The 20 Scottish books everyone should read

FROM a Buddhist painter to Robert the Bruce, from a definitive history of the fiddle to a Scots version of the New Testament, one could be forgiven for thinking that the National Museum of Scotland had collided with the Mitchell Library, but the above are all the subject of books, which this week will be given the full American treatment.

The Association for Scottish Literary Studies, which is based at the University of Glasgow and is devoted to the teaching, writing and study of Scottish literature, yesterday embarked on a week-long showcase across the Atlantic in Washington DC at the annual Modern Languages Convention, designed to blow the dust off our nation's book jackets and display the best that Scotland's traditional and contemporary literature has to offer. For a continent that boasts just one chair in Scottish studies - in Guelph, Canada (no, we've never heard of it either) - it's a move that is long overdue.

"What we're trying to do is encourage lecturers, primarily from North America, to teach Scottish literature in their university level courses," says Dr Gwen Enstam, who is running the exhibition this year with ASLS manager Duncan Jones.

"That could be as a Scottish studies course, a complete course in its own right or as part of courses such as world literature, where they would usually go for English. And if people are putting together anthologies on modern poetry, we're saying Scotland has a great literary tradition here that's being skipped over and a lot of poetry can be included in that."

ASLS has brought nearly 100 titles from 20 publishers to the US for promotion, with titles as diverse as George Mackay Brown's Greenvoe and Louise Welsh's Tamburlaine Must Die.

In Scotland, the popularity of books often depends on the time of year and the market trend. Roanna Branigan, who runs the Scottish books department of Waterstone's West End store in Edinburgh, says that while traditional titles by writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and Neil Munro consistently sell well, there has also been a recent move towards newer writers.

"Lin Anderson's Driftnet has sold extraordinarily well since it appeared, as has Scotland Today presenter John Mackay's Heartland," she says. "I also found that during the Edinburgh Festival a lot of people were coming in looking for Anne Donovan's Buddha Da. Although it's written in dialect, American customers loved it."

John Paul Smith, of Glasgow's Borders Scottish books department, meanwhile, says that James Kelman's latest novel You Have to Be Careful In the Land of the Free, has been one of their bigger sellers. "It's one of the more contemporary novels that have sold well. That, along with Ian Rankin's latest novel, The Flood."

So given what Scots are reading themselves, and what we'd like others to read about us, is ASLS's list the right one? Many of the books it is taking to the US are works of literary criticism or theory, or non-fiction collections designed to provide a flavour of what Scottish literature has to offer.

With one eye on contemporary fiction, and one on the great classics that every Scot reads at school, we have compiled our own, highly selective, list of the Scottish books we think everyone should read.

• Tell us what you think: e-mail your own choices to

• Driftnet by Lin Anderson: This crime book has flown off shelves. When a teenage boy is found murdered in a Glasgow flat, forensic psychologist Rhona MacLeod finds likenesses between herself and the victim. Could he be the son she put up for adoption 17 years before?

• Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon: Recently voted the best Scottish book of all time, Sunset Song remains a classic across the land. What young woman wouldn't identify with its heroine, Chris Guthrie, torn between the countryside of her birth and the modern world?

• The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark: As much a time and a place as a character, Spark's Jean Brodie came to embody a generation of Edinburgh women. Her unconventional ways and blatant favouritism made her both terrifying and alluring.

• Knots and Crosses by Ian Rankin: This is where it all started for John Rebus - Rankin's hard-drinking Edinburgh crime-fighter - with the murder of three girls. When messages made of knotted string and matchsticks start arriving, Rebus realises it's personal.

• Buddha Da by Anne Donovan: This beautiful novel won rave reviews when first published three years ago. Though written entirely in Glaswegian Scots, it is an easy and lyrical read about a decorator who becomes a Buddhist, and is one of Canongate's selection for the Scottish exhibition.

• Whisky Galore by Compton Mackenzie: So what if it perpetrates the old, cliched 'Brigadoon' myth? Scots, English, American or Martian, no-one can resist this tale of ill-gotten whisky gain on a Scottish island in wartime. It's simply hilarious.

• 44 Scotland Street by Alexander McCall Smith: Without wishing to blow our own trumpet (well, maybe, just a bit), this tale of manners and intrigue in Edinburgh's New Town debuted in The Scotsman in 2003 as a daily novel. McCall Smith is feted in America almost as much as JK Rowling.

• Boswell's Edinburgh Journals: High times and low lifes in the Edinburgh of the Enlightenment. Boswell's diaries were instrumental in documenting 18th-century Reekie as he drank and debated philosophical thoughts with Adam Smith and David Hume, and mixed with the city's seedier side.

• Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh: When the movie was released, American cinemas showed it with subtitles. Despite the language barrier, Welsh enjoys a huge following in the US - his uncompromising attitudes make a refreshing change across the Atlantic.

• Selected Poems of Carol Ann Duffy: Passed over for Poet Laureate a few years back, Duffy is nonetheless Scotland's foremost poet. Whether writing about love, loss, or childhood, Duffy's voice is clean, clear and accessible. Many see her as a cheerier, modern-day Sylvia Plath.

• Greenvoe by George Mackay Brown: When a mysterious military project threatens a way of life unchanged for generations on the Orcadian island of Hellya, chaos prevails. Mackay Brown's evocative writing conjures up the myths and magic as well as the isolation of island life.

• Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson: Henry James was one of RLS's greatest champions, while Donna Tartt says she owes much of the style of her second novel, The Little Friend, to Kidnapped. Revel in young David Balfour's adventures and marvel at how it engages young and old.

• Lanark by Alasdair Gray: A Glasgow institution, Lanark was Gray's first novel, and arguably his finest. Many shiver at the words Great Scottish Novel, but, if ever a book were worthy of this esteemed title, Gray's marvellous four-part colossus could be it.

• The Missing by Andrew O'Hagan: Mixing autobiography with social commentary, O'Hagan asks what impact a human being going missing has on livelihoods and communities. Examining a side of Britain often unseen and unheard, he brings light to a country many of us would not recognise.

• New Selected Poems by Edwin Morgan: His public appearances sell out in seconds, and he is more universally loved by Scots than the Cairngorms. This includes older poems as well as his more recent work, including a suite of ten poems which tells the history of the earth. Relevant to us all.

• The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks: Dark, detached and brilliant, Iain Banks' first novel remains his finest. Frank is a teenager on a remote Scottish island whose strange obsessions, and the varying degrees of insanity of his family members, become increasingly horrifying. Makes Stephen King look like Beatrix Potter.

• Young Adam, by Alexander Trocchi: The second book on our list to have been made into a film starring Ewan McGregor, Trocchi's most famous work, set on barges travelling between Glasgow and Edinburgh, has drawn parallels with Albert Camus' The Outsider. Quite pornographic in parts.

• Waverley by Sir Walter Scott: For tourists who have arrived at Waverley station and visited the Scott Monument, this is the real thing. The story of the Jacobite uprising of 1745 and the idealistic young Edward Waverley, drawn in to Bonnie Prince Charlie's web. A classic of classics.

• The Cone Gatherers by Robin Jenkins: Scotland's Of Mice and Men, Robin Jenkins' haunting novel is set during the Second World War on a Scottish country estate and tells the story of two brothers working as cone gatherers. Mysterious and tragic, it remains a classic moral tale.

• Divided City by Theresa Breslin: It's the marching season in Glasgow and young Graham just wants to play football, but he finds himself involved in old rivalries between Catholics and Protestants, and, in newer conflicts, with a young Muslim. This children's book is a timely insight into sectarianism and racism.