With my new novel, Entry Island, due out on Kindle tomorrow, I thought I would share the story behind it with my readers.
My decision to write Entry Island stemmed from my interest in the Highland Clearances.
Like many of my generation I did not become aware of the history of The Clearances until the years after I had left full-time education. I took Higher history at school, but this was not a subject on the syllabus. Why, is still a mystery to me, since it is one of the most shameful periods in recent British social history. It was first drawn to my attention by the 1970s John McGrath play, “The Cheviot, The Stag and the Black, Black Oil”.
The Clearances was a phenomenon that took place in several waves in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland over the course of around 100 years during the 18th and 19th centuries. It followed on from the defeat of the Jacobites (who wanted to restore the Stewarts to the British throne) at Culloden in 1746. Most of those who fought in the Jacobite rebellion were Highland crofters and farmers called to arms by their clan chiefs in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie. Since a clan chief in those days was both benefactor and landlord, the Highlanders, who were mostly Gaelic speakers, had no choice but to do as they were told. They were, essentially, canon-fodder.
But the British government, determined to dismantle the clan system and exact retribution, banned all things Highland – the playing of the bagpipes, the wearing of the kilt, the carrying of arms – and a lengthy and institutionalised persecution against Gaelic speakers was instigated (someone speaking Gaelic in a court of law was deemed not to have spoken). In the immediate aftermath of Culloden, a regiment comprising prisoners from English prisons was set loose in the Highlands, slaughtering Gaelic speakers and their families.
Many clan chiefs were disposessed of their land and a new generation of landowner took over the vast Highland estates they vacated. The crofters, whose ancestors had worked the land for centuries, were seen as a burden. They made no money from the land, which provided subsistence only, and were unable to pay rent. So, with financial incentives from the government, this new breed of landowner systematically began to replace people with sheep, which were regarded as a more economically viable use of the land.
Hundreds of thousands of people were forcibly removed from their homes, which were often set alight to prevent them returning. Many were forced to the coastal fringes where there were no settlements, and where without the requisite fishing talents or boats, they lived and died in dire poverty. Others were forced, sometimes in chains, aboard boats bound for the New World. They had no possessions and no money, and faced the most appalling conditions as human ballast aboard sailing ships designed to carry cargo, not people. By the mid to late 19th century the British government had legislated to lay down minimum conditions aboard the “slavers” – ships carrying slaves from Africa to America. But these conditions did not apply to the emigrants forced to sail the Atlantic during The Clearances. Many of them did not survive the voyages.
Fuelled by the injustice of The Clearances, and the knowledge that no one had really tackled the subject in fiction, I decided to make this the focus of the book that would follow The Lewis Trilogy. But I didn’t want to write a historical novel, and as a crime writer I obviously had to find a way of bringing the criminal, the contemporary and the historical, all together in one story.
I knew that there had been some particularly brutal land clearances in the Hebrides, and since this was on my patch, so to speak, I decided to set the historical element of the story on the Isle of Lewis and Harris, creating a fictitious estate and township that would serve as a typical example of some of the more violent clearances. For this I drew specifically on real events that took place on Barra, the west coast of Harris, and the village of Solas in North Uist.
For the contemporary element of the story, I turned towards Canada where many Highlanders ended up. I had initially intended to use Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island as the centres of the contemporary crime story. But two coincidences changed my mind.
Quite by chance I received an email from a reader of the Lewis Trilogy. Her name was Marilyn Savage, and she was a presbyterian minister in Canada who had grown up in the Scottish communities in the Eastern Townships of Quebec. After several exchanges by email, it became clear to me that this is where my story should take place.
But specifically, for my tale, I required an island setting. Here the second coincidence came into play. My neighbour in France is a Quebecois, who grew up in the Magdalen Islands (les îles de la Madeleine) in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I had seen photographs of the islands and been struck by the similarity to the Hebrides, and when further research revealed the presence of large communities of “cleared” Hebrideans in the Canadian province, that became the natural setting for the book.
The discovery that an island in the St. Lawrence River, just downstream from Quebec City, had been used as a quarantine station for arriving emigrants, brought the final piece of the story into play. And I set off for Quebec to do my research.
After research sessions at the Sûreté de Police in Montreal, the Eastern Townships of Quebec (now known as the Cantons de l’est) were my next port of call. I was fortunate to arrive at the most beautiful time of year, when the leaves in the forests that would have been so unfamiliar to arriving Hebrideans were turning the most extraordinary colours. There, with Marilyn Savage, her mother and daughters as my sherpas, I visited towns and villages established by Hebrideans cleared off their land. There is actually a town called Stornoway. Another called Tolsta – which is the name of the village on the Isle of Lewis from which Marilyn Savage’s ancestors hailed. Another settlement describes itself as the Hebridean village of Gould. A tour of the cemeteries of these townships was a sobering and emotional experience. For here, buried in the ground thousands of miles from their homes, lay Macleods, and Macritchies and Macdonalds, and many others forced to leave their villages by unscrupulous landlords. People who had survived the voyage by sea and somehow endured to establish these communities.
I went to the homes of some of their descendants and met some very elderly ladies in their late eighties and nineties who still speak Gaelic. They spoke of their pride in their roots, and in the fortitude of their ancestors who had survived and thrived against all the odds.
I flew out to the Magdalen Islands, which are situated in the middle of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and totally isolated from the North American mainland. These islands, which comprise part of the province of Quebec, are French speaking, and largely populated by ancestors of the Acadians forced out of Canada by the British. One tiny island, however, is resolutely English-speaking. It is called Entry Island, and many of its inhabitants are of Scots descent. In fact, most of the English speakers in the Magdalen islands (about 5 percent of the population) are descended from emigrants who were shipwrecked on their way to Quebec City – for the islands stand in the middle of the sea route to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, and without a lighthouse were the cause of hundreds of shipwrecks over many years.
I then visited the quarantine island of Grosse Île, which has been preserved as a museum since its final closure in 1937. It is an island still haunted by the thousands who died there in long sheds known as Lazarettos, in the hospital where desperate staff worked in appalling conditions to try to save the lives of emigrants suffering from the diseases they had brought with them aboard their ships, and in the boats that were forced to anchor in the bay and fly the yellow quarantine flag.
My central character, Sime (a corruption of Sim, the Gaelic for Simon, which is pronounced “Sheem”) Mackenzie, is a homicide detective with the Sûreté in Montreal. His family, too, were of Hebridean descent, and he grew up in an English-speaking household in the Eastern Townships at a time when only French was spoken at school. He is, therefore, fluently bilingual – which is why he is chosen to travel with the French-speaking investigation team to Entry Island when a brutal murder is committed there.
When Sime arrives, it is only to discover that the wife of the victim, and prime suspect in his murder, is unaccountably familiar to him, even although they have never met…
Buy your Kindle version of “Entry Island” here
And pre-order your hardback copy here
Good Morning Peter,
Just received your newsletter and I’ve now pre-ordered your latest book. The explanation behind it is fantastic and will undoubtedly help add to the emotions that the book will raise.
Being born and raised on Skye and having my Mum with her strong Harris roots it was a pleasure to discover the Lewis Trilogy which although from the outer Hebrides the childhood memories were so mine, although I’ve probably explained this in a previous comment 🙂
However, since I was old enough to listen my Nana Millar always took great interest in showing and telling me the history of our island and surrounding area of Lochalsh. The picture you use at the top of the newsletter, (crofter sitting on a horse), was the cover of one of the first books she bought me.
The second being about the Battle of Culloden and both purchased in the shop at Dunvegan Castle.
They both brought to life the events of past that have shaped the Highlands of today and instilled in me a pride of being a Highlander that has never faded even after 25yrs of being away with the RAF and now living in Oxfordshire.
I look forward to reading this latest book and if my wishlist has been listened to enjoying your book Hebrides as well.
Then I can tuck into the Enzo Files which I’ve also recently acquired for my Kindle and if the Lewis Trilogy is anything to go are much anticipated.
Have a fantastic festive season,
Yes, I think the book you are talking about (with the picture of the crofter on the horse), was John Prebble’s “The Clearances”, which was one of my many research books. For my story I borrowed from some of the experiences of crofters on Skye during The Clearances, and in fact the sequence aboard the boat features crofters sent from Skye.
Good Morning Peter,
Well I have finished Entry Island and Coffin Road due to a bout of illness lying me up in bed. What can I say – brilliant just brilliant.
I loved Coffin Road for its setting, excellent pacing and bringing such an important subject to light to us that may not of known a great deal about in the past. Also I loved the fact that you actually visited Skye for a wee drive around my island 🙂
But Entry island blew me away, the anger whilst reading about the clearances and then the horror of the boat journey to Canada was only reinforced by the fact a lot were Sgitheanachs and therefore my fellow islanders, (amazing how a novel can drag you in and make you feel part of it).
I loved the whole story and don’t want to put spoilers in but so wish it was double the length with more around the journey from island to city at the start within the story and also around the leaving behind of the Lazarretos to the painting storyline. But that is just me being picky and loving your work and wanting more.
Look forward to the next one and now onto Enzio 🙂
One other thought/question – will any of these Hebridean based books be made into Film or TV? Both of them mentioned above would make fantastic movies IMHO and really showcase the Highlands and Islands to the wider world. The Lewis trilogy would make a great series possibly 3 episodes per book?? But you’d know better that than me.
Kind Regards and best wishes for a successful 2016 of writing and awards.
Andrew A Millar
Delighted you enjoyed it, and particularly the Skye connections. Afraid there are no plans at the moment to put any of these books on the screen. But you never know!
Peter..What a way to wet the appetite! Looking forward to Entry Island even more after the history behind the story. Sounds like you had a wonderful adventure during your research and connected with some great folks as well. Hope all is well with you and your family..peace to all! Thanks for sharing with us…Michael Walke
My pleasure, Michael. Hope you enjoy the book.
I know what I’m doing on boxing day! Curled up with a good Book! Happy Christmas when it comes.
🙂 Hope you enjoy!
Really enjoyed reading this Peter and will pre order immediately. I’m glad I’ve almost finished xmas shopping, as I will be shutting myself off to read Entry Island as soon as it arrives on my kindle. As you say, the Highland Clearances is a huge subject that has received limited attention in the creative arts. The only novel I have read set in that period is Consider the Lilies by Iain Crichton Smith. The information you have provided here suggests to me you may well have written a classic that will also appeal to a wide readership. Thanks again for how much I know I am going to enjoy your new novel.
Hope it lives up to expectations, Joan!
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I have just finished reading Entry Island and couldn’t put it down. By incorporating the history into a story, it becomes so interesting and emotional and I almost felt as if I had been through the experiences myself. It also makes me want to find out more. I have never read anything like it before and loved the way you connected the past with the present day. I will be recommending it, and I think even my teenage children, who up until now haven’t been interested in reading history, will be captivated by your writing. Thank you. I have read the Lewis Man Trilogy, but look forward to reading more of your books.
Delighted you enjoyed the book, Frances, it was a labour of love for me. Hope you go on to take pleasure from my other books, too – and that Entry Island, will indeed, encourage your kids to read.
Lewis trilogy brilliant…thank you. Entry Island arguably better, but sad that it does not seem to leave anywhere to go further to “publicise” the Clearances.I live in the Midlands of England, near Birmingham. I visit Scotland every year. 45 years ago I was with my brother-in-law( educated at Aberdeen Grammar School and Aberdeen University) and together we “climbed” Ben Hope. As I looked down on Strathmore (the valley of the River Hope) I asked “Why are there no villages in that evidently verdant valley?” “I’m not sure” came the reply, “I think it’s something to do with something called the Clearances”
So, that was it. I had to know. Like a previous contributor, John Prebble was my first port of call. His Canadian connections are obviously relevant in your scenario but I do recognise that there are some who question his accuracy. I researced further but the waters became very muddied! And then a family came along and…..So now you have whetted my appetite to look again.
I suspect that you would be horrified to see “Entry Island” classified as an historical novel; but that is what, in part, it is. I learnt where to look into the huge complications of Scottish medieval history from the novels of Nigel Tranter!!!
I need to stop now before I climb ontolots of soapboxes. Thank you.
Hi Bob. Delighted you enjoyed “Entry Island”. The Clearances is a very emotive topic. Naturally, I read John Prebble on the subject, as well as many other books to get some kind of perspective. It is a shameful period of Scottish history which, in my day at least, was not on the curriculum in Scottish schools. I have wanted to write about it for a long time!
I have just finished reading the Lewis trilogy which I purchased on my recent visit to Lewis and Harris. This is the home of some of my ancestors and it was wonderful to actually be there. Then reading the books – I cannot say enough about them. I was totally entranced and could visualize all the locations. I am now looking forward to “Entry Island” to learn more of the Highland Clearances which would have been when my ancestors came to Canada. Thank you so much!!!
Delighted you have enjoyed the books, Barbara. Entry Island comes out in Canada in the Fall, and I will have events in six Canadian cities late September/early October to promote it. Maybe you will make it along to one of them. When I have final details of the tour I will be publishing them on my Facebook author page – https://www.facebook.com/petermayauthor
I have read the Lewis Trilogy with great pleasure and have just finished reading Entry Island. Your description of the tribulations of the Clearances was indeed vivid and heart-wrenching and really formed the core of this novel. At times I forgot the rest of the plot until it resurfaced as a detective novel. I did enjoy it all.
However, I’m now going to be a picky Canadian and fault the many anglicisms that your editor in Canada should have picked up, assuming he/she read the book! As your main character is a Quebecois of long ago Scottish origin, he should know the following:
a saloon car is a 4-door sedan
permafrost is not a feature of the Magdalens; that’s Arctic conditions
Canadians don’t usually use the word trainer – we call them runners
paracetemol in Canada is Tylenol – everyone says Tylenol
one harnesses a pony pulling a cart, one doesn’t tether it to a cart
unmetalled roads are unpaved roads here
a strimmer is a weed-whacker or simply a trimmer
loch is never used to refer to a bay (or a lake)
Research is fun and fascinating; linguistic accuracy is a pain in the ass but if your settings are foreign, it kinda behooves you to make sure your publisher does the job. No British reader is going to pick up the discrepancies, but your Canadian readers will, fer sure.
Still, keep one keeping on, Peter. Can’t wait for Coffin Road
Hi Jay, I write in the first instance for a British audience, and since I am published in more than 20 countries it impossible to keep track of what publishers do and don’t do. In the UK we get unexpurgated books from N. America full of “Americanisms”. We recognise them and accept them as such. Works both ways. But I’m absolutely delighted you enjoyed the book!
As a Brit who lived many years in Scotland and now lives in Canada, I think your answer is spot on.
I enjoy so much all your books in all their settings, but there was something special about the Lewis Trilogy.
For Christmas, I gave my husband, “The Runner” and “Chinese Whispers” but I have raced him to start reading “The Runner” in which I am trying to figure out the hair connection in the murders and sleuthing the Samson strength the murderer might hope to acquire by eating or wearing it! We thought we would then have read all your books but saw another title in the Chinese series – “The Ghost Marriage: A China Story” and will hunt it down. Always we buy new books with that lovely feeling of being the first to open them and store them on a shelf together and sometimes lend to trusted friends who will return them. “Entry Island” was also a favourite and I gave it to my son who was born in Guelph, but after living in several countries, is now is a cancer scientist in Vancouver. He had trouble putting it down until finished and will enjoy the pathologist’s work when we share your China Thrillers. Must get back to “The Runner”. 🤔 Regards, Valerie Monk
Very happy that you are enjoying the books, Valerie. You will find “The Ghost Marriage”, which is a short story, included free at the end of the new paperback edition of “Chinese Whispers”.
Thoroughly enjoyed Entry Island which my WI book club have been reading. I was engrossed with the story and the historical facts a really first class read which I am recommending to friends, a truly gripping novel.
Pleased you enjoyed it, Gillian!
Enjoyed this background to ‘Entry Island’ and was about to rush out to buy it, when I was told I was receiving it on my upcoming birthday! We are looking forward to the last of the Enzo Files
and starting ‘The China Thrillers’.
Valerie Monk, Adelaide
Here’s hoping you enjoy them all! 🙂
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Hello! I just read “Entry Island” while spending a week on Les Isles de la Madeleine (our first visit ever). We didn’t make it to Entry Island itself, but – as the book often states – it’s very present almost everywhere one is on the islands. I found out about your book thanks to a Twitter contact and because I had my Kindle with me, I could download it on the spot. I think this is relevant!
I loved the book – weaving together the story of the crime with the settlement history of the islands (I live in Nova Scotia and didn’t know much about them at all) and the harrowing stories of the clearances really worked. More than 40 years ago, as a student, I backpacked around Scotland and spent some time on North Uist, Benbecula, Harris and Lewis. Because I am not from the UK or Canada originally, I was completely ignorant then of the tragedies that happened there. I now think back of the few crofters that we met then and wonder how their ancestors escaped being thrown off their land. Coincidentally, we live a stone’s throw from Grand Pre National Historic Site and UNESCO WH site, the site of the Grand Derangement, the ethnic cleansing of the Acadians by the British (and some of them ended up on Les Madeleines after being evicted here). So in this little corner of Nova Scotia, we are regularly reminded of the horrors of ethnic cleansing although I doubt that many people think very deeply about it. The images and stories displayed at the Interpretive Centre at the site are sentimental and naive. And then, these weeks the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya demands our attention. So I think everyone should read this book, not just because it’s a lovely thriller, but more importantly so they can start thinking about what humanity continues to do to each other.
Delighted you enjoyed it, and that it had extra resonance because of the history of the place you come from and the places you have been.
Hello Peter~ I just finished reading Entry Island and wanted to stop by and thank you for writing this book. I was riveted reading it as my ancestors came from the Isle of Lewis and ended up in Quebec like so many Scots did. Like Sime in the novel, I found my ancestry talking to me from the past…Anne MacLeod and Murdo Murray who raised 7 children….my understanding is Anne lost one child on the voyage to Canada and one child was born on this same voyage. She talks to me inside my cells I swear….my hope is to learn more about their journey…did they leave as part of the Clearances or was the famine the reason they fled the Highlands…anyway you stoked the fire inside me to find out more about this woman who endured so much…thank you for the work and bringing attention to Entry Island and the Highland Clearances….I look forward to reading all your books on Lewis and also any future endeavors set there….Thank you Peter….from the bottom of my heart….
Delighted you enjoyed the book, Wendy – it was a labour of love. Good luck in your endeavours to shine a light on your past 🙂
Thank you Peter!
Enjoyed this book very much, especially the vivid account of the clearances. With regard to the format, I was naggingly reminded of a story read in my youth… From wiki checks, I think it must have been ‘an old Captivity’ by Nevil Shute where a pilot under stresses not dissimilar to Sime’s channels the experience of a man in the Viking period. Were you aware of that tale at all? I doubt it was of comparable quality, but it somehow stuck in my memory for 40 odd years.
Not a book I’ve ever read, I’m afraid, though I have read several of Nevil Shute’s novels. Glad you enjoyed “Entry Island”.
I was just about ready to begin Entry Island, however, after reading the back synopsis, got carried away….wanted to check out if this island was really 850 miles from the Canadian mainland. As a Nova Scotia married to an Islander (Prince Edward Island) who has spent a great deal of time travelling in Quebec I didn’t think such an island actually existed and became to do some reading. I too have a degree in History from the University of Calgary where we presently live. We have visited Grosse Ile and I have experienced the haunting feeling walking through the long buildings where so many people were “processed” upon arriving in Canada. Fortunately, we missed the English speaking tour and my husband and I did a lot of exploring on our own. It would seem many Cullens (my husbands name) and much fewer Behans (my maiden name) arrived in Canada at this spot. Our research was based on the arrival of Irish rather than the Scots. However, as a Nova Scotia, I grew up with many MacDonalds, MacIntoshes, MacKinnons as did my husband in PEI. Enough of my story, I am now very anxious to start yours. I have already read a number of books and certainly enjoyed them hence this reason I bought this one. I look forward to the read. Thank you so very much for your detail to history and fantastic characters. Pam Cullen
Hope you enjoy it, Pam.
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Thank you for your interesting article. My mother’s family was from Entry Island and I remember childhood vacations on the Island they called the Scots Island. My grandfather James McLean was a fisherman and survived 4 years in a Japanese prison after the battle of Hong Kong before returning to the island. There were about 500 people living there when I was a child and I was related in some way to almost all of them.