"Entry Island" fulfilled a long held ambition to write something about the Highland Clearances.
For readers who know nothing about the Clearances, this was a phenomenon that followed the failed Jacobite uprising of 1745 when Bonnie Prince Charlie, with the help of several clan chiefs, attempted to regain the British throne. As a result the British government legislated to dismantle the Highland clan system. Many chiefs were dispossessed of their land. New landowners took over their estates, and with government incentives set about replacing people with sheep, which were more economically viable.
Over the next hundred years, tens of thousands of impoverished crofters were ejected from homes which were often set alight. Many 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. Many of them did not survive the voyages.
I wanted to take a fresh look at this shameful period of British history through the medium of fiction, and perhaps bring it to the attention of a wider audience. But I didn’t want to write a purely historical novel, so I had to find a contemporary crime story and setting that would somehow connect with the past.
In the Lewis Trilogy, I had told each story in two timelines – one set in the present, the other in the past, and I decided that this was the way to proceed with "Entry Island". The problem was that where the time gap between past and present in the trilogy books was a decade or two, the new book was going to present me with a time gap of at least 150 years.
My familiarity with the Outer Hebrides led me, quite naturally, to set the historical element of the story on the islands, where there had been some pretty brutal clearances – in Barra, West Harris, and the North Uist village of Solas. However, the logical setting for the contemporary end of the story was Canada, where so many Highlanders ended up after being forced from their homes in Scotland. But I had never been to Canada, and since I never write about a place I haven’t been to, it meant a lengthy research trip to make myself familiar with the locations that would appear in the book.
These turned out to be the Eastern Townships of mainland Quebec – settlements established largely by Hebridean Scots – and the Magdalen Islands in the middle of the Gulf of St Lawrence. This remote archipelago is remarkably similar to the Hebrides, except that most of the population are French speakers. With one exception – on the tiny Entry Island, where people speak only English and are mostly of Scots descent.
My central character became Sime Mackenzie, a Montreal homicide detective who arrives there to investigate a brutal murder – only to discover that the wife of the victim, and prime suspect in his killing, is unaccountably familiar to him, even although they have never met. And so began the bridging of the gap.
Entry Island by Peter May (Quercus £16.99) is just published. Peter May will be doing a major tour of the UK from 10th January. Please see www.petermay.co.uk for information (or see his Facebook page).