By Vivien Martin
What do William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Peter May and Enid Blyton have in common? They’ve all used islands as settings for some of their most exciting and memorable works.
The raging storms and magic of Shakespeare’s The Tempest; the terror of being trapped on an island with an unknown murderer in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None; the bleak, elemental, wind-swept landscapes of Peter May’s Lewis Trilogy; and that youthful delight in sailing, swimming and the great outdoors (with a smuggler or two thrown in for good measure) in Enid Blyton’s The Island of Adventure - each are examples of that long-standing urge authors have to set their writings in a self-contained and very specific world. Islands fit that bill perfectly.
There’s something about islands. We all feel it. Something that can be hard to define; nevertheless the pull is definitely there.
Lawrence Durrell wrote:
I once found a list of diseases as yet unclassified by medical science, and among these there occurred the word Islomania, which was described as a rare but by no means unknown affliction of spirit. People that find islands somehow irresistible. The mere knowledge that they are on an island fills them with an indescribable intoxication.
We are drawn to islands for many different reasons. From time immemorial they have been seen as different from the mainland, something unknown. Perhaps it’s because we feel the pull of that other world - that distinctive apartness - that it evokes a strong response.
Islands have long held a deep fascination in the literary imagination. Plato wrote of ‘fabulous’ Atlantis as early as 360BC. Folktales of magical islands abound. Greek and Roman legends are full of them. And, as in Shakespeare, the characters are transported to another, fantastical, fictional world from which there is no immediate escape. The setting is full of that sense of isolation that makes the possibility of adventure and danger greater.
Where do Scottish Islands come into this? For an increasing number of crime writers, the move has been away from imaginary settings to real places interlaced with real events that are crucial to their stories. A growing number of books are set on Scotland’s islands. These range, both geographically and stylistically, from Peter May’s bleak but gripping novels set on Lewis, to Myra Duffy’s cosy crime set on the Island of Bute; from tartan noir to tartan blanc, you might say.
Why does it make a difference if the island is real rather than imaginary? And what is the unique dynamic that island life provides the writer? I put these questions to Myra Duffy and Kirsty Wark, who have written novels set on the Islands of Bute and Arran respectively.
Myra Duffy, author of the Isle of Bute Mystery Series, believes the setting is integral to the story. Being on Bute sparked the first book in the series, The House at Ettrick Bay: "One evening, walking along the shore at Ettrick Bay, I wondered what would have happened had there been a grand Victorian house on the hill above the bay and what secrets it would hold. The story took off from there." Bute’s history is an important element: "In Last Dance at the Rothesay Pavilion, for example, the crime is connected to events that took place during World War Two, while Grave Matters at St Blane’s weaves the story of 6th century St Blane and the monastic treasure into the plot."
Hers is not a fictional Bute, but very much the real place. "I discovered that using the setting of Bute for a novel was something that hadn’t been fully explored. Several writers have used Bute, but most of them disguise it by giving the island a fictional name. I wanted to give readers who weren’t familiar with the location a flavour of the place." She also finds a great advantages of using an island in how it offers a closed society for the action to take place.
Similarly, Kirsty Wark’s debut novel The Legacy of Elizabeth Pringle is set on a real Arran. "It makes a difference because there is a different way in which people interact. I think the ecology of island life is quite different to the way people live their lives on the mainland."
Like Duffy, Wark weaves real island history into her narrative. A visit to Arran’s Heritage museum reveals more about, for example, the tragic World War Two air crashes which feature in Kirsty’s book. Could her story have been set elsewhere? Kirsty thinks not: "Arran is very much a character in its own right. When I was writing I visualised the island at all times and key scenes in the story are set in very specific places which contribute to the narrative. It would not have been the same story had it not been set on Arran."
Another two authors who have made very effective use of Scottish islands which are well-known to them are Peter May and Archie Roy. May places his Lewis in a very real setting, one he’s familiar with, having spent many years there working on the Gaelic television series Machair. It’s a striking landscape of great beauty, but equally one of unforgiving harshness, rain- and windswept. Bleak and austere, it becomes the perfect backdrop for murder and betrayal.
Perhaps less well known today are the works of Archie Roy, who died in 2012. Roy was Professor of Astronomy at Glasgow University and a consultant to NASA. He set his 1960s/1970s thrillers on Arran, St Kilda and Mull (Deadlight, All Evil Shed Away, Sable Night), skilfully weaving the past with an alternative present, the plots hinging on the question: what if history had taken a different turn at some crucial point in the past? But again, it’s the compelling descriptions of the settings that are a vital ingredient in his works. They leave you wanting to visit the islands he writes about.
Many of today’s Tartan Noir writers have chosen islands as settings for murderous deeds. Take Alex Gray, whose personal family connection brings Mull to life so vividly in Keep the Midnight Out, or Lin Anderson who sets her most recent novel None but the Dead on the island of Sanday in Orkney. Then there’s Craig Robertson’s Cold Grave where the frozen Lake of Menteith allows a murderer to walk across the ice to Inchamahome, with no traces left when the ice melts.
An authentic setting with a specific history and culture is an important ingredient of a good read. As descriptions and plot unfold the reader can, with map to hand, visualise these places and feel much closer to the action. Then they may choose to go and see the places themselves. May’s Lewis Trilogy is a good example, evident both in his own follow-up book Hebrides and the keen interest visitors are showing in tracking down the important locations of his novels. Ann Cleeves’s Shetland Series of novels has enjoyed similar popularity.
This idea of literary tourism, that desire to see places described in favourite books, isn’t a new concept, as Walter Scott’s writings about the Trossachs show. Just think about all the people who have scoured the streets of Edinburgh, tracing the steps of Ian Rankin’s Rebus. While Diana Gabaldon’s highly successful Outlander series has drawn readers (and viewers) from the world over to seek out the haunts of Jamie and Claire.
I’ve found that many a holiday has been enhanced when on the trail of a favourite novel. There’s something memorable about standing in the shoes of your favourite characters and seeing at first-hand the scenes of best-loved stories. And as more authors turn to Scotland’s wild and rugged islands, there’s an added incentive to head for the ferry and share in that experience.
Does fiction influence how we see islands? I think it does. It can make us feel we are part of an island even before we set foot there. And it can make us look more closely at what’s around us when we get there.
A favourite island of mine, Islay, is the setting for the Mulgray Twins’ light-hearted 2010 novel Above Suspicion, where dirty deeds in the world of whisky are played out. At Kildalton churchyard, with that story still fresh in my mind, I found myself kneeling down to have a look under one of the raised gravestones and thinking, yes – a body would fit nicely in here after all! Definitely a distant isle where darkest deeds are done.