Pardon the cheesy blog title, but I couldn’t resist reviving a 1980s tourist board slogan. My family even had a ‘Bute is Beautiful’ bumper sticker on the rear of our Ford Cortina estate. I have five siblings and if, while on holiday, it was your turn to sit in the Cortina’s boot then you were prone to car sickness – and even gazing out at Bute’s beauty wouldn’t take your mind off it.
Anyway, why am I wittering on about the Bute, the loveliest of islands in the Firth of Clyde? Because my latest Leo Moran psychic detective mystery The Mystery of the Strange Piper is set on the Isle of Sonna, which is a fictionalised version of Bute. In the first two Leo books I also adapted actual locations. In The Ghost of Helen Addison, Loch Awe in Argyll became Loch Dhonn, while in The Shadow of the Black Earl, the village of Laurieston in Galloway became Biggnarbriggs. The reason I do this is for convenience. Changing place names allows you latitude in rearranging, enlarging, adding or deleting physical features to suit the plot. For example, in The Ghost of Helen Addison the islands in Loch Dhonn are to the south of where they are in Loch Awe, in order to be nearer to the settlement where most of the drama takes place, and in The Shadow of the Black Earl I dropped an entire ruined medieval priory into the setting. If you do this, you must come up with alternative place names which ring authentically Scottish; you don’t want corny, made-up sounding names like Inversporran or Glenbogie (indeed in the first novel I stole place names from the Isle of Bute in order to avoid this). The trouble is, sometimes I get mixed up and think that a place’s actual name is that which I rechristened it! As it happens, in The Mystery of the Strange Piper I didn’t change all that much in terms of geography.
The McGarry clan, including most of my extended family, speak about Bute with great affection because we enjoyed countless childhood holidays there, and, in fact, two of my cousins loved it so much that they have recently moved there. Different branches of the family lay claim to its discovery, but I was recently shown photographic evidence from the 1960s which put that dispute to rest. Anyway, various family members have jokingly asked if I would ever set one of my novels on Bute, to which I replied I would, only half-jokingly because the germ of the idea was there. A mention of the island, and specifically the village where we had a room-and-kitchen flat, always evokes funny stories and reminiscences. It was a cold-water flat with an open fireplace and a chilly WC on the tenement stair landing, and we were somewhat crammed together, often for weeks at a time, but we adored it, even though it had probably last been decorated during the Attlee administration and was adorned with items of yesteryear such as a washboard and a pre-electric iron. A droll cousin of mine once remarked that he had been brought up in the 1970s AND the 1940s! Days were spent roaming the hills and fields, playing golf, sailing, swimming or swinging from a high rope like Tarzan. To my childhood mind, the journey from Glasgow to Bute seemed immense and thrilling; now you realise it is a mere jaunt down the coast. The size of our family put foreign trips beyond our budget, but we loved Bute and anticipated our holidays there for weeks and months. There were folk we would look forward to seeing, locals and other holidaymakers, some of whom were eccentrics who assumed legendary status. And everyone just seemed to get what a special and beautiful place it was, what a singular and peaceful atmosphere it had, and I tried to evoke this in the book.
This segment is from when Leo gets chatting to a fellow patron in the village pub:
The roadman had a poetic streak, and was the type of chap who would obtain a good Arts degree for its own sake, then be satisfied pursuing manual occupations for the extent of his working life. He had moved to the Bay years ago, having fallen in love with the place during childhood holidays, although he wasn’t a contemporary of the 1989 gang. Leo enjoyed listening to the roadman wax lyrical about this halcyon world, so secluded and peaceful, yet so within easy striking distance of the big city.
‘It has a draw all of its own, the Bay,’ he mused. ‘There may be more beautiful beaches in the Hebrides, but our idyll was always enough. When I was a kid, every family who came here staked a claim to this land, and appropriated a little portion of the heavens that ceilinged it. Everybody just understood it – folk of all stripes and ages. This was one of the last places in Britain where the farmer delivered your milk each morning, pouring it directly into a galvanised churn you would leave at your front door. I can still recall the taste of it on my cornflakes. I am also just old enough to remember the 1960s, when there were still sufficient numbers of holidaymakers to sustain several shops in the village, including a draper’s, a baker’s and a chippy. There were dances in the church hall every night during the summer, and a gala day and bowling greens and tennis courts. Lots of youngsters met their future spouses here. Many families possessed a boat, maybe just a sailing dinghy or a wee motor vessel, yet a craft still worthy of sentimental name, or even something grander from Greek or Gaelic mythology.’
This is from an after-dinner conversation Leo has with the lovely Amy Agumanu:
She turned her thoughts to Ardcaden Bay.
‘The thing about it was that everybody got it, everybody understood how special it was. Our schoolmates might have gone to some Spanish resort at summertime, but we all knew we had it better. And if such mutual love for a place can exist, then there’s something communal about the human experience after all. And wherever you go in the world and whatever happens you know that this peaceful spot is still there, unchanging, and that you can visit it in your imagination at any time.’
She then slipped into hazy reminiscence about the Bay, describing what it had been like back in those prelapsarian days. Leo listened, hypnotised by her voice and the wine, and gazed through the window. In the garden an apple tree caught the gentle light, its gnarled trunk so aged and crooked that it rested directly on the earth. The sweet fragrances of the summer evening had descended. In the surrounding countryside, hardwoods and clumps of flowering whin cast long shadows in the lateralising rays. The sun on the island’s hills and across the strait was a thin yellow, and a different, silvery luminance had descended in pools upon the low-lying fields and meadows, every object there about to turn to silhouette. Rabbits safely grazed the sloping lawn which led from Amy’s house to the dense verdant summer border, and martins wheeled and screeched for pure joy in the air above. To the west, above the ocean, the sunset was a swirling lambent fresco of Tyrian purple and jasper.
Amy’s monologue turned to Sonna’s gloomier side. Everything from the simple inconveniences of country life to the frightening electricity ironman in the back woods, the steep, thickly timbered Cathair darkening at night and the unnerving ambience which seemed to encompass that hill.
‘And when Andy died, it was like that darker side of the island had won out,’ she explained. ‘It was the end of Eden.’
An abridged version of this article appeared in the October 2021 Crime Readers’ Association Newsletter.
The third in the Leo Moran series, The Mystery of the Strange Piper, is out now! By it at The Mystery of the Strange Piper – Backpage Press