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Books

Art History -- Scottish Art 1460-1990, by Duncan Macmillan, is an expensive book, so many devotees will prefer to check it out of a library. But it is perhaps the definitive statement on Scottish paintings and includes some 350 plates, mostly in color. Written by an art historian and curator at the University of Edinburgh, it depicts Scottish art -- "filled with vibrancy and originality" -- from the royal miniatures of James IV's court to romantic landscapes to today's generation devoted to explosive experimentation.

Biography -- Burns: A Biography of Robert Burns, by James MacKay, is one of the best works devoted to Scotland's national poet (1759-96), in that it relies often on primary-source materials and not previously published information. The life of Burns is portrayed against the historical framework of 18th-century Scotland. A Burns scholar, MacKay defends the author of Tam O'Shanter and Auld Lang Syne against previously published charges that he was a drunkard and a rake.

Today's most famous Scot is revealed in a biography, Sean Connery: From 007 to Hollywood Icon, by Andrew Yule, who traces the legendary actor's rise from humble origins in Edinburgh to later success "escaping bondage" in such films as Rising Sun. Like all true Scotsmen, Connery is said to have an interest in golf (playing it) and money (not spending it). Scottish-American readers may find the early years of growing up in Edinburgh during the Depression the most interesting.

Curriculum Vitae, an autobiography of Muriel Spark, is a book in which this gifted writer sets the record straight about her first 39 years, up to 1957, and the publication of her novel The Comforters. The best parts are about her life as a child in Edinburgh. She tells how, at age 5, she was sent to Gillespie's, an Edinburgh day school. There she became a pupil of Miss Christina Kay, who, in time, would appear as the immortal Miss Jean Brodie in Ms. Spark's later fiction.

Clans & Their Symbols -- On a purely decorative and symbolic level, but with rich interest for anyone tracing genealogical roots, is Robert Bain's The Clans and Tartans of Scotland, enlarged and re-edited by Margaret MacDouglass, with heraldic advice supplied by P. E. Stewart-Blacker and with dozens of illustrations.

History -- Good historical overviews of Scotland, beginning with its earliest prehistory, include Michael Jenner's Scotland Through the Ages, Rosalind Mitchison's A History of Scotland, and W. Croft Dickinson and George S. Pryde's A New History of Scotland. Also insightful, perhaps because of its authorship by a famous Scottish novelist, is Alistair Maclean's Alistair Maclean Introduces Scotland.

Dealing in detail with the famous personalities of the 16th century is Alison Plowden's Elizabeth Tudor and Mary Stewart: Two Queens in One Isle. Antonia Fraser's Mary, Queen of Scots is a highly readable biography. Also by Antonia Fraser is a short, very subjective, and exceedingly charming anthology, Scottish Love Poems: A Personal Anthology.

Other historical eras are analyzed by Iain Moncreiffe in The Highland Clans, and by Richard B. Sher and Jeffrey R. Smitten in Scotland and America in the Age of Enlightenment. Another good read is David Daiches's A Hotbed of Genius: The Scottish Enlightenment 1730-1790. For U.S. citizens of Scottish descent, a richly evocative book, much applauded in the American South, is Duane Gilbert Meyers's The Highland Scots of North Carolina.

James Kerr's Fiction Against History: Scott as Storyteller explores the fiction as well as the sense of historical destiny of Scotland's "national troubadour," Sir Walter Scott. In her book Burns and Tradition, Mary Ellen Brown explores the values of Robert Burns and the influence upon him of Scotland's lore and history.

Appropriate for anyone interested in European history just before, during, and after World War II is T. Christopher Smout's a History of the Scottish People 1930-1950.

Humor -- Scottish humor, whose innuendo was always credited for making life on the heath and highlands more bearable, can be better understood through Julie MacDonald's Scottish Proverbs and W. B. Burnett's Scotland Laughing. Broader in its scope and self-satire is Malcolm Lawson-Paul's Clan Chowder (The MacTanistry Papers Embellished), a compilation of the kinds of jokes and lampoons that spread with Scottish emigrations throughout the British Empire.

Literature -- There are few examples of Scottish literature before the latter part of the 14th century, and it was not until the 15th century that alliteration, satire, and fantasy were set down in poetry by such writers as Robert Henryson, William Dunbar, Gavin Douglas, Sir David Lyndsay, and King James I (The King's Quair). These poets have been called Scottish Chaucerians, or makaris, because they took their ideals of poetic utterance and metrical forms from the English master. The poetry of Dunbar and Henryson, in particular, influenced modern Scottish renaissance poets.

John Knox (1505-72) wrote such polemics as First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women in his struggle with Mary Queen of Scots. He also authored History of the Reformation. Neither the 16th nor the 17th century showed spectacular literary output in Scotland. Writers of note in the early 17th century were poet William Drummond and Sir Thomas Urquhart, who was best known as the translator of Rabelais.

The 18th century saw a spate of lucid and powerful prose written in English: novelist Tobias Smollett (Roderick Random and Humphrey Clinker), economist Adam Smith (The Wealth of Nations), philosopher David Hume (Treatise on Human Nature), and James Boswell, friend and biographer of Dr. Samuel Johnson. It was also in the 18th century that the great Scottish poet Robert Burns left a legacy of verse combining the humor and vigor of Scottish speech with the lilt of Scottish songs with poetic modes and themes. Burns, Scotland's national bard, known especially for love lyrics and satires, is revered throughout the world. A number of minor poets were also literary lights of the Burns era, among them Allan Ramsay (father of the painter), James Thomson, and James Macpherson.

Ushering in the 19th century was another great Scottish writer, Sir Walter Scott, novelist and poet, known for Medieval Romanticism (Ivanhoe) and perceptive description of character and locales (The Heart of Midlothian). Notable historian and essayist Thomas Carlyle was Scotland-born (Sartor Resartus and The French Revolution). An acclaimed poet, James Hogg, also wrote a prose work, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. In the middle of the century, a lion of the literary world was born in Edinburgh: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94), who penned such classics as Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as well as poems, especially for children.

At the end of the 19th century, a school of writing was formed called the Kailyard (or Kaleyard, literally translated as "kitchen garden"). Kailyard writing used Scots dialect and was characterized by descriptions of Scottish life as homey and cozy. The Kailyard idealization of village life was often blasted by other writers who countered it with themes of brutality or tragic melodrama. Stevenson was an early opponent of "Kailyard treacle."

Other notable men of letters who lived and worked in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras were Andrew Lang, poet, essayist, and historian, also known for his collections of fairy tales; John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps); and Douglas Brown (The House with the Green Shutters, an anti-Kailyard novel). A top figure in this period was Sir James M. Barrie, Scotland's greatest dramatist (Peter Pan and Dear Brutus), who spent most of his life in London.

Few people associate that quintessential Londoner, Sherlock Holmes, with Scotland, but the great detective's creator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, was born in Edinburgh and studied medicine at the university in that capital city.

Following World War I, the so-called "Scottish Renaissance" moved for a national identity through the use of a synthetic language called Lallans, a name once applied to Lowland Scots but now consisting of a mix of dialects. However, despite these efforts, English remained the language of literature in Scotland, though novelists and poets still often use Scots vernacular.

Some 20th-century writers of note are Edwin Muir, an anti-Renaissance Orkney Islander known for his great metaphysical poetry and his translations of Kafka; James Bridie, playwright and cofounder of the Glasgow Citizens' Theatre; Eric Linklater, Orkney Island-born writer of satirical and comic novels; and the novelist Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

A writer who has won the hearts of readers (and television audiences) around the world, James Herriot (All Creatures Great and Small) was born and educated in Scotland; however, he wrote about the Yorkshire Dales, where he practiced veterinary medicine.

Morning Tide, by Neil Gunn (1891-1973), was written in the 1930s, and helps explain why Gunn is considered perhaps the master of modern Scottish fiction. The novel is a straightforward account of a boy's coming of age in a small fishing village in Scotland in the last years of Victoria's reign.

Alexander McCall Smith and Alan Warner have made significant literary contributions in the 21st century. As a writer of fiction, Smith enjoys international acclaim, and he is the creator of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. Born in 1964, Warner, a Scottish novelist, is one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Scottish literature. Some of his best novels include The Worms Can Carry Me to Heaven (2006). The leading woman writer is Alison Luwak Kennedy; her novel Day (2007) won several awards.

Music & Lore -- The myth and lore of Scotland has always been best expressed in its oral and musical traditions. David D. Buchan's The Ballad and the Folk and John Pinkerton's Select Scottish Ballads offer poetic and charming insights into a still-thriving art form. You might also consult Roger Fiske's Scotland in Music. Also useful is George B. Douglas and Richard Dorson's Scottish Fairy and Folk Tales.

Travel Writing -- Since the Middle Ages, English writers have been fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of their northern neighbors. Without contest, the most influential (and perhaps the most curmudgeonly) of these was Samuel Johnson, whose usually negative impressions were recorded by Scottish-born James Boswell in James Boswell's Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson (1773). In the same vein is Donald E. Hayden's Wordsworth's Travels in Scotland, and -- of particular interest to North Americans -- James Bennett Noland's Benjamin Franklin in Scotland and Ireland 1759-1771.

Film

Braveheart has been around so long (1995) that it's now hailed as a classic in Scotland, almost a stirring call for independence from England. Mel Gibson stars as William Wallace, the 13th-century patriot. It must be noted, however, that scholars claim the film is not historically accurate.

A coming-of-age romantic comedy film from 1981, Gregory's Girl was written and directed by Bill Forsyth. Like many of his other movies, it is set in his native Scotland. Gordon John Sinclair plays the weird kid, Gregory, and the movie deals with his problems finding love. In spite of its low budget, the film is listed among the top 100 British films ever made.

I Know Where I'm Going (1945), a romance set at the end of WWII, stars Wendy Hiller (a once-famous name) and Emeric Pressburger. The setting is the Hebrides, with lots of scenic backdrops. One reviewer claimed he'd never seen a picture that "smelled of the wind and rain of Scotland in quite this way." Martin Scorsese called I Know Where I'm Going a hidden masterpiece.

Local Hero (1983) was filmed near Mallaig and is another movie written and directed by Bill Forsyth. The film's star is Peter Riegert, and American movie legend Burt Lancaster makes an appearance. A young representative of an American oil company is sent to a fictional fishing village of Scotland on a mission.

My Name is Joe (1988), a Scottish movie directed by Ken Loach, is a grim film noir. Peter Mullan stars as an unemployed recovering alcoholic in Glasgow who meets and falls for a health worker. The film was shot mainly in the slums of Glasgow, and many members of the cast were actual drug addicts.

The 39 Steps, from 1959, is a remake of the far superior 1935 version by Alfred Hitchcock. Starring Kenneth More, the Technicolor version of The 39 Steps takes place in the Highlands. The film concerns a British ballistic missile project that could tip the balance of power in Europe. In 1978, the thriller was remade in a version directed by John Buchan, starring Robert Powell.

Whisky Galore is one of our all-time favorite movies with a Scottish background. It was adapted from a novel written by Compton Mackenzie in 1947. In World War II, a cargo vessel carrying 50,000 cases of whisky is wrecked off the coast of a small Scottish island. There are a lot of background shots about life in the Outer Hebrides.

A classic cult film from 1973, The Wicker Man, directed by Robin Hardy, takes place on a Scottish island. Its plot details a Scottish police officer who comes to the island in search of a missing girl whom the locals claim never existed. It's been described as "The Citizen Kane of Horror Movies."

Ewan McGregor, who always seems to appear nude in films, starred in the 1996 film Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle from an Academy Award-nominated screenplay by John Hodge. Ranked 10th among the greatest British films of all time, Trainspotting follows a group of early-1990s, economically depressed Edinburghers.

Music

The earliest characteristics of Scottish music are found in the folk tradition. Two traditions exist -- the Lowland, where the Scottish version of English is spoken, and the Gaelic music of the Highlands and Hebrides. The first Lowland songs and ballads were written down in the Skene Manuscript (now in the National Library of Scotland) around 1615, and in about 1650 numerous published editions of Lowland tunes began to appear. Gaelic songs were not collected until the 19th century, and because the Highland ballads often differed from clan to clan, you may still hear today a version that never has been written down or recorded.

The folk music of the Orkney and Shetland islands has Scandinavian origins. The ancient Norn language was spoken in Orkney until the late 17th century and in Shetland until the mid-18th century, but it was allowed to die out; and since folksongs were in that language, those tunes have also almost died out.

A feature of Scottish music is the Scotch snap, a form of syncopation consisting of two notes, the second of which is three times as long as the first. The Scotch snap apparently originated in the 18th century and is found in some Scottish authentic tunes as well as in the 18th century's pseudo-Scottish melodies.

The three national musical instruments of Scotland are the harp, the bagpipe, and the fiddle. The most ancient of these is the harp, of Irish origin. It lost popularity by the 18th century, as the fiddle, flute, and lute took precedence, and some harp music even passed to the bagpipes. Interest in the harp has revived, however. The fiddle (derived from the early fedyl) edged out two former competitors, the rebec and the croud (the Welsh crwth), for predominance in the bowed-string instrument category. Today, especially in Strathspey and Shetland, you can hear the fiddle in both solo and concert form.

It may come as a surprise to many to learn that the bagpipe originated in the Near East. It may have been introduced into Britain by the conquering Romans, who found Scotland too tough to tame. The great Highland bagpipe survived the defeat at Culloden, at which time it was outlawed, partly because it was prized as a military instrument, the dread sound of the piper often sending terror through enemy ranks. Later on, piping was encouraged in new Highland regiments, and the Scot became feared throughout the world for his prowess as a soldier and for the brave skirl of the pipes. It is known now chiefly through its use by the pipe bands of Scottish regiments.

The ceol mor (great music) of the pipes is the pibroch, a highly developed theme with variations. The art of pibroch is unique to the Highlands. Lighter types of bagpipe music, called ceol beag (small music) are marches, dances, and airs. The great Highland bagpipe has two or more pipes sounded by mouth-blown reeds. Wind is fed to the pipes by arm pressure on a skin bag. It is estimated that it takes about 7 years to learn to play the great Highland bagpipe well.

Church, court, and concert music also flourished in Scotland. Before the Reformation, most towns of any size had active song schools, mainly under church direction. A major change in church music was brought about by Calvinist reformers who denigrated the organ as a "popish instrument" and destroyed organs everywhere in the 17th century. None of this, however, interfered with the Gaelic "long psalms" of Celtic Scotland in which each line is intoned musically by the leader, with the congregation then singing the line.

Choral and orchestral music are widespread today, and universities have healthy music departments. There is a Scottish National Orchestra as well as the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra, and a Scottish Opera, plus varied ensembles and musical guilds.

Classical Music -- In the elegant courts of such culture-conscious monarchs as Mary Stuart, music was imported from both England and France. The madrigals and choral compositions of the Scottish 16th century can be found in a collection of songs by the Scottish Early Music Consortium, Mary's Music. During the same era, a Scottish-born composer, Robert Carver (1490-1546), created a remarkable body of polyphonic vocal music whose allure has grown increasingly fashionable among British music buffs in the 1990s. Carver's music can be appreciated on Scottish Renaissance Polyphony Vols. 1 & 2, as performed by the Scottish choral group Capella Nova.

Traditional Scottish Choral, Harp & Pipe Music -- For an excellent introduction to the glories of Gaelic song, try the Glasgow Gaelic Musical Association's album Gaelic Galore, or the Glasgow Phoenix Choir's album With Voices Rising.

Alison Kinnaird has been honored as Scotland's finest harpist. On The Quiet Tradition, she teams up with Christine Primrose to produce subtle interpretations of traditional songs. The stirring performances of Hamish Moore, frequently named as one of Scotland's finest pipers, can be appreciated on Cauld Wind Pipes and on a companion recording called Open Ended. A different piper, known as either Pibroch or Piobaireachd (depending on whether you endorse the English or Gaelic spelling of his name), can be heard on a recording titled The Classical Music of the Great Highland Bagpipe. To simplify matters for neophytes, one of the finest collections of bagpipe music in recent history assembles the most stirring songs by Scotland's greatest musicians onto one recording: The Pipes and Drums of Scotland.

Scottish Folk Music -- Probably the most visible of the Scottish folk groups is the Corries, whose spirited (and sometimes passionate) music was popular even before its foremost composer, Roy Williamson, composed "Flower of Scotland." Probably the best insight into both their poetry and their patriotism is available in The Complete Corries or The Best of the Corries.

The band Runrig was known during its early days for authenticity and flair in its Gaelic recordings. Runrig has lately adopted a more contemporary sound that combines rock and folk music. Examples of the band's early and recent music include Play Gaelic and Big Wheel.

The style of Capercaillie is more earthily rooted to conservative Scottish traditions. To date, significant recordings include Crosswinds, Blood Is Strong, and Sidewalk.

Dick Gaughan, a folk artist from the old school who is often compared to Woody Guthrie, is a committed and outspoken socialist whose songs are genuinely stirring, red-blooded, and devoted to the self-sufficiency of a proud and independent Scotland. Two representative recordings include Call It Freedom and Dick Gaughan Live in Edinburgh.

Of special interest are Jean Redpath's recordings (considered the most authoritative and evocative ever recorded) of the songs of Robert Burns. Look for Jean Redpath's Songs of Robert Burns, Volumes 1-7.

Many other Scottish traditionalists play sometimes-inspired versions of time-tested North British melodies, sometimes in Gaelic. A handful of the more reliable favorites include David MacLean, Billy Connolly, Andy Stewart, Kenneth McKellan, the Alexander Brothers, a group known as the Shotts and Dykehead, and -- perhaps most famous and influential of all (credited with keeping Scottish spirits aloft during and just after World War II) -- the singing sensation of Harry Lauder.

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