From Whisky Galore to The Stornoway Way, the Outer Hebrides have often attracted literary attention, but thanks to the best-selling Lewis Trilogy by Peter May, this literary love is translating into something more.
Fans of the crime novels are so taken with the story’s setting that they’re determined to see it for themselves, and are heading for the Outer Hebrides to follow in the fictional footsteps of Fin, the novels’ central character, a policeman who returns to the island of his birth in an attempt to solve a mystery murder.
Visitors don’t have to look hard to find echoes of the tale, either – a new ‘literary trail’ lists key locations featured in the books, from Ness in the north to Eriskay in the south. So what can fans expect to find? Without giving any plot twists away, I took to the Peter May literary trail myself, travelling north to south, to find out…
Ness, Isle of Lewis
Port of Ness Harbour: After reading the first few pages of The Blackhouse, I had to put it down. The scene of a brutal murder was disturbing enough, but the setting being somewhere I know gave the fictional crime an unsettling edge. It’s not for nothing that The Scotsman describes the story as one of “creepy, spine-tingling storytelling.”
At the Port of Ness Harbour, near the very north of Lewis, sits an old shed. In the Blackhouse, a bloodied corpse is found hanging inside; in reality it’s empty, windows open to the elements, framing a picturesque view of a cliff-edged beach.
Adabroc: In the books, Fin is born and brought up in Crobost, and it is here that he returns at the start of the series. Crobost – despite sounding like it could easily be a real-life Lewis locale – is in fact fictional, and based on the Ness village of Adabroc.
Skigersta: Throughout all three novels, Fin’s aunt lives in a run-down house, the inspiration for which was a house in Skigersta.
Cross Church: Peter May based the fictional Crobost Church and Manse, whose minister Donald Murray plays a major role in the books, on the Free Church of Scotland Manse in the village of Cross. The imposing building is impossible to miss from the main road that makes its way through Ness.
Uig, Isle of Lewis
Ardroil: Ardroil, a tiny village nestled in the dunes that surround Uig Bay, is home to two central characters, Minto and Whistler, in May’s third installment of the trilogy, The Chessmen. Driving on the winding road through the village towards Uig sands, I could almost picture Fin facing up to Minto at the doorway of one the houses near the shore.
The Uig Hills: Stand on the far-reaching sands of Uig bay, and save for the ocean to one side, you’ll find yourself almost entirely surrounded by a vista of imposing hills; it’s an impressive sight, even on a cloudy day. The story of The Chessmen begins on these slopes, with the discovery of a plane in a loch that has mysteriously disappeared overnight – a phenomenom that actually occurred here in the 1950s.
The Beehives: These ancient stone dwellings are scattered around Scotland, and the ones here have been on my to-do list for some time; they can be accessed by an hour-long walk from the main road through Uig. In The Chessmen, Fin and Whistler end up sheltering from a storm in these, after a fight and a chase through the hills.
Tolsta, Isle of Lewis
Bridge to Nowhere: Tolsta is home to two stunning beaches: The Traigh Mhor, a mile-long stretch of perfect white sand; and Garry Beach, the more dramatic of the two with its cliff stacs and caves. Just past Garry Beach is the Bridge to Nowhere, which – you guessed it – leads absolutely nowhere.
Lord Leverhulme (who owned the island from 1918-1923) had planned to improve the island’s transport links, providing employment along the way. One of his schemes was to build a road along the coast from Tolsta to Ness, but it never came to fruition. In The Chessmen, this bridge and the rutted track beyond is the setting for a tense scooter race between two of the characters, in a flashback to Fin’s teenage days.
Stornoway, Isle of Lewis
McNeils Pub: On the corner of Cromwell Street sits this Stornoway staple. In the summer months you’re likely to be surrounded by patrons from across the country and the globe, while in winter locals will be keeping warm with the open fire (and maybe a hot toddy or two). Literary tourists are already starting to visit the popular pub, which Fin pays a visit to in The Blackhouse – rumour has it they’ve been shocked to discover that the landlady in the novel does actually exist in real life!
Iolaire Memorial: Just outside Stornoway, in Holm, sits a memorial to those who died with the sinking of the Iolaire. It was 31 December 1918, and 284 servicemen were on board, heading back to the islands after the end of World War I. Most of them never made it, as the ship sank just 20 feet from shore, on the Beasts of Holm. The Iolaire tragedy affected every village on the island: it is Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disaster after the sinking of the Titanic, and is woven into the tale of The Chessmen.
Scarista, Isle of Harris
Scarista Graveyard: Scarista boats beautiful vistas of blooming machair and white sands. The graveyard in this Harris village is the location of a shocking discovery, and another piece of the puzzle of why a body has been found in a peat bog in The Lewis Man, the second book in the trilogy.
For those who can’t make it to these locations themselves, the companion photo book, Hebrides, beautifully shot by photographer David Wilson, an old friend of Peter May’s, sets the scene vividly. A BBC television adaptation of the crime series is underway too, which will surely lead to even more fans finding their way to the islands.
Book fan or not, it’s worth seeing all the scenic stops on this new literary trail. Brooding hills, cosy pubs, and stunning shorelines: we have it all here in the Western Isles, and the outside world is slowly starting to realise it – so head for the Hebrides before the crowds of book fans do!
Have you read the Lewis Trilogy by Peter May? Would you visit a destination because it was the setting for a favourite novel (or film)?