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Historical crime writer Shona MacLean from Conon Bridge didn't have far to go to research some of her latest book The Bookseller Of Inverness which launches this week

By Margaret Chrystall

Maybe Conon Bridge writer Shona MacLean’s latest novel The Bookseller of Inverness started just where you might have expected – in Leakey’s bookshop!

Shona MacLean, who writes as SG MacLean, launches her new standalone historical thriller set just after the Battle of Culloden and set in Inverness.
Shona MacLean, who writes as SG MacLean, launches her new standalone historical thriller set just after the Battle of Culloden and set in Inverness.

It’s where the first idea came to Shona over 10 years ago for the story of new hero, Iain MacGillivray, a scarred veteran of the 1746 Battle of Culloden, who discovers a body.

I have always been aware of Culloden and the Jacobite story. But I did have to do a lot of reading for it. I started with Sarah Fraser’s book The Last Highlander and I thought that was tremendous – and funnily enough I have now become friends with Sarah.”

Shona had already created two award-winning historical crime series – first set around 17th century University of Aberdeen’s Alexander Seaton, second, in London in the 1650s, featuring Oliver Cromwell’s intelligence officer Damian Seeker.

The writer revealed she had found bookseller Iain himself less easy to create at first than the world his story is set in: “In some ways I found him the most difficult character to pinpoint really.

"I needed him to be different from Alexander Seaton or Damian Seeker.

"But I did find in my mind – because of his experiences in the Jacobite Rising and afterwards – and the fact he was a bookseller, this cliched idea that he would be quite grumpy!

"I found he was internalising a lot and I found I had to try and make him more dynamic.

"So I found I had a clear idea in my head of what he was like, but I don’t think my editor found him very appealing, so I tried to make him less grumpy!"

Iain, of course, is literally scarred by the horror of the battle at Culloden and his memories of it to deal with.

"He has also got all his grandmother’s expectations and his mother's.

"But he just somehow wants to get through the life he has now, and not always have to be dealing with what was before.

"Partly, that is because of people I knew who went through the Second World War and really didn’t speak about it very much.

"It is a culture I must have grown up surrounded by in the village – and men who had gone through all that – but I didn’t see them as these young men who had had to go and deal with those things. They were just older men in the village who just went on and lived their lives. I think that is really where that aspect of his character came from."

The book is full of fascinating characters living in turbulent times.

"I found some of the characters came more easily, like Donald Mor the bookbinder. I think we have probably all encountered a Donald Mor somewhere.

"And The Grandes Dames. If you know Maggie Craig’s book Damn Rebel Bitches, you will know how much agency women, in all the Jacobite Risings, really had and how important they were.

"I found myself thinking that if my family had been around at the time, I’m pretty certain we would have been on the Jacobite side.

"And I have three sisters and I imagined these women who had helped the Jacobite cause. It was fun and researching Jacobite memorabilia.

"There were characters in the book who were suggested to me by other characters in history, who are not very well known but I thought their stories were good, so I have given them different names. Like Major Thornlie or the bookseller’s assistant. I mention them in my note at the end.

"So yes, it was fun creating this world."

Shona MacLean ercreates the Inverness of 1752 in her exciting thriller.
Shona MacLean ercreates the Inverness of 1752 in her exciting thriller.

Shona found it easier to create Iain's dashing father Hector MacGillivray.

“It’s almost Hector who is the hero! He was another character I didn’t have to work hard at. I worked much harder at Iain than I did at Hector.

"Hector kind of came fully formed with a twinkle in his eye, a very handsome man who moved about the continental ports of the Stuarts.

"I found him quite an attractive character to write and found myself attracted to him myself!

"I can picture him in my head much more clearly – most of my characters I can’t see their faces, but I can see Hector’s face … I see him as having very well defined features.

"I’m sure there must be a Scottish actor with well-defined features and sparkly blue eyes and reddish hair."

Shona revealed she had been thinking about who might be able to play Hector, when she attended the recent new musical in Inverness, created by Eden Court and based on Runrig songs, The Stamping Ground.

"I was at the Stamping Ground looking at the actors and thinking 'I wonder if any of them …'!" Shona laughed.

Historically, post-Culloden Shona found to be a fascinating time of transition in the Highlands – some becoming involved in slavery.

"I was very conscious of that when I was writing the book.

"There were people at the time who had lived their life in a very different way before hand and then because of the aftermath of Culloden they couldn’t continue to live their life in the way that they used to.

"Also, you have all these people living together who have been on different sides and they have to continue living together and interact.

"The period – the late 18th century – was such a period of change. People were living through these huge changes and they get up to the kind of things that David Alston has written about in his book Slaves And Highlanders.

"Society is just turning on this massive axis and looking much more over the Atlantic and becoming much more of the British Empire.

"But you had people involved in that who had had their lives starting out quite differently, part of the clan system, in a completely different way, but they just all had to get on with their lives.

That really interested me. I think quite often I write about – not the headline stuff about people actually at a time of war – it’s afterwards when people are feeling the aftermath."

The characters of confectioner Ishbel and her son Tormod, have been caught up in it.

"I didn’t have a record for a female confectioner in Inverness at the time, but I know from the town records that though baking was a privilege reserved for men and members of the bakers’ guild, I did know that they allowed women to make cakes.

"So I kind of extrapolated from that – I did give her this ability with confectionery because sugar was increasingly used and coming from the Caribbean.

"I checked with a book on Scottish domestic life in the 18th century and the kind of things that would be made – I needed a way for her to support herself and be permitted to operate in the town. But rather than making her a cake-maker, I made her a confectioner."

The inspiration for Ishbel's mischievous young son Tormod came, in part, from Shona's research.

"I know from reading I had done for another book, that I had done for the early 19th century, I kept coming across references in Hugh Miller and others of children who, it tended to be the fathers, who had been planters in the Caribbean and had relationships with enslaved women who would bring their children back to Scotland and would educate them and in some cases make them their heirs. So that was what gave me the idea for this child.

"But obviously the circumstances for him coming to Scotland, were different. Tormod anticipates children that I had read about later."

Lockdown began to ease as Shona started writing, in summer 2020.

“Once a week Leakey’s was open and I was able to find some out of print things.

"I don’t enjoy using online resources at all, so I was really lucky the Highland Archive opened up and I was the first person through the door ­– they actually put a picture of me on Twitter!”

And Shona enjoyed getting out on her bike having set her book so close to home. Her friend, the writer Jennifer Morag Henderson and historian David Worthington joined her trying to track down a cave she had spotted on a map.

Other useful sources included the letter book of Baillie John Steuart about Inverness at the time – Shona even put the baillie in the book!

“I love it when there is something that just jumps out and comes alive and you can just see this human being that walked in this place a couple of hundred years before you did, but was every bit as alive as you are.”

A book is very appropriately at the core of Shona’s story which is so inspired by them, this book – Tobias Smollett's The Adventures Of Peregrine Pickles – hiding secrets to the identity of some crucial figures. It acts as a 'book cipher' or 'Ottendorf cipher'.

Shona said: "Books were used and if a letter was sent in cipher, the person who received it would have a book with a key to that cipher.

"I picked that particular book because it was very common in Scotland and very popular, so that it was a problem finding the particular copy.

"I had been reading in Hugh Miller’s Schools And Schoolmasters that it was a book everybody read and was a publishing phenomenon – everyone would have read it."

Newly-published thriller set in 1752 in Inverness.
Newly-published thriller set in 1752 in Inverness.

The Bookseller Of Inverness is a book almost impossible to step back out of to return to modern life once you have picked it up and entered Iain MacGillivray's bookshop.

How did Shona find life once she had finished writing it?

"I always think I will take time off. But after a couple of days of reading – or dusting – I am desperate to get back upstairs to start working on something else!"

If the new book began in a bookshop, the next one – set in York in 1662 – begins with Shona’s traditional quest for a notebook!

"It's my little treat," she laughed, revealing she will have a coffee and cake as part of the ritual. "I've got all my notebooks, including the dog-eared pink one I started writing down my first ideas for Alexander Seaton!

“I started The Bookseller in one I got in the Old School in Beauly with a nice grey tartan cover!”

The Bookseller Of Inverness (Quercus, hardback £16.99, ebook £14.99) launches at Waterstones Inverness on Thursday, August 4, at 5.30pm and at Dingwall library on Thursday, August 11, at 6.30pm.

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