Read your way through classic Scottish novels on the new Higher English reading list

When schools return in August, teenagers embarking on Higher English across Scotland are in for a treat. The new range of classic and contemporary Scottish fiction and poetry on their reading list contains several classics - and modern classics - from the Scottish canon.

If you’re looking for a great summer read of your own, why not launch yourself into one of these books? From swashbuckling Highland adventures to an extremely readable exploration of Scottish spirituality, there's something for every mood, taste, and holiday.

Not sure where to start or what to pick? Here are some highlights...


The Testament of Gideon Mack by James Robertson

This is one of the curveballs on the list. It’s narrated by Gideon, a minister who has spent his life struggling to find peace of mind, and it’s hard to say much more about this book without spoiling it. Right from the off there’s a revelation which will knock you sideways, and things continue in this wonderfully unpredictable vein. It’s the newest book on the list, written in 2003, and while it deals with challenging questions, it’s funny and hugely accessible, with really compelling characters.

Get an insight into James’ thoughts about the book from this video


The Trick is to Keep Breathing by Janice Galloway

I couldn’t handle the lack of plot and tossed it aside after 50 pages. Now it strikes a chord

Possibly the most raw and challenging book on the list. I gave up on it the first time I read it as a 19-year-old - back then I couldn’t handle the lack of plot and tossed it aside after 50 pages. Now it strikes a chord, just like it has done with many readers. As Scottish author Alan Bissett says in our interview about the novel, all of us go through a point where we don’t understand the world, and this is certainly true of Janice Galloway’s heroine in the book. It’s a wonderful read, at once visceral and thought-provoking. It takes resilience to read this book as its protagonist falls apart and tries to pick up the pieces, but once you read it you’ll never forget it. What more can one ask of literature?


Short Story Collections

The short story collections featured are by Anne Donovan, Iain Crichton Smith and George MacKay Brown.

Personally, I prefer Donovan’s stories by a country mile, but then I’m a softie - they’re often narrated by children and I love their honesty. Sometimes I think my brain and heart have been hardened by the trials of adulthood, and these stories raised many a smile as I remembered what it was like to hold so many innocent questions of life. I’m sure plenty of people out there will stand up for MacKay Brown and Crichton Smith, so I’m not going to say much about these collections, make your own mind up.


Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel's just the ticket for some classic summer reading.

Kidnapped has thrilled readers of all ages, through the ages. However, I’m ashamed to say, I hadn’t read it until recently.

It’s a tale of adventure and friendship, and... well, most of you probably already know the rest, and if you don’t, Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novel's just the ticket for some classic summer reading.


Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon

And then there’s Sunset Song. Set in pre-WW1 Scotland, it provides a heart-warming, heart-breaking, endlessly fascinating insight into the life of Scottish crofters and the similarities, and huge differences, between their culture and that of modern Scotland.

It explores some weighty themes, but as novelist Julie Bertagna says in this video, it's the journey of female protagonist Chris that keeps us reading as her singular worldview takes shape. Some may shudder at the thought of Sunset Song having slowly ploughed through it as a school pupil. However, I strongly recommend revisiting it as an adult; it's a rich, rewarding, and uniquely Scottish experience.


Want to go deeper? Watch top authors Keith Gray, Alan Bisset, Julie Bertagna and James Robertson talking about these books.