Year of a Hundred books – #61 The Gowk Storm

The Gowk StormThe Gowk Storm – Nancy Brysson Morrisson


If the Brontë sisters had been the daughters of a Church of Scotland minister in the Highlands, rather than a Church of England priest in Yorkshire, I think that one of them, probably Emily, would have written The Gowk Storm. It has many of the familiar tropes from the Brontë’s works: doomed love affairs, sparse moors, parental distance and tragic deaths, and even the presence of a single character speaking incongruously in dialect, though they are all given a very Scottish twist.

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Year of a Hundred books – #58 44 Scotland Street

44 Scotland Street44 Scotland Street Alexander McCall Smith


After reading Tales of the City, I decided that it was probably appropriate for me to read 44 Scotland Street, Alexander McCall Smith’s story originally serialised in the Scotsman. I always find it interesting reading stories that are set in places that I know, to see what the authors do with the familiar settings and societies. Like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie44 Scotland Street is set in Edinburgh, though it’s more closely tied in to the geography of the city and features a number of real-life people amid the fictional characters.

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Fiction: Behind

‘Just do it’
‘But it says…’
‘What’s gonna happen?’
She knocked.
Someone knocked back, and they all fled.

Unable to sleep, she went back to knock again.
Someone knocked back.
She pulled the door open
‘Hello?’ she said, squinting into the light.
‘Hello,’ she said, stepping out of the light.

Written for the Scottish Book Trust’’50 Word Fiction’ May Prompt


Year of a Hundred books – #28 The Shadowy Horses

The Shadowy HorsesThe Shadowy Horses by Susanna Kearsley


I really wasn’t expecting to like this, but, in spite of myself, I did. My girlfriend’s gran, who knows the author and is even mentioned in passing, leant it to me a couple of summers ago, and it’s sat on my bookshelf ever since. Finally caving in (I needed something a bit lighter after HHhH!), once I got over my initial lack of enthusiasm, it turned out to be quite enjoyable.

The central plot of the book revolves around an archaeological dig in search of the semi-legendary Ninth Legion, part of the Roman army that disappears from the historical record after reports of them marching into the north of Britain). However, rather than being sited somewhere up in the Scottish Highlands, the dig (and the book itself) takes places just outside the town of Eyemouth just north of the border. Mostly this is irrelevant for the story, apart from being a further fuel for the cynicism cast by respected academia on the slightly loopy old man funding the dig, but it does present a problem. The first few chapters of the book felt like the author (who isn’t a local) was shouting “Look at all this local cultural and geographical research I’ve done. Appreciate it!” Once the plot starts to pick up however, this becomes less of a problem, and there are a number of sequences later in the book that are quite good explanations of the local history. I was also a bit disappointed that there was no true resolution to the mystery of the Legion, but I suppose I can’t necessarily complain about that.

The bare bones of the plot are fairly generic. Girl falls in love with boy who is mysterious while trying to ignore her ex, who is inconveniently around. Mysterious old man with family issues. Vaguely supernatural young child with a heart of gold and family issues. The old woman full of wonderful local knowledge but with a secret and a heart condition. In spite of this, somehow the combination turns out to be surprisingly compelling. You do begin to feel interested in the characters, even though you’ve read them in tens of different combinations already.

Does the interest come from the fact that it’s based around the timeless mystery of the Lost Legion? Or from the fact it’s set in a place I know fairly well? Maybe, but that doesn’t make it any less of a good, or well written story.

Year of a Hundred books – #13 Macbeth: A True Story

Macbeth: A True StoryMacbeth: A True History, by Fiona Watson


This something a little different for me. Not only is Macbeth: A True History, not fiction, but it’s also not entirely history.

Writing medieval history in a way that is accessible to a wide audience is notoriously difficult, especially in somewhere as scant in the sources as Scotland. There is all too often a tendency to clutch at straws, or to make one too many assumptions about the subject to create a coherent narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but as a trained historian it does make me cringe when Fiona Watson glosses over what she identifies as the key points of Macbeths’ reign with fictionalised prose.

This, and a few historiographic issues I disagree with, Macbeth: A True History is actually a good read. It gives a really clear run down of the unification of the Scottish kingdoms and explains a lot of things much more clearly than some of my lecturers did (one of whom is even cited as a source in the book). Of course, the narrative is always conscious of the Shakespearean take on Macbeth, and there are frequent references throughout the texts to Jacobean society or the sources Shakespeare used. This is only to be expected, but it does seem as though Watson has gone too far into revisionism, veering almost into hagiography for the king.

Five years of university education have conditioned me to be inherently sceptical of anything that tries to portray itself as a “True History”, and I’d hesitate to cite this in an academic context, but as a good popular history book, it’s one of the best I’ve ever read.