For the country’s small size, Scotland’s literary tradition has had a huge impact on the world, both from the diaspora and from home turf. While Edinburgh nabbed the title of UNESCO’s first City of Literature, Glasgow, as a center of innovation and creativity, also has a rich and influential literary heritage. From seminal accounts of life in the city’s working-class neighborhoods to the dark humor of modern Scottish writers, here are a few books to get you started.
What to read:
No Mean City by H. Kingsley Long and Alexander McArthur (1935)
Published in 1935 and based on conversations between Long, a journalist, and McArthur, an unemployed worker, it describes life in the Gorbals, once one of Glasgow’s most notorious slums, which has since been demolished. Set in the interwar period, it’s regarded as a definitive account of life in working-class Glasgow.
The Crow Road by Iain Banks (1992)
Iain Banks was a prolific Scottish writer (who also published science fiction under the name Iain M. Banks) trading in dark humor. The Crow Road, published in 1992 and set in Glasgow and the fictional Argyll, is a sprawling bildungsroman narrated by student Prentiss McHoan, whose uncle Rory disappeared eight years earlier while writing a novel called The Crow Road. (“Crow road” is a local expression for death.) Prentiss becomes obsessed with the papers Rory left behind, determined to solve the mystery. Also notable for one of the greatest first lines: “It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman (1994)
Written in Glasgow vernacular, this 1994 stream-of-consciousness novel influenced many other Scottish writers, including Irvine Welsh (Trainspotting). The protagonist is Sammy Samuelson, an ex-con and shoplifter, who wakes up from a two-day drinking binge to discover he has gone blind. How Late It Was won the Man Booker Prize—a controversial decision, given its generous use of swear words. (One reviewer put the F-word count at about 4,000.)
We Need To Talk About … Kevin Bridges by Kevin Bridges (2014)
Bridges is a Glaswegian stand-up comedian who did his first set at age 17 and was once arrested for kidnapping (a cardboard cutout of) Hugh Grant from a cinema in Glasgow. Part memoir and part social commentary, it weaves in reflections from his Glaswegian childhood.
What to watch:
Just Another Saturday (1975)
Set in the 1970s around Glasgow’s Orange Walk, a march that commemorates Prince William of Orange’s 1690 victory over King James II (and the triumph of Protestantism over Catholicism), the film follows a young man who becomes disillusioned with the sectarian and provocatively triumphalist tradition.
Carla’s Song (1996)
Bus driver George Lennox (played by Trainspotting actor Robert Carlyle), meets Carla, a suicidal Nicaraguan exile living in Glasgow. He takes her back to Nicaragua to find her family, and they are pulled into the country’s civil war.
Small Faces (1996)
Set in 1960s Glasgow, this film follows three teenage brothers living in the rough-and-tumble Southside. The youngest, Lex, inadvertently shoots a notorious gang leader with an air gun, causing the brothers’ lives to spiral out of control. It won Best British Film at the Edinburgh Film Festival in 1996.
The Book Group (2002)
This sorely underrated BBC series—created by American writer and director Annie Griffin and starring Anne Dudek (later of House and Mad Men)—revolves around Claire, a Cincinnati native who moves to Glasgow and starts a book club in an effort to acquire the cultivated, sophisticated friends she hoped to make by relocating to Scotland. She instead meets a collection of bizarre Scottish characters, from footballers’ wives to posh Ph.D. students.
Ae Fond Kiss (2004)
Named for the song written by Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns (the full line is “Ae fond kiss, and then we sever”) and directed by Ken Loach, this is a romantic drama set in Glasgow, exploring what happens when a second-generation Pakistani Muslim—whose parents have already arranged a marriage for him—and a Catholic immigrant from Ireland fall in love.