Blurring the Lines: The Hebrides in Fact & Fiction

By Marie B.

Have you ever found yourself reading a novel and thinking, “What/where/who is that?” This happens to me all the time. I usually read at night, and my favorite works of fiction have me turning pages and reaching for my computer for some impromptu research long after I ought to be sleeping.

The Lewis trilogy by Peter May is an excellent example of fiction that has me thirsting for real-world knowledge. The protagonist in these stories is Isle of Lewis native Fin Maclean, who is a police detective in Edinburgh. As the series opens, he is in turmoil following the death of his son in a hit and run. When the details at the scene of a grisly homicide in Fin’s hometown mirror those of one committed in Edinburgh, Fin has to decide whether he will get back to work, or find another job.

It’s enough that the series is a ripping yarn from start to finish, but I was inspired to learn more about several subjects.

Eriskay Jerseys
In bygone days, fishermen wore Eriskay jerseys, hand-knitted seamless sweaters made using patterns passed down in families. The designs were so distinctive that they were useful in identifying the wearer, were he unlucky enough to die at sea. There are only a handful of knitters making these sweaters nowadays.

The Lewis Chessmen
In the third book, Fin’s old school friend Whistler carves a larger-than-life set of 12th Century Norse chessmen, including the scary-sounding berserker. The original ninety-three chessmen were carved in bone, and were discovered buried on a Lewis beach. It turns out the berserker is just a knight (or rook) with an overbite.

The Landscape
I like to visualize the places I visit by book. The golden sand beaches along Lewis’s stormy coast and the mountains dotted with lochs sound perfectly enchanting.  Imagine my delight when I discovered a nonfiction book about the Hebrides written by Peter May himself. His love for the area and its people shines through in Hebrides, as it does in his fictional trilogy.

Bog Bodies
Imagine finding a perfectly-preserved body that is hundreds or thousands of years old. Bodies become naturally mummified when left long enough in a peat bog. In 1950, discovery of the Tollund Man during a peat dig resulted in a call to the local constabulary. Carbon dating shows he died about 2,200 to 2,400 years ago!

The Language
May peppers the novels with Gaelic, the primary language of Lewis. For the discerning reader, the author has helpfully included a pronunciation guide in each book. I, for one, want to pronounce every word correctly, even if I’m only reading them silently in my head. If you want to delve more deeply into the language, Mango Languages offers a course on Scottish Gaelic (one of more than 70 language courses). All you need is an internet connection and your library card to access language courses 24/7.

What fiction book had you reaching for nonfiction?  What was it you wanted to learn?

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4 responses to “Blurring the Lines: The Hebrides in Fact & Fiction”

  1. Alez says:

    I do this all the time! Especially when I encounter something core to the book that I’m not 100% sure what it is or how it looks (though generally I reach for my phone and not my laptop).

    I read a lot of historical fiction (okay, romance), and most of it is sent in locations I’m not familiar with, and time periods where words have different meaning. I really appreciate books that have glossaries and notes at the end that further extrapolate on the research done and the connections to the time period (Eloisa James is excellent at adding these!).

    • Marie B. says:

      I knew I couldn’t be the only one! I’ve looked up how to tie different cravats mentioned in regency romances. One wants to know how nattily dressed the brooding duke is.

  2. Erin L. says:

    This is why I love e-books now. If I have a quick question I touch and hold a word and the definition will pop up or I can go to wikipedia for more information. Of course I’ve also sometimes been inspired by an historical novel to read some non-fiction books on that subject too.

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