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Highlander and his Books - Edinburgh

Literary Lives &Landscapes

By David Carroll

Reviewed by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA email:

If I reviewed books for a monthly Scottish book review club, those that are serious, not those who meet for a social hour, I’d have to put David Carroll’s book at the top of the list to review next month! He has written an excellent book! Just the name “EDINBURGH” spelled in capital letters brings back great memories of the many times my wife Susan and I have walked the streets and climbed the hills of that magical city, huffing and puffing along the way. (I had a physician friend once tell me that he walked Edinburgh for half a day and saw all that was worth seeing! Pardon me, what arrogant planet does he come from?)

Add the rest of the book title, “Literary Lives & Landscapes,” and I want to find my favorite Edinburgh Starbucks on Princess Street, (yes, they have them almost by the dozen), grab one of those comfortable easy chairs, enjoy my cappuccino, gaze upon the Castle, and read again some of my favorite chapters in this wonderful little epistle about some of my best friends - Walt, Rob, and Jim, to name a few. You may know them as Scott, Burns and Barrie. Some may not know the names De Quincey, Owen and Sassoon. Let David Carroll introduce them to you. You will thoroughly enjoy meeting these new friends and spending time with some of your old ones.

I believe it is safe to say that those of us who are fortunate enough to have the desire to read good books know, to some degree, about many of the great things that happened during the eighteenth century in Scotland among those inclined to take pen in hand. Welcome aboard. The writers mentioned in this book all found their way to Edinburgh. I think the author says it best, “My aim in this book is to explore the lives of many of those writers who, over the years, have to a greater or lesser degree forged a link with Edinburgh and to demonstrate, where appropriate, how that connection influenced - or was reflected in - their work.”

What I love about this book is its readability and simplicity. As the author of several books, David Carroll is a talented and gifted writer, experienced in the ways of a wise wordsmith. Anyone who wants an introduction to the literary giants of Scotland will find this book a “must read”. I have good friends here in the States and in Scotland who have spent their lives teaching about these writers at great universities, and I’ve come to the conclusion after hearing them talk that giants did walk in Scotland in those halcyon days. David Carroll will let you walk arm in arm right down the Royal Mile with them! Now, how great were these writers?

Take for instance Walter Scott. Until he came on the scene, no author in history ever experienced such international acclaim and success. Sure, we have authors today who grind out a novel or two a year. Yes, we have J. K. Rowling and that guy named Brown whose book continues to remain The New York Times’ bestseller list. But I’m talking serious literature, the kind we study in our schools and universities, the books that stay with us during our lifetimes. Case in point, my eleventh grade literature book is within three feet of this computer, and I finished high school in 1957. I gave that dog-eared book to my son Scott a few years ago. But sometime later, when the withdrawal pains would not go away, I went back to him and asked if I could borrow it for the rest of my life. There are other giants in Carroll’s book, and the chapters vary in length from five to fourteen pages. Some giants were not as big as others.

I regret that Carroll did not see fit to put another buddy of mine in his book. I know of him only through my good friend, Robert Burns. It is not that this young man was such a great poet. He probably was not even a good poet. Lord knows he tried. J. Bennett Nolan, himself a would-be writer, refers to my friend as “the shiftless Edinburgh poet” on one occasion and on another as “a shiftless student, the Edinburgh poet, Robert Fergusson”. He is best known for what he meant to Robert Burns. Simply put, and Robert Crawford agrees with me, Fergusson was “Robert Burns’s favourite Scottish poet”! Scotland’s National Bard must know something the rest of us have overlooked, including Carroll.

Tucked away in the last chapter is “An Edinburgh Review” of the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. It is twenty-five pages on great writing and good reading about some very talented writers like Ben Jonson who came along, unfortunately for him, at the time of an even greater writer, Willie Shakespeare. Thus, no one remembers Jonson, even though he was Britain’s first Poet Laureate. You’ve met Daniel Defoe but maybe not as a “secret agent man”, shades of the CIA, or Marcus Philby. Then there is a Jeremy Melford who wanted so badly to be a man of Edinburgh but couldn’t quite pull it off because of a squeamish stomach …“I shall be changed into a downright Caledonian…but I am not Scotchman enough to relish their singed sheep’s-head and haggis…” Sir Walter Scott, who currently seems to be attracting a more appreciative and greater readership these days, liked nothing better than that favorite delicacy that turned Melford’s stomach - a sheep’s-head staring him in the face. But, then, Scott was a real Scotsman, not a “could have been” or a wannabe.

As I write this review, two of my friends have just returned from Scotland and two more are still there, taking in the many venues of the Edinburgh International Festival. I wish I had read Carroll’s book before they left to tell them of the book’s Postscript dealing with the history of the festival. That information is valuable to anyone planning a trip to the “Auld Country” anytime in the future. 

You do not have to enroll on-line at the University of Edinburgh to start your learning process on these great and not so great writers. You can buy this book for a paltry £14.95 plus s/h by contacting your nearest book dealer.  If they do not have it, they will get it for you, and you will always be glad they did! Give them ISBN 0-7509-3097-7, and the book from Scotland to your book dealer will be here quicker than you think, unless, being the Scotsman that you are or wannabe, you decide on surface mail which will take up to three months. God forbid!

(FRS: 8-23-05)

Return to October/November 2005 Index page  |  Return to Frank Shaw's Page


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