If you plan to study at a university in Scotland, there is of course no book that can replace your first-hand experience on location. But with pleasant anticipation, you might want to shorten the wait before you finally arrive on campus. Here are six books that are considered to be among the best that Scottish literature has to offer:
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trainspotting is a novel that has undoubtedly achieved cult status - thanks in no small part to Danny Boyle's immensely successful film adaption starring Ewan McGregor. The highly praised book is a collection of short stories depicting junkie life in Edinburgh. With controversial themes, Irvine Welsh's dark and raw debut is definitely not for the faint of heart. It is also a difficult read if you have not yet been to Scotland: Welsh, who holds an MBA degree from Heriot-Watt University, wrote many parts of the book in Scots rather than British English.
Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
Imagine the stereotypical Scottish town - gray architecture, a gloomy autumn night, rain pouring down, wind blowing through the streets. What better atmospheric backdrop, for the perfect crime novel? No wonder that Scotland has spawned so many successful detective series. Among the more popular ones are Ian Rankin’s books about Inspector Rebus. Since the first instalment in 1987, Knots and Crosses, Rankin has published more than twenty Rebus titles. Okay: Knots and Crosses, in which Detective Sergeant Rebus hunts down a serial killer dubbed “the Edinburgh Strangler”, actually starts off in late April. But that does not make any it less gloomy or rainy in Scotland.
Interesting fact: Ian Rankin actually wrote this book while he was a postgraduate student at the University of Edinburgh.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
Since you’re going to Scotland to study, it would be fitting to prepare by reading a novel so closely related to educational themes. Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie tells the tale of a teacher who takes a group of schoolgirls under her wing to prepare them for the world. The book became especially popular after turned into an Oscar-winning movie in 1969. And it’s such a short and exciting read that you might even get it done on your flight to Scotland.
The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner by James Hogg
This novel is a bit of a late bloomer: Originally published in 1824, it was almost completely neglected; but it attracted considerable attention in the second half of the 20th century. Its tale of the titular “sinner” is told first by a fictional “editor”, then by the sinner himself, and deals with a range of still contemporary themes, such as religious extremism, stalking, and mental illness. Nearly 200 years old, this classic has long since entered the public domain. You can legally and freely download it as an e-book at Project Gutenberg.
Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie
No Scotland-related list would be complete without some mention of whisky. This tale by Oxford alumnus Compton Mackenzie takes place in 1943; war-time rationing has impacted all of the UK, including two small Hebridean islands, and once the supply of whisky draws to an end, the islanders are nearing a collective nervous breakdown. Thankfully, a cargo ship wrecks off the coast - filled with tens of thousands of whisky bottles. The locals start plundering the wreck, and naturally chaos ensues. The book - based on a true story! - was originally published in 1947, then made into a movie in 1949. A remake was produced in 2016 and hit British cinemas in 2017.
The Amateurs by John Niven
John Niven is reputed by many as the enfant terrible of Scottish literature, and draws noticeable influence from Irvine Welsh (see above). The Amateurs, his second novel, tells the story of a talentless amateur golfer turning into the next Tiger Woods after a head injury. Typically for Niven, the book features a lot of violence of profanity, yet still somehow manages to be an uplifting feelgood novel - and Niven, himself from a small town 50 kilometers southwest of Glasgow, and a graduate of Glasgow University, relentlessly pokes fun at Scotland and the Scots. On a side note, the story’s ending will resonate well with all those students who struggled with the decision of whether or not to attend university.
Like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, however, you might actually want to shelve this book until after your arrival in Scotland: Much of the witty dialogue is written in dialect, and unless you’ve had some exposure to Scots, you might have a hard time following it and enjoying the entertaining intricacies of Scottish slang.