Talking Location With author Leigh Russell – YORK
Talking Location With author Allan Martin – Islay
16th April 2019
TalkingLocationWith… Allan Martin, author of The Peat Dead, set on Islay.
We’ve been going to Islay for a number of years, so it seemed the obvious place to set a novel, especially one that concerns a hidden secret dating back to World War Two.
But Islay’s history is a lot older than that. Standing stones and hill forts indicate ancient occupation of this fertile island. The magnificent Kildalton Cross bears witness to early Christianity. And in the Middle Ages Islay was the centre of the realm of the Lords of the Isles; you can still visit their capital at Finlaggan. War galleys would then have been a frequent sight around the island’s coasts, as well as the trading ships that carried goods and people up and down the western seaboard. And later Islay felt the pain of the clearances, as ruthless landlords turned people off their lands in the pursuit of wealth. Much of Islay that is empty today was bustling with activity in times gone by.
The Peat Dead begins above Glenegedale, when peat-cutters discover a human hand. Inspector Angus Blue arrives from Oban to investigate, and soon police uncover five corpses. They are linked to some secret activity during World War Two. Like many of the more remote parts of Scotland, Islay was a busy place back then. The air base at Glenegedale offered a runway long enough for big planes coming over from America, via Newfoundland or Iceland. Nowadays Islay’s modest airport sits on part of the site. But you can still see traces of the wartime base. Walk around the runways, over-large for a small airport. Then cross the main road and you can find the floors of buildings long demolished; imagine what function they performed, and picture them teeming with service personnel.
Islay’s capital Bowmore is only five and half miles away. Blue and his team are based here, at the police station, which I upgraded (for literary purposes) from a modern bungalow to an Edwardian villa. Visit Roy’s Celtic House shop, with a great selection of books and an excellent cafe upstairs. Only a few miles away is picturesque Port Ellen, Islay’s other main settlement. Inspector Blue stays at the hotel here.
Distilleries are a species Islay’s not short of. There are eight now, possibly nine by the time you read this. Whisky is part of Islay’s identity. In the book Inspector Blue tries a different whisky almost every evening – I had to put in some tough research for these passages! They’re all different, so visit more than one. I must confess to having invented a fictional distillery for the book, so don’t try and find Kilbrocheann! It’s a mixture of Bruichladdich (where you can draw a bottle of your own from a unique numbered cask) and Bunnahabhain (where you’ll find an almost mediaeval courtyard). If you go to Lagavulin, beyond the distillery, across the bay, where the story comes to a shattering climax, you’ll see on a headland the dramatic ruins of Dunyvaig Castle.
If you’re heading to Bruichladdich you’ll pass the Museum of Islay life at Port Charlotte. Pop in here to see a great collection of objects and images of old Islay. There are even one or two of the old air base. Sadly you won’t find the excellent cafe patronised by Inspector Blue in the book – it was made up – but the museum is well worth a visit.
History is never far away from us – that theme runs through the book. If you want a real atmosphere of past events, there are two places I’d recommend. The first is Kildalton, where the ancient stone cross presides over a landscape emptied of its once-thriving population. The second is Solam, a village where, as the story goes, plague was brought by a shipwrecked sailor, and the village cut itself off, to die and save the rest of the island. It’s a stiff uphill walk from the car park at Ardbeg distillery, but the skeletons of houses in the empty glen are very evocative.
You’ll find Islay a very welcoming place. There are good walks, including the tempting ‘Three Distilleries Path’ fine beaches, good places to stay and to eat. The Ileachs are friendly people, who want their island to prosper and be a place where people live and work, and where visitors can find plenty to see and do. But before you go, read The Peat Dead– it’ll whet your appetite for the island known as ‘the queen of the Hebrides.’ And even though I’m biased, I think you’ll enjoy the story too.
Thank you so much for such a descriptive piece about the wonderful Islay. Do visit the author’s website to find out more and you can of course buy his book through the TripFiction database. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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