This is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A E Houseman, ‘Blue Remembered Hills’.
Tri rudan a thig gun iarraidh: an t-eagal, ant-eudach ‘s an gaol.
(Three things that come without asking: fear, love and jealousy).
(Epigraph to The Blackhouse by Peter May).
Lochan up Cracabhal, Isle of Lewis, photograph by David Wilson.
It may sound odd for a bookseller to suffer from the equivalent of writer’s block, but just sometimes nothing amongst the teetering piles of books at my disposal at home or at work feels quite right. This happened to me after my trip to Laos last October: an action-packed fortnight during which there was little time for personal reading. I arrived home full of the sights, sounds, tastes and smells that I had experienced, and I just couldn’t quite settle back into my usual reading habits. In desperation I turned to one of my colleagues, who put me onto the first of a trilogy of crime novels by Peter May set in the Outer Hebrides. The Blackhouse had me in its grip immediately, because it is exactly the kind of crime novel I like: not just a straightforward murder mystery, but also an intimate portrait of a man returning to his homeland and reconnecting with his past.
Returning to work in Edinburgh after a personal tragedy, Detective Inspector Fin Macleod is stunned when an unsolved murder takes him back to the Isle of Lewis, and to Crobost, the village where he grew up. Soon, long-lost memories of his youth on this windswept island come flooding back: Fin is going to have to dig deep into his past in order to solve the mystery.
Peter May has a real talent for narrative structure: all three books are intricately plotted, moving seamlessly between the present and the past. What makes the books so compelling is the retelling of Fin’s past life on the island, and that of his friends, which is central to the plot of all three novels. I tried to slow down in order to savour Peter May’s beautiful evocations of the landscape and culture of the islanders: whether he is describing the back breaking work of peat cutting, or the wild beauty of the machair, I was entranced. Memories of a holiday spent on North Uist many years ago came flooding back to me: the wildness of the wind that propelled us along the empty stretches of sandy beach, the way the cloud and rain can come down and envelop one in an instant, the peat stacks by the cottages, the eerie beauty of the standing stones, the feeling of being right out on the edge of the earth:
‘It was a brooding landscape that in a moment of sunlight could be
unexpectedly transformed. Fin knew the road well, in all seasons, and had never ceased to marvel at how the interminable acres of featureless peatbog could change by the month, the day, or even the minute…to their right the sky had blackened … to their left the sky was almost clear, summer sunlight falling across the land, and they could see in the distance the pale outline of the mountains of Harris. Fin had forgotten how big the sky was here’.
(Peter May: Hebrides, with photographs
by David Wilson, published by
Riverrun in 2013)
In the final volume, the Chessmen of the title are the 12th century Lewis chessmen, returning to the island for a special gala day. When I was a child we made a replica of the original chess set out of plaster of Paris. I learnt to play chess using these pieces, and was endlessly fascinated by the expressions on their faces: the queen with her hand up to her face, the sturdy knight on his horse, and the serious bishop. I loved the weight of each piece in my hand.
I am grateful to Chris, my fellow bookseller, for introducing me to Peter May’s magnificent trilogy, which, in a moment of true serendipity not only propelled me out of my reading slump, but drew me back to some of my own memories of this extraordinary place.
(The Lewis Chessman: History Extra).