Hazel McHaffie

Outer Hebrides

The Lewis Trilogy

In the Lewis trilogy, the author, Peter May powerfully captures the atmosphere of the Outer Hebridean Islands, the customs, the traditions, the sparseness, the struggle to make ends meet, the quiet stoicism of Lewis men, the long reach of past events. As one reviewer put it: the emotional secrets of the bleak island are even deeper than its peat bog. I found the books completely mesmerising and so evocative of the islands as I experienced them a couple of years ago, and beguilingly empathetic.

Central to all three novels is Detective Inspector Fin MacLeod. Not only is he familiar with the terrain, but he was born and raised on the Isle of Lewis, so when, in The Blackhouse, he’s sent there to investigate the brutal killing and evisceration of a man he went to school with, the case resurrects memories of the past with searing intensity. His parents’ death in a hit-and-run car crash when he was only 8; his friend’s terrible accident, which left him crippled for life; the tragedy that befell his best friend’s father on Fin’s initiation into an ancient island tradition; his broken relationship with Marsaili, the girl he loved. He’s acutely aware that something dark is lurking within this close-knit community. Ghosts begin to surface, skeletons to rattle, ramifications from those dimly-understood childhood days.

The entire set of books is firmly based in reality. Blackhouses date back thousands of years, but examples have been preserved on the Isle of Lewis to this day (as in the photo above). The medieval Lewis chess men are still in existence today. The customs too are genuine. Vivid descriptions of the islanders fighting against raging storm-laden seas, negotiating sheer rock faces, living out their enmities and grudges, the annual pilgrimage by the men of Ness to cull 2000 gugas on a rocky outcrop in the raging Atlantic seas, are nail-bitingly tense. And against such authenticity, the revelations of what had really transpired all those years ago, feeling the shutters lift in Fin MacLeod’s mind, the awful truth emerge, as a huddle of men hunch together in the smoke-filled blackhouse, is all the more horrifyingly poignant.

Although Fin’s eyes were closed, they were open wide for the first time in eighteen years. The sense that he had had all his adult life, of something that he could not see, something just beyond the periphery of his vision, was physically painful. He was rigid with tension. How could he not have remembered? And yet all his conscious thoughts were awash now with memories, like the vivid recollection of scenes from a nightmare in the moments of waking.

I didn’t see the denouement in the first book coming. It’s brilliantly realised.

In the second book, The Lewis Man, Fin is called back to the island when the body of a young man is dug up in the peat bog, where it has lain undisturbed for over fifty years. It’s extremely well preserved and DNA samples match it to Tormod Macdonald, the father of Fin’s childhood sweetheart, Marsaili, and great-grandfather of his own granddaughter. The dead man has been murdered; stabbed many times, bound and dragged along a beach. But Tormod has dementia, advanced to a point where he has had to be put into care; he’s in no state to explain the connection, nor why he adopted the identity of a dead teenager. By this time, Fin, newly divorced and still grieving his own personal tragedy, has quit the police force.

‘Most people spend their lives never knowing what lies beneath the stones they walk on. Cops spend theirs lifting those stones and having to deal with what they find. I was sick of spending my life in the shadows. When all you know is the darkest side of human nature, you start to find darkness in yourself. And that’s a scary thing.’

But for the sake of Marsaili, and his new baby granddaughter, he is ready to apply all his skills, use his many connections, to unearth the truth, before the big guns from the mainland arrive, with no sensitivity for the ways of islanders, the silent stoicism, fierce loyalties, unforgiving weather, the unwritten rules, the harsh religious strictures. And what he finds is a tangled web of deceit and treachery, once again with sound foundations in the realities of life in the islands in the 50s. I was completely with Fin as he travelled the islands and the streets of Edinburgh piecing together the threads of half a century of cruel behaviours and tribal warfare, driven by a need to assuage his own sense of loss and deprivation as well as give Marsaili and their son, Fionnlagh, the answers they need to anchor their own identities.

In the last book, The Chess Men, an aircraft missing for seventeen years, is discovered in the residual mud and slime of a fifty foot deep crater left behind when a loch mysteriously and suddenly empties itself of water. What’s more, and even more oddly, the plane belonging to Ruairidh McKenzie, talented and successful Celtic rock star, is intact and undamaged. But inside is a body with terrible damage to the right side of his face and his skull; inflicted before death. And Fin, by now drafted in to help curb the poaching of fish and game on an estate, spanning vast tracts of inaccessible land, is instantly involved: his childhood buddy is centre stage, chief suspect.

By this time, I confess, my credulity is being stretched a tad too far. I’m not persuaded Fin’s life would have taken this path; and it’s hard to credit a string of murders on this island where it’s so safe nobody locks their doors and the police have very little experience with serious crime; and there’s a curious mismatch between the characters in the first two books and this one. The childhood escapades of Fin and his schoolboy cohort seem contrived and rather dull too, lacking the psychological depths and appeal of the previous writing. Nor was the denouement worth the effort of ploughing through so much inconsequential filling. So a huge disappointment.

Which all goes to show that even great writers can fall below their own high standards at times – heartening for us lesser mortals. And I’d still highly recommend the first two books. Oh, and a visit to the Hebridean islands!

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Coffin Road

If I were given the choice of where to live out six months of quarantine from a deadly virus, one of my first choices would be Luskentyre on the Isle of Harris. It’s breathtaking. Mesmerisingly, deeply, stunningly. Silver sands, clear turquoise water, utter tranquility.
The sea breathes gently upon the shore, phosphorescent foam bursting silver bubbles over gold.
But wild and unforgiving when ferocious storms sweep in across 3000 miles of uninterrupted ocean.

To set a dark and murderous tale against such loveliness seems somehow both incongruous and inspired. But that’s what Peter May has done. It’s only two years since I walked on those unbelievable beaches, drove along those deserted coastal roads, felt the icy salt-laden air roaring in off the Atlantic, so I had to read Coffin Road, and re-imagine the scenery he conjures up so vividly, my own personal memories enhancing enjoyment of his compelling storytelling.

A man washes up on the beach near his house not knowing who he is or where he is or what has happened to him. He’s wearing a life jacket which has saved his life, but why was he in the sea and why is there a terrible sense of dark foreboding hanging over him, a sense of knowing that something terrible has happened? Has he committed some sort of crime? Why is someone threatening his life now? The only clue to his identity is a folded map of a path named Coffin Road.

‘I cannot even begin to describe how dissociating it is to look at yourself without recognition. As if you belong somewhere outside of this alien body you inhabit. As if you have simply borrowed it, or it has borrowed you, and neither belongs to the other.’

An elderly woman recognises him, drenched and dazed, and walks him to his house; she calls him ‘Mr MacLean’. But there’s nothing in the house to give him any clues as to his identity. Even his computer seems to be wiped clean: nothing but blinking emptiness, even in the trash can. How can every trace of him have been removed so comprehensively?

By dint of careful listening without betraying his amnesia, he learns from neighbours that his first name is Neal, and he’s an academic from Edinburgh, writing a book about three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously vanished from Eilean Mòr, one of seven islands in the Flannan Isles to the west of the Outer Hebridean coast. It’s supposedly almost finished. But he quickly establishes that this isn’t, in reality, true. So who IS he, and why has he been lying about his life and reasons for being on Harris?

When a bludgeoned corpse is found on the very island Neal had visited he has a fearful dread that he must have been responsible for it. And since he can’t answer any of the police detective’s questions satisfactorily, they too believe he must be the guilty man.

Meanwhile miles away in Edinburgh, a teenage girl is desperate to discover the truth behind her scientist father’s suicide. Why did he abandon her? Was she to blame? Her last cruel words to him will be forever printed indelibly in her mind. Her quest takes her into grave danger and threatens to blow open a secret that could jeopardise the future of the human race and the planet.

 

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but another aspect of this story that resonated with me, is that it involves bees, and we actually have three hives in our garden. We’re very aware of the essential role they play in the food-chain and existence of life on this planet, and watch anxiously if there is any hint of danger to them. So it was weirdly spooky when, coincidentally, as I was reading Coffin Road, our own bees swarmed no less than three times in two days! Unprecendented. Sent a shiver down my spine, adding to the sense of total immersion in this story.

I’m a fan of Peter May, as regular readers know, so I’m hoping to use the extra time of lockdown to start the famous Lewis Trilogy next. It’s been waiting for just such an opportunity. And revisiting the landscape of the Outer Hebrides through Coffin Road, has put me thoroughly in the mood.

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A Scottish mystery

OK, duty done! I duly persisted to the end of Georgette Heyer’s mighty tome on Lord John of Bedford. So I’ve earned the pleasure of reading the book I was itching to get into: The Woman who Walked into the Sea, bought in the Outer Hebrides last month. And memories of those endless golden beaches, turquoise seas, alluring bays, came flooding back.

The author, Mark Douglas-Home, – yep, he is indeed the nephew of the former prime-minister, Alec Douglas-Home – is a journalist turned author, with an interesting career start: as a student he edited a University anti-apartheid newspaper in South Africa and got himself deported! Now there’s tale to tell!! He now lives more quietly in Edinburgh and this is his second novel.

The story’s set on the North West coast of Scotland where, on 9 September 1983, a heavily pregnant Megan Bates walked across the sands of a remote beach into the cold Atlantic sea, and kept on walking. She was 33 years old and was wearing a loose white dress and a raffia hat with a broad red ribbon round it. Or so it was said. But the day before the sighting of Megan walking to her death, a baby girl was abandoned at the main door of Raigmore Hospital, Inverness, just before midnight, in a cardboard box, wrapped only in towels. There was no note, nothing to identify her apart from an envelope taped to the side of the box containing a brooch featuring violets, pinned to a small rectangular section cut from a green woollen cardigan. Could this have been Megan’s illegitimate child? Because of the brooch, the staff named the baby Violet.

26 years later, following a tip off from a social worker from Inverness, Violet Wells is searching for clues as to her biological mother’s life and intentions. Her journey takes her to the island where Megan lived and died. But the good people of Poltown give her a strange reception: there’s a local beach-combing farmer who says he loved Megan but who was accused by the police of killing her; a bitter elderly lady who was in service but has been soured by her treatment since the death of her employer; a stranger who attempts to abduct her. It seems the whole community is conspiring to keep its secrets buried and nothing is what it seems. Even Orasaigh Cottage, Megan’s rented home, is stripped of personality and bereft of any trace of her existence. And yet her possessions are preserved in a room in the ramshackle building belonging to a boy/man who believes her still alive.

Cal McGill is a private investigator and oceanographer brought in to locate things and people lost at sea, and currently not at all sure he does families any favours by doing so. He’s intrigued by this young woman who has suddenly left her flat in Glasgow and her four year old daughter, Anna, and come to this far corner, obsessed by her personal quest, reticent about sharing her own story. His knowledge of tides and flotsam makes him question the newspaper and police accounts of that time a quarter of a century ago. But his interest in this woman and her strange history soon leads to his personal safety being threatened as well as Violet’s.

Subtly, little by little, local characters let slip details and together Violet and Cal piece together a fragmented account – a tale of greed and jealousy, cover up and lies – until the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place and the ugly truth is revealed.

It’s been likened to a Ruth Rendell mystery. I wouldn’t personally rank it in that school of writing but I enjoyed the unravelling and of course, the exploration of the parent-child bond as well as the importance of knowing one’s roots; both slot neatly into my own current preoccupations.

A relaxing diversion before getting back into my own novel which is now on the downward slope to a conclusion. Very exciting to be counting down.

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Maritime disasters

The last few weeks have been crazy. I’m at the stage of saying: If this is Plymouth it must be Sunday! But in zooming from the Outer Hebrides to Devon with trips to assorted cities in between, there’s been ample opportunity to appreciate what a beautiful country we live in. With temperatures in the 20s and 30s, everything lush and flowering, the countryside is glowing in its prime.

But one evening stroll brought me back to earth in a quite unexpected way. It was Monday: then this much be Lichfield!

Lichfield is a place I’ve never visited before and expected only to overnight in, but events required a second day there leaving an evening free to explore. And what a lovely city it is – especially when the cathedral bells are peeling out during Monday night practice! My footsteps took me to the parks and there I found a statue of Commander Edward John Smith, captain of the ill-fated Titanic on its maiden voyage in 1912. We’ve all heard of the ship of course, but how many knew its captain, I wonder? Not I.

My thoughts unravelled to a book I’ve just finished reading: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys. The Titanic, the Lusitania … yes, their names are embedded in our vocabulary. But what of the Wilhelm Gustloff? And yet this ship was at the centre of the worst disaster in maritime history. Over 1500 lives were lost when the Titanic went down; 9400 people died when the Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine off the coast of Poland in 1945.

This historical fiction breathes life into a neglected tragedy. It’s a young adult novel set during World War II, beginning in January 1945, as the Third Reich was beginning to collapse. The Russians were gaining ground in East Prussia where Operation Hannibal, the largest evacuation by sea in history, got underway. Thousands of terrified refugees from the Baltic region migrated to the port of Gotenhafen, Prussia (now Gydnia, Poland) to escape the encroaching Russians. There, they boarded the Wilhelm Gustloff, a massive ship owned by the Germans.

Four young people lie at the centre of this tale; four very different characters, all bearing haunting secrets, all seeking to flee from those who hunt them. Emilia is a shy pregnant Polish teenager pretending to be Latvian. Joana is a Lithuanian nurse full of compassion but weighed down by guilt. Florian is a Prussian with a ruthless agenda, carrying a priceless stolen artefact. German Alfred is bent on showing the world he’s a hero, though in reality a coward at heart, living in a fantasy world. No one knows whom they can trust. Their disparate circumstances bring them together on the Wilhelm Gustloff as they join the teeming masses desperately seeking safety and freedom.

By the time the deadly torpedoes are unleashed we know something of the scenes of horror and destruction these young eyes have witnessed, we know their private burdens, we’re willing them to reach their goal. Unlike them we know what lies ahead, but that foreknowledge takes nothing away from the tension of Sepetys’ writing. Extremely short chapters, brisk sentences, one voice at a time taking its turn, sparse language, everything conveys the perspectives of youth and tentative lives lived minute by minute.

Salt of the Sea was loaned to me by my youngest granddaughter, aged thirteen, herself an avid reader. It’s written for her age group but well worth the attention of any age. And a sobering reminder of the tragedy of war and how quickly sacrifice and hardship can be forgotten. Our present day comfortable lives are built upon the sacrifice of others; let’s not forget.

 

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Just what the doctor ordered

It would be hard to find a better location to escape to than this – the Outer Hebrides. If time here doesn’t refresh the parts of the brain other breaks don’t reach, nowhere would. Pure clean air, tranquillity, glorious empty white beaches, clear turquoise seas, fabulous weather ….. Mmmmm. Just what the doctor ordered.

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