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SRB Scottish Book of the Year – Scottish Review of Books
by SRB

SRB Scottish Book of the Year

December 21, 2011 | by SRB

Alan Taylor, editor

 Alasdair Gray’s A Life in Pictures (Canongate) which was published in 2010 but won this year’s Saltire Society Prize. If the SS can stretch the calendar then so can I. Even by Gray’s standards this is an astonishing piece of work, reminiscent of Blake but actually inimitable, the combination of words and pictures mesmerising. I wish I could speak and read Gaelic if only properly to appreciate the poetry of Sorley ‘Sam’ MacLean, whose Collected Poems (Polygon) in Gaelic with English translations, edited by Christopher Whyte and Emma Dymock, is a landmark in Scottish literature and ought to be on the shelves of every serious reader. 

 The third part of Tom Devine’s Scotia trilogy, To the Ends of the Earth: Scotland’s Global Diaspora (Allen Lane), both answers a lot of questions and raises many more. Wide-ranging, provocative and stimulating, Monsignor Devine (as I can’t seem to stop calling him) has that rare ability to write simultaneously for the curious layman and the professional historian without patronising the former or alienating the latter, which is no mean feat. Eccentric Wealth: The Bulloughs of Rum by Alastair Scott (Birlinn) is the work of the born raconteur whose knowledge and love of the Western Isles is tangible. The Lancashire Bulloughs bought Rum with the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and spent a fortune building Kinloch Castle, an astonishing carbuncle that is dire need of rescue. In one of Scott’s chapters, titled ‘Sexuality and Parties’, he has this to say about Sir George Bullough: “There is nothing more substantial than whispers behind any allegations of homosexuality; most indicators point to heterosexuality.” 

 Finally, and perhaps most remarkably, there’s Scandalous, Immoral and Improper: The Trial of Helen Percy (Argyll) by Helen Percy, which tells the story of one woman’s crusade for justice in the face of persecution and vilification by the Church of Scotland. Had the events Percy recounts happened centuries they would seem terrible enough. That they happened much more recently is truly shocking and disturbing. Percy’s treatment at the hands of a soi disant Christian organisation makes for compelling reading whether you are religious or otherwise. That there has been no response from the Kirk since the book’s publication merely confirms one’s view of it as spineless, leaderless and lacking in moral authority. Given that, is it any wonder that it’s in the doldrums?


TM Devine, board member

 Christopher Fleet, Margaret Wilkes and Charles W J Withers’ Scotland – Mapping the Nation (Birlinn in association with the National Library of Scotland) is the first book to systematically exploit Scotland’s treasure trove of maps as a major source for the history of the nation: beautifully produced with a text full of unexpected insights.

 The review of The Importance of Being Awkward: the Autobiography of Tam Dalyell (Birlinn) in The Herald described Dalyell as a ‘titan of thrawness ‘. There is plenty of material here to support this description of a politician who was always committed to independence of thought and a deep sense of principle. But there also much more to enjoy from a man whose career spanned the administrations of no less than eight Prime Ministers, from McMillan to Blair.

 Alistair Darling’s Back from the Brink (Atlantic Books) is a different type of book from a quite different Scottish politician, Darling takes revenge by wielding the stiletto with relish on those who often made his life a misery in 11 Downing Street, not least Gordon Brown himself. In addition to the spleen, however, the book also provides a vivid perspective on the challenges of a Chancellor, who along with his boss, faced the most grave financial maelstrom in recent times.


Christopher Harvie, board member


 Chris Smout has always been the quiet revolutionary of Scottish history, and with Exploring Environmental History (EUP) his lucid, informative, witty essays – ‘Energy Rich, Energy Poor’ is typical – upend so many of our accepted values and ideas they ought to be compulsory and chastening reading for our political class. I also enjoyed ‘Tis Sixty Years Since: The 1951 Edinburgh People’s Festival Ceilidh and the Scottish Folk Revival (Grace Note) which is edited by Eberhard Bort. ‘Guid gear in sma’ buik’: a packed, well-written, rucksack-friendly guide to, among much else, the great Hamish Henderson and his national and international legacy. It has a remarkable cover showing Old Quad, Hamish and tape-recorder, Alan Lomax, and a man with a woolly waistcoat in a trance. Finally, a word about Klaus and Other Stories by Allan Massie (Vagabond Voices). ‘Why does the public at large not better know this supremely elegant stylist, so masterly in every genre?’ wrote Francis King of Massie in the Spectator. Why indeed? Massie’s novella about the last days of Klaus Mann, creator of Mephisto, appeared on a small Scottish publisher, with a bonus of crisp short stories, and it serves as a Baedeker to our international man.


Jan Rutherford, board member


 AL Kennedy’s The Blue Book (Jonathan Cape) is designed to catch the eye with its stunning blue cover and hymnary-style blue edged paper. But if it is the design that draws you to it, it is the power of the writing that carries you through. Within is a tale of magic and psychics, seedy hotels and dark times. The author brings us sharp observations in beautiful writing that can be very funny at times. Playful, bold and imaginative. Bertie Plays the Blues (Polygon) is the latest in the 44 Scotland Street series from Alexander McCall Smith. Bertie is taking on a life of his own with a stage play at the Fringe this summer which is due to tour in India in the coming months. And coming soon, a CD of music by Peter Graham based on the Scotland Street characters – issued by the newly renamed Royal Conservatoire of Scotland (formerly the RSAMD).

 The Chris Whyte and Emma Dymnock-edited Sorley Maclean: The Collected Poems (Polygon) marked this year’s centenary of the birth of Maclean on the island of Rasaay. Every poem published during Sorley’s lifetime is here along with much unpublished material. A book to cherish. As was There But For The (Hamish Hamilton) by Ali Smith. Her event was one of the highlights of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival. In her latest novel, she starts with a dinner party setting which goes wrong when a guest locks himself in a bedroom and won’t come out. A moving, funny book about memory and the importance of hearing ourselves think.

Mapping the Nation (Birlinn) by Chris Fleet, Charles Withers and Margaret Wiles is a stunning book, beautifully illustrated. This is one for map-lovers everywhere – cartophiles is I think the correct term – but also for those with a love of Scotland. This is a book which takes maps seriously and through them offers a pictorial history of our land from the second century AD to the most recent mapping technology.

 Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas Truce, Another Nightmare Before Christmas and Mrs Scrooge (Picador) are perfect stocking fillers. These are beautiful little books and a delight to read. Carol Ann Duffy’s The Bees (Picador), along with Liz Lochhead’s energetic collection of her finest verse, A Choosing (Polygon), were the two best-selling books of the EIBF this year. The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Black Beauty is one to buy for the design and production values alone. Rough cut paper, hand stitched, gorgeous cover art by Jillian Tamaki, embossed on a textured card. A delight to give and to own.


Ian Wall, board member


Long Cuts (CB Editions) by J O Morgan is a brilliant second volume of the continuing life of ‘A Natural Mechanical’. Scott-land (Polygon) by Stuart Kelly is erudite, witty and challenging. Historic Scotland’s Power to the People, the Built Heritage of Scotland’s Hydro Electric Power is a reminder of when we adopted and delivered a national infrastructure not only successfully but with flair.


Colin Waters, deputy editor

 My favourite Scottish novel of the year is Ali Smith’s There But For The (Hamish Hamilton), which did its best to persuade me puns were not the lowest form of wit, put me off dinner parties for life, and even argued that mobile phones going off during a play isn’t always a bad thing. Inimitable, an overused word, is justified here. I also enjoyed A Choosing (Polygon), a career-capturing anthology of Liz Lochhead’s verse. I read it as a prelude to interviewing Ms Lochhead for the SRB and neither experience disappointed. I also thoroughly enjoyed Grant Morrison’s Supergods – Our World in the Age of the Superheroes (Jonathan Cape) a history of comic books that turned into a memoir that turned into a whacked-out meditation on reality and imagination.

 Two recommendations for next year. Neither author is Scottish, but their publisher, Canongate, is. Zona is ostensibly about the Tarkovsky movie Stalker, but is mostly about Geoff Dyer, Zona’s author. This would be self-indulgent in any writer’s hands, but Dyer is so interesting, his observations so absorbing, the book is a triumph. Zona appears in February. In March, you can read his labelmate Dan Rhodes’ This is Life, a charming romp set in Paris. Arts journalists are well and truly skewered by Rhodes’ wit. Watch out for a brilliant chapter towards the end which sends up Sarkozy something rotten. Vive la Rhodes!

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