Writing Orkney

The latest blog from The Booktrail:

Mention Orkney and what do you think of?

Mysterious islands with an ethereal quality to them? A mist swirling around the bare trees and desolate landscape? Islands cut off from the rest of the world where the weather dictates your daily routine? A place where you are among some of the most diverse and fascinating landscapes in the world?

It’s also a good place for a crime scene or two - no one is going to hear you scream after all. There are more than one or two rocky outcrops where you can hide a body and with only animals as witnesses... crime fiction novelists can really let go.

Three writers who have brought their own brand of death and destruction to these windy isles therefore are the best guides to the landscape and people.

Lin Anderson - None But the Dead (on Booktrail)

Lin AndersonOur first visit to Orkney is remote even by Orkney standards. Sanday, one of Britain’s northernmost islands, is not the most hospitable of places nor one of the easiest to get to... and the weather is hardly welcoming either.

The ferry only runs if the wind and rain allow. The planes are also dependent on the weather conditions so that means any communication and of course police work is too.

A craggy, inhospitable landscape is therefore the ideal blank canvas for Rhoda Macleod to explore. Imagine being stranded here with people you don’t know or indeed a crime writer with a dastardly glint in their eye?

“After all, uncovering old bones on Sanday was almost as frequent an occurrence as high winds and rain.”

Gale force winds, the souls of dead children and a remote, claustrophobic place with no modern forensics, no quick and efficient soil sample analysis...

Lin Andersen’s palette is dark and brooding, lines blur and the picture is grim and chilling. It would be a booktrail like no other to go to Sanday with Rhoda Macleod.

Doug Johnstone - Crash Land (on Booktrail)

doug-j2-300x200Orkney’s history and mythical past are the main colours on Doug Johnstone’s canvas. He not so much paints than carves the landscape into his story.

He sets his story in Kirkwall and although he changes some of the village geographically, it’s undeniable the brutal unforgiving landscape that Doug just carves up with a very sharp knife.

As for the historical angle. The Tomb of Eagles mentioned in the novel is as mythical and as fascinating as it sounds. This is a real tomb which over the years has released more than its fair share of ancient bones and artefacts. The ideal tool for a crime writer really and a veritable cave of story ideas.

I laughed when Doug admits in the novel that he’s invented a bar inside Kirkwall airport. If the island doesn’t offer the crime writer exactly what he needs he can always invent it!

Louise Welsh - Death is a Welcome Guest (on Booktrail)

Louise WelshNow the third writer in the Orkney panel is the lovely Louise Welsh and her version of Orkney is beyond that which you will have ever encountered.

I know because I’ve spent time in her dystopian London and smelling the sulphur tinge in the air as I exited the Tube...for the smell of sulphur was the start of a horrific spread of disease and death in the first Plague novel....

Now, this fear has potentially spread all the way to Orkney. And if “the sweats” reach here there is no way out.

“Orkney was flat and almost treeless. You could see for miles, here roads took dark twists and turns, the high verges and hedgerows deadened sound and it was impossible to know what might lie around the next corner.”

So, if you really want a good look at Orkney and see why this stunning archipelago has enchanted so many writers and created so many myths, travel with any of these three writers and see the landscape through their eyes. It’s a great, if not chilling, view.

You won’t want to miss this visit to Orkney!

Get your tickets to Writing Orkney: September 11th, 1:30pm

booktrail-logoThis is the fifth post of the Booktrail blog takeover for a series of posts exploring where setting shapes a number of novels from authors attending Bloody Scotland this year.

Visit the booktrail for maps, travel guides and reviews for the books featuring in Bloody Scotland.


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Andy Rolph

For Andy Rolph who died in a tragic diving accident, August 2013.

I first met Andy at a Forensic Soil Conference in Edinburgh. His company R2S (Return to Scene) had a computer demonstration running in the foyer on the work they did collecting forensic evidence at scenes of crime. We chatted for a while. He gave me his card. I visited their Aberdeen headquarters. And Andy in the guise of Roy Hunter and his team became an integral part of the Rhona MacLeod books. He was so enthusiastic and generous with his knowledge and his support. We did many events together, particularly science festivals where forensic fact met forensic fiction. When I wrote my opening chapter of Picture Her Dead, I went to consult the team and pitch the scene to them. They all talked with great enthusiasm about what they would do to recover the forensic data. I left and Andy said they were bereft, because they suddenly realised there was no such scene to deal with!

Andy was a great supporter of Bloody Scotland and his event last year was one of the first to sell out. He was meticulous and kind. A man of integrity and steadfastness.

I will miss him. Rhona MacLeod will miss him. Bloody Scotland will miss him.

Lin Anderson




Due to Andy's tragic death, his event 'Fascinating Forensics - An Orkney Murder' and the crime scene reconstruction have now been cancelled.


A smörgåsbord of red-heads

They can write. But can they act?

As a treat for the grand finale of Bloody Scotland we were served a one-off staging of The Red-Headed League, starring Sherlock Holmes himself as the clever detective. (It was really 'only' Stuart MacBride, not the genuine Mr Holmes.) Karen Campbell was the red-head and Gordon Brown (the other Gordon Brown) was disparaging towards the other red-head hopefuls in the audience.

Lin Anderson was Mrs Hudson, Craig Robertson played Lestrade and Val McDermid was Mr Merryweather. Gillian Philip was the villain of the piece. She villained most convincingly.

Dr Watson had the biggest role and David Ashton Doctor Watsoned so well I wasn't surprised to find he's an actor.

Why is it that watching the 'wrong' people do something, we like it even better?

Once the red-headed jollities had been dealt with, it was awards time.

First out was the Worth the Wait short story competition. Out of 232 entries and 19 shortlisted stories, the winner was Sarah Reynolds who got some very old and rather valuable Glengoyne whisky for her troubles, amongst other prizes. Very good story. In fact, most of them were unexpectedly excellent.

The very first Scottish Crime Book of the Year 2012 came next, and last. Jenny Brown introduced Sheena McDonald who introduced William McIlvanney who told us that Charles Cumming was the winner with A Foreign Country. A large cheque changed hands and Charles made a suitably gracious speech.

And then we all went home.

Sky high

Crime writers in the observatory...

So you’ll be wondering what a collective of crime writers get up to on conferences when the crowds dissipate? You’re not? I’ll tell you anyway. We go gazing at the stars. The shiny-in-the-sky-peeping-behind-clouds kinda stars. Not Katie Price.

We were sat sitting, after dinner on Saturday night, at the bar: Lin Anderson, Gillian Philip, Cathy MacPhail and me (Michael J. Malone) when we were approached by a small dapper man.

“Want to see my observatory?” he asked.

“Makes a change from puppies,” said Gillian.

“Or kittens,” said Lin.

“Or tattoos,” said Cathy. “Oops, did I say that out loud?”

“At least tell me your name,” says I. “I don’t go to a strange man’s observatory without at least knowing their name.”

“Bert”, says he. “And here at the Stirling Highland Hotel we have an actual, real-life observatory.”

And before you know it, we were whisked off down a long, white corridor and up a steep, white staircase climbing up inside a dark tower.

“Ooh,” says Lin Anderson. “I could fair murder someone up here.”

“Me bagsies that,” says Gillian.

“Where’s my wine glass?” says Cathy.


So, imagine an igloo. Except there’s no snow. And it’s made of wood. And there’s a fricking HUGE metal tube thing stretched across the ceiling. Those in the know – our Bert – call it a telescope.


As Bert describes how the telescope works Lin and Gillian are getting more and more excited. Lin is wondering when Doctor Who will appear and Gillian is staring at this giant metal tube thing making squealing noises that Meg Ryan would be envious of.

Bert is visibly growing before our eyes. His chest is about to burst with pride. And we haven’t even looked through the thing yet.

Sadly, the cloud cover is too thick – the moon has got its cloak on, so to speak – but our Bert has an alternative. The Wallace Tower is lit up in the distance like a beacon and the telescope brings it so close we can see every brick. Gillian’s squeals are so high pitched now that only dogs can hear it. Albeit, every dog within a twenty mile radius.


Back in the bar – pulses calmed, breathing normal, the conversation returns to more mundane matters.

“Can I borrow a red wig from anyone for tomorrow?” asks Cathy.

Post by Michael Malone
Photos by Iain McLean

Pitch Perfect

“The stakes are high ...”

The organisers invited pitches from aspiring crime writers. Describe your novel in 100 words was their task and they flooded in from all corners of the UK. Lin Anderson and Jenny Brown were given the difficult task of sifting through them to find the final 7 talented (and brave) souls who would get the opporchancity to pitch their novels to a panel comprised of commissioning editors and a literary agent.

The panel of nippy sweeties:

Liz Small (Waverley Books), Rachel Rayner (Transworld Books) Maxine Hitchcock (Simon & Schuster) and Jenny Brown (Chair of Bloody Scotland and Literary Agent)

The Pitchers:

Colin Vaines, Sharon Birch, Joe Knobbs, Alan Gillespie, Kirsty Logan, Mark Leggatt, Calum Macleod

Here's how it unfolded:

Colin Vaines – a headless corpse in Loch Ness – the home of Aleister Crowley

The panel:  well chosen topic – try to get over possible comical associations  - maintain energy and pace at the beginning – a clear sense of influence and direction for your audience – universal appeal of Loch Ness – sounds well developed

Sharon Birch – Who’s Body is it Anyway? Remote cottage in the highlands – body found of someone who was thought to have been cremated 3 years earlier

The panel: title misleading, could mean anything – focus on the aspect of secrets – pitcher introduced great credentials and authenticity which is appealing to a publisher. Potential for a series is also attractive, as is location. Mistaken identity always a good start – as are dark secrets – we all identify with this. Crime is an interactive genre – we are all armchair detectives. Comparative references to Kate Atkinson worked.

Joseph Knobbs – Death Bed Conversion – serial killer and an unfound 7th grave – was an innocent man convicted – was the real killer never found – did the 7th victim survive – killer, victim and detective collide

The panel: powerful pitch – confident approach – moors connection will resonate with public – great twist subverts our expectations – make maverick cop empathic

Alan Gillespie – Interview with a Murderous Lesbian Cannibal – in Leglock Prison - a character of deep flaws – bizarre sexual negotiations – silence of the lambs with a Scottish accent

The panel: loved the pitch – good introduction – brought in strong comparisons – not sure if book is a comedy – hard to pull off comedy with horrific elements – extremely strong characters – would have to see how it is developed – lots of fun – female serial killer is underdone – tricky title, but eye-grabbing.

Kirsty Logan – Little Dead Boys – Angela Carter meets Lousie Welsh – gothic novel

The panel: great credential from the author – great title – familiar but different – find something different with wide appeal – past and present – urban legends – liked the atmosphere.

Mark Leggett – Closure – conspiracy – angst-ridden a driven by morality – journalist wife is murdered – chasing the murderer, his son is at increased risk – drug cartels – Mossad – a chase through Europe and North Africa

The panel:  intrigued to know how character will overcome the odds stacked up against him – will need tenacity to ensure character isn’t overwhelmed – felt it might have too much going on – two panellist loved it – wanted to know character was well-rounded enough – feels there is a good market for this kind of book – emotional heart is young son being in danger – achieves empathy.

Calum Macleod– the Song of Alan Breck – no one ever named a film called “Lowlander” – set after 1745 rebellion – character flees to Paris – clues that his father might be a traitor to the cause

The panel: intriguing premise – a real family secret – huge appeal – historic novel needs convincing details – stronger title perhaps?

And the winners are ... JOE KNOBBS and SHARON BIRCH

Post by Michael Malone
Photos by Iain McLean