I have not started to pack for my summer program in Edinburgh. I don’t call this procrastination. Before I use black magic to fit two months of clothes into a small suitcase, I have to finish my important research. Some people, less astute observers, think my “important research” just involves reading Scottish books in various nooks around the house. This is, in fact, vital study abroad preparation.
Edinburgh is UNESCO’s first World City of Literature. What does this mean? Independent bookstores and coffeeshops on every street corner (or so I imagine). A national Writers’ Museum honoring the Big Three of Scottish literature (Scott, Burns, Stevenson). A giant book festival every August. A major rail station, Waverley, named after a Walter Scott novel. So before departing for Edinburgh, it is essential to do some grueling research/summer leisure reading. I’ve put together a few suggestions:
On the grimy London streets, a respectable doctor periodically transforms into a savage murderer named Hyde. Although you could deride this as a Victorian Stephen King, the book has a deeper meaning. The novel focuses on a split personality, an internal conflict between the presentable and the seamy. Just as Scotland itself is divided between British loyalties and a proud culture, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Edinburgh was split between the moneyed New Town and the seedy Old Town. (It’s worth mentioning that today, New Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site with pristine Georgian architecture, and Old Town contains major landmarks like Edinburgh Castle. Jekyll and Hyde are now both equally respectable, equally touristy.)
The Inspector Rebus series is the cornerstone of the tartan noir subgenre, which basically means hardboiled detective stories with a noxious amount of whisky. I’ve read a handful of Rankin’s books and would recommend “The Falls” for an Edinburgh-bound student. Fair warning: the book was written in the early days of the web, when email was still a newfangled gimmick (“But David is still a suspect. Remember, he knows about the Internet.” “But Ranald, aren’t you also on the Internet?” These are supposed to be suspenseful lines.). However, “The Falls” could double as a city guidebook. Many of the clues are scattered in major tourist hotspots like Arthur’s Seat and Rosslyn Chapel.
This short but powerful novel follows a gaggle of girls at an Edinburgh day school in the early 20th century. The students fall into the orbit of Miss Brodie, a charismatic, rebellious teacher. As the narrators age, Miss Brodie moves from a proud figure to a rather silly woman. I recommend the novel itself, but it is not the best preparation for a study abroad program. Although there are numerous references to Edinburgh landmarks, the character arcs are the real focus, and the sense of place is not strong. With a few minor tweaks, the novel could have been set in London. Although the reader never truly sees Edinburgh, the book can be read in one sitting and is an important work of Scottish literature.
Before Arthur Herman typed his first sentence, he was doomed. No work of scholarship, no matter how compelling, could justify such a hyperbolic title. I like to imagine Herman writing a modest draft on the under-appreciated cultural power of Scotland, only to watch in horror as the publishers deem it “How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything In It.” (“Everything in it?” the online trolls demand. “Everything? Even the Great Pyramids?”) Poor Arthur Herman never had a chance. That being said, the author does show the importance of the Scottish Enlightenment in economics, education, and politics. Though the latter half devolves into a catalog of every important person who can trace Scottish history, the first half is highly readable. It also does an admirable job debunking the myths surrounding romanticized bits of Scottish history, such as the Jacobite Risings.
I will try to read a few more Scottish books before I arrive in Edinburgh- it would be a shame to enter the country without having tried Walter Scott. I may also cheat on Robert Burns. Many of his poems have been adapted into folk songs, allowing me to “read” with my iPod. Or you know, might just binge-watch the first season of “Outlander.” That works too.
Anna Cain is a student at Colorado College and is blogging from her summer abroad with the Scottish Heritage Management Internship Program in Scotland.