Islands to die for

“It was a dark and stormy night …” I wonder how many stories have opened with those famous words? Words first penned by American author Washington Irvine in 1809. Although much parodied, it’s an opening phrase that was used to great effect by Madeleine L’Engle in her ground-breaking novel A Wrinkle in Time, a book that had a profound influence on me as a child. L’Engle opened the door to a whole generation of children in the 1960s onwards with her stories that combined science fiction and fantasy with the spiritual and questions of good and evil. The first in a series, the book went on to win many literary awards and be dramatised for stage, radio, television and film.

That question of good and evil, right and wrong and the responsibility we hold for our actions and words, has stuck with me ever since. And it’s a question that’s been with humankind from the word go! Cain and Abel, those murderous Greeks and Romans and every ‘civilisation’ before and since has been built upon murder and violence. Curiously, but also happily, murder is far, far less common today than at any other time in the past – so perhaps we’re learning!

It’s also an issue that’s at the heart of much literature, in particular the crime genre. Add an island to the mix and you have a winning combination. Long used in literature as settings for dark deeds thanks to their enclosed and isolated communities, islands been used to great effect by authors as varied as Homer, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and Enid Blyton!

Scotland, with its wealth of islands, has long been fruitful territory for crime writers, perhaps the best known being Peter May and Ann Cleeves, featuring the Hebrides and Shetland respectively. But there are many others and in the current issue of Scottish Islands Explorer I look at novels by two Scottish authors, Lin Anderson and Craig Robertson, who use distinctive and very different island settings for their characters’ dark deeds!

We tend to think of islands as idyllic holiday destinations, but pick up a crime novel and you’ll find an able author can turn them into something very different indeed. A safe haven or a sinister setting? Have a read of this article and then decide!

“There’s been a murder…!” Bute Noir Investigated

Mass murders approach the unsuspecting citizens of Bute!Last weekend the Isle of Bute basked in sunshine, its worthy citizens little realising that a ferry-load of mass murderers, psychopaths and serial killers (both male and female) were about to set foot on their beloved island: unaware that a gang of killers was about to hit the streets of Rothesay, the capital of this peaceful west coast island.

From California to Govan they came, each with their own unique and perfected methods of murder. Each with their own preferences for death and carnage. But thankfully on this occasion no blood would be spilt, for these desperadoes kill not with daggers or guns, but with the pen!

Californian Alexandra Sokoloff and Glaswegian Chris Brookmyre get to grips with hard questions from the audience in Rothesay Library

Thus it was that journalist-turned-crime-writier Craig Robertson and his band of Tartan Noir friends arrived on the island for the first ever Bute Noir crime writing festival and what a success it was!

Organised jointly by Craig, along with Karen Latto of Print Point (Rothesay’s wonderful bookshop) and the library’s Patricia MacArthur, the talks were hosted across three venues: by Karen at Print Point, by Kevin Baker at Rothesay Library and by Anne Spiers at Bute Museum.

Library staff kept us all fed and watered!

The topics ranged from the serious to the comic – from the grim reality that lies behind much of crime writing, to “squirrels on steroids, heads in fridges and the perfect writing paper…!” to quote the island’s newspaper, The Buteman.

The visiting authors looked at what lies behind the personalities of serial killers; discussed the way different women approach crime writing (‘Deadlier than the Male?’);  debated the extent to which locations add to the realism of a novel; talked about the writing of the ‘cosy’ crime novels that many readers also appreciate; then brought the festival to a hilarious finale with a ‘Question of Court’, when Chris Brookmyre, Luca Veste and Michael J. Malone pitted their wits and literary knowledge against the sharp minds of Caro Ramsay, Douglas Skelton and G.J.Brown.

Prepare to be afraid, very afraid!

Prepare to be afraid, very afraid!

The island played its part too as the Bute Noir programmes and posters all featured the atmospheric and eerie photograph of the road to the Dhu Loch, taken by talented Bute photographer John Williams. The evocative image of a dark and winding road through trees, leading to an unknown and mysterious destination, was just the thing to get your imagination going and send a shiver or two down your spine!

This inaugural Bute Noir was a good mix of gentler crime, alongside police procedurals and the darker Tartan Noir: with a slice of the mysterious and the supernatural thrown in as well. The turnout for all the events showed just how much interest there is in all aspects of the process of writing – from the original spark of an idea to the final published book.

Chris Brookmyre, Luca Veste, Michael J. Malone, quizmaster Craig Robertson, Caro Ramsay and Douglas Skelton get reay for a trial of wits in a 'Question of Court'

Chris Brookmyre, Luca Veste, Michael J. Malone, quizmaster Craig Robertson, Caro Ramsay and Douglas Skelton get ready for a trial of wits in a ‘Question of Court’

All in all, a great success and if you missed meeting these dealers in death this time round: fear not – They’ll be back!!

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Find out more at:

How unique is Scottish Crime Fiction by Allan Martin

Bute Museum

Bute – a small island with fascinating connections!

Rothesay on Bute, the gateway to the Isle of Bute Mystery series

Rothesay Harbour, the gateway to the Isle of Bute

Question: What’s the connection between Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers, the explorer who died along with Scott in the Antarctic, and James Dobbie, nurseryman and founder of the well-known chain of garden centres?

Answer: the Island of Bute!

Henry Bowers’ family lived on Bute for many years and he loved the time he could spend there when on leave from the Royal India Marine.  It was time spent walking, talking, playing tennis and even swimming all the way from Ardbeg Point to Craigmore every day before breakfast!

Birdie Bowers

Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers

A small man, of boundless energy, he was one of last surviving members of Scott’s ill-fated expedition to the South Pole.  On realising that they had no hope of surviving, Scott wrote a letter to Bowers’ mother, “We are very near the end of our journey and I am finishing it in the company of two very gallant, noble gentlemen. One of these is your son. He has come to be one of my closest and soundest friends and I appreciate his wonderful upright nature, his ability and his energy. As his troubles have thickened his dauntless spirit ever shone brighter and he has remained cheerful, hopeful and indomitable to the end.”  Not long afterwards their tent was finally buried in a ferocious blizzard, and their remains not found until eight months later. They were buried where they died.

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

Bute Connections, BNHS 2011

By contrast, it was James Dobbie’s passion for plants that brought him to Bute.  His overriding interest in horticulture led him to give up his job as Chief Constable and Public Prosecutor in Renfrew and move to Rothesay in 1875 to develop his growing horticultural interests: Bute chosen because it had what he considered to be the ‘perfect climate’ for growing plants. Even after he had officially retired from the company, Dobbie’s love of gardens and plants continued. On his death on 13th October 1905 he was buried at the High Kirk in Rothesay.

Bowers and Dobbie are but two of the thirty-six men and women who appear in the book Bute Connections, compiled by Bute residents Jean McMillan, Margaret Lamb and Allan Martin.  It was published in 2011 by the BNHS (Buteshire Natural History Society) and is available from Bute Museum. In fact, so many connections were discovered that a second volume has been suggested to bring this intriguing and revealing slice of local history up to the present!

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute's rich and varied past

RCAHMS: New insights into Bute’s rich and varied past

It’s an island rich in history and archaeology, as was discovered when the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) completed a new survey of Bute in 2009/2010 as part of the excellent three-year Discover Bute Landscape Partnership Project.  Aided by the knowledge and expertise of islanders, the survey team identified nearly two hundred previously unrecorded archaeological sites!

At the close of the project, RCAHMS archaeologists Alex Hale and George Geddes produced the expertly written and beautifully presented book The Archaeological Landscape of Butea must for all with an interest in Bute’s past and how that has formed its present and could shape its future!

On the lookout for Viking raiders in one of the caves at Dunagoil!

On the lookout for Viking raiders in one of the caves at Dunagoil!

For some people, Bute is synonymous with Rothesay, the island’s ‘capital’, sadly now a faded reflection of its former Victorian grandeur.  But there is so much more to the island than Rothesay. So just what does Bute offer visitors today?

For a start, you could get your bearings and brush up on the island’s history by spending an afternoon in the wonderful Bute Museum.  Then head for the dungeons of Rothesay Castle!  Or sample the Gothic splendour of Mount Stuart.  Or why not be brave and explore the caves below the Iron Age fort at Dunagoil?  Or be energetic and hire a bike from the Bike Shed and cycle up the steep twists and turns of the Serpentine – or if that’s just too challenging go for a cycle round the island!  Or take a walk through the atmospheric remains of the early medieval monastery of St Blane’s.  Later, should you feel like something a bit more strenuous, you could spend a week walking the West Island Way.  And round things off with a meal at one of the islands many excellent restaurants, washed down with a fine craft beer from the new Bute Brew Co!

From the Serpentine: the Calmac ferry leaving Rothesay for the mainland

In addition to all that, you could always go along to one of the many cultural events on the island. For example, just last week we had the great pleasure of being in Rothesay when murder came to Bute in the shape of an author visit hosted by the library as part of Book Week Scotland.  There was a full house for crime writers Craig Robertson and Alexandra Sokoloff  – he from Stirling, she from California.  By the end of that evening you would have found yourself seriously considering a visit to the Faroe Islands, deciding you definitely must go on the tour deep below Central Station and the streets of Glasgow and worrying slightly at the thought that serial killers could also be women!

If Bute can attract speakers of the calibre of Craig Robertson and Alexandra Sokoloff, then it’s got a lot going for it!