Douglas Skelton’s Rebecca Connelly series has rapidly become a favourite. His latest, A RATTLE OF BONES was a Times Crime Club Pick of the Week and described as ‘An intriguing Highland mystery peopled with quirky characters and peppered with wit’.
This is what the blurb says :
In 1752, Seamus a’Ghlynne, James of the Glen, was executed for the murder of government man Colin Campbell. He was almost certainly innocent.
When banners are placed at his gravesite claiming that his namesake, James Stewart, is innocent of murder, reporter Rebecca Connolly smells a story. The young Stewart has been in prison for ten years for the brutal murder of his lover, lawyer and politician Murdo Maxwell, in his Appin home. Rebecca soon discovers that Maxwell believed he was being followed prior to his murder and his phones were tapped.
Why is a Glasgow crime boss so interested in the case? As Rebecca keeps digging, she finds herself in the sights of Inverness crime matriarch Mo Burke, who wants payback for the damage caused to her family in a previous case.
Set against the stunning backdrop of the Scottish Highlands, A Rattle of Bones is a tale of injustice and mystery, and the echo of the past in the present.
I love the character of journalist Rebecca Connelly. She’s not prepared to let the bad guys walk all over her. Since she left her job at The Highland Chronicle, she’s been crafting a decent role for herself in the small news agency she has joined and that’s giving her the job satisfaction and flexibility that an impoverished local paper reliant on click-bait just couldn’t any more. She’s on a one woman mission to show that journalism matters.
The other top reason for loving this series is the richly imbued sense of place and atmosphere that Douglas Skelton brings to his writing. In part this is because he is able to capture places that really are thick with history and rich in atmosphere and his research teaches us about these parts of Scotland in a way that informs and entertains. Here he discusses some of the important places in A Rattle of Bones, complete with his own photography.
A Place of Weeping by Douglas Skelton
I well remember the first time I climbed the steps towards Cnap a’Chaolais, the hillock by the narrows above Loch Linnhe and Loch Leven. I was on a research trip for my book ‘Devil’s Gallop’, a series of tours around Scotland pointing out sites of dark interest in history, and the A82 figured predominantly in one section. The road runs from Glasgow all the way to Inverness and beyond and it has more than its fair share of sadness and blood, from clan warfare around Loch Lomond, to Robert the Bruce being ambushed by MacDougalls looking for vengeance for the murder of their kinsman, the Red Comyn, in Dumfries – the land on which the skirmish took place is known as Dalrigh, the King’s Field – and, of course, the massacre at Glencoe, the Glen of Weeping.
In fact, so much blood has been spilled around this modern day road that it could be called the Road of Weeping. The small hill above Ballachulish, overlooking the iron bridge, was where James Stewart, James of the Glens, was executed for a crime he almost certainly did not commit. Whether or not he knew who did is another matter but he faced a trumped up charge in front of a kangaroo court which even today stains the reputation of Scottish justice.
The Appin Mystery, as it is now known, forms part of my latest Rebecca Connolly thriller, A RATTLE OF BONES. It begins on the hill, in 1752, with an imagined scene played out between a government soldier standing guard over James Stewart’s remains – he hung in chains on a gibbet for three years – and an elderly relative of the dead man. It then jumps to the present day with Rebecca investigating a modern miscarriage of justice centering on another James Stewart.
There is something about this tree-covered hill even today. Something that hangs between the notes of the bird song and the rustle of the leaves. Something that tells you that this place is somehow different.
Yes, it could merely be my Celtic imagination creating an atmosphere that doesn’t exist but I felt it that first day I visited, all those years ago, and I have felt it each time I have visited since.
There is a monument there and an information board but I know the story so no longer need to read it. I tend to stand with my eyes closed, blocking out the sound of the traffic crossing the bridge below, focussing on the birds and the leaves and the breeze coming up from the waters. It’s something I have Rebecca do this in the book – just as she did at Culloden in THE BLOOD IS STILL. She – and I – are trying to connect to this place almost 270 years ago, to place ourselves there and once again hear the voice of an innocent man reciting the 35th Psalm as he faced his doom at the hands of a vengeful court. For the murdered man was a government official and the law would have its pound of flesh. If it could not exact it from the truly guilty, it would take it from the next best thing, a known Jacobite.
It’s a sad story and remnants of its melancholy remain, even today, for as I often state in the books, history in the Highlands is a living thing that lives and breathes.
As Rebecca’s father once said to her:
‘If the history of the Highlands was a song, it would be a lament. A song of sorrow, of loss, of grieving. You hear it at Culloden and Glencoe and in the deserted villages cleared to make way for sheep. You hear it on battlefields with names and those without. And, if you listen carefully, you hear it on the wind.’
Here then are some more images associated with A RATTLE OF BONES.
I hope this brings a sense of the places and times that Douglas is writing about in his brilliant series. If you haven’t read any yet, why not start with the brilliant Thunder Bay then move on to The Blood Is Still before coming to A Rattle of Bones. Each can be read as a stand alone, but you get the character progression if you start from the beginning.
Douglas Skelton was born in Glasgow. He has been a bank clerk, tax officer, taxi driver (for two days), wine waiter (for two hours), journalist and investigator. He has written eleven true crime and Scottish criminal history books but now concentrates on fiction. His novel Open Wounds (2016) was longlisted for the McIlvanney Award. Douglas has investigated real-life crime for Glasgow solicitors and was involved in a long-running campaign to right the famous Ice-Cream Wars miscarriage of justice.