5 Books to Celebrate Burns Night

AmReading1I’m thinking about all things Scottish this week, after a Hogmanay promise to host a real Burns supper for friends on the 25th. Although the food forms the centrepiece of celebrations, a Burns Night isn’t complete without performances of some of the poet’s best-loved works, classic poems and songs. So, inspired by these great works of literature, this month I’m giving you a selection of some of my favourite works of modern Scottish fiction to influence your visit to Scotland. Sorry, not a single time-travelling kilted warrior included.

The Crow Road by Iain Banks

After reading what must be the greatest opening line of any novel, you’re drawn into the messy life of Prentice McHoan as he attempts to unravel the mystery surrounding his Uncle Rory’s disappearance years before, finding the love of his life along the way. The narrative pulls together the complex, interlocking history of several generations of three families living in the fictional settlement of Gallanach on the west coast of Scotland, falling backwards and forwards in time to hide and reveal secrets. The landscapes of the setting are beautifully evoked and inviting, and Scottish cultural references pepper the darkly funny text. Some dialogue is in dialect, but not enough that readers will be overwhelmed. 

Buy it here.

Glasgow University.  Photo Credit: Jim Nix on creative commons.
Glasgow University. Photo Credit: Jim Nix on creative commons.

Young Adam by Alexander Trocchi

Joe, a failed writer turned drifter working the barges travelling the industrial landscapes between Glasgow and Edinburgh discovers the body of a young woman in the canal. Was it a suicide? Or murder? As the police investigate and apprehend a suspect, Joe embarks on a lust-filled, but emotionless, affair with the wife of his boss, and it slowly becomes apparent that he knows more about the dead woman than at first he let on. Will Joe be punished for his crime and face the judgement of society? This is a beautifully structured short novel, with writing that is poetic, melancholic, haunting. The descriptions of 1950s industrial landscapes and canal traveller way of life are vivid, realised in an almost painterly detail, and capture a way of life at the end of an era now long gone.

Buy it here.


Morvern Callar by Alan Warner

If you discovered your boyfriend dead on the living room floor, how would you react? After years working a dead-end job in a dead-end tourist port (a thinly-veiled version of Oban), and escaping dreary reality through casual sex, drugs and raving, Morvern is numb, detached, indifferent to the tragedy. But the discovery of an unpublished manuscript and an inheritance form the catalyst to a figurative and literal journey of self-discovery to London and across Europe, set to the rave soundtrack of her Walkman. Physical landscapes are richly realised, in stark contrast to the bleak, hollow landscape of Morvern’s psyche, as she is repeatedly drawn back to the town, the life, she tries to escape.

Buy it here.


How Late it Was, How Late by James Kelman

Waking in a Glasgow alleyway at the end of a two-day bender, Sammy attempts to piece together events, pouring out a stream-of-consciousness narrative in a thick Glaswegian dialect that makes this a challenging read. Life isn’t all sunshine for Sammy; his girlfriend leaves after too many arguments, he gets into a fight on the street with soldiers, he’s taken into police custody and subjected to beatings and a Kafkaesque interrogation, becoming blind. On his release, he attempts to claim disability benefit, bouncing back and forward between doctors and social security officers in a mesh of bureaucracy. Sammy’s voice veers from anger to elation, frustration, despair, and bewilderment, with plenty of dark humour. This book won the Booker Prize in 1994.

Buy it here.

Forth Bridges from South Queensferry. Photo Credit: Chris Combe on creative commons
Forth Bridges from South Queensferry. Photo Credit: Chris Combe on creative commons

Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

When Danny Boyle’s film of Welsh’s book was released, some English-speaking countries chose to subtitle the dialogue as the dialects of the characters seemed so dense and impenetrable. This is a challenging read if you’re not familiar with Scots, but it’s also a challenging read if you are; the narrative follows a group of heroin addicts, thugs and petty thieves through scenes of violence, sex and drug abuse, taking detours via political diatribes and Scottish nationalism, to incidents of HIV infection, heartbreak and death. All liberally doused in profanities and black humour. However, despite their many flaws, the characters are unquestionably human, and even grow to be rather likeable. Read this book for a view of Edinburgh that is gritty, seedy and miles away from the tourist experience of the city.

Buy it here.


Do you have any favourite books by Scottish authors to recommend?


Note: This post contains affiliate links. If you follow them to buy a book I recommend, I get a small payment from the company, at no charge to you whatsoever. It helps keep my reading habit going.


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