What connects a Highland wilderness, a former east-coast fishing town and Glasgow’s respectable West End? The answer? Crime! But fear not, it’s fictional crime I’m talking about!
Assynt, Arbroath and Glasgow’s West End are the settings used by three crime writers in their latest novels. And the locations could hardly be more different. Yet even though they may not have much in common geographically, each one is shaped by the passage of time and the layers of history that add, bit by bit, to their unique heritage.
Whether the stark – and at times terrifying – beauty of Assynt, or the long, low, narrow streets of Arbroath, or the grand, self-important buildings of Victorian Glasgow, location plays a huge part in a successful novel. An authentic setting will draw readers in, help create a gripping atmosphere and be a believable backdrop to the twists and turns of the author’s tale. Readers have to believe in the setting as much as in the plot and the characters. Credibility matters.
Surprisingly, though, settings don’t necessarily have to be dark and Gothic to create a menacing atmosphere. That impenetrable Victorian fog, or the flickering candlelight, or the howling of a gigantic hound out in the mire aren’t the only ways to create suspense. Just the opposite in fact, for in the hands of a skillful writer, even the most ordinary, everyday settings can become something very much more sinister. We all like to feel safe in our home territory, but what if that’s the very place where the threat lies? In fact, sometimes that’s the most effective way crime writers can unsettle us: take the familiar – the known – give it an unexpected twist and suddenly it becomes very menacing indeed!
In the Highlands I’m often struck by that curious juxtaposition between the breathtaking landscapes and the tiny settlements scattered across them. Towering mountains and huge skies. All that space and yet so few people. What made Gareth Halliday chose this place for his debut novel From the Shadows?
Moving south-east, I suspect that even if you’ve never been to Arbroath, you’ll have heard of its abbey. Arbroath Abbey is special. Without doubt it’s lasting importance rests on an event that took place 700 hundred years ago, yet one which still resonates today. In 1320 Bernard, the Abbot of Arbroath and Chancellor of Scotland under Robert the Bruce, drafted a document which became known as the Declaration of Arbroath, one of the key documents in Scottish history. A document that contains the famous lines, “For so long as but a hundred of us remain alive, we shall never under any circumstances submit to the domination of the English. It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.” And this is the ancient town where Jackie McLean sets her crime novels.
For Michael Mackenzie, it’s the University of Glagow, one of the oldest in the country that lies at the centre of his work. And with good reason! But to find out what that reason is, you’ll have to read the article in the Jan/Feb issue of iScot magazine!
Time and tide may wait for no man, but the hills do. And in Scotland we have some of the most magnificent hills and mountains in the world. Mountains that were forced into being over 400 million years ago when three continents collided, creating a mountain chain of umimaginable proportions. Mountains that, over millenia, have been worn away by ice, wind and water to reach the forms we see today.
Sadly there’s no Tardis to take us back to witness those times, but the story of the Earth’s formation can be read in the physical landscape itself. One man in particular came to understand the language of the rocks and that was James Hutton (1726-1797). Hutton was one of those remarkable Scots who fuelled that great intellectual and scientific movement, the Scottish Enlightenment.
It was an exciting time when many people started to look at the world with new eyes and came to a new understanding of how the world had been shaped, and how it worked. They not only discovered the patterns at work within the natural world, but also those which applied to the social structures that shaped human life and society.
Hutton’s work was so groundbreaking that he would become known as the Father of Geology. And it still impacts on us today, even if not always in the most expected of ways! Take, for example, the work of forensic geologist, Prof Lorna Dawson, of the James Hutton Institute, whose work in soil forensics has brought some very vicious criminals to book, both here and around the world.
Reading the landscape isn’t always straightforward, but a visit to the North West Highlands Geopark can help you understand some of the processes involved in the creation of modern Scotland. And offer one of the best holidays you can imagine!
The North West Highlands are a part of Scotland that I’ve visited often and love deeply. In this month’s iScot Magazine article I look at some noteable places in the geopark and at why they are important to us all. If you don’t know this part of the world, it’s an article that will give you plenty of ideas and much food for thought. And, I hope, the desire to head to the hills for a visit. They’ve been around for a very long time and are just waiting for you!
How quick we can be to label other people. To slot them into categories. Pigeonhole them. And, yes, it can make them easier to deal with. But also easier to ignore or dehumanise. Shades of “But of course s/he’s (add your own label), and you know what they’re like!” Case dismissed.
We all do it from time to time. But why? Are we so busy that we don’t want to take the time to try and understand others? Are we uncomfortable with people who don’t think like us, or who don’t believe the things we do? Or are we simply looking for scapegoats when our own frustration, in particular at the debilitating sense of not having any real control of our lives, makes it all too easy to apply a label and then ‘kick the cat’?
Val McDermid is not a woman to be easily labelled, rather is someone who knows her own mind, with clear and forthright views. Takes no nonsense, but is sincere in what she believes. Honest. Someone you can trust. Sometimes, however, the very people you should be able to trust are the ones who wilfully, deliberately and without compunction make life difficult for others. For example, the ‘buffoons’ in Westminster we’ve seen so much of recently, jeering and catcalling and debasing the very term ‘democracy’. Living in a pernicious bubble of greed, power, entitlement, wealth and self-centredness that does, I’m beginning to think, make them a breed apart. Those people who wine and dine at our expense then, without a qualm, vote to strip even the bare minimum from the vulnerable in our society. They really are a breed apart. And not a breed I can easily come to terms with.
We are all (to state the obvious) individual: all shaped by the circumstances of birth and upbringing. But we don’t live solely as individuals. We live in families, communities, cities, countries. We see the results of our behaviour on others and we have the ability to choose right from wrong. The responsibility for how we behave, and how we treat others, lies firmly on our own shoulders. There’s the (in)famous Philip Larkin poem, This be the Verse, about the effect our parents have on us i.e. the legacy of each preceding generation. But as the clinical psychologist Oliver James says, we can rewrite the script. Despite the brainwashing that took place in Nazi Germany in the run-up to WW2, there were still plenty of people who listened to the voice of conscience that told them ‘This is wrong’. That applies to the ‘buffoons’ in Westminster. They don’t need to be like that. They choose to be.
During our conversation Val McDermid spoke very highly of a former university tutor and friend, Kathy Wilkes, a woman who chose to do what was right, despite the personal cost. Kathy, a philosopher, worked behind the Iron Curtain and lived through the Siege of Dubrovnik (1991-92) during the break-up of Yugoslavia and Croatian War of Independence. As Val says, “She was an extraordinary woman…And perhaps we have choices to make as well. Do we go along with the ‘buffoonery’ that in reality hides a toxic attitude to any kind of social justice, and which is damaging not just individuals, but actively dismantling the very fabric of our society; or do we say ‘Enough is enough’? What sort of country do we want to live in and leave to the next generation? We look back and applaud the Chartists, the Abolitionists, the Suffragettes, the young men who died in senseless wars. But we face as grave a challenge to our society as they ever did – the ball’s in our court now. What are we going to do with it?
The full interview with Val McDermid can be found in July’s iScot Magazine
Caves full of bones? Mass murder in the peaceful Highlands of Scotland? No, not in this case! But rather a tale of how some things in nature are undoubtedly stranger than fiction!
I’m not a mountaineer, but I delight in the splendour of these ancient hills and glens and find myself amazed at the thought that they were once shared with bears, lynx, arctic lemmings, reindeer and even polar bears! It’s good to know that animals and men roamed freely here for thousands of years, in a landscape, wild and untamed.
It’s a rich and fascinating story of how landscape is shaped and how man fits into that pattern. And how even old bones can tell us so much about our long-ago past.
To find out more, follow the link below for a free download of the March edition of the excellent iScot magazine. And once you’ve read my article about the Bone Caves of Inchnadamph, you’ll be packing a bag and heading off to Assynt to see them for yourselves!
iScot Magazine FREE March download with The Bone Caves of Inchnadamph