Tag Archives: Scotland

THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES … by Sarah Maine (2016) Originally published as BHALLA STRAND (2014)

 

house tidesbhalla strand

Scottish Island Fiction

I am always looking for new books to read especially if they fall under the category of Scottish Island fiction – a  favoured topic  I’ve been pursuing for many years.  Recently a  review of THE HOUSE BETWEEN THE TIDES caught my attention because it has all the elements I enjoy in my preferred  novels but there was something strangely familiar about it.  As it turns out I had read this book a couple of years ago under its previous title – BHALLA STRAND.  I wasn’t sure why I hadn’t written about it back then but I decided to give it a reread.  My library only had a copy of BHALLA STRAND but the author says on her website that they’re the same book.  A quick gander at some reviews informed me that she changed the name of the house from Bhalla House to Muirlan House in its latest incarnation, but I will say Bhalla House because that is the name of the manor in the copy I now physically hold in my hands.

This is a dual narrative novel with Bhalla House, on an Outer Hebridean Island, being the  link between the two stories.  In the modern account (2010), Hetty has just buried her last living relative – her Grandmother – and subsequently finds herself the owner of an old estate on a sparsely populated Scottish Island.  She is bombarded with advice but most of her counsel is provided by individuals with self-serving interests.  One group – led by her sometime boyfriend – has ideas of making Bhalla House a hotel and playground for the very rich.  Another interested party has warned her that the estate is far too dilapidated to save.  Oh yes, there is a little matter of the skeletal remains found in the foundation.  She is confused by the conflicting advice but she arranges to visit the island and do some research of her own.

In 1910, a newly married Theo Blake, a renowned artist, is bringing his bride to Bhalla house for the first time. He sees his much younger wife as a delicate creature and he is afraid that she won’t love the island and the house as much as he does.  On the contrary, she adores the island; the wildlife, the clean air, the beauty, the ocean and natural plant life.  But the house she finds damp and gloomy and Theo won’t hear of her plans to brighten it up with paint.  It is also filled with dead things (stuffed and mounted but dead)  There are grievances still simmering among the Island people, many of them were cleared out of their homes by Theo’s father in another generation, so he could build Bhalla house.  During the summer, Theo and Beatrice entertain several groups of guests: mostly hunting enthusiast with bored wives.  Many of the birds shot or collected are endangered and this infuriates the factor’s son and it is a source of more tensions.  These underlying tensions and unexpected alliances prove to have consequences that will still be significant in Hetty’s time.

Hetty comes across as someone who is easily manipulated – at first.  But she grows. She is still young and she is without a single family member to support her ( a tough spot to be in )

The concern for the birds really caught my interest.  At one point Beatrice was attempting to keep Theo from finding out about a pair of divers setting up a nest on an island loch, before he could stuff and mount them.  I did a wee bit of research and I  discovered the divers are the same bird a Canada’s loons.  We love our loons (we even put them on our money) and their call truly is haunting. This is just me learning something. Yeh.

I enjoyed both the storylines and I found Maine’s descriptions of the Island  captured the untamed beauty splendidly.  Giving a house such a central role isn’t new (Thornfield Hall, Manderley, Tara, ) but it works.   This novel has mystery suspense, romance in a beautiful setting – a lovely novel.

Now I must explain why I didn’t write about this book when I first read it a few years ago because I do remember now.  I read three books, around the same time, that were set on Scottish Islands. All three books involved turning an old estate into a holiday home of some sort.  And (here’s the big one) all three books began with the discovery of human remains on the property.  But I can see, with hindsight, that despite those similarities they were all unique stories.*

See also *

THE SEA HOUSE  by Elizabeth Gifford (2013)

NIGHT WAKING by Sara Ross (2011)

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THE SEA DETECTIVE by Mark Douglas-Home (2015)

Scottish Crime Fiction

Scottish Island Fiction

This novel has so many of the elements that I love in a book that I was almost certain I was going to love it before I had even read a single page: I wasn’t disappointed. The main character is an oceanographer, working out of Edinburgh,  named Cal McGill who has pioneered a program for using ocean currents, weather records, shipping documents, archives, wind speeds and a host of other information to explain the physical origin of items (or bodies and body parts) washing up on a shore. Where did the journey begin? He is also an eco-warrior attempting to bring attention to global warming and  a loner who uses a bunch of anonymous beachcombers to feed him information.

Cal’s interest in the ocean was kindled in his youth when he discovered his grandfather had died during World War ll, after being washed overboard during a mission. He has an over-riding interest in discovering all the facts regarding this event.  The small Scottish Island that had been home to this branch of his family for generations was abandoned after the war and many pieces of this puzzle just do not fit.  This is my favourite plot line because I adore stories involving Scottish Islands.  Peter May’s BLACK HOUSE trilogy is tremendous and I recommend it to any fans of this novel.

There is also a subplot featuring a young Indian girl exploited by a prostitution/pedophile ring. A third subplot revolves around the mystery of shoe clad feet coming ashore in strangely diverse locations.

.There is a secondary character – a policewoman named Helen Jamieson- and I hope I see her in future installments. Oh yes, there are already two more installments in this series…yippee.

So here it is in a nutshell.. a crime mystery, an interesting protagonist, and a Scottish Island. What is there not to love?

Published by Penguin Random House

383 Pages

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EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY…. by Linda Gillard (Transita 2005)

emotionA continuation of my series featuring novels that are set on Islands in Scotland.  In my last 5 blogs I introduced novels of murder, mystery and suspense  and  I have discussed how the barren landscape, isolation, unpredictable weather and insider/outsider mentality can be used by the authors to heighten the suspense in these novels.  In my next two entries I will introduce novels with themes involving mental health issues and how the Islands (especially the isolation) motivate the characters and contribute to the plot.

The primary character in “Emotional Geology” is a woman named Rose. She has had at least one suicide attempt, she has been institutionalized, and she has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She is also obsessed with her ex-lover despite having had no contact with him for five years.  She makes the decision to buy a house on a particularly isolated area on the Isle of North Uist.  Her plan is to avoid people, enjoy nature, and get to work on her beloved art. She has hopes that she will be able to reduce her medications in order to regain some of her creativity.

She writes in a letter to her daughter  “the locals have been kindness itself..” p.5 and one particular kind  local may be a whole different sort of problem…or not.  Culum is a single school teacher with his own set of baggage.

It is definitely not all clear sailing.

Rose’s story is told straight — no apologizing. A worthy read.

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THE BLACK HOUSE …….by Peter May (2011)

  • black houselewis manchess menTHE LEWIS MAN …. By Peter May (2012)
  • THE CHESS MEN….  By Peter May (2013)

THE LEWIS TRILOGY: three novels set against the backdrop of the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland.

I’ve read all three of these novels and I just love them – all three of them – with no particular favourite. There are two main characters in “The Lewis Trilogy”: first there is a detective named Fin Macleod , and then there is the Island of Lewis itself.

 Fin Macleod is a native son, born on the Island where he spent the first eighteen years of his life before he transferred to the mainland of Scotland for university and eventually to join the police force.  As the first novel opens, almost twenty years after his departure, he is working as a detective in Edinburgh and coping with a ruined marriage and the grief and anger associated with his son’s hit and run death. He is sent to Lewis to investigate a murder that is strikingly similar to an Edinburgh murder; his Island knowledge and command of the Gaelic are considered to be an advantage. What follows is an engaging novel with an interesting whodunnit and a fascinating insight into growing up in a remote and isolated environment. The novel expertly moves between the present murder and the life of Fin as he was coming of age  He is both an insider and an outsider. The moody, unpredictable atmosphere is aided by the unsettled climate that in turn mirrors Fin’s unsettled soul.

The second novel in the series (The Lewis Man) still features Fin but it is more focused on another character who, in the present, is battling with Alzheimer’s disease. It is this character’s past that makes up the majority of his story. And a bog body!!! Bog bodies can be 2000 years old or very recent since the temperature, acidity and lack of oxygen in the bogs acts as a preservative. I have talked, in previous blogs, about my fascination with bog bodies and I recommend the novels of Erin Hart to anyone who shares this interest. (A little aside but now back to “The Lewis Man” ) I cannot stress enough how the description of the Island, its inhabitants, and its culture enrich this novel.

The third novel in the series is called “The Chess  Men” ; a reference to the famous medieval chess pieces discovered in Lewis in 1831, and featured in this novel. The novel also discusses the tragedy of the sinking of the HMS Iolaire on January 01,1919 which is a horrific moment in Lewis history.  The ship was carrying 280 passengers, mostly soldiers returning from WWI , when she hit a rock within view of Stornoway Harbour.  At least 205 of the 280 aboard perished.  It is somehow beyond sad that these soldiers should survive the war and die within view of their home. A young Fin is educated about this tragedy and learns how actions taken on that night could affect  life even 60 years later. This is the novel which probably illustrates the unpredictable nature of the Lewis weather the most and serves as a metaphor for life on the Isle of Lewis.

Did you know……?

Donald Trump is a son of a …..no not that….he is the son of a Lewis woman. His mother, Mary MacLeod was born just outside the capital city of Stornoway. Just a little fact you may need in a trivia contest.

I REALLY hope Peter May decides to make this trilogy a quartet (look to Ann Cleeves for inspiration ).

In conclusion,three novels that capture the atmosphere and details (lots of details) of the culture and atmosphere of the Isle of Lewis.  Lewis is the most northerly island (Part of Harris and Lewis) in the outer Hebrides. Known for its deeply religious inhabitants  (Sunday it closes down)  and for a deep adherence to the Gaelic language and traditions.

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