In Search of Scotland by H.V. Morton

Scotland is a difficult place to write about, not just because it's got heaps of history and culture, literature and landscapes, but because it's tricky to capture in words a land where ‘there is only the bleating of sheep, the sound of water, the slow, drooping flight of crows, and the shadow of a cloud…sweeping over the ravines and gullies of the mountains'. And that, frankly, is worrying — could you, even if you're an ardent Nature lover, stomach 300 pages of rapturous prose on dancing rainbows and dive-bombing gannets? It was with shaky fingers then, that I opened H.V. Morton's “In Search of Scotland”, and by the time I got to chapter two, decided that if I have space just for one book to take with me to Scotland, it would be this. Going around the country in a motor car, back in the 1920s, Morton zigzags across its best bits — from the magnificent ruined Abbeys of the Borders to Burns country, passing through steely-grey Edinburgh, Perth and Dundee, all the way to an island off the West coast — Skye, which he dashingly calls ‘one of Nature's supreme experiments in atmosphere'. Sampling Scottish delights — haggis and Scotch broth, meeting people — both loopy and lovable, and touching upon history — in a delightfully non-academic manner, Morton's Scottish tales are, thankfully, as entertaining as they're enlightening

It works because…

This is no ordinary travel classic; it's a friendly voice speaking up from the pages, about places, people and poetry. It's like this: if I were to sit you down and tell you all about my good friend, I would be kind, but not oblivious to the friend's shortcomings, would I? Similarly, Morton, in his chatty, confiding manner, tells you that ‘autumn lies over Skye like a lullaby' and affectionately praises the blues of Scotland as a colour ‘unknown to art', but he dismisses the Holyrood portrait gallery as ‘fascinatingly bad', much as I would rubbish the friend's chain-smoking. His writing suggests, rather than sketches, and the effect is profound — ‘there comes a skirl of pipes, a shaggy crowd in torchlight, the glitter of steel, and somewhere in the midst a fair young man on his way to seek a crown' he says, and these 31 words do the job of 300. And I understood just how relevant this book still is, when it made me recall a wintry morning on Princes Street, where I stood where Morton might have and watched a dense grey fog roll up from the sea, and swallow old Edinburgh in one great gulp. And when the castle and spires were revealed — first like shaky spectres, then monochrome line-drawings, and finally, solid 3-D shapes — I almost believed I was watching a magic trick. This book too is, similarly, magical; what if it was written 90 years ago? Landscapes and language are timeless, aren't they?

And this one stays with you…

On ‘one of the many places in Scotland seen best on a wet day'...

‘In the fading light of late afternoon I came to a loch, silver-white under a grey sky. It was whipped into waves at the edges and pricked all over with falling rain. A man, standing in a boat and wearing a glassy oilskin, cast a methodical fly on the water, whipping the loch neatly down the wind. Against the sheet of quicksilver I could see the minute black dots of his cast riding the ripples. It was a perfect day for him: rain and wind and cold.'

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