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

Poetic Remembrance of the Fallen Soldiers of the Great War and the Tragedy of the Iolaire

In the early hours of New Year’s day 1919, HMY Iolaire sank just off the coast of Stornoway, the harbour lights could be seen from the deck. The boat was carrying soldiers returning from the war, some of whom had not been home or seen family and friends in years. 174 of the islanders on board perished in the icy sea.

In the morning many of the men were found, home at last, washed up on the shore.

Although this took place in peacetime and has been recorded as one of the most tragic British ship disasters since the Titanic sank in 1912, tributes have been made in poems and songs in remembrance of the men of Lewis and Harris that fought and survived the horrors of the First World War only to perish on the sea with home in sight.

The following poem, ‘Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn’, by Murdo MacFarlane, tells the heartbreaking Beneath Troubled Skiesstory of the island women getting ready: baking bread and lighting the home, peat fires longing to see their boys home again only to wake to hear the tragic news and to find them washed up on the shore.

This poems is taken from Beneath Troubled Skies: Poems of Scotland at War, 1914–1918, published by The Scottish Poetry Library and Polygon.

Last Night the Iolaire Was Torn

The lassie sang sweetly
in Lewis last night,
baking her bread
with a heart full of light
and thoughts of her darling,
longing for the sight
of her true love
come safely home.

The war is now over,
won by the heroes
who come home tonight:
the Iolaire’s cargo.
Put peat on the fire
and tea from the jar; Oh,
I’ll not sleep, sweetheart,
’til morning comes.

They’ll tell their tales
and we’ll listen to them,
to the feats of the sea-faring
tartan-clad men;
of the brave ones who fell
and will not rise again,
so many fine lads
who were brought down.

Hear the wind moaning –
Oh, hear it blow,
hear the sea’s mocking cry
come from the depths below.
The poor lads who must battle
the sea and the foam!
Spread your wings, Iolaire,
haste with my love.

As the day breaks
our hope fades away,
the kettle on the chain
pipes a sorrowful lay;
she stops going to the door
with more peats for the flame;
hear the wind’s harsh whistle:
Ochone, Ochone.

The lassie wept sorely;
in the morning they found,
lying in the seaweed,
her love’s body, drowned,
without shoes on his feet
as they brought him aground;
she bent down and kissed
his lips so cold.

Last night the Iolaire was torn,
her brood drowned at the oars;
from Harris to Ness
our fair soldiers we mourn.
Since you won’t bring them live
bring them drowned to our shores;
to the sea’s hungry mouth
we’ll look no more.

Murdo MacFarlane
(translated from Gaelic by Niall O’Gallagher)

The Gaelic word ‘iolaire’ means ‘eagle’.

Beneath Troubled Skies is available online and in all good bookshops.

Revisiting and Reviving ‘The Buke of the Howlat’ by James Robertson

James Robertson and Kate Leiper have produced one of the most striking children’s books of the year, ‘The Book of the Howlat’ – and the Scots Version, ‘The Buke of the Howlat’ – is a re-telling, in prose, of one of Scotland’s oldest poems.

In this blog, author James Robertson, talks about the history of the text, its importance and how he, and illustrator Kate Leiper, breathed new life into the story and re-wrote it for a 21st century audience.


The Book of the HowlatSir Richard Holland’s poem The Buke of the Howlat was composed in the 1440s at Darnaway Castle, Morayshire, for the Earl and Countess of Moray. It is a very long poem, made up of 77 stanzas of 13 lines each, and is written in medieval or Middle Scots. A very early work in the Scottish literary canon, it has survived until today because it was preserved in two documents, the Asloan and the Bannatyne manuscripts, compiled in the 16th century.

The poem is an allegory in which the birds of the air are given human traits: the central character, a howlat or owl, hates his ugly appearance and appeals to the peacock, the spiritual head of the birds, to help him. (In medieval Scotland owls were not considered beautiful and wise, as they are today.) The peacock summons a conference of birds and, after a great feast complete with songs and other entertainment, they decide to summon Dame Nature and ask her to improve the Howlat’s appearance. Nature commands each bird to donate one of its feathers to the Howlat who, thus transformed, becomes unbearably arrogant. The birds call on Dame Nature again, and she restores the owl to his former state, leaving him to conclude that he should have known his place and not been so ambitious.

A large chunk of the poem – about a quarter – is a passage extolling the virtues and valiant deeds of the Douglas family. Richard Holland was the Earl’s secretary, and knew on which side his bread was buttered. But although this section is of interest to historians, it is tedious fare for most modern readers, and holds up the main action for twenty stanzas! When I was asked by Birlinn to write a new version of The Buke of the Howlat, for a 21st-century audience and in prose rather than verse, it was soon clear that the Douglas praise section had to go.

Then, when Kate Leiper and I had our first meeting to discuss how we were going to combine my words with her illustrations, we also agreed that the moral of the original poem – ‘Know your place, and stay in it!’ – was not quite the message we wanted to send out in 2016, especially as we hoped many of the book’s readers would be young people. We felt that we could tweak the moral slightly without betraying the spirit of the poem: ‘Know yourself – and make the most of what you are!’ Our new Buke of the Howlat is a variation on the ‘Ugly Duckling’ theme. Kate had the brilliant though challenging idea of showing the Howlat growing from a chick into a fully-fledged adult, a bird of the night not of the daylight:

‘Oh, oh, I see now!’ the Howlat cried, and his voice carried far through the trees… ‘I
wanted to be something I could not be, when what I had to do was be patient, until I
grew into myself . . . To be truly happy, you have to be true to your own nature.’

I don’t think my challenges as writer were as great as Kate’s as illustrator. Still, I had to consider a number of issues. Richard Holland’s poem is written in an alliterative style, much in vogue at the time:

He grat grisly grym and gaif a gret yowle,
Cheverand and chydand with churliche cheir.
‘Quhy is my fax,’ quod the fyle, ‘fassonit so foule,
My forme and my fetherem unfrely, but feir?’

I wanted to retain some of this alliteration, and I managed this without too much difficulty, but without overdoing it, as in the opening descriptive passage:

The air was fresh, the fields were green, flowers were blooming, deer were grazing. A broad river flowed through a forest of tall trees, and as it went by them the trees bowed their branches to the water.

Another challenge was that I had been asked to produce two versions, one in English and the other in Scots. Sometimes the alliteration worked better in Scots:

Sae the Howlat set aff, scuggin alang in the shaddas as weel’s he could, till he cam tae the Paycock, wha wis prinkin up and doun in the castle gairden.

the-buke-of-the-howlatMy Scots version is closer to the original poem in terms of vocabulary (my Howlat ‘greets’ just as Holland’s ‘grat’) and syntax than the English version. However, I also needed to make the Scots accessible to readers, young and old, who may hear and speak Scots but seldom see it written down, and whose Scots vocabulary may not be that extensive. For this reason we decided to include a short glossary of the more unusual words in the Scots edition. But any reader cribbing from the English edition should have no difficulty reading the Scots. (I confess I prefer the Scots, partly because it seems more conversational: in English, the Peacock ‘must be one of Nature’s favourites’. In Scots, ‘He maun be awfie chief wi Nature.’) The two texts thus complement each other, and in fact when I was revising them I found that I was adjusting the English in the light of the Scots, and vice versa, hopefully bringing out the strengths and subtleties of both languages.

Another challenge was to ensure that my words fitted with Kate’s beautiful images. She worked from an early draft of my English version, and then, as her illustrations took shape, I adjusted some of my words to fit them. At least one of these adjustments came very late on: in the banquet scene, I had written of the Jay juggling gold goblets, but Kate had drawn them as gold-rimmed. Fortunately, this was easily corrected, but had we missed it no doubt some eagle-eyed reader would have pointed out the inconsistency!

Sometimes the words are hardly needed. I love the final image of the Howlat flying off into the night and his new life. It’s a two-page spread, but only fifteen English, or sixteen Scots words appear. The picture, in this instance, says it all!

By James Robertson

Both The Book of the Howlat and The Buke of the Howlat are available now, from all good bookshops and online.