Birlinn’s Favourite Books of 2016

This year has been particularly eventful, whether you’ll look back fondly or with dread, you can’t deny that it has been interesting. In this blog we take a fond look back at some of the highlights from our 2016 publishing list.

1588: A Calendar of Crime by Shirley McKay1588-a-calendar-of-crime

1588: A Calendar of Crime is an absolute masterclass in historical crime fiction. Aside from the book simply looking fantastic, the stories within are beautifully written, dripping with atmosphere and at times surprisingly light-hearted. Shirley McKay achieves that perfect balance whereby you are completely absorbed in the stories and at the same time are learning so much about the history of St Andrews. From murders, to ghosts, to dark comedy, this is a book that has a little something for everyone.

Jamie Harris
Sales, Publicity and Events Administrator

un-discovered-islandsThe Un-Discovered Islands by Malachy Tallack and Illustrated by Katie Scott

The Un-Discovered Islands is easily one of the most unique books I’ve read this year. Malachy Tallack’s desire to render the map a little more mysterious in the age of satellite imaging has produced a book which takes the reader on all sorts of intriguing and fantastical journeys across the ocean. As perfect for dipping in and out of as reading all at a go, the various islands discussed are vividly rendered by Katie Scott’s detailed illustration work. The result is a charming exploration of the unexplorable.

Jan Rutherford
Publicity and Marketing Director

Young Soul Rebels Vis 16Young Soul Rebels by Stuart Cosgrove

A passionate, funny and insightful romp through the history of northern soul for aficionados and the curious alike. Underpinned by meticulous research and Stuart Cosgrove’s ebullient writing, this is personal, political and musical history at its best. A gem of a book that will have you reaching for old vinyl or heading to YouTube to find those killer tunes.

Alison Rae
Managing Editor


Beneath the Skin by Sandra Irelandbeneath-the-skin

I enjoyed Sandra’s book very much – it’s a spine tingling story exploring human relationships and their struggles with the past. The dark atmosphere is pronounced by the story being set in a taxidermist studio, located in the basement of a Victorian house in Edinburgh’s beautiful Stockbridge area. It is slightly creepy and occasionally scary but at the same time very tender, and it is a human journey through the psychology of post-traumatic stress disorder. The characters are all people we can easily relate to and maybe even recognise them in our own circle of friends and neighbours. Sandra writes in a very enjoyable way; you won’t be able to put the book down until the end!

Darina Brejtrova
Finance Assistant


Scotland: Mapping the Islands by Christopher scotland-mapping-the-islandsFleet, Charles W.J. Withers and Margaret Wilkes

I’ve long been a fan of the Scotland: Mapping the Nation, and as a sailor I was particularly excited when I heard we were doing a similar book on mapping Scotland’s islands. The finished article is stuffed with maps, bursting with cartography, and overflowing with fascinating facts. I’ve been dipping in and out of it for weeks and there’s still plenty more to discover. The quality of the reproductions and the variety of maps displayed really makes this book a visual treat as well as an engrossing read.

Anna Marshall
Events Manager
fugitive-coloursFugitive Colours by Liz Lochhead

Liz Lochhead’s new collection, the first in quite a few years, is filled with moments of poignancy and fragments of joy – it encompasses a life enriched with people, places and relationships. Liz skilfully navigates through some of the more sensitive details of her life and relationships with humour, empathy and compassion. Written beautifully, there is sadness, truth, hope and optimism throughout the five sections, each varied in scope but woven together as part of a life. Fugitive Colours is beautiful, sensitive, adept and brilliant.

It’s hard to pick one favourite, so I just had to pick two. My other choice was Jenni Fagan’s The Dead Queen of Bohemia. This collection has a lot to offer: the writing is honest, humorous, sharp, witty and has a wry sense of humour to it; you live alongside these pieces in each line and the imagery stays with you. I find myself repeating some of the lines, triggered by something I have seen on Edinburgh’s streets.

Edward Crossan
Poetry Editor and Online & Digital Development


my-italian-bulldozerMy Italian Bulldozer by Alexander McCall Smith

My Italian Bulldozer whisks the reader away to Tuscany on a delightfully absurd, Planes, Trains and Automobiles-esque adventure. It’s a true feel-good book that gives us everything we’ve come to love about Sandy McCall Smith’s writing – the gentle satire, quirky characters and light-hearted philosophical teachings. The Italian spirit is captured brilliantly, and McCall Smith’s insight and subtle remarks on human nature leave us feeling wiser, as if we know the world a little better having read the book. Lessons in life, love, and how to drive a bulldozer through rural Italy . . .  perfect reading therapy.

Abi Salvesen



The Brilliant and Forever by Kevin MacNeil

I’m choosing (of course!) Kevin MacNeil’s The Brilliant & Forever. It is the perfect novel to read to see us out of this ‘eventful’ 2016. It’s a satire on what culture means to us, how we treat outsiders and how we foster a sense of belonging, but it’s more than yer usual . . . We’re bombarded with satire’s cruelty, cynicism and snark, so it’s refreshing to read a satire shot through with generosity that still hits its mark. We talk so much about literature fostering connections and empathy – this is a novel that really interrogates how it does so.

Vikki Reilly
Sales Liaison Manager


wild-islandWild Island by Jane Smith

First of all Wild Island is a series of gorgeous paintings that you would like to hang on your wall, guillemots, starlings, cuckoos, gannets and more, captured in the limpid light of Oronsay by a wildlife artist in her prime. Second, there is the story of an island owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds devoted to the conservation of birds and animals whose existence is threatened by the disruptions of climate and habitat change. Third, there is the warm and witty account of the events, the people and wild creatures the author/artist encounters during a year on this magical island. So, I’m struggling to see any reason why you shouldn’t own this book.

Tom Johnstone
Managing Editor


a-rum-affairA Rum Affair by Karl Sabbagh

A Rum Affair is a tremendous story of detection and fraud which is almost completely unknown. This new edition brings to light new evidence on the extraordinary deceit practised by one of the most respected botanists in the UK and its exposure by an intrepid graduate with a forensic eye. A ripping yarn about the Hebrides. What more could you want?

Hugh Andrew
Managing Director


hebridean-alphabetA Hebridean Alphabet by Debi Gliori

It’s a pleasure to discover that a book you knew would be absolutely delightful surpasses even soaring expectations. Debi Gliori’s A Hebridean Alphabet is not your standard ‘A is for apple, B is for barnacle, C is for croft’ alphabet book. It’s a story of a day’s adventuring on an unspecified Hebridean island from the morning’s first breath of rarified Air to the Zzzzs of a boneless sleep. The book’s trick is in its alliterative and assonant text, which progresses through the alphabet as the day waxes and wanes. As a girl, boy and their dog wind their way across beach, bog, dunes, and machair, Gliori’s watercolour illustrations are packed with alphabetically appropriate objects, making each read-through an I-spy. The book’s combination of sight and sound is ingenious. It’s been a real hit with everyone I’ve gifted it to, the readers and read-to alike.

Kristian Kerr
Publicity Officer



The Book of the Howlat by James Robertson and Illustrated by Kate Leiper

My favourite Birlinn book of 2016 is The Book of the Howlat – a stunning picture book for adults and children alike. James Robertson has extracted gems from the old Scots poem and the writing has some wonderful details – such as the Swallows delivering invitations as fast as the Wood Pigeon could write them – which make the story come alive. This book is truly a piece of art thanks to Kate Leiper’s illustrations, and you can spend far too long just admiring each page. A beautiful, relaxing read.

Eden Baigent Wright


Ferry - cover artworkThe Ferry Board Book by Benedict Blathwayt

It is really really good ‘cos it has got lots of boats in it and a blue camper van which is really cool. My favourite bit is when the dolphins are jumping out of the water beside the big boat. I counted at least twenty seagulls! The captain looks a bit scary but I like this book because the pages don’t crease even when I jump up and down on it. Amazing!

Liz Short (from a childlike perspective)
Production Manager


Celts and All That by Allan Burnettthe-celts-and-all-that

Chariots, Corgi’s, Bog butter . . . Burnett and Anderson’s latest in the And All That series is as fun and fact-filled as ever, only this time with an extra dose of woad. These are some of my favourite books for young readers. Never patronising and endlessly entertaining, in this book Allan Burnett brings the Celts to life along with the world they inhabited. The author’s humour and insight makes reading about these people truly engaging for both adult and young readers alike, and Scoular Anderson’s illustrations provide their own factual contributions whilst leaving you grinning like a fool.

Emily Don


We hope that this post will make you feel a little better about this year, and that you find something for your Christmas list.

And of course, all of the books are available online and in all good bookshops.

We wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a great 2017!

The Birlinn Team

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