Published: 06/01/2014 11:58 - Updated: 06/01/2014 12:39

Island-hopping Peter May looks west

Peter May on Entry Island, Canada.
Peter May on Entry Island, Canada.

HAVING scored considerable commercial and critical success with his Lewis trilogy, Peter May is turning his attention to an even smaller and more remote island.

Entry Island is the title and location of the Glasgow-born author’s latest novel.

Measuring just two kilometres wide by three kilometres long, Entry Island is one of the Magdalen Islands, a group of islands in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and part of the Canadian province of Quebec, and with a population of 130 makes the isle of Lewis look distinctly populous.

"More islands," May agreed with a laugh.

"I don’t know why — I just seem to be drawn to them."

Entry Island — the place — may be 3000 miles away from Lewis, but the book also has a Lewis connection in a tale that links a modern day murder mystery with the tragedy of the Highland Clearances.

"I’d always wanted to write a book about the Clearances, but the problem was working out how to do it," May explained.

"I didn’t want to write a historical novel and I’m also a crime writer, or at least, that’s how I’m seen, so I had to imagine a way of writing a contemporary crime novel that featured the Highland Clearances in some way — which wasn’t the easiest of tasks."

His solution is a novel that operates on two timelines.

In one, set in the present day, Sime Mackenzie, a Montreal homicide, arrives on Entry Island to investigate a murder. There he begins experiencing dreams which draw on his family’s own Hebridean history and the brutal events that forced the MacKenzies to carve out a new life in the New World.

These two timelines finally allow May to address a topic which, even in Scotland, remains far too little known.

"Even as a Higher History student growing up in Glasgow, I knew nothing about the Highland Clearances," May said.

"It was John McGrath’s play The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black Black Oil, that drew my attention to it."

However, May reckons it should be no surprise that events which show the British state and its ruling class in such a poor light have been traditionally overlooked.

"The Highland Clearances meet all the criteria for ethnic cleansing and effectively that’s what it was," he said.

Writing the book was both a very satisfying and emotional experience for the author, who worked on such television series as Squadron, Take The High Road and first Gaelic language "soap" Machair, before quitting to become a full time novelist in the 1990s.

"I did a lot of research on the Western Isles and found the remains of cleared villages, many of which are not easily accessible today," he said.

"Then going to Quebec and seeing the townships established by the Scots who survived the horrors of crossing the Atlantic and made a life there that they passed on to their children. Ultimately you end up with modern Canada and a pretty affluent society, but that all stems from the horror of the Clearances, people who would never have survived without the help of others. That has forged a tremendous community spirit."

However, rather than the more obviously Scottish communities of Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, May picked as his setting an isolated English-speaking community within French-speaking Quebec.

"I’d been interested in the Magdelen Islands for a while before writing the book because my neighbour in France comes from there," May revealed.

He also received a personal introduction to the Scottish townships of Quebec by a female minister who was a fan of his Lewis books.

"I met an old lady of 93 who still spoke Gaelic told me stories of her own mother, who had been one of those people who had been cleared, and another of 87 who hadn’t spoken Gaelic since her husband had died, but their entire marriage had been conducted in Gaelic," May said.

"I went to a town called Stornoway and to a graveyard that was full of MacLeods and MacKenzies. It was very emotional."

Entry Island’s English speaking enclave within the French-speaking Magdalen Islands is largely composed of people whose ancestors settled on the island literally by accident, survivors of ships wrecked in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, and the seabed around the Magdalens is littered with the remains of sunken vessels.

"It’s been quite a journey this book," May continued.

"I set myself a huge challenge, but I feel and hope it has all worked out well in the end."

It certainly seems to be the case according to the first reviews which see May continuing to blur the boundaries between "literary" and "crime" writer.

"I’ve never been drawn towards writing the stereotypical police procedural type of book," May said.

"But as the Scandinavian authors have demonstrated, it’s possible to take crime writing into different areas. Crime offers the potential to write about anything."

Having written a number of connected books — along with his Lewis trilogy, May has written his China thrillers about a female American pathologist and a male Chinese detective and his Enzo MacLeod series about a French based forensic expert — May promises that Entry Island is a standalone and his next book has nothing to do with islands at all.

Even on a trip to Las Vegas, Peter still has to find time to write.
Even on a trip to Las Vegas, Peter still has to find time to write.

"I’m happy to write one-offs," May said.

"I spent 17 years writing soap opera for television, so it’s quite refreshing to be able to move from one story to the next and meet new characters.

"Someone asked me recently if I did go back to a series, which one would it be? It would probably be the China thrillers because it’s been 10 years since the last one and China has been changing so quickly, it would be nice to go back and see what those changes are."

New books and settings mean new subjects to research and for former journalist and travel enthusiast May, this is always one of the most pleasurable aspects of the writing process.

Writing the text for non-fiction photography book The Hebrides, inspired by locations in the Lewis trilogy, also provided something of a throwback to his days as a journalist.

"It gave me an opportunity to talk about my own relationship with the islands and for me there was only one guy for the job of taking the photographs, David Wilson, who was my production manager on Machair," May said.

"He fell in love with the islands and now lives there. He’s always been an excellent photographer and he just jumped at the chance. The book has been phenomenally successful and I think it’s going into its third re-print. Would I do something similar for Entry Island? Well, between the Hebridean and Quebec locations, you could certainly put together an interesting collection of photographs."

• Peter May will appear at the University of Aberdeen’s MacRobert Lecture Theatre, MacRobert Building, Kings Street, Aberdeen, on Saturday 11th January at 7pm. Tickets are priced £5/£4 concessions and can be booked by telephoning 01224 592440 or emailing

He also appears at Inverness Town House on Monday 13th January at 7pm. Tickets are priced £5 and can be booked by calling 01463 233500

Both events are in association with the local branches of Waterstones, who also have tickets available.

Entry Island, the Lewis trilogy and photography book The Hebrides (with pictures by David Wilson) are published by Quercus books.

• To see some of David Wilson’s Hebridean photographs, go to

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