For a country with such a small population Scotland has produced a surprising number of world class creative writers. Many of the best Scottish writers have, like Irish writers such as Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Seamus Heaney, Jonathan Swift, and others, become regarded by the outside world as great “English” writers, although they would probably resist that description: Scotland is a fiercely nationalistic nation, guarding its great public figures against the “insult” that being called English presents.
Scottish poets are among the most famous poets writing in the English language: Robert Burns, Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stephenson, Edwin Muir, Ivor Cutler. Some, like Walter Scott, Robert Louis Stephenson, Muriel Spark and Tobias Smollett also wrote novels. Among those mentioned, they wrote some of the most famous novels in the English language.
Scotland is currently enjoying a major avalanche of wonderful novels by writers born in the second half of the twentieth century but Scotland has always been a rich creative source. The national portfolio includes great classics like Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, Treasure Island, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Ivanhoe, Rob Roy, Humphrey Clinker, Kidnapped. There are scores of classics by young writers as well, like Trainspotting, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Consider the Lilies, Born Free.
Here’s our pick of the best 30 Scottish writers, by order of their birth dates.
Tobias Smollett 1721 -1771 is famous for his picaresque novels that influenced some of the English picaresque novelists like Henry Fielding (Tom Jones) , and also Charles Dickens, whose first novel, The Pickwick Papers shows signs of the strong influence of Smollett’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker.
Sir Walter Scott 1771 – 1832 was one of those writers who, like Dickens, wrote an almost unbelievable number of words in a variety of different areas, while also living a full life, following a career and serving in the militia. His writing included poetry, translation, biography (his renowned Life of Napoleon Bonaparte), and, unbelievably, more than thirty long novels. He practised law in Edinburgh and volunteered in the Royal Edinburgh Volunteer Light Dragoons at the height of the threat of a French invasion.
Several of Scott’s novels are among the most famous novels ever written – with instantly recognisable titles like Ivanhoe, Waverley, Rob Roy, The Lady of the Lake, Kenilworth, The Talisman, Guy Mannering, The Bride of Lammermoor, Woodstock, The Fortunes of Nigel.
R.M. Ballantyne 1825 – 1892 was an artist and a prolific writer who wrote more than a hundred novels. Yes, one hundred novels. They were mainly for the age group that we now call teenagers, and were mainly adventure stories. They were set in places all around the world, that were being opened up by explorers and settlers.
Although he was not a traveller himself, he read the books and articles of those who had travelled and sometimes interviewed them then used their experiences in his adventure stories as though they were his own memories. One of his novels, The Coral Island, has become famous as the story on which William Golding’s classic, Lord of the Flies, is based.
Robert Louis Stevenson 1850 – 1894 is one of the great figures of English literature. He was basically a poet but his novels tell some of the most intriguing stories among all English novels. The novella, The Strange Case of Dr Jeckyl and Mr Hyde, has fascinated readers for a century and a half and influenced countless writers as well as spawning numerous film and television adaptations.
Two more novels, Treasure Island and Kidnapped are as familiar to readers around the world as Shakespeare’s plays are, and some of their characters, like Ben Gunn, Long John Silver and Squire Trelawney, are as well known as Shakespeare’s.
Arthur Conan Doyle 1859 – 1930 Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is arguably the most famous Scottish fiction writer and, indeed, one of the most famous of all writers. Certainly, his character is without doubt the most famous of all fictional investigators. Some people even think Sherlock Holmes is an historic figure and, in fact, there is an apartment in Baker Street furnished and decorated like the Sherlock Holmes apartment, which the public can visit.
Doyle was a doctor and he practised medicine throughout his life, while continuing to write until his death. In his younger days he was a successful sportsman – a footballer, cricketer, golfer and boxer. He wrote several novels and short stories but is, of course, best known for the stories about his ingenious sleuth, which he began writing relatively late in his writing career.
Kenneth Grahame 1859 -1932 If he had written no more than The Wind in the Willows (1908) he would still be on this list. His masterpiece has been adapted for stage, film and television more than those of any other Scottish writer, and he has sold more books than any other Scottish writer apart from J.K. Rowling.
Compton MacKenzie 1883 – 1972 was a commentator on cultural matters. He is the author of two of Scotland’s major classic novels – Monarch of the Glen, 1941 and Whisky Galore, 1947.
Alasdair Gray 1934 – 2019 wrote several acclaimed novels as well as short stories and poems. Lanark (1981) is one of the most important Scottish novels. It’s set mainly in a dystopian, surrealistic version of Glasgow. It’s a postmodern mixture of realism, science fiction fantasy – interesting, playful and amusing
John Buchan 1875 – 1940 was an historian, politician and statesman who, among his many activities and achievements, served as Governor General of Canada. Among those activities was writing, and he produced several acclaimed novels. His The Thirty-Nine Steps is a classic of the spy genre.
AJ Cronin 1896 -1981 After reading The Citadel it would be difficult to resist seeking out Cronin’s other novels due to his story-telling skills and his creation of engaging characters, As a physician in a Welsh mining village he matched his experience with his story-telling to write gripping stories.
The Citadel is an example of the practical use of literature as in that novel he exposed the inequity and incompetence of medical practice in his time, which led to a debate at high levels and the eventual establishment of the National Health Service, which is probably the greatest achievement of the United Kingdom as a society. His other novels – The Stars Look Down, Hatter’s Castle, The Keys of the Kingdom and others, tell equally telling tales and about a half a dozen of them were adapted for the screen.
Naomi Mitchison 1897 – 1999 was known as the doyenne of Scottish literature. She wrote historical and science fiction novels as well as biography and travel books. Her novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen is widely regarded as the prime twentirth century historical novel.
Gavin Maxwell 1914 – 1969 There cannot be a British child who has not read Ring of Bright Water, the story of how the protagonist brought an otter from Iraq and raised it in Scotland. It is a favourite choice of English teachers for children in their early teens. Maxwell was a naturalist, working mainly with otters. He wrote several books on the subject but also several novels on that theme.
Muriel Spark 1918 – 2006 was one of the most successful British novelists of her time. Her novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, is a British classic and the film starring Maggie Smith, is among the great films of the late twentieth century.
George Mackay Brown 1921 – 1996. Apart from being a major Scottish poet Brown was the author of some of the most highly regarded Scottish novels of the twentieth century, with such prizewinning titles as Vinland, Beside the Ocean of Time and Magnus.
Alistair McLean 1922 – 1987 Scotland’s top adventure novelist, Alistair McLean wrote The Guns of Navarone, Ice Station Zebra and Where Eagles Dare, three of the most famous adventure novels. All three were made into blockbusting films.
James Kelman b1946 won the Man Booker Prize with his novel, How Late it Was, How Late. The novel was criticised for its use of profundities and the local, difficult to understand, Glaswegian language. In hindsight it is now highly praised for its unique style and its postmodern techniques.
Alexander McCall Smith b1948 Famous for his popular Ladies’ Detective Agency series, Smith is one of Scotland’s best selling writers globally. Born in Zimbabwe (then Southern Rhodesia) of Scottish parents he returned to Scotland at the age of seventeen, went to university and enjoyed a long academic career, ending as Professor of Medical Law at Edinburgh University. He began writing as a student and is still writing.
Iain Banks 1954 – 2013 wrote literary fiction under that name and science fiction as Iain M Banks. He began writing as a child and never stopped, but without any publishing success until his The Wasp Factory was published and became a best seller. That allowed him to give up working at other things for a living and write full time. Walking on Glass compounded his reputation and from then on he published new novels regularly, becoming one of Scotland’s most distinguished writers.
Janice Galloway b1955 is one of the foremost Scottish postmodernist writers. Her novel, The Trick is to Keep Breathing is highly acclaimed and generally considered a Scottish contemporary classic.
Val Mc Dermid b1955 is one of the biggest names in crime writing anywhere. She is best known for her series featuring clinical psychologist, Dr Tony Hill. In that series she has created a sub-genre known as Tartan Noir.
James Robertson b1958. James Robertson writes both historical novels and novels set in the Scotland of today. And the Land Lay Still is one of his intriguing political novels He also writes short stories and poems.
Irvine Welsh b1958 His major contribution to Scottish literature is making the phonetic transcription of his own Scottish dialect a valid language for literature. The novel that one may call his masterpiece is Trainspotting, which was also made into a hugely popular and acclaimed film. His novels expose Edinburgh as a rival to Glasgow as the city of social inequality, drug abuse, and crime.
Michel Faber b1960 is a Dutch born, Australia educated, adopted son of Scotland. He is responsible for several intriguing novels, including The Crimson Petal and the White, Under the Skin and The Book of Strange New Things.
Ian Rankin b1960 rose swiftly to fame to become Scotland’s prime detective fiction writer, with novels that reach the standard of high level literary works. His Inspector Rebus has taken his place among the top fictional detectives and has been portrayed numerous times on television.
Ali Smith b1962 has the great talent of being able to express the contemporary phenomenon of gender ambiguity with great sensitivity. Her works reject gender stereotypes and conventional ideas of sexuality, relationships and love. Public Library and Other Stories is full of powerful stories on those themes. Her novel, How to Be Both (2014) won her Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction and the Costa Novel Award.
Alan Warner b1964 is the author of the acclaimed novel, Morvern Callar (1995).He was named as one of 20 in the Best of Young British Novelists by Granta magazine in 2003.
A.L. Kennedy b1965 handles sensitive themes like child abuse, alcoholism and failed relationships – stories of loss, despair and depression – with humour and wit. She won the Costa Book of the Year award in 2007 with Day, a novel that explores the effects of war on the life of a World War II bomber.
J.K. Rowling b1965 Although Rowling has written several novels for adults she is best known for her Harry Potter series, which not only made her the most famous contemporary writer in the world but also the best-selling and richest author, surpassing even the likes of Stephen King.
Louise Welsh b1965. Louise Welsh’s first novel The Cutting Room (2002) won the Crime Writers’ Association John Creasey New Blood Dagger award and she went on to win more. Her novels, A Lovely Way to Burn (2014) and Death is a Welcome Guest (2015), are parts of a trilogy about a plague, set in an imaginary Britain that has been destroyed by a deadly virus.
Jenni Fagan b1977 Her debut novel, The Panopticon (2012), was widely praised internationally and she was named one of Waterstones 10 best worldwide debut writers of the year. She has written several novels as well as short stories and poems.
And that’s our pick of Scotland’s best writers. What’s your take – anyone missing from this list you think we should add? Let us know in the comments section below.