Covid-19 transformed every aspect of our lives during 2020. The closure of workplaces, cinemas, theatres, pubs and restaurants gave some people more time for reading yet with bookshops, libraries and book festivals radically curtailed, even that was affected. So which books did people turn to during the time of Coronavirus? We asked booklovers from across the cultural spectrum to reveal their favourite reads of the year

The isolating Outlander star: Sam Heughan

During various lockdowns, oscillating tier systems and a multitude of quarantine guidelines, I found myself in isolation for several days in a London hotel room, preparing to shoot a movie. Each day I’d catch myself looking out on to the River Thames and observing its subtle character change and shift. As part of my daily routine, I’d run along the adjacent walkways through various wharves and alleys. Following the river, I’d pass cobbled streets and ancient markets. I measured each outing by the bridges: the arching Millennium Bridge over to the Tate Modern, with St Paul’s Cathedral opposite shining on the horizon. A halfway marker at Westminster bridge and the Houses of Parliament. Shrouded in its own mask of scaffolding, as if waiting to be released from isolation, Big Ben still drew tourists, despite the lockdown. People from all nationalities, meandered along the Thames Path in search of takeaway coffee or festive mulled wine.

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At this point I had started to read Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem. A beautiful, meandering book, much like the river itself, it weaves different stories from her experiences and knowledge of the Thames. A “mudlark” – someone who scavenges in the mud of a river or harbour – she had scoured its banks for more than 20 years. “From Neolithic flints to Roman hairpins, medieval buckles to Tudor buttons, Georgian clay pipes to Victorian toys”, Maiklem had discovered a variety of fascinating items that hinted at the story of the city and its people.

The river has a huge character; it’s practically the reason that London exists and yet for some reason I had ignored it as it flowed daily, in both directions, depending on the tide. I realised as I ran alongside it, I was passing through history, each dock and quay a sign of its past. Tobacco, ivory and sugar were all brought in by boat and gave their names to various locations and ports. Maiklem describes the items she discovers just below the surface of the riverbed, or perhaps trapped next to some timber, supporting the pier above and unearthed by the tide and a passing vessel.

I began to notice the tide, which is sometimes so low, you can walk out and delight in the world freshly exposed from beneath the murky water. From that hotel room I witnessed other London residents doing the same, hopping along the shore in an effort to keep their shoes clean. I saw mudlarks like Maiklem, suitably dressed in wellies, digging amongst the debris for items of interest. I watched parents teaching young children to build sandcastles in the amber sand, enjoying this fleetingly revealed landscape.

Each day, as I woke in my isolation bubble, the Thames gave me companionship. I longed to find a clay pipe on the riverbed, discarded or lost some 400 years ago, a reminder of someone like me, who has enjoyed the river’s company. Lara Maiklem’s book is enchanting, haunting and historically fascinating. The river, a time machine, calmly holding onto the secrets of the city’s residents, revealing them for a time, depending on the whim of its current. I wonder if it knows I’m here and will hold onto a piece of me.

Clanlands: Whisky, Warfare and a Scottish Adventure Like No Other by Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish is published by Hodder & Stoughton, £20. Their forthcoming travel show, Men in Kilts, is set to premiere early next year

The locked-down novelist: Kirstin Innes

Like many people, the unsettling intensity of this year meant I couldn’t concentrate on anything longer than a tweet for most of lockdown. The book that brought me back was Sudden Traveller by Sarah Hall, a master wordsmith who deservedly won the 2020 BBC Short Story Prize. Short sharp bursts of brilliance, exactly what I needed.

My book, Scabby Queen, was scheduled for April publication but delayed till summer. Almost everything to do with it happened on a screen; I’ve only seen it twice in bookshops, but at least I got to meet readers in my pyjamas while popping up at Zoom book-groups.

I made a big effort to increase the diversity of the characters my kids read about this year. Aged two and four, they want very different things from books, but one they both love is Billy and the Dragon by Nadia Shireen – fancy dress, funny jokes and excellent hair.

Kirstin Innes’s novel, Scabby Queen, is published by Fourth Estate, £12.99

The grounded Fairy Godmother: Elaine C Smith

As theatres closed and my industry was decimated, I had to find ways to keep sane. I’m now on lockdown book number 27. All but a couple provided solace or escape but highlights include Andrew O’Hagan’s Mayflies, a beautiful story with writing that floats off the page: thoughtful, precise and uplifting. Funny, too. Lines like “He takes his shame out on us all” or “She made a festival of the circumstances” made me want to applaud.

I also loved Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain. I feared it would be another macho "misery memoir” about Glasgow but it’s much more than that. The honouring of women like Agnes Bain is rare in Scottish literature. We’ve had many decades of women as a sideshow and stories are always about the angst and troubles of men but this is a book about love, fear, loss and survival: a picture of a woman who just didn’t fit, like so many of the women we were brought up by and with.

My standout is probably Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet. This story opened my eyes, heart and mind and provided a portal into another world. It’s full of magic, love, historical context … wonderful. Also, it was strangely comforting to rediscover the fact that even Shakespeare had to down tools when theatres closed due to the Plague in the 1600s. Plus ca change …

Elaine C Smith had been billed to star as Fairy Godmother in the postponed Glasgow King’s Theatre pantomime, Cinderella. She appears in The Two Doors Down Christmas special on BBC Two, December 28, 9pm (also shown on BBC Scotland, New Year’s Day, 9.30pm)

The bookseller: Shaun Bythell

In February I picked up Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust from a small London bookshop. I’d never heard of it, but raced through it on the train home. It is a dark and absorbing insight into the superficiality of early Hollywood.

During lockdown, with my own bookshop closed, I found a Penguin Classic copy of Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett on my shelves. Set in a bookshop in post-war London, it felt like an escape into a world both familiar and unfamiliar. I loved it. Throughout the year to illuminate the darkness of those two books (and lockdown) I took regular dips into Neil Forsyth’s unfailingly snort-provoking Ask Bob: further musings of the magnificently inappropriate Bob Servant.

When we opened the shop after 116 days of lockdown and book-starved customers returned in droves, what struck me most was the number of Agatha Christie novels we sold. Barely a customer left without at least one of her books, and my stock of her work was stripped within a week. I think there's something in her writing – the comfortable resolution of a crisis – that appealed to readers in a time of uncertainty.

Shaun Bythell runs The Bookshop in Wigtown. His own latest work, Seven Kinds of People You Find in Bookshops, is published by Profile Books, £7.99

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The poet: Jackie Kay

In a year that has made us ask big questions about just about everything, I found Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half riveting. An indictment on racism in America, the novel explores the life of twins who go their separate ways in their teens – one to live her life as a black woman and one to pass as white. It is page-turning, beautifully written, shot through with loss.

Glyn Maxwell’s How the Hell Are You somehow captures these times in an eerie, uncanny way. Always a brilliant poet to read, entertaining and stylish, Maxwell asks profound questions about loss and memory. A book that sings of today and is yet brimming with lament. Rachel Long’s My Darling from the Lions is stunning – witty and insightful, these are poems to live alongside – a refreshing new voice on the poetry scene. Long’s poems jump right out at you, full of surprises.

Jackie Kay is Scotland’s Makar. Her latest book, The Lamplighter, is published by Picador, £9.99

The doctor: Gavin Francis

What a year, in which we’ve all been forced back on own resources; an uncertain year, of journeys of the imagination, seeking the reliable consolation of books. Kathleen Jamie edited Antlers of Water, a rich and panoramic anthology of contemporary nature writing in Scotland. I’ll join the crowd and raise three cheers for Kirstin Innes’s Scabby Queen, a remarkable, experimental novel which confirms Innes as one of our great contemporary writers – I can’t wait to see what she does next. From rising stars to the loss of a national treasure: Alasdair Gray’s translation of Dante’s Paradiso. His Hell was my book of 2018, and with the final volume comes sadness, but also enduring admiration: “Like the geometer / battering his brain in vain to find how / circles are squared, I tried to feel / how such a human form could live in light / Eternally.” Go well, Alasdair.

Gavin Francis is a Scottish GP and author. His latest book, Intensive Care: A GP, a Community & COVID-19, is published by Wellcome Collection on January 7

The festival programmer: Bob McDevitt

I’ll start with a couple of books by authors we’d lined up to appear at Aye Write back in March. I’ve long enjoyed Pete Paphides’s journalism and we’re almost exactly the same age so the cultural references and music in his funny and tender memoir Broken Greek hit the bullseye for me (the book comes with a Spotify playlist). Louise Hare’s debut novel This Lovely City is set just after the Second World War in a London of jazz clubs, coffee bars and bedsits where the recent arrivals on the Empire Windrush struggle to find the “Great Britain” they have been promised. It has a sharp ear for both dialogue and music and keeps you gripped until the unexpected ending. I won’t be alone in recommending Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, the book that affected me the most deeply this year. I was still thinking about Agnes and Shuggie days after I’d finished and it pulls off the extraordinary trick of simultaneously breaking and filling up your heart. I also finally read the scary and very funny What a Carve Up by Jonathan Coe: it’s been on my shelf staring at me for years and lockdown gave me time to finally read it.

Bob McDevitt is programmer for the Aye Write book festival (which was cancelled in March after day one) and Bloody Scotland (which ran online in August). His book, 101 Men in Kilts, is published by BackPage, £9.99

The cinema professional: Allison Gardner

This has been a terrible year for most people and Glasgow Film Theatre has mostly been closed since March 17. It has been tough for all the staff and customers. We have been heartened by the sense of community, support and donations from our customers and this has brought the whole team a sense of hope. One day while I was thinking about the endurance of hope, I decided to revisit the books of Primo Levi (If This is a Man/The Truce and Moments of Reprieve). I had read his books before and was struck by his compassion. While his sense of self and hope was severely tested under the most appalling of conditions he suffered in Auschwitz, he still managed to see people as humans. His writing is wonderful and I find his novels uplifting; they renewed my sense of hope that we will, at some point, be sitting in the cinemas of GFT watching compelling stories on the screen.

Allison Gardner is CEO of Glasgow Film

The Booker Prize-winner: Douglas Stuart

Who They Was by Gabriel Krauze reads like a rocket, it’s a wild ride from the very first page. An astonishing telling of a young man’s search for belonging, caught between a life of crime with his London gang and hopes for his academic future. Elaine Feeney’s As You Were) is a revelation in the secret shames and everyday pain that women keep hidden. It is bursting with wonderful moments of unguarded intimacy between three Irish women who are stuck on a hospital ward together. It manages to be funny, sad and absolutely irrepressible all at the same time.

In November, Douglas Stuart became the second Scottish author ever to win the Booker Prize for his debut novel, Shuggie Bain (Picador, £14.99)

The restaurateur/retailer: Mary Contini

For Valvona & Crolla, March 2020 was like no other: doors slammed shut, business was mothballed, the frame of life frozen in time. Jobs were lost, incomes depleted, suppliers challenged, customers distressed. Gradually shop trade recovered, our restaurant business not. But, with online-supply, home delivery and carry-out meals, customers are happy. Where there’s a will there’s a glimmer of hope.

Immersed in Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend, the excitement of food, sunshine, Naples gave an outlet to the trauma and uncertainty of lockdown. As summer eased, I sneaked out in search of bookshops, a safe space to experience the “new normal”. Grace Dent’s Hungry, A Memoir of Wanting More was my impulse buy. It hit the mark perfectly.

Now, as vaccinations shed hope in the winter gloom, I yearn for sunshine holidays, parties, energy, life. F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night is at my bedside. The hedonistic story set in the south of France, takes me where I dream of being. Forget hungry; I’m starving!

Mary Contini OBE is an author, Herald writer and director of Valvona & Crolla. Her latest book, Dear Alfonso: An Italian Feast of Love and Laughter is published by Birlinn, £9.99