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From Torridon to the Minch: how the Scottish Highlands inspired my writing

Above: near Torridon

From The Shadows, the first novel in my DI Monica Kennedy series, opens with a teenage boy returning late to his house in the shadow of a range of mountains in the Scottish Highlands. Without a word to his father he goes up to his room and is never seen alive again.

The location of the opening is telling. The landscapes of the Highlands feature heavily in the series, almost as another character. I’ve been lucky enough to live in the Highlands for over ten years. I first drove north from Edinburgh in my old Ford Escort because I wanted to climb mountains and explore this beautiful wilderness. At the time I had no idea the Highlands would end up forming the backdrop and inspiration for a crime series that would take the reader all across the region, from the lonely beaches of the far north to the grit of urban Inverness.

In a key scene in From The Shadows a serial killer’s victim is discovered high on a remote mountain in Torridon. It’s a striking landscape with imposing hills that seem to rise straight out of the nearby sea. They are made of ancient red sandstone, some of the oldest rock in Scotland at around 500 million years old. While being among this wide and beautiful landscape always feels life affirming, there’s something undeniably intimidating about the place. Just how ancient it is, and the way those steep sided mountains seem to tower like waves, ready to crash down. A couple of years ago I was climbing alone here in winter and got caught out by a storm. The winds were relentless and so strong I had to literally crawl down off the mountain to avoid being blown over a huge cliff face. I haven’t been back since.

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Above: North West Highlands

In contrast to Torridon, the city of Inverness features as the major urban centre in the series. Monica Kennedy was born in Inverness and reluctantly returned here to raise her daughter, Lucy. Inverness is the capital of the Highlands, at least a couple of hours drive from any other large city. It feels remote from central Scotland but it’s also one of the fastest growing cities of its size in Europe. I love the exciting mix of people this gives the place. Parts of the city, particularly by the River Ness, are beautiful. But it also has its rough underbelly which Monica inevitably has to confront during her investigations. Sometimes dangerously close to her own friends and family, dragging ghosts of her past she would rather forget, very much back into the present.

To the west of Inverness the city is quickly forgotten as the A862 road travels alongside the water of the Beauly Firth. Beyond the head of the firth a wilderness of mountains and glens returns, including Glen Affric. Widely regarded as the most scenic valley in Scotland. Less well known is Glen Cannich, a little further to the north. This place is home to Loch Mullardoch, formed when the glen was flooded by one of the huge hydro electric dams built across the Highlands in the 1950s and 60s. I’ve always found something incredibly atmospheric about these huge industrial projects constructed in lonely parts of the Highlands. In book two of the series, a dismembered body found in the loch draws Monica into a terrifying hunt for a missing woman.

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Above: The Minch

In From The Shadows, a social worker named Michael Bach conducts his own search for a missing client. Michael lives close to Ullapool, a fishing village in the far north west of the Highlands. One of his pastimes is swimming in the cold water of the Minch; the treacherous stretch of sea that separates the mainland from the islands of the Outer Hebrides. There are miles of jaw dropping beaches, fringed by turquoise water, to be explored along the coastline of the Minch. Of particular significance to the DI Monica Kennedy series are Oldshoremore and the haunted Sandwood Bay, close to the very far north west tip of Scotland, and a five mile walk from the nearest road.

These are just a handful of the amazing locations that Monica and her team venture into during their investigations. The Scottish Highlands are one of the most beautiful parts of the world. For most visitors these places are innocent locations for hill-walking, camping, or simply enjoying the stunning scenery. But for others these lonely landscapes make the perfect backdrop for their dark deeds and bad intentions.

Photo of G R Halliday, author of Under the Marsh
Photo of G R Halliday, author of Under the Marsh
G R Halliday

G R Halliday was born in Edinburgh and grew up near Stirling in Scotland. He spent his childhood obsessing over the unexplained mysteries his father investigated, which has proved excellent inspiration for From the Shadows. He now lives in the rural Highlands outside of Inverness, where he is able to pursue his favourite pastimes of mountain climbing and swimming in the sea, before returning home to his band of semi-feral cats.

Follow G R Halliday on Twitter.

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