Born in Possilpark, Glasgow and raised in the Vale of Leven, Richard Holloway is a former Bishop of Edinburgh who became an outspoken commentator on morality and social affairs. His many books include Godless Morality and Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. His latest, The Heart of Things: An Anthology of Memory and Lament, contains reflections on the poetry and prose that has influenced him most. Here, he talks about some of the books that have shaped his own life story.

What was your childhood favourite book?

I discovered the public library in Gilmour Street, Alexandria, when I was a child and became a regular borrower. My first passion was for the Just William stories, by Richmal Crompton, all of which I devoured. I also developed a passion for westerns, which amplified my love of cowboy pictures in local cinemas. Luke Short was my favourite author of westerns, though Zane Grey, President Eisenhower's favourite writer, wasn't bad either.

What was the first book to make an impact on you?

The book that had the biggest impact on me as a child was Black Beauty by Anna Sewell. Originally published in 1877, it has been in print ever since. I worked on farms during the holidays as a boy in the Vale of Leven and developed a love of horses, the main agricultural labourers in those pre-tractor days. Black Beauty is, in essence, a horse's autobiography, and shows how these noble creatures have been subjected to terrible cruelty by the humans they have served in so many ways for centuries. It instilled in me a hatred of cruelty in all its forms.

Which books have made you laugh or cry?

It was Black Beauty that first made me cry, but it was Oor Wullie in the Sunday Post who made me laugh hardest and longest every weekend. When I discovered Dickens, the weeping continued, but the best laughs always came from that scruffy wee boy sitting on his bucket.

Who is your favourite literary character?

I discovered the novels of Maurice Walsh in my late teens and have returned to them from time to time ever since. Walsh was an Irish writer who wrote romantic novels about what is called the Celtic Twilight, the fading memory of glory and significance in the old stories of Scotland and Ireland. One of his novels was called Blackcock's Feather, the story of an Aberdonian swordsman who goes to Ireland to help the Celts against the colonising brutality of Elizabeth I in the 16th century, and finds love as well as moral purpose. I read it again last year, so David Gordon in his fine Highland bonnet, with his long Andrea Ferrara sword on his hip, still has to be one of my favourite literary characters.

What is your least favourite genre?

I don't enjoy fantasy, magic realism or science-fiction, but love a good detective story. Sadly, I can't read westerns any longer.

Which book do you wish you had written?

The Tragic Sense of Life by Miguel De Unamuno, one of the greatest books about the human condition ever written.

E-reader of print?

Print every time, though, for an instant gratifier, it is good to be able to whistle up a book at midnight onto my Kindle whenever needed.

Which book do you think is overrated?

Any book that has brought solace or escape or simply helped pass the time has proved its worth to someone.

Where do you like to read?

Wherever I happen to be; though I do have a favourite armchair that sees most of the action.

What is the last book you read?

An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo, by Richard Davenport-Hines.

What was the last book you didn’t finish?

The Mirror and the Light, the third and final volume of Hilary Mantel's novel sequence about Thomas Cromwell. When reading a book, I like to be able to follow and identify the characters without needing a gazetteer beside me to tell me who they are and what they've been up. I enjoyed the first two books in the series, but this one just confused me.

Favourite novels

Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma – and, yes, they are all by Jane Austen.

Non-fiction favourites

Boswell's Edinburgh Journals: 1767-1786. The Harold Nicolson Diaries: 1907-1964. Frances Partridge Diaries: 1939-1972. You'll have gathered that diaries and journals are my favourite type of non-fiction reading.

Favourite Scottish book

It can only be Scotland's favourite novel, Sunset Song, by Lewis Grassic Gibbon.

What's your guilty (reading) pleasure?

I don't think reading should be associated with guilt, but sometimes I'll indulge myself in a violent American thriller.

Which of the pieces anthologised in The Heart of Things means most to you?

It would be the poem, The Necessity for Irony by the Irish poet Eavan Boland about paying attention to those you love, because one day you'll look up and they'll be gone.

What would your younger self have made of The Heart of Things?

He was a romantic wee boy who spent a lot of time walking the hills by himself, so I think he would get the message.


Richard Holloway’s latest book, The Heart of Things: An Anthology of Memory and Lament, is published by Canongate, £16.99