The islands of the Outer Hebrides have been inspiring writing – fact, fiction, and downright fancy – for years. From the 18th century diary entries of Boswell and Johnson, to the current-day best-sellers by Peter May, writers visiting (or living in) the islands have long been inspired to put pen to paper.
As a life-long bookworm, I’ve read a fair few books set in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides myself.
Sometimes I read them for entertainment, sometimes I read them for education, sometimes I read them for work, and sometimes I read them simply because they’re set in the Hebrides. After all, who wouldn’t be intrigued to discover how others see and depict their home?
With the arrival of Book Week Scotland, I thought it was the perfect time to share some of my favourites. So without further ado, here are 10 books I think you should read before visiting the Outer Hebrides – books that will inspire you to visit, books that will bring back fond memories of a past holiday, or books that will give you an historical insight into the archipelago.
The Lewis Trilogy, by Peter May.
I suppose this one is a bit of a cheat, as I’m including three books instead of one – but you can’t talk about one of these books without talking about all of them. The Blackhouse, The Lewis Man, and The Chessmen make up Peter May’s best-selling crime trilogy set in the islands, a trilogy that follows the fortunes of Fin Macleod, an Edinburgh policeman who returns to Lewis, the island of his birth, to help solve a murder case.
The books are so popular that readers are actually visiting the islands to see the novels’ settings for themselves. Since the islands are as prominent a feature in the tale as the main characters, it’s hardly surprising. Who knows, once you lose yourself in the action, you might just find yourself booking a flight to Stornoway, too!
From The Land, by Ian Lawson.
There’s no other way to describe it: this photography book is magnificent. My copy is one of my most prized possessions, sitting proudly on display in the living room, offering anyone who glances at it a window into the Western Isles.
Photographer Ian Lawson spent years visiting the islands again and again, getting to know their people, their landscapes, and of course, their cloth, the world-famous Harris Tweed. The book holds some of the most incredible images I’ve ever seen of my home, and the links between the land, the elements and the textile inspired by it all, are beautifully obvious when seen side-by-side in these pages.
Add it to your reading list here: From The Land.
Whisky Galore, by Compton Mackenzie.
If you’re looking for a laugh, open up the pages of Whisky Galore. The 1947 story of how the residents of Todday react when a ship full of whisky runs aground on their island is loosely based on the real-life grounding of the SS Politician off the Isle of Eriskay, in 1941.
Compton Mackenzie spent time living on Barra, and his experience of island life is evident in his creation of Todday. It’s been a few years since I read the book, but I do remember laughing out loud to myself as I turned the pages, and read phrases I’ve only ever heard in the Hebrides.
Fun fact: I recently discovered that Whisky Galore was released in the USA under the title “Tight Little Island.” No wonder I couldn’t find it in the local library!
Add it to your reading list here: Whisky Galore.
Hebrides, by Peter May and David Wilson.
I’ve written before that this photographic book is “a love letter… to the landscape and culture of the Western Isles.” It’s not an exaggeration, either: following the success of the Lewis Trilogy, Peter May penned his own personal guide to the islands, noting the locations that appear in his books, and those that made an impact on him during his time there in the 1990s.
Working with photographer David Wilson, his words are illustrated with striking images, bringing the world of the trilogy to life for readers around the world. Whether you’ve read the novels or not, Hebrides is guaranteed to transport you to the beautiful beaches and moors of the Hebrides (not to mention the abandoned buses, but that’s a whole other story…).
Add it to your reading list here: Hebrides
The Guga Hunters, by Donald S. Murray.
In Lewis, if you’re lucky enough to know someone with connections to the district of Ness, you might find yourself feasting on the local delicacy that is boiled salted gannet, called ‘guga’ in Gaelic. Donald S. Murray’s book looks at the history – both long-gone and more recent – of the so-called ‘Guga Hunters’ of Ness, the men who venture to the island of Sula Sgeir each year to harvest the guga.
They are the only community in Europe legally allowed to do so, and outside of the isles the practice is controversial. But for anyone who is intrigued, or pre-emptively outraged, pick up the book first – you might be surprised at what you find. I enjoyed learning about the Guga Hunters earlier in the year, not long after we introduced Mr. Stories My Suitcase Could Tell to guga for the first time. (And yes, for the record, he enjoyed it!)
Add it to your reading list here: The Guga Hunters.
The Stornoway Way, by Kevin MacNeil.
If you’re in search of an idyllic portrayal of the Outer Hebrides, look away now. The Stornoway Way, written by local author (and poet, playwright, tutor, and performer) Kevin MacNeil, ruffled some local feathers when it was first published, mostly due to the strong language and sensitive subject matter.
Despite the controversy, it’s a poetic, funny, and emotional book, a tale told in first person by drink-fueled narrator Robert Stornoway, and one well worth reading for an alternative (albeit fictional) look at life in the isles.
(As an aside, The Stornoway Way also features one of my favourite literary quotes, one that resonates with islanders who have to put up with incessant stereotypes lobbied at them from afar: “We are who we are because we grew up the Stornoway way. We don’t live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond.”)
Add it to your reading list here: The Stornoway Way.
Crowdie and Cream (And Other Stories), by Finlay J. Macdonald.
In a complete reversal of my usual rules of reading, I watched the wonderful TV series adaption before picking up this book itself. Crowdie and Cream (and the two volumes that follow) make up the journalist Finlay J. Macdonald’s memoirs of his childhood in the Hebrides during the inter-war years.
For anyone familiar with the islands, it’s a laugh-out-loud read; the stories may have taken place almost a century ago, but there’s a lot that has stayed the same. From descriptions of the landscape to the way of life, Crowdie and Cream captures the spirit of the islands perfectly.
Add it to your reading list here: Crowdie and Cream.
The Road Dance, by John Mackay.
John Mackay might be best known as a Scottish journalist and newsreader, but he’s also a successful, published author. His first novel was The Road Dance, set in a still-conservative Hebridean community as the Great War looms on the horizon.
The war, and the events of the night of the road dance, will dramatically alter the path that teenage Kirsty takes in life. It’s a gripping story, one that will keep you turning the page all the way to the end – but it’s one that I can’t say too much about without giving away crucial details!
Add it to your reading list here: The Road Dance.
When I Heard The Bell, by John Macleod.
I’ll admit it: before reading this wide-ranging account of the Iolaire tragedy, I knew little detail of the boat’s history, save for the bare bones of history.
When I Heard The Bell popped up in my Christmas stocking last year, and I was immediately engrossed in the re-telling of the tale of the Iolaire, the ship which sank off the coast of Lewis in 1918. Over 200 servicemen were on board, returning home on New Year’s Eve; they had survived the First World War, but many of them died on their own doorstep.
Using historical records and first-person accounts from the remaining survivors, this book offers a sombre and informative account of one the worst maritime disasters to occur in British peacetime, and one that hit the islands particularly hard in the inter-war years.
Add it to your reading list here: When I Heard The Bell.
Poacher’s Pilgrimage: An Island Journey, by Alastair McIntosh.
This recently released memoir of Alastair’s week-long walk from Leverburgh in Harris to Ness in Lewis seems, at a first quick glance, to be travel writing. You would think so, given the route and the destination.
But Poacher’s Pilgrimage defies categorization: it encompasses nature writing, theology, Hebridean history, Gaelic folklore, and many other things besides. The book reminded me of half-heard tales from childhood, and introduced to me new ideas from – and even locations in – the islands. I can’t do it justice here. All I can say is get your hands on a copy, and be prepared for a deep, thought-provoking read.
Add it to your reading list here: Poacher’s Pilgrimage.
Have you read any of these books – or would you like to? Which books would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!
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