I love reading about places, whether it’s ones I’m just about to visit, or have visited in the past. I particularly love travel writers such as Bill Bryson, but recently I’ve been reading more extensively in different genres about Caithness, to learn and appreciate more of this unique county.
With COVID-19 restrictions still present during a long cold winter, many of us still remaining at home, and with World Book Day (5th March 2021) just around the corner, I’ve got a reading list to share with you in today’s blog post. Whether you live in Caithness, have visited in the past, or are yet to plan your trip here, I hope that my four recommendations provide you with some literary inspiration! (This post isn’t an ad, I’ve purchased all four of these books myself).
YA Fiction: Castles of Steel and Thunder – Gail Anthea Brown
Inspired by the folklore and fables of Caithness, Castles of Steel and Thunder is Gail’s first novel. A Young Adult fantasy, the story interweaves many of the legends and tales originally found in ‘Caithness: Lore and Legend’ into a gripping quest faced by Sysa aided by her family and the power of stories. You can find out more about how Gail was inspired by her school teacher. For me, this was true escapism on some very cold January nights, and while YA fiction might not be everyone’s go-to choice of literature, I thoroughly enjoyed it due to the rich descriptive language pouring off every page. Forget the legend of Nessie, these Highland ‘fae’ stories are enchanting and suitable for readers aged 12+. You can find out how Gail was inspired by her school teacher on Gail’s blog.
Local History: Wick Places and Stories – Harry Gray
A collection of stories, yarns and anecdotes from the town of Wick, collected by local historian Harry Gray. This can be purchased locally when the Wick Heritage Museum has reopened (usually, April – October), and it’s especially fascinating to read when you have visited or have lived in the town. The book also includes photos, so the reader can enjoy views of the town and scenery from some popular spots. If you don’t live locally, an excellent alternative is to visit the Wick Voices website, as there are many oral history accounts which detail stories and experiences from locals of all ages.
I can’t mention local history and go without mentioning the late Iain Sutherland, who was well known in Caithness and beyond for his contribution to recording Wick’s history and heritage in a variety of publications over many years. I recently read an article which included contributions from Sutherland concerning the effects of prohibition in Wick which is synonymous with New York City and bootlegged alcohol, and not necessarily with a small town in the Scottish Highlands! You can also listen to this audio clip of Iain Sutherland recounting the ‘Battle of the Orange’ – he really was a charismatic storyteller.
Fiction: Highland River – Neil M Gunn
Neil M Gunn is widely considered one of the most prolific Scottish fiction writers of the early 20th century, and so it was hard to just pick one of his works to feature in his list. Gunn was born in Dunbeath, and returned to the Highlands as an adult. The novel that I have picked is not the most famous (‘The Silver Darlings’ wins that acclaim) but Highland River is in the same grouping which concerns itself with representing ‘essential Highland experience’.
Highland River recounts the life of Kenn, as he grows up in Dunbeath, faces the trauma of the First World War, and then returns home to the Highlands and to the source of the river that flows down to the sea.
Part of the charm of visiting the north coast of Scotland, especially when doing a route like the North Coast 500, is that if you venture off the main route, there are hidden gems that you wouldn’t see otherwise, and this is especially true down the east coast of Caithness. The scenery and heritage of many different spots, including Dunbeath comes to life in front of your eyes, and I’ve written previously about talking a walk along the Strath. By walking down to Dunbeath Harbour you can see a statue commemorating a scene in the novel.
I’d highly recommend this book, and books like it if you are thinking about immersing yourself in the literary locations of Caithness – before, during or after your visit.
Fiction: Returning – The Journey of Alexander Sinclair – Sharon Gunason Pottinger
Set in Thurso, this novella of just over 100 pages packs in a physical journey retuning from war-torn Afghanistan to Caithness, coupled with the returning and renewal of family relationships. Pottinger really captures the sense of place, not only in the physical descriptions of Thurso but also in the dynamics of small town life and what it means to return home. One of the early lines upon the protagonist’s return to Thurso reads “One night in the Comm (Commercial Hotel) would be enough to have the story all around Caithness” which wryly captures the realities of living in a smaller community.
If I’ve whetted your literary appetite, keep an eye out for more details on the upcoming John O’Groats Book Festival – this year going digital on the 24th & 25th April 2021. As well as featuring nationally and internationally acclaimed writers, there is also always a very strong local representation of Caithness subject matter and from local authors!