My novel THE EXILED is a fusion of several different life threads.
Firstly there’s Edinburgh.
A lot of my work, long and short form, has been set in Scotland, and much of it uses the history and folklore. There’s just something about the misty landscapes and old buildings that speaks straight to my soul. Bloody Celts… we get all sentimental at the least wee thing.
I grew up on the West Coast of Scotland in an environment where the supernatural was almost commonplace.
My grannie certainly had a touch of ‘the sight’, always knowing when someone in the family was in trouble. There are numerous stories told of family members meeting other, long dead, family in their dreams, and I myself have had more than a few encounters with dead family, plus meetings with what I can only class as residents of faerie. I have had several precognitive dreams, one of which saved me from a potentially fatal car crash.
I have a deep love of old places, in particular menhirs and stone circles, and I’ve spent quite a lot of time travelling the UK and Europe just to visit archaeological remains. I also love what is widely known as ‘weird shit’. I’ve spent far too much time surfing and reading Fortean, paranormal and cryptozoological websites. The cryptozoological stuff especially fascinates me, and provides a direct stimulus for a lot of my fiction.
I’ve also been influenced by many Scottish writers. Robert Louis Stevenson in particular is a big influence. He is a master of plotting, and of putting innocents into situations far out of their usual comfort zones while still maintaining a grounding in their previous, calmer, reality. His way with a loveable rogue in Treasure Island and Kidnapped in particular is also a big influence. Other Scottish writers who have influenced me include John Buchan, Iain Banks and, more in my youth than now, Alistair MacLean and Nigel Tranter. From them I learned how to use the scope of both the Scottish landscape and its history while still keeping the characters alive.
But I think it’s the people that influence me most. Everybody in Scotland’s got stories to tell, and once you get them going, you can’t stop them. I love chatting to people, usually in pubs, and finding out the weird shit they’ve experienced.
Which brings me back to Edinburgh. Those of us brought up in the West of Scotland have a love / hate relationship with our country’s capital. We can appreciate the castle, the architecture and the history, but the people have always felt slightly aloof, suffering from a superiority complex that our side of Scotland feels is unwarranted – ‘all fur coat and no knickers.’
The pubs are great though, full of history, atmosphere and characters. It was while working in the city and working my way round a selection of bars that I first got the idea of the killer that is at the heart of the book, but I could never find the right hook to hang the story on, one that would also allow me to investigate what the old city means to me.
Then I remembered my black bird.
The black bird has been with me in a recurring dream for a long time – more than 50 years now. I tried to tie down what it has meant to me in a previous novella, BROKEN SIGIL. That approached the dream from one angle – THE EXILED has a look at it from a different viewpoint, placing our protagonists bang in the middle of the dream.
In the nightmare I’m on the edge of a high sea cliff. I feel the wind on my face, taste salt spray, smell cut grass and flowers. I feel like if I could just give myself to the wind I could fly. Then it comes, from blue, snow covered mountains way to the north, a black speck at first, getting bigger fast. Before I know it it is on me, enfolding me in feathers. It lowers its head, almost like a dragon, and puts its beak near my ear. It whispers.
I had the dream many times, and always woke up at this point.
Then, in 1991, I heard what it said.
“Will we talk about the black bird?”
The next morning, for the first time since 1976, I wrote a story. It wasn’t a very good story, but something had been woken up, and the day after that I wrote another, a wee ghost story. It didn’t have a black bird in it, but it did have some jazz, and a sultry broad, a murder and some dancing. When that one made me 100 pounds in a ghost story competition, I was on my way.
The bird comes back and whispers to me every couple of years – I’ve come to think of it as my spirit guide. Although it terrifies me, it also reassures me in a weird kind of way. As long as it’s around, I’ll still be a writer and not just a drunk with weird ideas he can’t express.
The bird’s most recent appearance was a couple of years back now, and the next morning I had the idea that fused my country, my hopes and my nightmares into one coherent ( I hope) whole.
THE EXILED was a labor of love, and the birth was a difficult one, but now that it’s out into the world, I can only wish it well.
Will we talk about the black bird?
To catch a killer, John and Alan Granger will have to battle the Cobbe, a strange and enigmatic creature that guards the realm, a creature of horrific power that demands a heavy price for entry into its world. The fate of both realms hangs in the balance… and time is running out…
You’ve just given your wee posh company car away to a known villain in exchange for an old banger and two bacon rolls, you’re on the run accused of murder, and your only alibi is that you were away in Fairyland with a big black bird. It’s hardly any wonder something smells of shite.