Scotland has a literary tradition that is a lot like it’s weather; stormy and unpredictable. Outlander’s hot and hunky Scottish countryside has created a resurgent interest in books on Scotland. And our list of Scottish books will help you explore more of its culture, landscape, dark humor and idiosyncratic slang.
We’ve covered both fiction and non-fiction with a broad range of genres and a crazy cast of characters from hunky clansman to abject criminals, cranky office workers, Glaswegian drunks, cozy neighbors and fragile families.
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Historical Fiction Set in Scotland
Scotland was founded in in 843 AD and even the “new” part of Edinburgh is four hundred years old, so there is a LOT of history to explore. This Scottish historical fiction will take you back in time and help you explore some of that history.
Waverly, Sir Walter Scott
The book…”tells the story of Edward Waverley, a naïve young man who is posted to Scotland with his regiment. Edward must decide whether he will follow the civilization he has always known, or be drawn into an older world of honor.”
Edinburgh’s own Waverly Train station is named for this novel and it has the distinction of being the only train station with a literary name. The station and the Sir Walter Scott monument are must see for literary tourists.
Outlander, Diana Gabaldon
Outlander is responsible for a resurgent interest in Scottish books. Her series has the right mix of fantasy, romance and bloody Scottish clan wars. A British combat nurse, just back from World War II is reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon in Scotland. She steps between two stones in an ancient standing circle and is whisked away to a warring and dangerous Scotland of 1743.
The book offers a fictional backdrop to Scotland’s Highland history and it’s a rollicking adventure. And if you like the first one, there are 9 more novels and a TV series to keep you busy.
Kiss of the Highlander, Karen Marie Moning
If you’d like more time traveling Scottish hunks, then check out Moning’s Highlander series. In this installment, Drustan MacKeltar has been locked, slumbering in a cave for five centuries. When the very modern Gwen Cassidy stumbles down the cave and into the slumbering (but muscular) arms of MacKeltar, sparks start flying.
Moning has written these character with her tongue firmly planted in her cheek and the book is a delightful fairy tale.
At the Water’s Edge, Sara Gruen
The author of Water for Elephants comes back with the story of a couple who, after disgracing themselves in the Philadelphia society scene, are banished to the highlands on a scheme to track down the Loch Ness monster.
“The monster—if there was one—never revealed itself to me again. But what I had learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually in plain sight.”
The Highland Witch, Susan Fletcher
This book (which is sometimes called Corrag), tells the story of an accused witch who has been imprisoned in the Scottish highlands in 1692. She witnessed the Massacre of Glencoe. She tells her story to the Reverand Charles Leslie, exposing themes of… “the love of nature, getting in touch with one’s heart, futility of hatred and violence, tolerance of others’ values and compassion for all living creatures.”
A Strange Scottish Shore, Juliana Grey
If you like the time travel and romance aspect of Outlander, then you may like A Strange Scottish Shore. In it, Emmaline Truelove is off to the Orkney Islands to work on an archaeology dig. While there, she and her colleague, the Duke of Olympia run across a mystery involving a suite of clothing, a selkie legend and a missing friend.
Rob Roy, Sir Walter Scott
If you like Waverly, then keep going with Rob Roy. The title character is the Chieftain of the MacGregor clan. He’s trying to stay one step ahead of his pursuers while also helping his cousin put the kibosh on a dastardly plan to steal the family business. Rebellious and swashbuckling.
Scottish Mysteries and Thrillers
Scotland has very moody weather and I suspect that the resulting seasonal affective disorder has driven Scottish authors a bit over the edge because these murder mystery books set in Scotland have a very dark and edgy tone.
Inspector Rebus Series, Ian Rankin
Rankin’s Inspector Rebus is a perceptive, fragile curmudgeon of a detective. In this classic police procedural series, the detective asserts his independence, much to the annoyance of his “betters”. And he usually get his man.
You can start anywhere in the series but the first book is Knots and Crosses.
Jack Parlabane Series, Christopher Brookmyre
The series features wisecracking journalist Jack Parlabane, who investigates murders while poking at class structure and social hubris. Described as a “highball cross between Carl Hiasson and Elmore Leonard”, these books offer a fast-paced, sardonic page-turner with a twist.
The first in the series is Quite Ugly One Morning.
The Blackhouse (Lewis Trilogy series), Peter May
Edinburgh cop Fin Macleod is sent to the outer Hebrides and Lewis Island in order to investigate a hanging. Fin was raised on the remote island and finds that his return puts an uncomfortable grip on his psyche.
Eye for an Eye (DCI Gilchrist Series), T. Frank Muir
Gilchrist is a motivated and ambitious DCI who would rather work alone than with others, which is a common enough trope for UK DCIs.
In the first book of the series, Gilchrist and his partner are tasked with investigating a series of vicious killings that only occur during thunderstorms. A media uproar and vengeful boss conspire to pull Gilchrist from the case. But his own fear of failure forces him to continue solo work work the case.
The book is tightly written with a fast pace and a good sense of place.
A Rip Through Time (A Rip Through Time #1), Kelley Armstrong
This Scottish book is a mix of mystery and fantasy. It channels some Outlander vibes as modern day homicide detective Mallory finds herself strangled and knocked unconscious. She wakes up to find herself in 1869…in the body of a housemaid.
But beyond that, the book is pure police procedural as Mallory assists the local medical examiner in the case of a strangled young man.
Jackson Brodie Series, Kate Atkinson
Private investigator Jackson Brodie takes on three seemingly unrelated crimes. Brodie is a complex character who manages to be both dark and funny. And Scotland’s moody landscape is also a major character.
The first book is Case Histories and if you like the first it (and I did very much), then you can read the whole series.
The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell
“Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved”.
And so begins this strange and touching story of two sisters who, left parentless, who are trying really hard to hide it. They are taken in by their neighbor, who has issues of his own. It’s a dramatic, chilling and touching tale of family, loyalty and secrets.
Rock Paper Scissors, Alice Feeney
Adam and Amelia Wright’s marriage is on the rocks. So when they win a weekend getaway to Scotland for their tenth anniversary, they hope that they can patch it up. Or do they?
Someone is lying. There are some ugly truths just under the surface. Disturbing letters are circulating. There’s a snow storm and some creepy doings are afoot.
This marital thriller rockets toward an ending that you won’t see coming.
Contemporary and Literary Fiction Set in Scotland
These novels all circle around themes of family dynamics, identity and secrets. So, so many secrets. I like that some of these more modern works don’t flinch from identity politics and that the locals are spread throughout Scotland’s diverse landscape.
Winter Solstice, Rosamunde Pilcher
In this quiet story, five people, who are each dealing with a personal tragedy find themselves together in Scotland. They are each trying to find a way forward and are helped by mutual company, a cozy old house, wood fire and whiskey.
“Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year. A brief time, when darkness predominates. Yet in this brief time, Rosamund Pilcher has set a story filled with light and warmth.”
The Valley at the Centre of the World, Malachy Tallack
This community on the rugged west coast of Shetland is facing extinction. David has lived there all his life but he’s worried that as elders like him die, no young families will come to take care of the valley.
The book deals with issues of community identity and sense of place. It offers up a slice of Shetlands life with the islands themselves playing a major character in this novel.
Trumpet, Jackie Kay
When Joss Moody, a jazz trumpeter dies, he leaves a big secret behind. His wife Millie has always known but their adopted son Coleman does not. After Coleman works with a journalist to find out the truth, it throws into question everything he ever thought about his family.
Even though this book was written in 1998, it’s themes of family love and gender identity make the book very of the moment.
Bone Deep, Sandra Ireland
This atmospheric page turner starts harmlessly enough when Mac (a historian) hires Lucie to be her assistant. There is the historical perspective concerning Mac’s research into a local legend about jealousy between two sisters. And there is the modern perspective which explores Lucie’s secrets and Mac’s obsessions.
Mac and Lucie soon begin circling each other– things are discovered and lines are crossed. This story is gothic and spine chilling.
Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith
Smith has taken Ovid’s Metamorphosis and given it a 21st century twist. Girl meets Boy who is really a Girl. The story follows Andrea, who falls in love with Robin, a gender fluid protester. Andrea’s sister Imogen struggles to come to terms with both their relationship and her own low self esteem.
The book is ostensibly about love, but the story itself morphs into a powerful message about consumerism and the state of our world.
44 Scotland Series, Alexander McCall Smith
Inspired by Maupin’s Tales of the City, this series features quirky characters who bumble through life in their beloved Edinburgh. McCall follows the neighbors and residents of 44 Scotland street and “delivers plenty of twists and turns as he skewers the puffery, the pretense, the tedium and self-defeating moves in his characters’ daily lives”.
The first book in the series is 44 Scotland Street.
The Sunlight Pilgrims, Jenni Fagan
In this apocalyptic story, the world is freezing, not warming. The heaviest winter in 200 years has arrived and it threatens the whole world. There is a huge glacier headed for Scotland when Dylan heads to the Highlands to bury his mother’s and grandmother’s ashes. He washes up in a caravan park and meets Constance and Estella, who are trying to prepare for survival.
This is a literary novel about their relationships, set against a backdrop of destruction. Wear a sweater and drink some hot tea while you read it.
‘’It’s old Mother Frost. She wants her wolves back.’’ –Fagan
The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot, Marianne Cronin
17-year old Lenni is terminal, but she’s still got some living to do…even if that means doing it in a hospital. And then there’s 83-year old Margot. She in for a heart condition. The two meet up and befriend one another in a hospital art class.
They decide to record their combined 100 years of living by painting a picture from each year of their lives.
Get prepared for all the feels with this tale of heartbreak, loss and grief…but also friendship and joy.
The Summer Job, Lizzy Dent
So, this is what happens when you run away from a life you’ve made a mess of, only to pretend you are your best friend Heather, and take a sommelier job in a hotel in the Scottish Highlands that Heather was qualified for…except that you know nothing about fine wine.
What could possibly go wrong?
This rom-com has a fun cast of characters, hilarious blunders and just a smidge of adulting.
Scottish Fiction That’s Dark and Twisty
The following authors are definitely not shying away from Scotland’s cloudy underbelly. These dark characters are drunks, drug-addled thugs, unorthodox dictators, loner cranks and crappy husbands (and mothers. They are some of the craziest characters that you’ll find in Scotland.
Lanark, Alasdair Gray
“A man wakes up on a train with no memory and seashells in his pockets. He finds himself arriving in a peculiar place called Unthank—where the sun only comes up part-way and the inhabitants are prone to disappearing. He names himself Lanark and soon encounters a gallery of characters who suffer from joblessness, alienation, and strange maladies”.
This book is part fantasy, part dystopia, part bildungsroman, and it’s guaranteed to short-circuit your brain.
Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh
Mark Renton, (Rent), is a petty thief and a world class heroin addict. He and his equally degenerate band of junkies, nuts and thugs paint a gritty but colorful picture of Edinburgh in the late ’80’s.
Reading the book will give you a great primer on the hard to decipher Scottish accent and insight into the darker side of Edinburgh.
Morvern Collar, Alan Warner
Movern Callar is a low-paid supermarket clerk who wakes up one morning to discover her boyfriend’s grisly suicide. Rather than responding as one might expect– with tears and a quick ring to the police, Movern takes another tack entirely.
She strips her boyfriend of his money, an unpublished manuscript and his beloved Walkman. Then she hides the body and walks away. The vivid and buzzing prose keeps you trying to figure out if what she is experiencing grief, or simply detachment.
“By turns naïve and knowing, under-educated but sure of what she wants, her voice is direct, colloquial, dialectal, instantly believable.”
How Late it Was, How Late, James Kelman
Kelman won the 1994 Booker Prize award for this Kafkaesque stream of consciousness journey. At the time, it was controversial, with reviewers sniffing at the copious swearing and the “the rambling thoughts of a blind Glaswegian drunk”.
But that’s the point. Kelman’s edgy story follows an ex-con man who wakes up from a 2-day bender badly beaten, blind and accused a crime that he’s kinda sure he didn’t commit.
“The steady, crazy, profane, beautiful voice of Sammy never relents, never pauses, and this is one deliriously fast read”
Young Mungo, Douglas Stuart
This tender and evocative love story between two teenage boys is set in a very much divided and dangerous Glasgow gang territory. Mungo is the son of a largely absent alcoholic mother and brother to Hamish who runs a local Protestant gang.
Mungo falls for James, who comes from a strict Catholic family. The Glaswegian society’s strict and narrow definition of masculinity, it’s religious divisions, and the violent local environment puts both kids in peril.
The subject matter is tough with all of the trigger warnings for terrible things happening to kids. But the novel’s emotional heft carries strains of Stuart’s award winning Shuggie Bain (also set in Glasgow) and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
The Library of the Dead (Edinburgh Nights #1), T.L. Huchu
Ropa is a ghost talker. Or rather, the ghosts talk to her, telling her their unfinished business. She makes ends meet getting paid by families who have recently lost loved ones, helping them get closure. When the dead begin to whisper about someone taking children, Ropa feels the need to investigate.
This Scottish fantasy is set in a post-disaster Edinburgh with demon guardians, Zimbabwean magic, Dickensian living conditions, dark doings and a library of ancient texts.
“[this book will] take you to an action packed, mind spinning, riveting journey as magic and spiritual entities waltz at the streets and an occult library with dark secret passages!”
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Sparks
Miss Jean Brodie applies unorthodox teaching methods to her cadre of boarding house students with devastating effects. “Safety does not come first. Goodness, truth and beauty come first. Follow me”
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman
Except that Eleanor Oliphant is not fine. She struggles with social skills and avoids social interactions. She and the other “not completely fine” characters in this book come together to help rescue one another from their lives of isolation.
Honeyman writes with a light touch and is very subtle about how she reveals Eleanor’s secrets, so be sure to read every word…it’s worth it!
Read it for book club and use our Eleanor Oliphant reading guide to get the conversation started. Eleanor was also a popular Reese’s book club pic and we have a series of book club guide and lists featuring Reese’s pics.
The Crow Road, Iain Banks
“It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
This opening line of The Crow Road tells you right up front that you are in for some serious gallows humor. This first person narrative of Prentice McHoan presents his ever so Scottish family dynamics as they deal with “death, drink, sex, God, illegal substances, and whatever happened to Uncle Rory (who disappeared a decade earlier)”.
The End of the World Running Club, Adrian J. Walker
Edgar Hill, a loving but crappy husband and father finds himself separated from his family after a catastrophic meteor shower wipes out much most of Edinburgh (and the rest of the northern hemisphere). The story follows him as he literally runs to find his family, dealing with the mess of both the landscape and his own emotional baggage along the way.
Non-Fiction Books on Scotland
Scotland: The Story of a Nation, Mangus Magnusson
In this broad overview of Scottish history, Magnusson explores how Scotland was shaped by the Romans, Picts, Vikings and the English. He covers dynasties and battles and then puts that history into a more modern context which includes the independence movement.
“A thoroughly enjoyable romp through the heather, one epic journey from the megalithic to the end of the twentieth century.”
How the Scots Invented the Modern World, Arthur Herman
In this book on Scotland, Herman argues that it was the Scots who formed the first literate society, invented free market capitalism (and television and the lending library), and made other crucial contributions to education, medicine, commerce and politics.
The book covers the Scottish Enlightenment and how Scotland has contributed both inventions and ideas to our modern society.
Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides, Adam Nicolson
Nicolson’s father purchased The Shiants in the 1970’s. They are a trio of remote islands in the Hebrides with 500 acres of cliffs, sea birds and treacherous tides. Nicolson inherited the land when he wasn’t even 20.
This meditative reverie follows him as he retreats to and explores the islands. He dwells upon the human communities who lived there in the past, and the vast array of plant and wildlife living there now.
“The sea makes islands significant …they are not-sea within the sea, standing against the sea’s chaos and massive power, but framed by it, enlightened by it. In that way every island is an assertion in an ocean of denials, the one positive gesture against an almost overwhelming bleakness. …The state of siege and an island, in short, is life set against death, a life defined by the death that surrounds it.”
Surfacing, Kathleen Jamie
This series of essays are a blend of memoir, cultural history and travelogue. Jamie covers three excursions to Tibet, Alaska and the Links of Noltland in Orkney, Scotland. During her time in Scotland, she works on the excavation of a neolithic site once settled by people who managed to tough it out on the relentlessly windy landscape.
The poetic prose explores “… looking and seeing; examining space, light, nature, pondering history and the remembering of that which has been forgotten.”
Not My Father’s Son, Alan Cumming
Cumming had a very rough childhood at the hand of his cruel and violent father. He gets invited to participate in a genealogy TV show and through that process, he becomes reconnected with his estranged father and learns about his long lost grandfather. In the memoir, Cumming comes to terms with his personal history. He’s willing to share some long buried family secrets with his readers.
This book is great on audio and his reading of it is deeply personal and honest. Plus, that Scottish accent doesn’t hurt.
If you like audio memoirs, check out our list of the best ones that are read by the author.
The Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare, and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other, Sam Heighan, Graham McTavish and Charlotte Reather
Heighan and McTavish are two stars from the Outlander series. They donned their kilts and took off on an epic road trip around Scotland.
In this buddy comedy travelogue, the two cement their bromance over whiskey, musings on life (and Macbeth), clan histories and some shaky shifting in their manual transmission van.
This book is great on audio.
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