Hazel McHaffie

traditions

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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The Apprenticeship

Saturday 28 December 2019: our twentieth (!!) Christmas story/play with the grandchildren. The culmination of a year knitting over forty hats while I devoured all those psychological thrillers you’ve heard me talking about!

It’s now twenty years since the first child was born and I was asked to create a new tradition for a new generation. Back in 1999 I wrote a simple story for a ten-month-old that involved her floating away on a balloon to a distant land and rescuing a little African girl from poverty. Actual printed-out photos of our baby granddaughter enacting the story back then were glued into position on the page to illustrate it. Never in my wildest imaginings did I think I’d still be doing this two decades later! But of course, in that time, technology has changed out of all recognition. The hard-copy books of the story are digitally produced, liberally illustrated; the narrative and the moral within it infinitely more sophisticated.

This year the drama took place largely outside – a first, and a big gamble given our uncertain weather! Thankfully it was dry and relatively mild, although slushy mud in one place claimed one victim (me), and a keen wind towards the end made lighting sparklers tricky. The in-between generation took responsibility for being one step ahead of the actors, setting up each scene in different places throughout our local nature reserve and town. I simply had to trot along, narrating the story, with the youngsters following a lantern, working out clues at each stop.

The story basically revolves around four young people who notice an advert in a shop window for an apprentice to an inspirational and magical milliner. All four decide to apply. Selection is through an initiation ceremony where they have to identify desirable attributes for such an employee, using magical thinking caps and various tools and artefacts – a different colour of the rainbow at each stop.

Puzzling …

 

Concentrating …

Recording …

Collaborating …

We began at 1pm and it was dark by the time we stood around a fire in the garden, finally  learning who had been successful in gaining the apprenticeship.

The day ended with a rainbow meal, some of it assembled by the teenagers themselves, using colourful ingredients.

Now here we are, post the event I’ve been preparing for all year, racing to get the books created before 12 January – our annual target date for publication, which this year coincides with our second granddaughter officially becoming an adult!

It only remains for me to wish you all every blessing in 2020. To those who are sad or struggling: may you find peace and solace. To those whose lives are rich and full: may you find contentment and gratitude. To those who fear the future: may you find hope and confidence. And may God bless you, everyone.

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Preparations and procrastinations

Not much novel writing going on here this week, I’m afraid. But I have been writing for hours and hours.

Most fun has been composing the now-traditional annual story for my grandchildren for 27 December. Each year it presents more of a challenge as the youngsters become increasingly discerning and sophisticated. (They’re now aged almost 12 down to 6.) There’s always a message in the story, and lots of potential for activities because the children act out the tale as I narrate it. DJ takes hundreds of photos (literally) during the event, and we then create an illustrated book personalised for each of them.

This year it’s about the highly eccentric Professor Devine who opens an emporium with magical qualities, and tries to train apprentices, and there’s a moral in the tale for the adult audience. I’ve been making costumes and collecting props for weeks because the story evolves around the things that catch my eye. A lovely change from my more serious scribbling, and one of the most enjoyable aspects of preparation for the festive season as far as I’m concerned.

I’ll give you a sneak preview of the opening paragraph:
If you go out of your front door and take a sharp right, and then four left turns, walk up the hill in front of you, go right round the roundabout, climb the second tree on the right, swing through the pines for eleven and three quarter minutes, shimmy down the monkey puzzle tree, take a hop and a skip and a ginormous jump, hop on one foot to the bottom of the next hill, and take the third turning on the right, you will come to a shop.

You’ll be relieved to hear that’s the only mile-long sentence. My aging lungs wouldn’t take kindly to many of those. And I do have to think of  my reputation with the children’s  schoolteachers.

Then there’s the writing involved in the Christmas mail. You’ll all know the hours that takes. Less compulsive than the children’s fiction, I must admit, but I do try to write something personal for almost everyone I send to. And the thoughts in a wee anonymous poem sent to me by a friend in 2008 spur me on. It starts off:

There is a group of folk I know, all written on a list, and every year at Christmas time I go and look at this. And that is when I realise that these names are a part, not of the list they’re written on, but of my very heart.

Sending a few hundred cards can feel like a chore but less so when you actually take time to think of each person specifically as you write.

Never think these Christmas cards are just a mere routine of names upon a Christmas list, forgotten in between. For when I send a Christmas card that is addressed to you, it’s because you’re on that list of folk that I’m indebted to. For be you relative or friend, or just folk that I have met, you happen to be one of those I prefer not to forget. And whether I have known you for many years or few, in some way you have had a part in shaping things I do.

OK, I know it’s not prize-winning poetry but I like the sentiments.

However, truth to tell, the biggest spur to getting all the mail ready this week has been the imminence of visitors chez nous. I can’t leave mountains of parcels everywhere in the spare rooms, so I’m clearing them off to the post office early. Then I’ll be able to see the beds! Then I might find time to make them up. Feels like the equivalent of a colonic cleansing before a surgical procedure. Great when it’s all gone!

 

 

 

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