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Highland crime wave, Victorian style

By SPP Reporter

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THE hills and glens of the Highlands have not always been as tranquil as they might appear.

So Inverness College lecturer Malcolm Archibald discovered when he began researching the history of crime in the north of Scotland.

The Edinburgh-born author, how now lives near Elgin, already has considerable form when it comes to Victorian crime, having already written about real life crime in 19th century Glasgow and Dundee, as well as using the misdeeds of our ancestors as inspiration for his historical novels, including Whales For The Wizard, winner of the 2005 Dundee Book Prize, and two novels featuring James Mendick of the Metropolitan Police’s new Detective Branch, The Darkest Walk and A Burden Shared.

The real life crimes he uncovered in the Highlands include a mysterious death on Arran, a tragic case of murder and madness on Benbecula where a mentally unstable young man killed three members of his own family, whisky distillers whose methods of protecting their illegal trade would do credit to Prohibition-era bootleggers and whole communities driven to riot by the threat of starvation or eviction.

Even the pious were not immune from breaking the law with the high feelings resulting from the 1843 split in the Church of Scotland even requiring military intervention to sort out.

Archibald’s true tales of Highland crime have been collected in his latest book Whisky Wars, Riots and Murder: Crime in the 19th Century Highlands and Islands, which is being launched in Inverness.

What prompted you to write about crimes in the Highlands and Islands in the 19th century?

I have already written about Dundee and Glasgow crimes, so the Highlands and Islands was a natural progression. I also had a long time interest in the area. I was working in the Outer Hebrides a few years ago and read a memorial to the land wars of the 1880s. The participants were treated as criminals at the time, yet to many they were heroes, or at least spokesmen for a large section of the community. That prompted the question: what is crime and is it a dynamic, changing entity?

Were you surprised by the level of crime in the supposedly peaceful Highlands?

There is a saying "out of Africa comes always some new thing": the Highlands are like that. The popular conception is more of a misconception. If the Highlands was such a peaceful, subdued area, how were the soldiers of the Highland regiments so renowned? The Highlands have a very turbulent history; I can see no reason for the Highland people of the 19th century suddenly becoming meek and mild.

Are there any crimes, or areas of crime, that stand out as archetypally Highland?

Whisky smuggling on a commercial scale was rampant, with gun battles between smugglers and the Excisemen. Glenlivet was famed for illicit whisky, but it was widespread. That was different; as was the number of riots.

If in doubt, riot, seems to have been the Highland way. I think there was a massive sense of community in each area of the Highlands, with horns, rather than bagpipes, used to summon the people together.

Was there one crime that stood out for you in the book as being particularly quirky or horrifying?

The triple murder in Benbecula was ugly, and the case of incest with a church minister was intriguing, to say the least. I think the most quirky was the elopement in Harris, when the groom filled a boat with his own fighting tail and sailed to abduct his very willing bride.

You do not just write non-fiction, of course. Has working on this book helped stimulate your novel writing batteries and is there anything you have uncovered for "Whisky Wars…" that might form the germ of a fictional story?

Just one or two! The Harris elopement raises a smile, but there are other examples, such as the police constable from Caithness who tracked a thief right across the country to Strathnaver, and the Exciseman who was hanged for forgery. Or the deaf man who was robbed in Inverness... the rustler who was arrested on a whaling ship and who seemed quite pleased to be transported to Australia. His surname was Gunn; the same as my grandmother from Brora. Nice to think he could have been a relative.

Any future writing plans you can reveal to us: will you be taking the story of crime in the Highlands into the 20th century or looking at a new region of Scotland, for example?

Black and White have very kindly asked for a book about crime in 19th century Aberdeen; that is due out in Spring 2014. I have other ideas that I am pondering, both fiction and non-fiction. Is this the right place to mention my just published historical fiction: A Burden Shared: the Dundee Murders?

Whisky Wars, Riots and Murder: Crime in the 19th Century Highlands and Islands by Malcolm Archibald is published by Black & White Publishing priced £9.99.

The book will be launched at the Inverness branch of Waterstones in the Eastgate shopping centre on Thursday 3rd October at 6pm where the author will read from his book and sign copies.

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