had taken him back into the family but Hugh was very much an outsider, just tolerated by the rest of his relatives. It is a turbulent time in Scotland (when isn’t it?) and religious zealots in the shape of Covenanters are being hunted down by government soldiers. A close encounter with some redcoats makes Hugh realise that he’s happier on the side of the redcoats than with his Covenanting family. If you thought that ‘redcoats’ were always English think again, there were plenty of Lowland Scots in that army.

In truth it’s seeing Claverhouse (Viscount Dundee) that pushes Hugh to leave his family and eventually he finds himself as part of Claverhouse’s household which leads him to follow him into battle. Things had come to a head when the Catholic King James succeeded to the throne on his brother Charles’s death. When James’s wife gives birth to a son the Protestants at court are determined to bring William of Orange over from Holland to push James out, William’s wife is a Stewart and of course they are Protestants. Some deluded people are still fighting this religious mess – it’s what has caused all the trouble in Ireland.

So begins the Jacobite cause with James eventually legging it to France after Claverhouse or Bonnie Dundee as he was nicknamed pays the ultimate price. If you want to learn a bit of Scottish history painlessly then this is an ideal read, a bit of an adventure tale woven into historical fact, and very atmospheric.

I’m fairly sure that Sutcliff’s mother must have been Scottish as she’s very good at writing Scots dialect, and her mother’s name was apparently Nessie – another clue I think. Rosemary Sutcliff spent most of her life in a wheelchair which makes her ability to write such great descriptive scenes all the more impressive as her own experiences must have been sadly narrow, especially as she lived at a time when access for disabled people was not great.

This is one of those books that you continue to read, knowing what the outcome must be – but daftly hoping for a better one.

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.

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson

Spring Magic cover

Spring Magic by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1942 but I read a 1986 reprint which had to be hauled out of Fife Libraries’ reserve stock. I’m only thankful that they haven’t got rid of the books completely, as they have with so many other authors.

I’m not close to having read all of D.E. Stevenson’s books but so far Spring Magic is my favourite. The setting is mainly Scotland and during World War 2. I’m very partial to wartime books especially when they are contemporary.

Frances Field is living in London with her aunt and uncle, she has been with them for years as her parents died when she was quite young. Her aunt is a very silly selfish woman and she believes that Frances is there to pander to her every wish. The aunt is a hypochondriac and Frances had been very sorry for her, but when the doctor tells Frances that there’s nothing wrong with her aunt and urges Frances to get out and get a life for herself, she does just that, taking the aunt’s decision to decamp out of London to a supposedly safer location as her cue to have a holiday in Scotland and think about her future.

The island fishing village that Frances finds herself in is sleepy and friendly but it isn’t long before the whole area is inundated with a battalion of soldiers from the British army, changing everything, especially as some of the officers’ wives have arrived too. Frances has never really had any women friends her own age before and it opens up a whole new world for her.

Not everything is sweetness and light as Frances realises along with everyone else that one of the wives is in an abusive marriage, but nothing can be done about it. Aerial dogfights and air raids bring the war right to her door and there are misunderstandings but as you would expect – all’s well in the end.

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan

The Summer Seaside Kitchen cover

The Summer Seaside Kitchen by Jenny Colgan was published in 2017 and I believe it’s the first book by the author that I’ve read. I decided to read it as I’ve been avoiding really heavy books for a wee while, the Brexit mayhem and such was getting me down and this one seemed to fit the bill as a light read. I really enjoyed this it – to a point, there were some things that annoyed me, but more about those later.

Although the setting at the beginning is dirty and sticky London it isn’t long before the action moves to a peaceful Scottish island called Mure (it’s fictional). Flora has been working in London, she’s a very junior lawyer there and her mother had always encouraged her to get an education and have a life away from Mure and spread her wings. A billionaire has moved to the island and although he had promised to bring work and to invest in the island in reality he has kept very much to himself, employed non-islanders and the islanders haven’t gained anything from his presence. Now he needs the help of a hot-shot law firm as the luxury hotel he has looks likely to have an off-shore wind farm as a view – and he wants to put a stop to that.

Flora is sent up to Mure as she obviously has local knowledge, she’s not happy to be back, there are too many bad memories, her mother is now dead and her father and three brothers aren’t exactly happy to see her.

So far so good, I liked Flora and in fact there are plenty of likeable characters in this book as well as a lovely sense of the island landscape.

What annoyed me was that I think that if a writer is writing fiction then they should make sure that they change things that might be too much like real life. I know a few authors and they often say that they get ideas for their books from the news, but don’t make it obvious. Surely everybody knows that Donald Trump threw a hissy fit when he didn’t manage to get the plans for an offshore windfarm close to his Aberdeenshire golf course thrown out. I think at the very least Jenny Colgan should have changed the windfarm to a salmon farm or even to a tidal wave energy turbine – anything but wind turbines.

Otherwise the story was too predictable and it annoyed me how many times Colgan had Flora turning red or pink, she seemed to suffer from terminal embarrassment. Otherwise this fitted the bill as an entertaining light read.

Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson

Rosabelle Shaw cover

Rosabelle Shaw by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1937. I’ve wanted to read this book ever since I realised that D.E. Stevenson had named a character Rosabelle. I was at school with a girl with that name and I’ve never heard of anyone else having it – well not until I read about the tragic drowning of Rosabelle of Ravenscraig Castle which inspired Sir Walter Scott to write a poem which you can read here.

Rosabelle Shaw is set in Scotland, it begins in Edinburgh 1890 where Fanny quickly ends up marrying and moving to a new life in rural Scotland where her husband John is a farmer. Rosabelle is their first-born but as you would expect John is keen to have a son eventually, but when a ship is wrecked on the nearby rocks the only survivor is a baby boy. John does his best to track down the parents but has no success. Unfortunately Fanny has already bonded with the baby which she names Jay, and she has no intentions of giving him up anyway. From the beginning the child comes between the couple and things only get worse as the years go on.

I ended up enjoying this one although for a large part of the book the manipulative and deceitful nature of Jay and the way that Fanny puts Jay before her own children and husband made it an uncomfortable read, but it eventually ends well for the Shaw family.

I might be reading too much into D.E. Stevenson’s writing but it seems to me that she often gives a wee nod to other Scottish authors, there’s the use of the unusual name Rosabelle – a nod to Scott, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the house of Shaws appears in Catriona – Robert Louis Stevenson’s sequel to Kidnapped.

I rather like the cover of the 1967 edition of the book which I managed to borrow from the Fife libraries reserve stock. It looks like an authentically Scottish scene for the historical setting.

Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson

Listening Valley

Just a couple of weeks ago I managed to buy an old copy of Listening Valley by D.E. Stevenson in Edinburgh, sadly it doesn’t have it’s dust jacket though. I can’t say I’m all that keen on the cover of the paperback above, but I suppose it’s better than nothing.

The book begins with the Edinburgh childhood of Louise and Antonia Melville. On the surface they have a very comfortable upbringing, it would seem that money was no problem. But in truth they’re really emotionally neglected children, brought up by the nannie. They both have the same problem – they weren’t born a boy and both parents wanted a boy, particularly their father as his family home was a castle and he wanted to pass it on to a son. In disappointment he ended up selling the castle. Their mother was a bridge fiend and playing bridge seemed to take up all of her time. She was disappointed because she thought of her girls as being very dull compared with other children she met, but as she never took the time to get to know her daughters she had no idea of their real personalities at all.

Inevitably both girls marry young, Tonia marries a man even older than her father is but he’s kind and wealthy and gives her some badly needed confidence, in wartime they move to London and experience the Blitz.

Eventually the action moves back to Scotland where Tonia settles close to what had been her father’s country estate. But the war is still very much in evidence with an airfield very close by. Tonia’s home becomes a meeting place for young airmen who never knew when their number would be up.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, it has some truly ghastly characters in the shape of sponging relatives, I have a feeling that they crop up from time to time in Stevenson’s books, she must have been bothered by some I think! I bet they never read her books though.

Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson

Winter and Rough Weather cover

First published in 1951 Winter and Rough Weather by D.E. Stevenson is the third and last book in her Dering series which is set in the Scottish Borders. I found it an enjoyable read and all the loose ends were dealt with albeit a wee bit abruptly at the end. It is of course an old-fashioned family tale with a smattering of romance.

I can’t make my mind up what it is that makes these books such comfort reads. Is it the characters? The high moral standards (that sounds so pious but the obnoxious and clueless of country ways new neighbours are clear cut baddies). Maybe it’s the decency of the locals and the sense of community that add up to a fine place to visit vicariously.

At the end of Music in the Hills (the second book in the series) James and Rhoda have decided to get married, it was a difficult decision for Rhoda as she knew it would mean re-locating from London to a remote rural area in the Scottish Borders, as a successful artist she felt like she might be giving up her career. James persuaded her to take a risk and marry him but she hadn’t realised that they would be living in a cottage with no electricity or phone, five miles from a neighbour and with a very poor road in between.

The story involves a bit of mystery with fatherless children who had been evacuated to the area with their mother during the war. She has always been very reticent about her past and seemingly uncaring of her children to the point of neglect. When Rhoda takes an interest in the boy who it turns out has a talent for art, it leads to their father being found.

D.E. Stevenson wrote light romances often with a Scottish setting, very reminiscent of O.Douglas books. It has been mentioned by a few people that in Winter and Rough Weather Stevenson concentrates on the boy and fairly quickly drops his sister from the storyline. This is such a typical thing with Scottish mothers and women of that period that I almost don’t even notice it. If you’ve read O.Douglas books too you’ll remember that she always had a young lad as a central character, very much the favourite – almost in the position of a ‘house god’.

It’s a sad fact that Scottish women of the past held sons and males in general as being much more important than females. I remember that a character in one of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy comments that ‘in Scotland female children didn’t count’. Daughters were for helping with the housework. Thankfully this attitude has disappeared – I hope.

You can read a far more detailed review of this book over at Leaves and Pages although the book is called Shoulder the Sky there, presumably a title for the US market.

Kinvara by Christine Marion Fraser

Kinvara cover

Kinvara by Christine Marion Fraser was first published in 1998 and it’s the first by the author that I’ve read. I don’t know if it’s just the setting of a coastal community or what, but this really felt like Fraser was heavily influenced by Neil M Gunn’s books although her writing isn’t as sparkling as his. I have a feeling that Fraser could be described as being a sort of Scottish Catherine Cookson as her books seem to have been wildly popular family sagas. I admit that I’m a bit snooty about some writers and Cookson is one of them, but I did end up getting dragged into this tale and enjoyed it although I now realise there are three more books in this series, I’m not sure if I’ll continue with it though – so many books to read!

The setting is the Outer Hebrides of Scotland and Kinvara is a small village, some of the men are lighthouse keepers, it begins at Christmas 1922 and Robbie Sutherland is leaving the lighthouse to travel home to Kinvara after completing his stint.

He’s married to Hannah a difficult woman of the ‘own worst enemy’ variety who has been withdrawn and sullen since the birth of their son who has cerebral palsy. Robbie married her on the rebound after he had broken up with Morna who had gone back to her native Shetland. Hannah sees no point in caring for her son and makes no attempts to form a relationship with him. Robbie is at his wits’ end and as Morna has returned – with what turns out to be Robbie’s daughter, his life is a mess.

The book ends in the summer of 1926 and obviously there’s a lot more to it than I’ve written, if you fancy being in the company of some funny and interesting characters and you like a Scottish setting then you might like this one.

I’m a bit puzzled as to why the author called the book Kinvara as it is apparently a real place in Ireland, and she gave some of the characters Irish names too which is fairly unlikely in the far north of Scotland.

Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble by Catriona McPherson

 Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble cover

Dandy Gilver & a Spot of Toil and Trouble by Catriona McPherson is the new mystery featuring Dandy and Alec’s detective agency. Dandy has been contacted by an old schoolfriend who needs her services. Minerva, better known as Minnie lives with her husband in Castle Bewer which is a crumbling 14th century pile. In her letter she explains that they are opening the castle to the public and also staging plays there.

A company of actors from London will be arriving there soon and Dandy and Alec are needed to guard the castle’s valuables apparently. Grant – Dandy’s loyal maid is champing at the bit to join in on this job as she grew up with actor parents, and the stage is a home from home for her.

When they arrive at Castle Bewer they soon realise that the job is far more complicated than Minnie had implied. As ever this was an enjoyable read, I like being in the company of Dandy and Alec. Hugh her husband doesn’t appear in this one much though which is a shame as I think he’s a good character.

Miss Bun the Baker’s Daughter by D.E. Stevenson

Miss Bun the Baker's Daughter cover

Miss Bun the Baker’s Daughter by D.E. Stevenson was first published in 1939, written in 1938. The author says in a foreword added in 1973: This book was written in 1938 and published soon after, but although many of the facts have proved untrue it is still artistically true of any little town in the Scottish Border Country and the people are as real today as they were thirty-four years ago.

So far this book has been the least satisfying of Stevenson’s for me, in fact slightly annoying at times as it really didn’t ring true to the era, particularly in Scotland. It’s 1938 and we’re supposed to believe that a young girl would be able to live in a house with just her youngish male employer. She would have been the ‘talk of the steamie’, but apart from that her father and grandparents would never have allowed it.

Early on in the book D.E. Stevenson describes what you should do while singing Auld Lang Syne at New Year, but she did it all wrong – something that drives me mad. She said that you should cross your arms to shake hands with the people on either side of you at the beginning. But of course you shouldn’t do that until the last verse (for brevity the second, third and fourth are usually omitted) when the lyrics say – “And there’s a hand my trusty fiere! / and gie’s a hand o’ thine.”

Anyway, to the rest of the book: Sue has been left motherless at an early age and she is left to be brought up by her rather grim and charmless father who is the local baker. She has had to leave school as soon as possible so that she could become her father’s housekeeper, but when her father remarries she’s seen as a nuisance by his new wife, definitely unwanted in the household. When a well known artist living locally and his wealthy wife offer her a job as their housekeeper she jumps at the chance.

However the artist’s wife very quickly takes herself off leaving Sue alone with the artist. His career is taking a bit of a nosedive as he has started to paint in a different style which is not appreciated by the critics.

The setting is the Scottish Borders, probably where the author is at her most comfortable and so that is always pleasing, but her characters left quite a lot to be desired with the maternal grandparents being particularly unlikely, they didn’t come up to scratch as doting grandparents to me anyway.

This is probably me being nitpicking, but I didn’t really like anybody in the book, and that’s always a problem for me.

As 1938 was a year of worry and turmoil for people in Britain with the onset of World War 2 expected at any time, I’ll forgive her this slightly disappointing book.