Scotland: Recommended Books and Movies

By Rick Steves

To learn more about Scotland past and present, check out some of these books and films. (And see our similar lists for elsewhere in Europe.)

Books: Nonfiction

  • The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British (Sarah Lyall, 2008). A New York Times reporter in London wittily recounts the eccentricities of life in the UK.
  • Crowded with Genius (James Buchan, 2003). This account of Edinburgh's role in the Scottish Enlightenment details the city's transformation from squalid backwater to marvelous European capital.
  • Edinburgh: Picturesque Notes (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1879). One of the city's most famous residents takes readers on a tour of his hometown.
  • The Emperor's New Kilt (Jan-Andrew Henderson, 2000). Henderson deconstructs the myths surrounding the tartan-clad Scots.
  • The Guynd (Belinda Rathbone, 2005). The marriage of an American woman and a Scottish man endures through cultural gaps and household mishaps.
  • A History of Britain (Simon Schama, 2000–2002). The respected historian presents a comprehensive, thoroughly readable three-volume collection.
  • A History of Modern Britain (Andrew Marr, 2007). This searching look at the transformations in British life over the last few decades accompanies a BBC documentary series of the same name.
  • How the Scots Invented the Modern World (Arthur Herman, 2001). The author explains the disproportionately large influence the Scottish Enlightenment had on the rest of Europe.
  • The Kingdom by the Sea: A Journey Around the Coast of Great Britain (Paul Theroux, 1983). After 11 years as an American expatriate in London, travel writer Theroux takes a witty tour of his adopted homeland.
  • A Land (Jacquetta Hawkes, 1951). This postwar best seller is a sweeping, poetic natural history of the British landscape and imagination.
  • Literary Trails (Christina Hardyment, 2000). Hardyment reunites famous authors with the environments that inspired them.
  • The Life of Samuel Johnson (James Boswell, 1790). Scottish Laird Boswell's portrait of his contemporary is so admired that it inspired the use of Boswell's name to mean a close and companionable observer (Sherlock Holmes, for instance, at times refers to Watson as "my Boswell").
  • Notes from a Small Island (Bill Bryson, 1995). In this irreverent and delightful memoir, US expat Bryson writes about his travels through Britain — his home for two decades.
  • Scotland: The Autobiography: 2,000 Years of Scottish History by Those Who Saw It Happen (Rosemary Goring, 2007). Extracts from primary sources let a diverse cast of real-life characters, from Tacitus to Muriel Spark, tell the story of the nation.
  • Sea Room (Adam Nicolson, 2001). The owner of three tiny islands in the Hebrides contemplates their magical appeal and dramatic history.
  • The Story of Britain from the Norman Conquest to the European Union (Patrick Dillon, 2011). Studious older children will get a healthy dose of history from this elegant, illustrated volume.
  • A Traveller's History of Scotland (Andrew Fisher, revised 2009). Fisher probes Scotland's turbulent history, beginning with the Celts.

Books: Fiction

For the classics of Scottish drama and fiction, read the "Big Three": Sir Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stevenson, and poet Robert Burns.

  • 44 Scotland Street (Alexander McCall Smith, 2005). The colorful residents of an Edinburgh apartment house bring Scottish society to life.
  • Complete Poems and Songs of Robert Burns (Robert Burns, 2012, featuring work from 1774–1796). This collection showcases the work of a Scottish icon who wrote in the Scots language, including that New Year's classic "Auld Lang Syne."
  • The Cone Gatherers (Robin Jenkins, 1980). A staple of British secondary-school reading lists, this tragic novel about two brothers is set on a Scottish country estate during World War II.
  • Consider Phlebas (Iain M. Banks, 1987). In this first book in the popular The Culture science fiction series, Scottish author Banks describes a galactic war.
  • The Heart of Midlothian (Sir Walter Scott, 1818). This novel from one of Great Britain's most renowned authors showcases the life-and-death drama of lynchings and criminal justice in 1730s Scotland. Other great reads by Sir Walter include Rob Roy (1818), and Ivanhoe (1819), and Waverley (1814, listed below).
  • Knots and Crosses (Ian Rankin, 1987). The Scottish writer's first Inspector Rebus mystery plumbs Edinburgh's seamy underbelly.
  • Lanark (Alasdair Gray, 1981). This eccentric, sprawling four-part novel set in Glasgow (and a fictional alt-Glasgow) tackles huge themes — capitalism, power, love — and earned Gray a reputation as a great Scottish writer.
  • Macbeth (William Shakespeare, 1606). Shakespeare's "Scottish Play" depicts a guilt-wracked general who assassinates the king to take the throne.
  • Outlander (Diana Gabaldon, 1991). This genre-defying series kicks off with the heroine time-traveling from the Scotland of 1945 to 1743. A popular TV adaptation began airing in 2014.
  • The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (Muriel Spark, 1961). The story of an unconventional young teacher who plays favorites with her students is a modern classic of Scottish literature.
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1996). This famous Gothic yarn by a Scottish author chronicles a fearful case of transformation in London, exploring Victorian ideas about conflict between good and evil.
  • Sunset Song (Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932). Farm girl Chris Guthrie is rudely confronted by adolescence, modernity, and war in this lauded Scottish classic, the first book in the trilogy "A Scots Quair."
  • Waverley (Sir Walter Scott, 1814). Idealistic young soldier Edward Waverley gets ensnared by the intrigues of the 1745 Jacobite uprising, which aimed to bring back the Stuart dynasty.

Films and TV Shows

  • The 39 Steps (1935). This Alfred Hitchcock classic about a London man wrongly accused of murder is set in Edinburgh, Glencoe, and other parts of the Scottish countryside.
  • The Angels' Share (2012). In this working-class comedy, a Glaswegian ne'er-do-well discovers he has a great nose for whisky.
  • Braveheart (1995). Mel Gibson stars in this Academy Award–winning adventure about the Scots overthrowing English rule in the 13th century.
  • Brigadoon (1954). In this classic musical, an American couple visiting Scotland discover a magical village.
  • Highlander (1986). An immortal swordsman remembers his life in 16th-century Scotland while preparing for a pivotal battle in the present day.
  • A History of Scotland (2010). This BBC series presented by Neil Oliver offers a succinct, lightly dramatized retelling of Scottish history.
  • Local Hero (1983). A businessman questions his decision to build an oil refinery in a small Scottish town once he gets a taste for country life.
  • Loch Ness (1996). A skeptical American scientist is sent to Scotland to investigate the existence of the Loch Ness monster.
  • Monarch of the Glen (2000). Set on Loch Laggan, this TV series features stunning Highland scenery and the eccentric family of a modern-day laird.
  • Mrs. Brown (1997). A widowed Queen Victoria (Dame Judy Dench) forges a very close friendship with her Scottish servant, John Brown (Billy Connolly).
  • One Day (2011). Two University of Edinburgh students meet and fall in love on their graduation day, and their story continues to be told at each anniversary.
  • The Queen (2006). Helen Mirren expertly channels Elizabeth II at her Scottish Balmoral estate in the days after Princess Diana's death.
  • Rob Roy (1995). The Scottish rebel played by Liam Neeson struggles against feudal landlords in 18th-century Scotland.
  • Skyfall (2012). In this James Bond film, we learn that 007 grew up in the Scottish Highlands, with a climactic scene at his childhood home (filmed near Glencoe).
  • Trainspotting (1996). Ewan McGregor stars in this award-winning, wild, gritty picture about Edinburgh's drug scene in the 1980s.

For Kids

  • Always Room for One More (Sorche Nic Leodhas, 1965). This Caldecott Medal–winning picture book presents a Scottish folktale with evocative illustrations.
  • Bagpipes, Beasties and Bogles (Tim Archbold, 2012). This whimsical story about spooky creatures and bagpipes serves up Scottish culture in a package perfect for young readers.
  • Brave (2012). This Disney flick follows an independent young Scottish princess as she fights to take control of her own fate.
  • Greyfriars Bobby (2005). Based on a true story, this family-friendly film is about a terrier who became Edinburgh local legend after refusing to leave his master's gravesite.
  • An Illustrated Treasury of Scottish Folk and Fairy Tales (Theresa Breslin, 2012). Kelpies, dragons, brownies, and other inhabitants of the Scottish Isles come to life in this lovely volume of traditional lore.
  • Kidnapped (Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886). This fantastic adventure story is based on events in 18th-century Scotland.
  • The Luck of the Loch Ness Monster (A. W. Flaherty, 2007). A picky American girl on a boat to Scotland throws her oatmeal out the porthole every morning, unwittingly feeding the Loch Ness monster that follows her.
  • This Is Edinburgh (Miroslav Sasek, 1961, updated 2006). Vivid illustrations bring the Scottish capital to life in this classic picture book.
  • Queen's Own Fool (Jane Yolen and Robert Harris, 2008). A historical novel for 10-and-ups based on the girl who was a jester in the court of Mary Queen of Scots, the first of the "Stuart Quartet" books.
  • The Story of Scotland (Richard Brassey and Stewart Ross, 1999). This humorous, comic-book style history book will engage young travelers.
  • The Water Horse (2007). In this film based on a book of the same name, a young boy in 1940s Scotland discovers an egg, which later hatches into the fabled Loch Ness monster.