Design a site like this with
Get started

St Moluag’s

Happy to see the back cover to my book this morning on Amazon – not least because it features a photo taken on my honeymoon: St Moluag’s Chapel on Raasay, where many generations of MacLeods are interred. The chapel doorway you see me standing in was built in the 1200s, and was already ‘unroofed and ruinous’ by the time Johnson and Boswell visited in 1773. And so it has remained.


Rainey’s Wall

Me with a fragment of George Rainey’s wall, Raasay.

George Rainey, a wealthy London merchant, bought Raasay House from former Chief John MacLeod, who was forced into bankruptcy. The wall Rainey subsequently forced his tenants to build bisected the island. The fertile land to the south Rainey used for his own personal hunting ground. The islanders were forced onto a narrow strip of land to the north, with poor soil unsuitable for tillage or grazing. They were forbidden from marriage, punished for stealing even the smallest hare that found its way over onto their side of the wall. When my kinsman Calum MacLeod built the two mile stretch of road joining the north to the south (see previous post), he smashed through Rainey’s wall, using the broken pieces for his road, which he built singlehandedly using only a pickaxe and a wheelbarrow, dying shortly after completing it. I keep this piece in my garden.

Calum’s Road

In 2013 I finally fulfilled a wish to visit my grandfather’s birthplace on the isle of Raasay, and to walk the famous road built by his first cousin Calum. It’s quite a story. After unsuccessfully campaigning for two miles of road to be built linking Arnish in the north to the village, Calum decided to take matters into his own hands, quite literally. And so one morning in 1964, armed with only a pickaxe, a shovel and a wheelbarrow, Calum set out to begin what would take 10 years, and ultimately his life, to complete. (It might have been finished sooner, but Calum was also a crofter, the island’s postman, and part-time lighthouse keeper.)

Calum MacLeod, my Grandpa Calum’s namesake

What strikes visitors most on seeing the road for the first time is the sheer magnitude of his accomplishment. The stretch of land between Arnish and the village is rugged and inhospitable, and Calum never chooses the easiest or shortest route. For example the road gracefully zig-zags to accommodate the steepest gradients, with supporting wooden buttresses carefully slotted into place. Engineers the world over have come to marvel at this testament to one man’s spirit, declaring it a wonder of modern engineering. Most touching of all is the fact that Calum couldn’t drive. The road was built for the ambulance that would prove a lifeline to his ailing wife Lexie.

My wife Amber outside Calum’s cottage. Arnish, Raasay

My own grandpa Calum, as Calum-of-the-Road’s first cousin, lived in the same house for a time as well. Being something of a black sheep and not overly religious, my Grandpa joined the Glasgow police in the early 1930s. He and I were very close. He would get misty-eyed after a few drams and talk about Raasay, sing songs and teach me snatches of Gaelic. He never told us about his famous cousin, though, until one day he pointed to an obituary in the newspaper and said quietly, ‘that’s my cousin’. They were like that.

My Grandpa Calum and Grannie Margie on holiday. Note the suit, even on a sweltering hot day.

Where I Get My Ideas From

The Witchery, Edinburgh

I developed a fascination for literary heroes Johnson and Boswell on my honeymoon in 2013, when I was struck by a strange series of coincidences. It appeared that everywhere we checked in had already been visited by the pair on their celebrated tour of the Scottish Highlands. We spent our wedding night in Edinburgh’s world-famous Witchery, which we learned was immediately adjacent to Boswell’s residence in James Court. The chain of coincidences followed us to Aberdeen, Inverness, and finally to our honeymoon suite in Raasay House, where like us, Johnson and Boswell found nothing but ‘civility, elegance, and plenty’. I found a copy of Johnson and Boswell’s Tour of the Westen Isles in the library of Raasay House, and devoured the book every chance I got (which is no mean feat on a honeymoon).

So fate? Perhaps!

Raasay House

Inspiration, however, does not come from one idea alone, but rather the rubbing together of two or more ideas which creates a sort of frisson. This occurred by chance when I read a curious phrase in one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, in which Holmes says to Watson, “I am lost without my Boswell.” (A Scandal in Bohemia). I suddenly envisaged Johnson and Boswell as a kind of 18th century Holmes and Watson, traveling the length and breadth of supernatural Scotland in search of her mysteries. It wasn’t such a great leap. The two men had already owned to a fascination with the supernatural, regularly discussing the existence of ghosts, clairvoyance, the occult etc., while Scotland is a land steeped in mystery, rich in myth and supernatural lore. Before long I had it all mapped out. The premise was that the real journals of Johnson and Boswell were a mere cover designed to mask their true vocations, as paranormal investigators par excellence. It seemed to me such an obvious idea I had to check first it hadn’t been done already.

Once I had established the originality of my idea, I was ready to begin. We were living at the time in an unrenovated house on the Isle of Bute. I had no internet, and no electronic devices. What fun it would prove to be, writing by hand, and conducting research in my local library. I don’t think I have ever been so productive, or so happy. The first story would be The Wolf of Badenoch. What better place to start? I always loved The Hound of the Baskervilles, but as a child I remember being vaguely disappointed to learn the culprit wasn’t a real werewolf after all, but a huge hound and a tin of paint. I quickly rectified this omission with my own homage to the classic novella, based on a real historical figure. Other stories quickly followed, using the supernatural history of Scotland as my blueprint, until soon I had amassed enough tales to create a first volume.

It all came quite easily to me, but then again I had a slight advantage. My characters were already fully formed. All I had to do was make Johnson a tad more… likeable. His distaste for the Scots and Scotland is well recorded, and even though his tongue is firmly in his cheek (he adored Boswell, after all), did he have to be so damned pompous about it all? Secondly, I had to ‘dumb down’ a notch. Not for my audience, but for my own sanity. Johnson and Boswell were notoriously witty, absurdly erudite, startlingly verbose, and their rhetoric would have been unrealistic to sustain throughout an entire novel. And unnecessary. I overcame this obstacle by adopting a semi-epistolary style. By opening each chapter with an excerpt from their fictional journal I was able to capture something of the vernacular, switching to a sparser third-person voice for the main thrust of the narrative. Once I was happy with my work it was time to send my baby out for submission. But that, gentle reader, is a story for another blog post.