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  • Writer's pictureHelen Forbes

Festive greetings from North Uist

December 28, 2017

Festive greetings from North Uist. Rain was forecast, so I expected to spend the morning writing and the afternoon with family. The morning plans changed when the sun showed up. I dashed for the beach, expecting a soaking before long. It didn’t happen. Instead, I walked in sunshine, no wind, no rain. It was beautiful. Those of you that have read In the Shadow of the Hill will know that much of the book is set in South Harris, in the shadow of the hill, Ceapabhal. The hill was looking stunning today from Uist, a sprinkling of snow on the top. Hard to imagine it as the setting for the dark deeds that take place in the book. Even DS Joe Galbraith had to concede in the book that Ceapabhal ‘was low and gentle, and a mocking voice inside his head taunted him. How could he have let it become so huge in his memory?’

In the Shadow of the Hill began as a short story about two young boys living very different lives, on an unnamed island, in the shadow of a hill. It was written for a small group of Fife writers that met fortnightly in a pub in Kirkcaldy. I hadn’t written short stories since I was in school, and I was far more interested in working on my novel (a great beast of a thing, that is now two, as yet unpublished, books), but I’d just moved from North Uist to Fife, and it was time to come out of the closet and mix with other writers. The Fifers liked the story and that gave me the courage to take it to a genre night at the Edinburgh Writers’ Club where someone commented that it would make a good novel – they’d be keen to find out what happened to the two boys as they grew up. The short story became the prologue; the boys became Joe Galbraith and Stephen MacLaren; Joe Galbraith became a policeman; In the Shadow of the Hill became a crime novel. I then had to find an island and a hill. I’ve often joked that I didn’t dare set it in North Uist in case I was disowned by my relatives and never allowed back on the island. In reality, I was familiar with South Harris from regular travel between North Uist and Stornoway. Ceapabhal and the village of Northton fitted perfectly, and it’s hard to believe now that they weren’t always the setting for the story. I’m biased, but I like to think In the Shadow of the Hill is more than just a police procedural. There’s a strong social commentary throughout the novel, which came from my years spent as a social welfare lawyer (and there’s absolutely no truth in the rumour that I have anything against social workers ...) If there is an underlying theme, it’s the way in which the secrets of adults affect their children, and continue to do so into adulthood, with often devastating effects. This theme shows up again in Madness Lies, the sequel to In the Shadow of the Hill, and this time I dared to set some of it in North Uist. So what am I going to do in this beautiful place for the next few days? Write beautiful words, I hope. I’m working on Breathing of the Vanished, which is mainly set in North Uist, so the timing is just right. And when those beautiful words are refusing to come, as sometimes happens, I will write other, less beautiful, words of a legal nature. They will hopefully mean something to the poor unfortunates that have to digest them. I better get on. Wishing everyone all the best for 2018.

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