Top five autumn reads for 2020

29 August 2020
Books to shake free of a 2020 lockdown re-reading fiction, you may ask, or books to find longer-term better energies? Allan and Anne Harkness of the Forest Bookstore, Selkirk, present their recommendations.

Gathered below are histories, essays, fragments gathered in anthologies: this Scotland, that Scotland, stratified matter for a brave journey ahead.

In lively ways, Alastair McIntosh’s latest, Riders on the Storm : the Climate Crisis and the Survival of Being (Birlinn) covers the scientific evidence to date (via IPCC Reports) then assesses obstinate deniers of climate change alongside ‘alarmists’ amongst activist movements. Rewardingly, he moves on to the potential and means for necessary ‘constructive programmes’ of social, institutional and environmental reform at pace.

His key compass is Gandhi’s non-violence and an existential shift towards altruism, gratitude and love of all life. Scottish and international case histories abound. Many aspects of our lived historical experience are here, shaped by a Quaker’s hopeful, thoughtful purpose and concern.

The astonishing riches of Historic Environment Scotland’s archive (drawings, prints, photographs, maps and manuscripts) support medieval historian Fiona Watson and archaeologist Piers Dixon’s project to show the constancy of change in land use and lives in Scotland. They plot the material culture, ideas and technological shifts pushing successive eras of  ‘Improvement’. Reading the land, seeing ‘the depths of the past’ in order ‘to layer back the centuries’, they are reserved and calm before the complexities of the interwoven past and present. Scottish history appears to them ‘impossible’ as a story, elusive and difficult, ‘an intimately layered and often exasperating puzzle with a great weight of missing pieces’. Their History of Scotland’s Landscapes (HES) adds to our ongoing reappraisal of life on the far north-western edge of Europe.  

HES also give us Who Built Scotland : a History of the Nation in Twenty-Five Buildings. Its assortment of essays amounts to a cubist collage, one with varied angles, textures and spaces. Kathleen Jamie’s ‘Caring for the Carers’ on Maggie’s Centre, Fife (by Zaha Hadid) is a plea for ‘bespoke, well-designed modern buildings’, those enshrining intimacy. This manifestation of ‘the transformation of light’ is experienced beside its modern fortress hospital, and ghosted by her account of a Bronze Age ‘therapeutic place’ at Links of Noltland, Westray, Orkney. With archaeology as both figure and ground, her essay sees a Scotland yet to break free of grim, dull economic functionalism.

James Robertson’s Abbotsford House – Brownsbank Cottage juxtaposition leaves us in a no-man’s land, whilst James Crawford’s on Eigg’s ‘Sweeney’s Bothy’ takes things further in bespoke design and social change, in the wider context of the hutting movement, sustainability, renewability and low carbon emissions. How are we to build a better future, that’s the core matter.

Inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s renaming of stops on the New York subway after women, Sara Sheridan’s Where are the Women : a Guide to an Imagined Scotland (HES) posits the very prescient question of how we memorialise our history. The book is arranged geographically, into cities and regions of Scotland and contains just enough information about so many talented women to whet the appetite.

Scotland: Her Story (Birlinn) is an admirable collection of social history nuggets edited by Rosemary Goring. These documents draw on a wide range of materials including diaries, chapbooks and court and kirk records. A favourite is likely to be ‘How to Kill Time While Men Drink and Gamble’ written by Elizabeth Mure in the 1760s!

More great reads...

Other recommendations: New Scots: Scotland’s Immigrant Communities since 1945 (EUP), edited by T. M. Devine and Angela McCarthy, is a healthy reckoning of our civic identity (guided by ‘traditions of liberal tolerance and equalitarianism’). 

The See-Through House: My Father in Full Colour (Chatto & Windus).This is Shelley Klein’s recent memoir of growing up in ‘High Sunderland’,  an ultra-Modernist house and home to her parents Bernat and Margaret Klein’s design world. 

Anything by the late Ian MacDougall, for such a long time the engine of Scottish working people’s social history and oral history collections (dockers, journalists, farmworkers). 

By Allan & Anne Harkness @ The Forest Bookstore, Selkirk - an independent bookshop with an emphasis on modern & contemporary literature, environmental writings and modern art since 2006 to the present. 


The Forest Bookstore, 26 Market Place, Selkirk TD7 4BL; tel: 01750 22763; website.


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