Peter May: the pull of the Hebrides

Peter May
Opinion - Books Thursday, 04 January 2018

Peter May's new novel is his sixth set in the Hebrides. Once you've been, you never really leave, he writes


When I look back, it seems extraordinary to me that I was 40 years old before I first set foot in the Outer Hebrides. Now, 26 years later, it feels like these islands have been a part of my life since the day I was born.

I can still remember sailing from Uig, on the Isle of Skye, across the Little Minch to Tarbert on the Isle of Harris, and seeing the misty islands emerging from the cloud. I then drove, on mostly single track roads, to the very northern tip of the Isle of Lewis and the tiny Port of Ness, where I would spend my first two weeks on this extraordinary archipelago.

I was there with my wife - writer Janice Hally - to research and create a long running television drama series in the Gaelic language. We had been commissioned to develop it for Scottish Television, which was in receipt of government funds to boost the language.

I spent the next six years living five months a year on the Isle of Lewis, producing the series we had created - Machair. It was a huge ratings success, but as an exercise in location filming, it proved to be a major logistical challenge.

The weather and infrastructure of the islands made sticking to a daily shooting schedule extremely difficult, not to mention their distance from our supply base in Glasgow.

But what those six years taught me is that you can't fight the islands. You have to go with their flow. And if you surrender yourself to them, you find that your difficulties start to melt away. Your focus changes from a preoccupation with problems, to a realisation of everything else on offer. From the beauty of the beaches and the cliffs, to an appreciation of a very different way of life.

I left the islands when I quit television in 1996 to try to make a living from writing books. And it was 10 years before I returned (from my new home in France) - to research and write a novel called The Blackhouse, which was built around an annual island event when 10 men from Ness spend two weeks on a remote rock in the Atlantic to kill and process 2,000 young gannets to bring back as food.

It was a book universally rejected in the UK and that remained unpublished until several years later, when it was translated into French and brought out in my adopted country to great critical acclaim. Ironically, The Blackhouse and the two following books in the Lewis Trilogy then became enormously successful, selling millions of copies, and bringing visitors in their thousands to the islands from all over the world.

The series gave me the excuse to return to the Hebrides myself on research trips. I don't think there has been a year since when I haven't been back to the islands, where I now feel more at home than in my native Glasgow. I gave a further two books - Entry Island and Coffin Road - a Hebridean setting, and so popular have they proven that I get emails and posts from readers on a daily basis begging me to set more of my books there.

And so here I am again, making a full-blooded return to those haunted, capricious islands on the north-west fringes of Europe with my new novel, I'll Keep You Safe. A story that simmers among the peat bogs and mountains and sandy coves of what must be the most dramatic setting anywhere in the world for any series of books.

Whether you are the writer, or the reader, the Outer Hebrides of Scotland have an irresistible pull. In the words of the 1970s Eagles' song "Hotel California", you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave. And the reason? The islands never leave you.

Peter May's I'll Keep You Safe will be out from Quercus on Thursday 11 January. Details of his promotional tour are at his website: https://maypeter.com/.

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