For years, the Outer Hebrides has attracted literary attention of all genres.
But thanks to the best-selling crime novels by Peter May, that literary love is translating into something more.
Fans of Peter May’s island crime novels, The Lewis Trilogy and Coffin Road, are so taken with the Hebridean setting that they’re determined to see it for themselves – and are travelling to the Outer Hebrides as a direct result of the books.
Readers of the Lewis Trilogy are heading for the Outer Hebrides to follow in the fictional footsteps of Fin, a policeman who returns to Lewis, the island of his birth, in an attempt to solve a mystery murder.
Since 2016, book tourists have also been searching for the locations in the standalone novel Coffin Road, where the main character finds himself washed up the sands of Harris with no memory of his former life.
Visitors don’t have to look hard to find echoes of the mysteries, either.
A self-guided literary trail outlined by the local tourist board lists key locations featured in the books, and locals in Ness are even offering guided tours of the district where the fictional Fin lived.
So what can fans of the Peter May novels expect to find?
I took to parts of the trail myself, travelling north to south, to find out. Without giving any major plot twists away, here are 15 locations that will transport you to the pages of the books…
Port of Ness Harbour, Ness
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 the Isle of Lewis, sits an old shed. In the Blackhouse, a bloodied corpse is found hanging inside; in reality, the building is empty, windows open to the elements, framing a picturesque view of a cliff-edged beach.
In the Lewis Trilogy, 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.
Throughout all three novels, Fin’s aunt, who cares for him after the death of his parents, lives in a run-down house, the inspiration for which was an old house in Skigersta, overlooking the ocean.
Cross Church, Ness
Peter May based the fictional Crobost Church and Manse, whose minister Donald Murray plays a major role in the trilogy, 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.
Bridge to Nowhere, Garry Beach
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.
McNeil’s Pub, Stornoway
On the corner of Cromwell Street sits McNeill’s, a local pub that’s something of a 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! Pop in for a drink and see if you can spot her for yourself…
Church Street, Stornoway
The Police Station on Church Street – a narrow, one-way street with views to the harbour beyond – makes an appearance in all of Peter May’s Hebridean novels. (And it’s an open secret in the island that George Gunn, the fictional Detective Sergeant was inspired by one particular local member of the police force!)
The Iolaire Memorial, Sandwick
Just outside Stornoway, in Holm, sits a memorial to those who died with the sinking of the Iolaire. On 31 December 1918, 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’s Britain’s worst peacetime maritime disaster after the sinking of the Titanic, and is woven into the tale of The Chessmen.
Ardroil, a tiny village nestled in the dunes that surround Uig Bay, is home to two central characters, Minto and Whistler, in Peter May’s third installment of the trilogy, The Chessmen. Driving on the winding road through the village towards Uig sands, you can 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, Uig
These ancient stone dwellings are scattered around Scotland, and the ones here 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 the Beehives, after a fight and a chase through the hills.
Luskentyre Beach, Harris
Luskentyre Beach in Harris is regularly named as one of the best in the world, and it’s here that The Coffin Road mystery begins, when a man is washed ashore in a storm with no memory of how he got there, or even who he is.
(Let’s face it: if you have the misfortune to get washed up on a beach, Luskentyre Beach is not a bad place to end up!)
The Coffin Road, Harris
Stretching through the hills from the rocky east coast of Harris to the west of the island, the ‘coffin road’ is more of a roughly hewn track than a road, a route once taken by funeral parties carrying the dead to their final resting place on the west coast, where the softer, sandy ground allowed for burial.
As the title suggests, this road looms large in Coffin Road, where the marker of the route on an Ordinance Survey map is the only clue the main character has as to who he is, and what he is doing in the Outer Hebrides.
Scarista Graveyard, Harris
Scarista boasts 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 Lewis trilogy.
Charlie’s Beach, Eriskay
Charlie’s Beach, a lovely strip of white sand on the Isle of Eriskay, is the location of a crucial – and brutal – scene in the Lewis Man. (For history buffs, it’s also the spot where Bonnie Prince Charlie first set foot in Scotland in 1745.) Elsewhere on the island fans can spot Ceit’s red-roofed house, and maybe even her pink car, if they’re lucky!
Book fan or not, it’s worth seeing all the scenic stops on the Peter May literary trail.
Brooding hills, cosy pubs, and stunning shorelines: it’s all here waiting to be experienced in the Outer Hebrides.
And 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.
Want to add the full Peter May Hebridean collection to your reading list? Find them here:
Have you read The Lewis Trilogy or Coffin Road by Peter May?
Would you ever visit a destination because it was the setting of one of your favourite novels, or films?
Let me know in the comments below – I’d love to hear from you!
This post was originally published in December 2014, and updated in January 2018.
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