By books we live

It’s June already. Man alive. That means a new blog theme and this month will loosely be about ‘By leaves we live’. It is a quote attributed to the town planner and all round polymath Patrick Geddes. I choose to take these four words to refer to two distinct areas: trees and books. Some of this month’s posts will feature one or other of these. Having said that, there will be other stuff here too about whatever travelling I get up to this month and whatever comes out of my fingers and onto the keyboard.

The first of the ‘By leaves we live’ posts will be about books. Don’t panic, this won’t be a highfalutin book review sort of post. I save that stuff for the good readers of the Glasgow Review of Books. Instead, I would like to write about seven books, pictured below, that have been particularly useful in my travels over recent years, either guidebooks or narrative non-fiction.

Earlier today, I was in Edinburgh. I was heading to get something to eat when I nipped into the big Waterstone’s in Princes Street. I have written here before that I really have no need to buy more books and I keep to that. This, however, was for work. On the way in, I noticed a new edition of Scotland the Best, the wonderful and seminal guidebook to our great country, was in the window. Naturally, one came home with me to Glasgow and it’s sitting beside me now. The previous edition was the first I had encountered and my copy, at least until it went walkies in a move, was very well-thumbed. Unlike most guidebooks, it is broken down into loads of categories with listings of the best museums, restaurants, walks, open air swimming pools and many other things, including the best of all: fish and chip shops. I am a connoisseur of the chippie (or chipper as they say in Aberdeen and Dundee) and so is Peter Irvine, the author of the book, whose list is divided into those which use lard and those who don’t, an important consideration for those of us with sensitive stomachs. Of those listed in Glasgow, I haven’t been to any though I know two out of the four in Edinburgh: the Tailend on Leith Walk and the Deep Sea on Antigua Street (across from the Playhouse). Nationally, I have been to one in Oban, the various chippies in Anstruther, the Ashvale in Aberdeen and Giacopazzi’s in Eyemouth. The book covers all over Scotland, more than the chip shops, and is written with wit and enough detail to satisfy even me.

Before I was on Princes Street, I went for a walk in the Meadows, one of the capital’s finest green spaces. As I stepped off the bus on Melville Drive, I looked to my right and saw Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. From the Meadows and much of the west of the city, Arthur’s Seat looks to my eyes like an elephant in side profile, as shown below. This isn’t an original observation, however: it is drawn from another of my favourite books: The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee. To this day, I think of myself as a silent traveller and it is down to that book, given to me a few years ago by a good friend. Chiang Yee travelled in Edinburgh in the 1940s and his impressions are illustrated beautifully throughout, with his words carefully considered and lyrical. He was exiled from China in 1933 and seems to have had a very varied life, writing many books on travel and calligraphy. His book on Edinburgh offers an unique perspective on the capital and when I first read it, it made familiar places seem new once more.

The elephant that is Arthur’s Seat as seen from the Meadows

For my 20th birthday, I was given a copy of the Blue Guide to Scotland, by Elspeth and Michael Wills, and I have used it ever since to plan day trips. It is a very different sort of guidebook to Scotland the Best, more conventionally laid out by geographic area, but is none the worse for that. I would like to share possibly the best line from the book, which is the opening line to the section on a certain Scottish city: ‘Some say that it is better to approach Dundee than to arrive’. Can’t say more than that, really.

My first solo day trip, in 2008, was inspired by reading Bill Bryson’s Notes From A Small Island, his travelogue of travelling around Britain in the winter, from Dover to John O’Groats. I went to Durham, which I had never visited before but Bryson raved about, referring to the Cathedral as the ‘best cathedral on planet Earth’. No contest there. He wrote that ‘if you have never been to Durham, go at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.’ It truly, truly is and I have been many times since, particularly to the Cathedral which is stunning and a place where I have spent many hours admiring the architecture and thinking on life’s imponderables. I am writing this just after my trip to York and Durham Cathedral beats York Minster hands down, as fine as the Minster is. Also, walking by the Wear is gorgeous. Seriously, go to Durham. I am overdue a visit myself and trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

A few weeks ago, I was in Aberdeen. I wrote about it here. As part of it, I went for a wander around the fishing village Footdee, which is featured on the cover of a wee book I acquired a year or two back called Nothing To See Here: A Guide To The Hidden Joys of Scotland by Anne Ward, alongside a few other places I have been to including Cramond Island, St. Cecilia’s Hall and Dunbar’s Close in Edinburgh, the Italian Chapel in Orkney, John O’Groats, the Museum of Scottish Lighthouses, Pennan, Robert Smail’s Printing Works in Innerleithen, and the Samye Ling Buddhist monastery which I have visited again only in the last week or two. Thankfully a lot of places in the book I haven’t been to before, with one I particularly want to see the Stewartry Museum in Kirkcudbright, an old fashioned municipal museum.

Another favourite that inspires me to explore more of my own patch is Archaeology Around Glasgow by Susan Hothersall, which is a guide to archaeological sites of interest in Glasgow and surrounding districts. Most of these places I haven’t seen, to my discredit, though there are a few near here, including Crookston Castle, which I visited recently, as well as some earthworks in Pollok Country Park, which I am yet to explore. This summer I intend to do some proper roving around Glasgow. I have lived here three years and there is so much I don’t know about the city, so many places unexplored, at least by me. That’s changing and I have just the book to do it.

The last book I have had since I was 7. I wasn’t a typical kid. I read newspapers when I was 3 and when I was a wee bit older, I would read and absorb non-fiction books, particularly those with facts. One of my favourites, that my Papa gave me, I think, is from the Exploring Scotland’s Heritage series published by the Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Scotland entitled Edinburgh, Lothians and Borders, featuring a photo on the front cover of Linlithgow Palace. I have been to a fair few of the places featured; some indeed, like Prestongrange and John Muir’s Birthplace I have worked in, while a fair few, like Dunbar Harbour, Doon Hill, Hailes Castle, Cat Craig lime kilns and Preston Mill, I know very well indeed. Picking it up tonight, I came to a photo of another favourite place, Crichton Castle near Pathhead, with its Italianate inner courtyard wall. I need to get back there soon. It’s a little out of the way. I walked the 3 miles from Pathhead to Crichton once along farm tracks then waited for ages for the bus back to Edinburgh from Pathhead after.

So, that’s a small selection. If you are interested in any of them, try your local library first (where else?). The full list is:

Scotland the Best by Peter Irvine (Collins, 2016)

The Silent Traveller in Edinburgh by Chiang Yee (originally published in 1948, new edition Mercat Press, 2003)

Blue Guide to Scotland by Elspeth and Michael Wills (12th edition, A&C Black, 2001)

Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson (Black Swan, 1995)

Nothing To See Here: A Guide To The Hidden Joys of Scotland by Anne Ward (Pocket Mountains, 2011)

Archaeology Around Glasgow by Susan Hothersall (Glasgow Museums and Glasgow Archaeological Society, 2007, updated 2009)

Edinburgh, Lothians and Borders by John Baldwin (2nd edition, The Stationery Office, 1997)


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