Despite his daily hustle and bustle being hundreds of miles away, detective inspector John Rebus has his roots firmly in the Highlands.
And so does the famous detective’s author Ian Rankin.
Although his early years belong to Fife, the Highlands has captured a part of Rankin’s heart that has grown fonder over the years.
A regular in the Black Isle village of Cromarty, you could be forgiven for thinking that the famed novelist is just another holidaymaker on a break from the daily grind of the big city.
Instead the small town – which owes its name to the Gaelic translation for crooked bay – is the place where Rankin has come for years to lay out Rebus’s next move.
A love of the Highlands grew from an early age for the writer. It even holds a place for key milestones in his life.
I always had a fond memory of that part of the world.”
“I didn’t really know the Highlands much apart from learning to swim in Nairn when I was about 12,” Rankin said.
“We had a wee holiday, we rented a caravan up in Nairn for a couple of weeks one summer and my mum showed me.
“She took me into the water every day and taught me how to swim, so I always had a fond memory of that part of the world.”
Further holidays followed, this time with his wife and children.
One of his children uses a wheelchair, meaning accessible accommodation was required, which first took the family to the Black Isle.
He said: “One of our sons is in a wheelchair and the first property we rented from Large Holiday Homes one summer was near Culbolkie and then Fairy Glen, near Rosemarkie.
“We just really got to know that part of the world from going on holiday and we just really liked it a lot.
“We were looking for a place to buy and my wife and I were having a wee driving holiday up north and we decided to drive into Cromarty.
“We saw a for sale sign outside a house on the front and thought this is just lovely and it was a bit like Local Hero, there was no phone signal and we had to go to the working phone box to phone the solicitors in Inverness to arrange a viewing and that was the start of it.
“That became a base for family holidays, for Christmas, for New Year, but also for me writing the books and quite a few of the later Rebus novels have been written in complete solitude in Cromarty.”
He added: “I grew up in Fife and I suppose the lazy option would have been coastal Fife but you can still see Edinburgh from coastal Fife so it doesn’t seem as if you have gone anywhere.
“The Black Isle struck me as, it was far enough away from anything that could be an interruption to my writing routine and just chill out between books.”
What makes Cromarty the ideal place to write and relax?
The town, with a population just shy of 1,000, is quiet and idyllic and home to folk from all walks of life.
From its very shoreline, parts of the landscape are dwarfed by industry as structures more common to the North Sea oil fields come and go for maintenance and repairs.
But what makes it the ideal place to retreat for relaxation or focus?
“In some ways it is really interesting because it is the end of the road – literally that is it,” Mr Rankin added.
“You drive through the Black Isle and when you get to Cromarty you stop and all you can do is turn around and go back.
“I love the fact that it feels as if it is almost at the end of the world.
“It is a very cosmopolitan place; it is full of people with very different backgrounds, a very rich mix of people and I love all that.
“Although it is a place where I go to hide in a way when I am writing the books without interruption, it is also a place where if you do want to be interrupted there is no end of possibilities for you to be interrupted.
“One of the great pleasures for me when I have finished a day’s writing is to go to one or other of the pubs.
“Usually I go to both actually, and have a pint of the local beer – the Cromarty Ale – and probably my dinner too which saves me cooking, and to catch up on the local gossip and the news and just renter the world again having spent a whole day in isolation.
“It is just perfect for me. It serves all of my needs.”
Covid has halted visits but Cromarty is top of the agenda
Due to the coronavirus situation, Rankin has not been able to get to the Black Isle as freely as he would have liked.
He has erred on the side of caution, but hopes to return at the end of May.
He said: “Once I have got my first pint of Happy Chappy in a pub I can relax.
“I always try to time it that if I am driving up from Edinburgh, the drive takes about four hours, that I get there while the pubs are still open.
“It is a very fine line because I want to drive when the roads are quiet, so usually I’ll leave Edinburgh after the rush hour with the hope that I will get up to Cromarty before the pubs shut at 11pm so I can actually dive into the pub and get a quick pint before I go to bed.
“That’s me started the holiday or the trip.
“I am looking forward to that.”
Rebus leaves Edinburgh’s grim underbelly for the Highlands
Despite being the base for his novels, Rankin opted to keep his famed detective away from the place he has grown close to.
Until his return from a five-year hiatus.
“I retired Rebus at the end of Exit Music and then spent five years not writing about him,” he said.
“But I then brought him back in a book called Standing in Another Man’s Grave and I decided a large chunk of that would be set in and around the Black Isle.
“I didn’t quite go to Cromarty because I didn’t want to make any enemies locally.
“Things happen but they don’t actually happen in Cromarty, but they do in the Black Isle.
“The reason for that was that whenever I went up to the Black Isle people would say ‘you should set a book up here, it is a really interesting place’.
“I write murder mysteries and if a book was published that had a murder in it people would ask ‘why did you set it up here?’
“The only response is ‘because you asked me to’.”
His latest novel, A Song for the Dark Times, unfortunately could not be written in Cromarty and was instead written last year at home in Edinburgh – against Rankin’s initial plans of taking a year off.
But as he confessed, during a global pandemic “If you are a writer what else are you going to do?
“You are going to write.
“Writing has once again become my escape. It has become an escape tunnel from the pandemic.”
Thankfully his escape tunnel has proven a success, as the latest title has maintained the longest stretch in the top 10 that the Fife-born author has ever experienced.
‘I am still a visitor’
Despite the fondness of Cromarty, Rankin is very respectful that to others, it is home.
“I am still a visitor. I am not an insider,” he said.
“I am someone who has come from outside and isn’t living there permanently.
“There is a very big difference between someone who lives somewhere permanently and someone who just visits for a period of days or weeks.
“I am very conscious of that.
“I also like that it is not Brigadoon.
“I often post these pictures of Cromarty making it look very postcardy, looking to the suitors but if I pointed the camera the other way to Invergordon you would see the rigs and all the construction work that is going on there and all the wind farms and everything else.
“I like that. I like that there is industry and signs of industry and work going on and jobs.
“It really is a special place.”