From Torridon to the Minch: how the Scottish Highlands inspired my writing
Above: near Torridon
Since I was a kid growing up in lowland Scotland I’ve had a thing about the Highlands. From my bedroom window I could see a peak in the distance, one of the first ‘proper’ highland mountains. Years later I moved to Inverness, the city in the Highlands, to explore the landscape up here: the amazing beaches, the atmospheric mountains and glens. The area ended up forming the backdrop for my DI Monica Kennedy crime series.
From The Shadows, the first novel in the 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 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 being the 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. Below are just a few of my favourite Highland locations that feature in the first three books. I hope you find them as inspiring as I do.
Above: near Gairloch
My relationship with DI Monica Kennedy began at a beach near Gairloch on the west coast of the Highlands. I was walking with my partner when we started chatting about what it would be like to find a dead body out in this beautiful but remote and wind scoured location. In exploring the idea Monica Kennedy emerged to investigate why the body had been placed there, the terrifying answer became the story of From The Shadows.
Above: North West Highlands
In this book, 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 northwest 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 northwest tip of Scotland, and a five mile walk from the nearest road.
Above: The Minch
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.
Above: Torridon in winter
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 which is 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 hydroelectric 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, Dark Waters, a dismembered body found in the loch draws Monica into a terrifying hunt for a missing woman.
Glen Strathfarrar, also featured in book two, is on a private road used to reach a dam. You can get access but only at certain times, and you have to register with a gatekeeper. Something about the limited access makes the glen feel extra exciting for me – as if going on an adventure. Especially combined with the deep tunnels dug into the mountains for the hydro-electric projects: like a monster’s cave from a myth! Those elements came together to inspire much of the story of my second novel, in which a young woman wakes in a darkened room after crashing her car in a remote glen. Recently a reader I met at an event told me they were now too scared to come down here after reading the novel – I’m still a regular visitor though, and it seems safe to me…
During the Covid lockdowns the river Beauly became a favourite swimming spot for my partner and I. Before that I’d often driven past and found the mix of the woodland with the imposing wall of the Kilmorack dam striking. Being a crime author I inevitably imagined something disturbing, which became one of the opening scenes in Dark Waters as Monica and her partner DC Crawford watch divers search the area for human remains. A good image for a crime novel, but not inspiring for swimming.
I returned to the city for Under the Marsh. In general, I think Inverness makes a brilliant location for crime fiction – the blend of the urban in the midst of such a beautiful landscape with just enough grittiness to make things interesting. But I hadn’t heard of the Witch’s Coffin until I was out for a bike ride with friends. We were cycling along a path that leads through marsh lands on the outskirts of the city when someone casually said, ‘That’s the Witch’s Coffin over there.’ I immediately slammed my brakes on – I had to know more. I learned that the Coffin is a seaweed covered block in a marshy tidal pool. I loved the sense of the urban legend growing up around it, imagining children from the nearby housing estates cycling past, scaring each other with stories about it. I knew I was going to put it in a novel and it became a key location in Monica’s investigation in my third book.
Above: marsh land near the Witch’s Coffin
The Clava Cairns outside Inverness have become world famous after featuring in the Outlander books and TV series. Further west, close to Glen Affric, is the less known but better preserved Corrimony Cairn. I only discovered this place when I picked up a book of Highland Folk tales and read about the ghost of a Viking prince said to haunt it. I was captivated when I visited. The place carries a sense of mystery which I hope I managed to transfer to the atmosphere of Under the Marsh. At the start of the novel Monica is contacted by a jailed serial killer who provides information about a long forgotten missing person’s case. Her investigation eventually leads to Corrimony and to increasingly disturbing revelations.
Above: G R Halliday at Corrimony Cairn
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.