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The Bookseller Of Inverness: S G MacLean delves into Highland roots for crime novel

Author S G Maclean's latest historical crime novel is a tale of Jacobite revenge, post-Culloden.
Author S G Maclean's latest historical crime novel is a tale of Jacobite revenge, post-Culloden.

The atmosphere in the Highlands for many years after the Jacobite defeat at the battle of Culloden must have been terrifying.

Whatever side you were on, fear of betrayal. Fear of a fatal slip of the tongue.

And loss. The loss of many men, young and old, on the battlefield or afterwards in merciless manhunts.

Loss of culture, loss of trust, loss of the familiar old ways. A feeling of overwhelming, uncontrollable change.

Rough justice, mob rule.

Author S G MacLean.

Historical crime writer S (Shona) G MacLean vividly captures this febrile setting in her latest novel, The Bookseller Of Inverness.

It’s a departure from her previous Alexander Seaton and Damian Seeker series, and the first time she’s written a novel so close to home.

Shona was born in Inverness and grew up in Lochaber where her parents had the Roy Bridge Hotel.

Highland roots

Then there was a move to Easter Ross, thence to Muir of Ord, so that day by day throughout her youth Shona trod in the footsteps of those caught up in the intense events of the 18th Century uprisings and their fallout.

Her father, who was born in Daviot Manse not far from the battlefield, could make it sound as though the uprising had taken place yesterday when he spoke of the events.

Shona went to Aberdeen University to study history and lived in Aberdeenshire for the next quarter of a century.

Now, she’s come full circle, living in Conon Bridge, in a house she used to spot from the bus every day when she went to school.

The cover of Shona’s latest historical crime novel.

The Bookseller Of Inverness is a departure from Shona’s previous 10 novel opus, set in London, Oxford, York and latterly Bruges.

She said: “I was getting further and further away all the time and writing about London in the 1650s had been a big leap for me anyway.

“I wasn’t at all familiar with London, I’d hardly ever been there, I didn’t know the layout, the topography, there was a huge amount of work to be done.

Own history

“But by the time I’d finished the last Seeker book I really felt I wanted to write about my own history, my own place and I started working on another book, a book set in Cromarty in the 19th Century.”

The idea didn’t find favour with Shona’s publisher as it was non-fiction, therefore a change of genre for S G MacLean.

“She felt it wasn’t a good time to shift genres, because it was going to be quite a different book, so she asked me if I had anything else,” Shona said.

“I thought back to years ago when I’d written a short story set around a Jacobite bookseller in Inverness that had come to me the first time I visited Leakey’s book shop.

S G MacLean’s novel The Bookseller Of Inverness was inspired by the author’s experiences in Leakey’s bookshop, Inverness. Owner Charles Leakey is pictured here in 2021. Picture by Sandy McCook

“In their cafe in the gallery upstairs, they had little cards saying that Leakey’s was on the site of the old Gaelic church in Inverness where Jacobite soldiers, Jacobite prisoners, had been kept after Culloden, kept in dreadful conditions and then some of them were taken outside and shot in the Old High kirkyard.

“Leakey’s was said to be haunted by their ghosts, and I couldn’t quite shake off the idea that maybe the spirit of the Jacobites were retained there.”

Shona had nurtured the story in the back of her mind for years.

“So when my editor started asking about what else I had, I told her about this and she really liked the idea so then I started working on it.”

Inverness Old High Church where Jacobite prisoners were shot. Picture by Sandy McCook

At this point lockdown was in full flow, with a restricting effect on Shona’s research, although she got out and about as much she could.

“I cycled from Culloden to Cawdor Castle, I went a couple of times to Dunlichity Church, went walking there,” she said.

“There were some difficulties because a lot of places didn’t open up for quite some time.

“There’s a couple of chapters set in Castle Leod at Strathpeffer which wasn’t yet open, so I had to write the chapters with what I could glean from the internet.

“Then I bumped into the Earl and Countess (Cromartie) one day when they were out walking their dog so I asked about the castle opening and they said it’s opening next week, come along.

Castle Leod, near Strathpeffer. Picture by Sandy McCook

“So I got to see round, it was just perfect for what I needed.

“I adapted what I’d written with what I’d actually been able to see.

“That was about June of 2021, just before I was due to hand the book in.”


How does Shona get into her characters’ time, place and minds?

Shona said: “Basically I’m a daydreamer.

“If I’m walking along somewhere with lots of old buildings and ruins and things like that. I’m always trying to imagine what it was like.

“Places seem to retain a lot of the spirit of what happened, who lived there, you can’t shake it off.”

Queen Elizabeth’s coffin being borne into St Giles Cathedral on September 12, 2022. Picture by Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/Shutterstock

Shona views the death of Queen Elizabeth taking place in Scotland as of great significance.

“The Queen’s procession to St Giles was another layer of history on that street.

“It established in the consciousness that she was Queen of Scots, her Scottish crown was her oldest crown, so I really did think that reinforced it.

“Her title came through James VI, so I thought it was wonderful she was taken to Holyrood and then up to St Giles.”

Forthcoming book

Shona’s next book is well under way, and it isn’t set in the Highlands.

She said: “By the time I’d got to the end I felt quite emptied out.

“The reading around the Jacobite cause and history has been very intense and there isn’t a happy ending to it.

“In some ways it was very personal because I was writing about where I’d been born and where I lived, and I was concerned about what local people would think of it as well.”

Shona’s book has been well received locally, with good sales across Highland independent bookshops.

Follow up to Damian Seeker series

Now S G MacLean, who is the niece of author Alistair MacLean, has her head in a snowy 17th Century York with a follow-up to her Damian Seeker series.

During her on-the-spot research, Shona was caught up in serious floods, having to bale out of her hotel as the river rose, and witness very old buildings pump out water.

She hasn’t ruled out another book set in the Highlands, but reckons she would set it three decades on from Culloden, around the time of the French Revolution.

Meanwhile, she is preparing for an appearance at The Wee Crime Festival hosted by The Bookmark in Grantown on Spey on October 28-29.

She’ll be appearing alongside Christopher Brookmyre, Douglas Skelton, G.R. Halliday, Michael Malone and Neil Lancaster.

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