A history steeped in literature

From heroic epics to poignant tragedy, early Scottish literature was dominated by poetry and in particular, John Barbour (c.1320-1395), Scottish poet and the first major named literary figure to write in Scots.

Perhaps the best known figure in Scottish literature internationally is Robert Burns (1759-1796), our national Bard, whose work is celebrated worldwide with Burns Suppers on 25 January each year. Regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement, Burns' work includes 'A Red, Red Rose', 'Tam O'Shanter', and 'Ae Fond Kiss', not to mention 'Auld Lang Syne' which is sung as the clock strikes midnight on New Year's Day around the world.

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832), recognised in Europe as the creator of the modern historical novel, was the first British novelist to become a famous public figure, pioneering a new type of romantic historiography. His novels, ballads, poems and other writings have been translated into almost every major language and the world's largest monument to an author sits in Edinburgh, commemorating this Scottish author's life and work.

Edinburgh UNESCO City of Literature

In October 2004 Edinburgh became the very first UNESCO City of Literature. No surprise as the city has inspired over 500 novels, ranging from R.L. Stevenson's Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. Edinburgh also hosts the world's largest International Book Festival every August and offers many literary tours year round.

Scottish Writers

In addition to our strong literary heritage, our contemporary writers have contributed some of the most revered and best-loved works to the international literary canon. The list of acclaimed Scottish writers of fiction, poetry and theatre reads a little like a who's who of literature: A L Kennedy, Ali Smith, Jackie Kay, Kate Atkinson, Iain Banks, Janice Galloway, Liz Lochhead, Leila Aboulela, Alasdair Gray, Gregory Burke, Irvine Welsh, Andrew O'Hagan, James Robertson, Don Paterson, Kathleen Jamie, Douglas Dunn, Edwin Morgan, Jenni Fagan, John Burnside; the list goes on.

In 2020, Douglas Stuart was only the second Scot to win the Booker Prize, with his debut novel Shuggie Bain. The first was James Kelman in 1994 with his masterpiece, How Late It Was, How Late.

Carol Ann Duffy, the UK's former Poet Laureate, hails from Glasgow and world-famous authors Alexander McCall Smith (No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series), Ian Rankin (Rebus series) and JK Rowling (Harry Potter series) all live and work in Edinburgh.

Scotland is the home of internationally revered nature writing that reflects our landscapes. The recognised classic is Nan Sherherd’s The Living Mountain, with the author’s face now featured on the £5 note. Contemporary writers maintaining the tradition include Jim Crumley and poet and essayist Kathleen Jamie. Perhaps our greatest contemporary literary export is Tartan Noir, which many believe to have grown from the 1977 novel Laidlaw, from legendary Scottish author William MacIlvanney.  The current crop of authors with growing international reputations and readerships include Val McDermid, Denise Mina, Peter May and Christopher Brookmyre.

Other novelists associated with Scotland who have made a particularly strong impact around the world include:

  • James Hogg (The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner)
  • Sir Walter Scott (Waverley series)
  • Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde)
  • JM Barrie (Peter Pan)
  • Kenneth Grahame (The Wind in the Willows)
  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes series)
  • RM Ballantyne (The Coral Island)
  • John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps)
  • Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie).

Find out more at Visitscotland.com

Literature Festivals

It is thought that Scotland has the highest number of book festivals per capita in the world, and they are an essential and ever-growing part of the literary landscape. They take place across the nation, from the generalist to the specialist and covering all genres and types of writing. Wigtown Book Festival is set in the idyllic countryside of Dumfries and Galloway, in Scotland’s National Book Town. Bloody Scotland in Stirling is the home of crime writing. The best known is Edinburgh International Book Festival, a high-profile summer programme that, since 1983, has been staging the world’s greatest writers.

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