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by Bamber Gascoigne

Eric (Robert) Linklater (1899-1974)


Scottish historical writer, and versatile novelist, who began his career as a poet. Linklater gained world fame with his cosmopolitan picarescues Juan in America (1931) and Private Angelo (1946), a comic account of post-war reorganization in Italy. Many of Linklater's books were based on his travels in different parts of the world.

"Some little time ago, when I was celebrating my seventieth birthday, an alert and ingenious young man called Raeburn Mackie, employed by the Scotsman, came to talk to me, and wrote a very friendly article which filled half a page. At some time during our conversation he must have asked me how I would describe myself, and I, as it seems, presented him with a phrase that he found good enough for a title. His article appeared under the banner, in thick black capital letters: AN OLD PEASANT WITH A PEN". (from Fanfare for a Tin Hat, 1970)

According to some sources, Eric Linklater was born in Dournby, Orkney Islands, but it was not until in his third volume of autobiography, Fanfare for a Tin Hat (1970), when he corrected the birth place: it is Penarth, Wales. However, Linklater regarded the islands as his spiritual home, and at the age of ten he had calculated beyond doubt that he had been conceived in Orkney. His father, Robert Linklater, was a master mariner. Elizabeth Young, who was of Swedish and English origin, was Robert's second wife – "she was a woman of fierce and determined character who had arbitrarily decided that she was Scotch," Linklater later said. The family moved back to Orkney when Linklater was very young. "My knowledge of Orkney – the love of Orkney which dominated and perhaps distorted so much of my life – I owe, not to my Orkney-born father, but to my neurotic, frequently exasperating, and ultimately decisive mother." The original form of Linklater's surname can be translated as "at the stone in the heather."

Linklater attended the Cardiff Intermediate School for boys and Aberdeen Grammar School. His first printed poem was an imitation of Lord Byron's Don Juan. In 1916 he entered the Aberdeen University to read medicine. During World War I Linklater served as a private in the Black Watch Regiment on the Somme front. He shared the romantic patriotism that Rupert Brooke expressed in his poems, and has later told that when he was a few weeks as a sniper, it gave to his life an intensity which he has never known since. Near the ruined village of Voormezeele Linklater was wounded in the head, and he spent several month is the hospital.

In 1919 Linklater returned to civil life and continued his studies of medicine and English at Aberdeen. Linklater realized soon that he had chosen the wrong profession, and started to read at King's College English Literature, receiving his M.A. in 1925. From 1925 to 1927 he worked as an assistant editor of The Times of India in Bombay. Linklater worked had, lived, on the whole, "an abstemious life", and eventually felt himself imprisoned there. He also wanted to writer something larger than articles. He returned back to Scotland after making a journey that took him through Persia and across the Caspian Sea to the Caucasus.

Among Linklater's early works is the novel White Maa's Saga (1929), an autobiographical story about a young Orcadian who attends medical school in Aberdeen (Inverdoon). The novel has an Orcadian title – it means "Seagull's Saga". The play The Devil's in the News (1929) concerns a séance whose participants are possessed by Cromwell, Napoleon, and characters from the cast of John Gay's The Beggar Opera. While in the U.S. he published Poet's Pub (1930), the first in series of his popular satirical novels. In the 1930s Linklater wrote a modern version of Aristophane's Lysistrata, entitled The Impregnable Women (1938).

In 1928 Linklater worked as an assistant at the University of Aberdeen and then spent two years in the United States and China on a Commonwealth Fellowship. At Berkley as at the University of Cornell Linklater did not attend lectures, but spent his time with his second novel, determined to be a novelist.

Juan in America was a success and was chosen by the Book Society as Book of the Month. However, the work annoyed the Commonwealth Foundation – Linklater was accused of showing too little respect for the United States and its institutions. Jonathan Cape, his publisher wanted him to write a series of books, "Juan in Italy", "Juan in Spain", and "Juan in Germany". Linklater was not first thrilled, but later the "innocent" hero continued his adventures in Juan in China (1937), which mocked the futility of Chinese leadership.

'To hell and disaster with nudism!' Juan exclaimed. 'That's the finish of it for me. I'll take off my clothes to swin and to sleep and to die and t make love, but God forsake me if ever again I undress on principle.' (from Juan in China)

Linklater stood unsuccessfully in 1933 as a parliamentary candidate for the Scottish Nationalist Party in the East Fife by-election. Linklater polled less than 4 per cent of the vote and became disappointed in the National Party. These experiences provided material for his 1934 novel Magnus Merriman, a roman à clef, in which Linklater described a fictitious by-election. One of the characters, named Beaty Bracken who flushes a Union Jack down a toilet, was based on the national activist Wendy Wood; she sued Linklater for libel, eventually the case was settled out of court. The poet Hugh MacDiarmir, a founder member of the National Party, who was thrown out of it for his communism, appeared as Hugh Skene, "Scotland's foremost poet": ". . . he was a pretentious versifier who concealed his lack of talent by a ponderous ornamentation of words so archaic that nobody knew their meaning. . . ." Linklater's The Lion and the Unicorn (1935), about Scotland's historical relations with England, came down in favor of Scottish autonomy. The Men of Ness (1932) was translated into German and publicly burned. Russian Communism the writer considered an "Oriental perversion aggravated by torments and a technique filched from Germanic practice."

After marrying Marjorie MacIntyre, who shared Linklater's affection for the Orkneys, he returned with her to the remote island community of his childhood. Marjorie sang at concerts organized by the Women's Rural Institute, and played her 'cello in the Kirkwall Orchestra. With Marjorie he had two sons and two daughters.

Reluctant to settle down, Linklater boarded in 1935 a ship bound for India. From China he sailed to Japan, crossed the Pacific and the United States, and returned to Scotland. During World War II Linklater commanded a fortress in the Orkneys and later worked at the public relations section of the British War Office. The Orkney Blast, which he launched in 1941, battled against boredom, after German raids against Orkney and Shetland had been stopped.

While writing the official history of the Eighth Army campaign, Linklater participated in 1944, by chace, in rescuing invaluable works of art. With Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, a BBC war correspondent, he stumbled upon a treasure of masterpieces from Florence's Uffizi Gallery and Pitti Palace, hidden from the Nazis at the Castello di Montegufoniin Tuscany. Among the paintings were Paolo Uccello's The Battle of San Romano and Botticelli's Primavera. The castle was the property of Sir Osbert Sitwell, who had purchased it in 1909.

Linklater's The Campaign in Italy (1951) is considered one of best overviews of the peninsular war. Moreover, his experiences in Italy gave basis for his novel Private Angelo  (1946), which have been compared to Jaroslav Hašek's The Good Soldier Schweik. Angelo is an Italian soldier who fears and hates war. Lucrezia, his sweetheart, bears a child to an Englishman, while he was in Africa. In the story Angelo describes the "liberation" of Italy in ludicrous light: "In the first place, before a town or village can be liberated it must be occupied by the Germans, and the Germans will rob it of everything they can find; but that is of no importance, that is merely the Overture. Liberation really begins when the Allied Air Forces bomb the town: that is the First Movement, Allegro so to speak. The Second Movement is often quite leisurely but full of caprice: it occurs when the Allied Artillery opens fire to knock down what the bombers have missed..."

A few years after the publication of the novel, in 1949, it was made into a film, starring Peter Ustinov, who co-wrote and co-directed it with Michael Anderson. This war comedy presented its pacifist stand right after the credentials: "To all conscripted soldiers, past and present, the world over: to all those who never really knew what they were doing: to the baffled, the cowardly, the peace-loving: to the vast majority of us, thios picture is affectionally dedicated." For the most part the screen version followed the spirit of the novel rather closely, but it told the story retrospectively, from the point of view of Angelo's British friend, instead of having an omniscient narrator of the original text. "The film leaves the audience on a note of a cosy European togetherness, claiming that in the past, 'when the world was in despair', the Italians saved it with their painting and poetry . . ." (Beauty and the Beast: Italianness in British Cinema by Elisabetta Girelli, 2009, p. 86)

In 1947 Linklater moved into Pitcalzean House in the county of Ross and Cromarty. From 1945 to 1948 he was Rector of Aberdeen University. An account of his travels in the Far East, A Year in Space, came out in 1953. Linklater's other works include juvenile tales, a non-fiction book about the Icelandic Sagas, The Ultimate Viking (1955), philosophical dialogues written for the BBC, including The Great Ship and Rabelais Replies, and a radio play.

For The Wind on the Moon(1944), about the adventures of two sisters and humans who transform magically into animal form, Linklater won a Carnegie Medal. Composed in wartime, the light-hearted story dealt also with such serious questions as death and fight for liberty. "There is a great deal of night in the book, but it is a protecting, welcoming, transforming darkness, where the bold are rewarded." ('Classic of the month: The Wind on the Moon' by Eric Linklater by James Meek, The Guardian, 23 February, 2005) Carolyn Daniel has noted that Linklater is "extraordinarily concerned with food, but during a period of post-war government-enforced food rationing "the food items he describes would have generally been unavailable even to the most privileged adult or child. (Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom in Children's Literature by Carolyn Daniel, 2006, pp. 192-193) Nicolas Bentley, who drew the pictures, also illustrated T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (1939).

"We have some advantages over human beings, you know. Human beings have to carry their own weight about, and they don't know how blissful it is to be unconscious of weight: to be wave-borne, to float on the idle sea, to leap without effort in a curving wave, and look up at the dazzle of the sky through a smother of white water, or dive so easily to the calmness far below and take a haddock from the weed-beds in a sudden rush of appetite." (from 'Sealskin Trousers', 1947)

The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea (1949), written for children, is a fantasy, in which Davy Jones and all the drowned pirates under the sea are discovered guarding the great knots that tie latitudes and longitudes together to keep the world from splitting. A Spell for Old Bones (1949) was a fantasy set in a mythical 1st-century Scotland of giants. In A Terrible Freedom (1966) a man finds the characters of his dream world taking over the real one. Linklater died in Aberdeen on November 7, 1974. He is buried in Orkney. Andro Linklater, his son, became also a writer.

For further reading: The Scottish Novel by Francis Russell Hart (1978); The Macmillan Companion to Scottish Literature by Trevor Royle (1983); Eric Linklater: a Critical Biography by Michael Parnell (1984); Studies on Scottish Fiction: Twentieth Century, eds. by Horst W. Drescher and Joachim Schwend (1990); 'Linklater, Eric,' in World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 3, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Scotland's Books: A History of Scottish Literature by Robert Crawford (2009); Scottish Novels of the Second World War by Isobel Murray (2011); 'Scotland and Beyond: Eric Linklater's Cosmopolitan Imagination' by Bernard Sellin, in Scottish Literary Review, Volume 9, Number 2  (Autumn/Winter 2017) - Saga's and The Ultimate Viking; see also Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson

Selected works

  • Rosemount Nights, 1923
  • The Prince Appears, 1924
  • Poobie, 1925 (designs by Isobel H. Walker)
  • White Maa's Saga, 1929
  • The Devil's in the News, 1929
  • Poet's Pub, 1930
  • A Dragon Laughed, and Other Poems, 1930
  • Ben Jonson and King James: Biography and Portrait, 1931
  • Juan in America, 1931
    - Juan Amerikassa (suom. Sakari Saarikivi, 1943)
  • The Men of Ness: The Saga of Thorlief Coalbiter’s Sons, 1932
  • The Crusader's Key, 1933
  • Mary, Queen of Scots, 1933
  • Robert the Bruce, 1934
  • Magnus Merriman, 1934
  • The Fairies Return, 1934
  • The Revolution, 1934
  • The Devil's in the News, 1934
  • The Crusader's Key, 1935
  • The Lion & the Unicorn, or, What England Has Meant to Scotland , 1935
  • God Likes Them Plain: Short Stories, 1935
  • Ripeness is All, 1935
    - Haikaralle tuli kiire (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1954)
  • The Sailor's Holiday, 1937
  • Juan in China, 1937
    - Juan Kiinassa (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1949)
  • The Impregnable Women, 1938
  • Judas: A Novel, 1939
  • The Defense of Calais, 1941
  • The Man on My Back: An Autobiography, 1941
  • The Northern Garrisons,  the Defense of Iceland and the Faeroe, Orkney and Shetland Islands, 1941
  • The Cornerstones, 1941
  • The Highland Division, 1942
  • The Raft, and Socrates Asks Why: Two Conversations, 1942
  • The Great Ship, and Rabelais Replies: Two Conversations, 1944
  • The Wind on the Moon, 1944 (editor; ill. by Nicolas Bentley)
    - Kuussa tuulee (suom. S.-L. Norko-Turja, 1947)
  • The Crisis in Heaven: An Elysian Comedy, 1944
  • The Great Ship, and Rabelais Replies, 1945
  • The Art of Adventure: Rectorial Address to the University of Aberdeen, 26 October 1946, 1947
  • Private Angelo: A Novel, 1946
    - Angelon ainut henki (suom. Olli Nuorto, 1947)
    - film 1949, dir. by Peter Ustinov, written Peter Ustinov, Michael Anderson, starring Peter Ustinov, Godfrey Tearle - "An Italian soldier hates war and spends WW II on the run from both sides."
  • Sealskin Trousers, and Other Stories, 1947 (with wood engravings by Joan Hassall)
  • The Pirates in the Deep Green Sea, 1949 (ill. by William Reeves)
  • A Spell for Old Bones, 1949
  • Poet's Pub, 1949 (screenplay, with Diana Morgan)
    - film 1949, dir. by Frederick Wilson, starring Derek Bond, Rona Anderson, James Robertson Justice
  • The Atom Doctor, 1950
  • The Thistle and the Pen: An Anthology of Modern Scottish Writers, 1950 (ed.)
  • Two Comedies: Love in Albania and To Meet the MacGregors, 1950
  • Mr. Byculla, 1950
  • Laxdale Hall: A Novel, 1951
    - film 1952, dir. by John Eldridge, screenplay by Alfred Shaughnessy and John Eldridge, starring Ronald Squire, Kathleen Ryan, Raymond Huntley, Sebastian Shaw, Prunella Scales (US title: Scotch on the Rocks)
  • The Campaign in Italy, 1951
  • Our Men in Korea: The Commonwealth Part in the Campaign, First Official Account, 1952
  • The Mortimer Touch: A Farcical Comedy, 1952 (an adaptation of The Alchemist by Ben Jonson)
  • Figures in a Landscape, 1952
  • A Year of Space: A Chapter in Autobiography, 1953
  • The House of Gair: A Novel, 1953
  • The Man Between , 1953 (screenplay with Harry Kurnitz)
    - film dir. by Carol Reed, starring James Mason , Claire Bloom, Hildegard Neff
  • The Faithful Ally, 1954 (US title: The Sultan and the Lady, 1954)
  • The Ultimate Viking, 1955
  • The Dark of Summer, 1956
    - Kesän hämärät hetket (suom. Kirsti Heporauta, 1957)
  • A Sociable Plover and Other Stories and Conceits, 1957
  • Breakspear in Gascogny: A Play in Three Acts, 1958
  • Position at Noon: A Novel, 1958 (US title: My Fathers and I, 1959)
  • Karina with Love, 1958 (photographs by Karl Werner Gullers)
  • The Merry Muse, 1959
  • Edinburgh, 1960 (illustrated by Don Pottinger)
  • Roll of Honour, 1961
  • Husband of Delilah: A Novel, 1962
  • A Man over Forty: A Novel, 1963
  • Memorandum on the Conditions in the North of Scotland, 1964
  • Guller's Sweden, 1964 (text by Eric Linklater, picture editing by Stieg Trenter)
  • The Prince in the Heather, 1965 (photos. by Don Kelly)
  • Orkney and Shetland: An Historical, Geographical, Social, and Scenic Survey, 1965
  • A Terrible Freedom, 1966
  • The Conquest of England, 1966
  • Notes for a Scottish Pantheon, 1967
  • The Stories of Erik Linklater, 1968
  • The Survival of Scotland: A New History of Scotland from Roman Times to the Present Day, 1968
  • Scotland, 1968 (with E. Smith)
  • The Secret Larder; or, How the Salmon Lives and Why He Dies, 1969
  • The Royal House of Scotland, 1970
  • The Music of the North, 1970
  • Fanfare for a Tin Hat: A Third Essay in Autobiography, 1970
  • John Moore's England: A Selection from His Writings, 1970 (ed.)
  • The Corpse on Clapham, Common: A Tale of Sixty Years Ago, 1971
  • The Voyage of the Challenger, 1972
  • The Black Watch: The History of the Royal Highland Regiment, 1977 (with Andro Linklater)
  • Poet's Pub, 2012 (foreword by Nancy Pearl)

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