Bloody Scotland – a review

I was given a review copy of this collection by Bee Books in exchange for an honest review.

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What’s the first word you think of when someone says Scotland? I’ve only ever visited Edinburgh, so my thoughts immediately gravitate towards the capital city and its old town. But it’s a good bet that it’s somehow linked to history and culture or, depending on what your interests are, ol’ Nessie in the Scottish Highlands. Scotland has a rich folklore and much of it is probably unknown to non-natives save for the really popular legends.

Enter Bloody Scotland, an anthology of stories by twelve of the best Scottish crime writers. It was published in September 2017 by Historic Environment Scotland, and the beauty of these stories is that each writer is given one architectural structure from the country and uses the dark side of its heritage to fuel the heart of their narrative.

A quick confession right about now. I’m not what you might call a crime aficionado. I love reading crime when I come across it, but I don’t go actively searching for it unless it’s a favourite author. So, none of these well-known names mean anything to me. In a way, this allowed me to really focus on the stories without getting caught up on my feelings for a certain author. The flipside is that I might have missed out on certain details or tropes that a crime fiction reader would be adept at picking up.

The sites picked for the stories range from the known – Edinburgh Castle – to the seemingly mundane – Stanley Mills – to the religious – Crossraguel Abbey, St. Peter’s Seminary – to the more far-flung – Maeshowe, The Hermit’s Castle – and more. Drawing on the rich and mainly sinister backstory of each of these locations, the writers have crafted modern-day stories that will, by turns, scare you, make you feel pity or sadness, and offer you occasional peeks at something resembling redemption. Not only that, which is engaging enough, but in most stories, there is a deeper exploration of how places affect memory, and the effect certain places have on our lives and psyches. At the end of the book, there are photos and insights about each of the locations, adding to the layers of story.

Being an anthology, there were stories I cared about more than the others. In particular, three stood out for me.

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My favourite was the collection opener, Lin Anderson’s ‘Orkahaugr’. Magnus, the protagonist, is a professor of criminal psychology in Glasgow, and has returned home to the Orkney archipelago for the midwinter festival. The burial mound of Maeshowe (Orkahaugr in Old Norse) contains one of the largest groups of runic inscriptions in the world. These were the work of the Vikings who broke into Maeshowe in the mid-1100s. Maeshowe itself is a 5000-year-old chambered cairn with a special feature. The entrance passage was built to align with the setting of the midwinter sun, when the light illuminates the tomb’s interior.

Magnus has seen this phenomenon only once as a teenager and is keen to repeat it in the present of the story, all these years later. Running parallel to Magnus’s story is a story of a Norse tribe in the past. There’s a wonderful blend of folklore, mystery, and real-life stakes (for characters in the past and present) that makes this a compelling story. It’s not particularly “scary”, but there’s a sad beauty to it that I loved.

The second story of the collection, ‘Ancient and Modern’ by Val McDermid, was far more out-and-out crime story, though just how much isn’t evident until the second half. It opens with a proposal on top of a cliff. Alan asks Ellie, the protagonist, to marry her. She accepts. There is a gorgeous setting of scene – “smudged bars of scarlet and gold and bruised plum, the colours reflected in the ruffled surface of the gunmetal sea.” But this happy opening paragraph ends with an unsettling revelation that clouds the rest of the time Alan and Ellie spend near Achmelvich Beach and discover “The Hermit’s Castle”, a diminutive poured-concrete fortress created in 1950 by an English architect. The interior is never wider or taller than two metres, and contains a concrete bed, hearth, and shelving. This location will play a gruesome part as this story unfolds. There’s blood and revenge and deep-running emotions.

Denise Mina’s story also has plenty of that, but it’s eerier for an eleven-year-old being the main culprit. Jake is on a trip to Edinburgh Castle with his parents Audrey and Pete, and his younger siblings Simon and Hannah. It is revealed early on that Jake has just been taken off medication and suffers from severe behavioural problems, many of them worrying.

The location itself, looking over the city from atop volcanic rock, is part of many of the defining moments in Scotland’s history. The castle itself includes a maze of historic buildings like the Scottish National War Museum and St. Margaret’s Chapel (the oldest building in Edinburgh). The Portcullis Gate has the Latin inscription ‘Nemo Me Impune Lacessit’ which Mina borrows for the title of her story. The translation of the inscriptions is “Cross Me and Suffer”. It is only when you reach the end of this haunting story that you realise just how much of a warning it was.

Overall, this collection has a high writing and storytelling standard through its twelve different styles; There was also beautiful, atmospheric writing about the Scottish landscape which makes me want to return and explore outside of Edinburgh. The stories explore a range of emotions – love, family, grief, revenge, hope – and we are introduced to a variety of characters in wide-ranging situations, whether a gripping hostage scenario, or a Nordic noir setting on the Scottish coast, or a nail-biting adventure at a lighthouse in the middle of a storm, or simply that of an estranged father trying desperately to reconnect with his daughter.

One quibble that I have, and this might not be applicable to everyone, is that some stories used a lot of Scottish lingo (‘The Last Siege of Bothwell Castle’ for example), and for someone like me, who isn’t used to so much of it, especially on the page, it kept pushing me out of the flow of the stories. For the story mentioned above, it didn’t matter in the end, since I really enjoyed it, but for others it did stop me from fully immersing myself into the narrative.

If you’re a crime fiction fan – I would definitely recommend that you give this anthology a go!

Thank you, Bee Books for giving me the chance to read this book.

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