Embark on a literary odyssey through the captivating tapestry of Scotland with me as your guide! Whether you’re gearing up for a real-life Scottish escapade or indulging in Highland daydreams, I’ve curated the quintessential list to satiate your literary wanderlust.
After all, I read dozens of books about Scotland before I could check it off my bucket list! So, as an avid explorer of Scottish literature, I can attest to the timelessness of classics by literary luminaries such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Sir Walter Scott.
Or, for enthusiasts of historical fiction, the Outlander series stands as a testament to Scotland’s magnetic pull. But fear not, dear reader, for our literary journey extends beyond classics and historical fiction.
In this carefully curated selection, you’ll discover 25 of the best books about Scotland, spanning genres like mystery, travel, and history. Whether you’re a seasoned bibliophile or a casual reader, there’s a Scottish tale waiting just for you.
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Table of Contents
Classic books about Scotland
Lanark by Alasdair Gray
Alasdair Gray, a renowned figure in Scottish fiction, is celebrated for numerous award-winning novels, short stories, and poetry. One of his most influential works is Lanark, a 20th-century Scottish novel blending realism and dystopian surrealism.
The narrative begins with a man waking up on a train with no memory, offering a unique exploration of Glasgow with a play on linearity that appeals to those who enjoy unconventional storytelling.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson
In this classic novel to read before visiting Scotland, 17-year-old David Balfour faces a string of misfortunes. Orphaned, he stays with his paranoid uncle Ebenezer, who sells him into slavery to secure the family estate.
Luckily, he befriends Alan Breck Stewart, a fugitive Jacobite, and together they make a daring escape to the Scottish Highlands following the 1751 Jacobite rising. Kidnapped offers an enthralling adventure from start to finish, with the added bonus of a sequel.
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
In 1930s Edinburgh, the unorthodox Miss Brodie, in her prime, selects six elite students as her mentees, known as “the Brodie set.”
The novel explores how Miss Brodie’s influence shapes these girls’ lives, with a surprising twist as one of them eventually betrays her, ruining her teaching career.
Historical fiction set in Scotland
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
Outlander stands out as one of the most famous romance books set in Scotland, seamlessly blending historical romance with science fiction. Claire Randall, a 1945 nurse, is unexpectedly transported to 1743 after walking through a standing stone.
In the Scottish Highlands, amid an impending rebellion, she navigates love, historical intricacies, and thrilling action scenes, captivating readers and enticing them to continue the series. Its popularity led to a successful TV adaptation by Starz.
Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles by Margaret George
In this historical fiction, Margaret George recounts the captivating story of Mary, Queen of Scots, who ascended to the throne at six days old. Raised in France, she became the Queen of France at sixteen.
Returning to Scotland, her attempts to reclaim the throne resulted in tragic consequences. Despite its length, the novel vividly brings Mary to life, making it a worthwhile read, particularly for fans of the TV show Reign.
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart
Shuggie Bain paints a stark picture of 1980s Glasgow under Margaret Thatcher’s rule. Centered on young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, growing up in a dilapidated public housing complex, the novel explores his complex relationship with his alcoholic mother, Agnes.
As Shuggie takes on the role of his mother’s primary caregiver, he grapples with his identity and sexuality, facing bullying and rejection. Despite its bleakness, the novel reveals moments of resilience and love, earning it the 2020 Booker Prize.
Corrag by Susan Fletcher
Based on the 1692 Massacre of Glencoe, this novel follows Corrag, condemned for her role in the slaughter and accused of witchcraft. While awaiting execution, she recounts the events to Charles Leslie, an Irish Jacobite.
Corrag emerges as a memorable heroine through vivid descriptions and beautiful writing. Also titled The Highland Witch and Witch Light, it’s one of the best Scotland books if you’re looking for a novel that combines a strong female protagonist and the setting of the Scottish Highlands.
The Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett
Interestingly, the story occurs as conflict brews between Scotland and England in 1547, while Mary Queen of Scots is just a young child.
This series comprises six books, making it an ideal choice for those seeking a Scottish narrative within a longer series.
The Lost Queen by Signe Pike
Fans of Outlander, Camelot, and the Game of Thrones series will love The Lost Queen. The protagonist, Languoreth, is the twin sister of Lailoken, the inspiration behind the legend of Merlin.
Despite falling for a warrior, she is promised to marry Rhydderch, the son of a Christian king. Set in 6th-century Scotland, the novel explores a country torn between superstition and tradition as Christianity gains ground.
Additionally, Pike released a sequel in 2020 called The Forgotten Kingdom, which continues Languoreth’s story.
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
In this novel, readers follow two protagonists in a dual timeline: Carrie McClelland, a modern-day American author, and Sophia Paterson, Carrie’s ancestor from the early 1700s at Slains Castle. Carrie, seeking inspiration for a new novel, becomes captivated by the castle ruins in Cruden Bay.
As she writes, the events in her dreams seem to blur the line between fact and fiction, unraveling a lesser-known aspect of Jacobite history and delving into the concept of genetic memory.
Women of the Dunes by Sarah Maine
Women of the Dunes intertwines three timelines: a Norsewoman in the 9th century, a servant girl in the 19th century, and modern-day archaeologist Libby. The story gradually connects these women as Libby works on a Scottish west coast dig.
Maine’s detailed descriptions reflect extensive research, making this historical fiction novel a must-read for enthusiasts of legends, archaeology, and mystery.
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen
In 1945, amid Hitler’s devastation in Europe, Maddie, Ellis, and Hank travel to Scotland to hunt the Loch Ness monster. Initially spoiled, Maddie has a wake-up call as she uncovers her husband’s dark secrets, adding suspense to the novel.
Despite sometimes unlikeable main characters, the book’s descriptions of Scotland and charming locals make it a worthwhile read.
Mystery books set in Scotland
The Blackhouse by Peter May
In this suspense thriller, Edinburgh’s Finlay Macleod investigates a murder on the Isle of Lewis, a place he left after university. Intriguingly, he discovers the crime is linked to his childhood, with the victim being a former high school bully.
The Distant Echo by Val McDermid
The Distant Echo is one of the best mystery books set in Scotland, delving into a long-unsolved 1978 murder case. Rosie Duff’s lifeless body is discovered in a cemetery, implicating four young men, including Alex Gilbey.
Despite a lack of evidence, suspicion shadows them for 25 years until an avenger linked to the past emerges, leading to suspicious ends for two of Alex’s friends. McDermid skillfully weaves past and present, creating a thrilling narrative with unexpected twists and complex characters.
Raven Black by Ann Cleeves
Raven Black is the first in the eight-part Shetland Island series, where a mystery in remote Shetland begins with the discovery of a strangled local teenager. Initially, circumstantial evidence points to Magnus Tait, a mentally disabled outcast.
However, as detectives, including DI Jimmy Perez, delve into the case, clues lead them in a different direction. Cleeves weaves the story from multiple POVs, creating numerous twists and turns that keep readers guessing until the end.
ITV Studios adapted this Scottish book series into the crime drama television show Shetland.
Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin
Knots and Crosses is the first book in the Inspector Rebus series, primarily set in Edinburgh and featuring Detective Inspector John Rebus. The plot revolves around a serial killer targeting women in the city, with Rebus receiving mysterious letters as he delves into the investigation.
The connection between the letters and the murderer remains a compelling mystery, enticing readers to uncover the answers in this popular series. The book’s success led to the creation of a four-season British TV show, Rebus, which aired from 2000-2007.
44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith
Step into 44 Scotland Street, where a vibrant cast of residents unites to unravel a painting mystery. While this novel incorporates mystery elements, it’s mainly about getting to know the enjoyable characters that McCall creates.
From a student and anthropologist to an art dealer, a narcissistic roommate, and an overbearing mother, each character adds a unique flavor to the narrative. Initially published in The Scotsman over a series of six months, this book encapsulates the essence of Scotland.
Travel books on Scotland (non-fiction)
Findings by Kathleen Jamie
Findings, a top travel book on Scotland by Scottish poet Jamie, offers a delightful collection of essays introducing her homeland. Whether you’re planning a trip or yearning for a virtual visit, Jamie takes you from Edinburgh’s bustling streets to the serene Inner and Outer Hebrides.
For more, check out the sequel, Sightlines.
Love of Country: A Hebridean Journey by Madeleine Bunting
Over six years, journalist Madeleine Bunting explores the diverse Hebrides, delving into their history, folklore, and religion.
She spotlights seven islands, four in the Inner Hebrides and three in the Outer Hebrides, offering a rich narrative that is a compelling choice for those interested in the British Isles.
The Hidden Ways: Scotland’s Forgotten Roads by Alistair Moffat
In this travelogue, Moffat guides readers through ten historically significant walks in Scotland, including the River Road, Invasion Road, Road to Heaven, Great North Road, Road to Ruin, Green Roads, Herring Road, Rail Road, Summer Roads, and Road Block.
From the Romans to World War II, Moffat connects these “lost routes” to Scottish history, urging readers to explore.
Sea Room by Adam Nicolson
Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides is a captivating exploration of a remote, uninhabited Hebridean island steeped in history and natural beauty. Nicolson shares his family’s connection to these enchanting islands, acquired in 1937 through a newspaper ad.
The concept of “sea room,” the sense of expansion and freedom in island life, is vividly explored. The Shiants serve as the backdrop for Nicolson’s narrative as he skillfully weaves history, archaeology, and personal reflection into a multifaceted portrait of these islands.
Scottish history books
The Highland Clans by Alistair Moffat
The Highland Clans is one of the best books on Scotland history, delving into the origins of famous clans. Moffat explores Highland Clan culture, religious beliefs, Gaelic, and notable battles.
If you’re an Outlander fan seeking a comprehensive guide to Highland culture, this book is an excellent starting point, complete with a clan map and names list.
Mary Queen of Scots by Antonia Fraser
You may want to read this non-fiction book after reading the historical fiction account of Mary, Queen of Scots. Although most people are familiar with Mary’s tragic end, you may not know about her earlier life, the marriages that became her undoing, and the rest of her fascinating story.
Fraser’s engaging writing style brings her subjects to life, making this non-fiction read enjoyable even for those not typically inclined toward the genre.
A History of Scotland by Neil Oliver
Neil Oliver, an archaeologist, historian, and Scottish author offers an entertaining and informative journey through Scotland’s history. The book debunks myths about iconic moments and figures, making it an enjoyable and insightful read before a trip.
How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman
This book explores the significant contributions of Scottish individuals to the modern world, focusing on radical ideas from the Scottish Enlightenment.
History lovers will appreciate details about key figures such as Alexander Graham Bell, David Hume, James Watt, Adam Smith, Robert Louis Stevenson, and others.
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This post was originally written in June 2020 and has since been updated.