My Second Novel – ‘No Safe Anchorage,’ – to be published October 2017.

I’m very excited by this prospect. Like ‘Love and Music Will Endure’ it is set in the nineteenth century but in other respects it is very different. Robert Louis Stevenson makes a guest appearance but the main character, Lieutenant Tom Masters is a creation of my imagination. The action moves from the Highlands of Scotland to Canada.

I shall write more about the story nearer publication but for now I shall quote the comments made by Donald S. Murray. He’s the acclaimed author of, ‘Herring Tales,’ ‘The Guga Stone’ and many other books of both prose and poetry.

An evocative and fast-moving tale set in Skye and the West Highlands, ‘No Safe Anchorage,’ like its title, swirls with risks and dangers. It invokes the spirit of Robert Louis Stevenson whose childhood it portrays. With its sharpness of dialogue and tight, concise description, it also conjures up hat writer in other ways, creating an adventure story that is as breathless and exciting as some of that nineteenth century novelist’s work.’

Recent talks

Since publishing my book I’ve done numerous readings across Scotland, from the Western Isles to Selkirk in the Borders and Wigtown in Dumfries and Galloway. This has been an enjoyable and stimulating process.

More recently I’ve embarked on a different kind of talk,’Researching the life of Mairi Mhor – reconciling fact and fiction.’ I’ve spoken to full houses at the Gaelic Society of Inverness and for Portree Local History on Skye.

The Gaelic Society of Inverness has a prestigious history. It was established by Charles Fraser MacKintosh, M.P. one of the leaders of the Land Reform movement. Mairi campaigned for him and helped him gain election as a Crofter M.P. The Society attracts eminent academics to speak at its meetings. So I found it quite a daunting experience. However I believe it’s important to publicise the thorough research done by historical novelists as some famous historians, David Starkey for example, has stated,’We really should stop taking historical novelists seriously as historians. The idea that they have authority is ludricious.’ That’s a view that should be challenged!

Roger Hutchinson’s review

Roger Hutchinson is a respected writer of numerous books on Highland topics. His best known work is probably ‘Calum’s Road’ about a crofter on the island of Raasay. After Inverness County Council refusing to construct a road from his village he built one himself. The book became the inspiration for a film about the struggle of African villagers construct their own road.

Roger writes reviews regularly in the West Highland Free Press
Here is what he said in his review of ‘LOVE AND MUSIC WILL ENDURE’

‘It is a terrific portrait of a woman who, as Aonghas MacNeacail writes, was big in every way.Big in size, yes. But big also in talent, in personality and above all in heart. Mairi Mhor deserved this book.


Mary Macpherson of Skeabost in Skye, who is better known to this day as Mairi Mhor nan Oran, is one of the most celebrated and least understood Highlanders of the 19th century. She was also, which is extremely relevant, arguably the most gifted woman to come out of the Victorian Gaidhealtachd. In her later life she produced a stream of song and verse which became legendary, which gifted her the cognomen ‘nan oran’, and much of which, owing especially to the efforts of Donald Meek, is still accessible today.


The trajectory of her life was not uncommon.
She was born in 1821. Her MacDonald parents moved to Glasgow when she was about eight and back to Skye when she was a young woman.

Mairi then moved for work to Inverness where she married a shoemaker called Isaac MacPherson. Isaac died in 1871 and Mairi became a nurse.

She was briefly imprisoned for theft of minor items. That offence could have been an understandable mistake or a miscarriage of justice. Mairi always protested that she was innocent, and her time in jail seems to have cemented her radicalism.

She then took up nursing in Greenock and became extremely active in Highland émigré social, sporting and political groups before returning finally to Skeabost in 1882 at the age of 61 years.

She died in Portree in 1898. Thanks to Portree Local History Society there is now a plaque outside the town’s Rosedale Hotel which commemorates her last days in Beaumont Crescent.
It seems like another age and of course it was. But as William Faulkner wrote – and Faulkner was not even thinking of the Highlands – ‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past’.


If you’re looking for a good example of the man who shook the hand of the man who shook the hand of the woman who…..look no further. The late Colonel Jock MacDonald of Viewfield in Portree, who many of us remember, knew Mairi Mhor when he was a boy.

Shortly before his own death in 1980, Colonel Jock passed on his memories of the grande dame to Aonghas ‘Dubh’ MacNeaacail, who is very much alive today and who subsequently published them.

There are three Skye names to play with! There is a baton passed down through three centuries. The past is not even past.


It is never more present than when interpreted in good historical fiction. All of which brings us to a great book which has been available for over a year but which has until now been inexcusably overlooked in this column.

Liz MacRae Shaw’s, ‘Love and Music Will Endure’, is as its subtitle explains, ‘a novel based on the life of Mairi Mhor nan Oran.’

Historical fiction is a tricky genre at the best of times, which may partly be why Scotland is swamped by so much of the worst.

It must satisfy two difficult criteria. It should read, obviously enough, as good fiction – it should have the approachability and stimulus, the narrative tension and gripping characterisation of a novel. Simultaneously, it should be faithful to fact, at least in its essentials.

The two are not always compatible. In ‘Love and Music Will Endure’, Liz macRae Shaw squares the circle with charming ease. She has researched with the diligence of an historian. She has then used her imagination to slip loose the surly bonds of non-fiction to tell a wonderful story.


In many ways Mairi’s first 60 years were a rehearsal of her later life in Skye. Liz MacRae Shaw offers us a girl of her time; born and raised in pastoral hardship and beauty, lost and unhappy in the city stews, forced to ride the murderous waves of the agricultural and industrial revolutions, but thanks to the Gaelic ubiquity in 19th century Scotland, never deracinated.

If she was personally radicalised by her experience of injustice in Inverness, her radicalisation was refined by the land politics of Clydeside in the 1870s.

She returned to Skye in 1882. That was coincidental but could not have been more auspicious. It was the year of the Battle of the Braes, of militant discontent in Trotternish and Glendale. It was the year when everything kicked off and Skye became an international symbol of rural revolution.

Many great names flocked to the island. Several of them were already familiar to Mairi Mhor and she soon got to know the others.

This in turn gives Liz MacRae Shaw the opportunity, which she seizes with relish, to put flesh on the bones and words in the mouths of John Murdoch, Charles Fraser Macintosh, John Stuart Blackie, Edward MacHugh, Michael Davitt, Alexander MacKenzie of ‘The Celtic Magazine’, John MacPherson of Glendale and others.

What bliss it would have been to be alive in Skye in those tumultuous few years in the 1880s, when anything seemed possible and a very great deal proved to have been achievable.

These men stride into Shaw’s book and Mairi MacPherson’s life like mythological heroes. Their arrival is beautifully handled. By then Liz MacRae Shaw, and consequently her reader, is familiar enough with Mairi Mhor to realise how much of a Gaelic nationalist she is.


Unlike Murdoch and Fraser Macintosh in particular, Mairi’s attachment to her fellow Gaels was more cultural than political. We are in no doubt that she would sooner, far sooner, have attended a shinty match or a ceilidh than a land league rally.

Influenced at least in part by a long friendship with the Skeabost landowner, Lachlan MacDonald, she was often unwilling to think badly of native, hereditary Highland landowners, especially if those landowners spoke Gaelic,


Liz MacRae Shaw offers us a person who is consequently torn between an attachment to the old clan structure and the new politics of land reform which were directly intended to disempower if not dispossess men like Lachlan Macdonald of Skeabost. Her sympathies were very far from uncommon among Highlanders of her own and later generations.

It is a terrific portrait of a woman who, as Aonghas MacNeacail writes, was big in every way. Big in size, yes. But big also in talent, in personality and above all, in heart. Mairi Mhor deserved this book.

New title for my new novel

My new novel has been christened with a new title. I had a working title of ‘Light from the Window’ and it took me a long time to find something to replace it. As Robert Louis Stevenson appears in the story I turned to his writings for inspiration. I had already used a line from ‘Requiem,’ in the story itself,

‘Home is the sailor, home from the sea’.

When I looked at the poem again the line, ‘The wide and starry sky’ leapt from the page as it embodies the theme of a quest that is central to the story and also evokes the huge scale and wild nature of the Canadian landscape.

There was one snag – when I checked on Amazon this title had already been used for two other books. The same applied to any other quotations from that poem. This is not surprising, given the fame of Robert Louis Stevenson. But I had become attached to my title. I left the problem for a few days, hoping that another idea would surface. I decided that ‘No Safe Anchorage’ conveyed a sensation of danger. Also of travelling in remote places, both real and metaphorical.

A Visit to Wigtown

I recently visited Wigtown at the invitation of Andrew Wilson who owns Beltie Books and Café. The name refers to the famous Belted Galloway cattle. Wigtown is famous as a book town, a miniature Hay on Wye and hosts a well-known Book Festival every autumn. I was made very welcome and had a thoroughly enjoyable time, including an opportunity to see something of this beautiful, historic part of Scotland.

A visit to Wigtown

Beltie Books website

My new book, ‘Light from the Window’

My new book, ‘Light from the Window’ is undergoing its final editing and revision.
It’s an historical novel, different from my first one in being much less closely based on the life of a real person. The setting is the Highlands of Scotland and Canada during the mid-nineteenth century.

The seed of the story is a tragedy in 1822 near the island of Rona, a small rocky outcrop near the much larger Isle of Skye. Janet Mackenzie, one of my ancestors,, lived in a house on the shore and for many years she put an oil lamp in the window to help seafarers in the treacherous waters. In 1851 she came to the attention of Henry Otter, the captain of a naval survey vessel. He wrote to The Northern Lighthouse Board about her dedication and recommended that she be given a pension. In 1857 the Stevenson brothers built a lighthouse on Rona, meaning that her light was no longer needed.

Captain Otter continued with his surveying. Along with his useful charts of Hebridean waters there is another poignant reminder of his time in this part of the world. It’s a gravestone in memory of one of his sailors, Richard Williams, a coxswain who committed suicide and was buried near where once the Beal chapel stood on the Scorrybreac shore in Portree on the Isle of Skye.

When I discovered these intriguing fragments of history, like pieces of coloured glass smoothed by the sea and lying gleaming among the rocks, I wondered about what had caused these events and what sort of backwash followed after them. Might Robert Louis Stevenson himself have spent time on Rona as a child? So I pieced these fragments together to begin the story of a quest with a mystery at its heart.

Janet MacKenzie is the focus of the first part of the story. The focus then shifts to an imaginary sailor, Lieutenant Tom Masters whose adventures take him to Canada in pursuit of a mysterious woman who, he is convinced, holds the key to Richard’s death. I use the word ‘adventures’ because I felt the spirit of RLS pervades this story, even though he only appears briefly in it.

My previous book dealt with the pain of eviction and forced emigration. This time I look at the other side of the picture, the opportunities that opened up for migrants to a new country. Tragically these migrants often treated the Native Americans with the same contempt which they had experienced in their own homeland.

The lighthouse and the camera were both developed in the Victorian age. They serve as important metaphors in the novel. The lighthouse protects sailors but wreckers’ lights can mimic its beam and lure a ship to its destruction. The science of photography reveals but it also deceives. It hides as well as exposes so that a fleeting instant is recorded as if it were the whole truth.