As the nights become darker, and we stoke up the fire against the cold of winter, there’s nothing better than settling down with a good book. Don’t get too comfortable though, because there is a dark thread that runs through the literary heart of Scotland, and it’s called ‘Tartan Noir’.
From murder mysteries to historical whodunnits, and gritty police procedurals, Scottish readers and a growing global audience can’t get enough of the grim and gruesome tales coming out of Scotland.
Dark roots run deep
This isn’t a new literary genre. Edinburgh-born ‘Treasure Island’ author Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), set the template back in 1886. He published his truly ground-breaking Gothic novella, ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’. Set around the dark and confined closes and wynds (narrow passages and alleyways) of Edinburgh's old town, it’s a story that still speaks to the potential for good and evil in all of us.
Fast forward to the late 1970s, and teacher turned author, William McIlvanney, became the father of modern Tartan Noir. His three ‘Laidlaw’ novels, following the cases of a Glaswegian police detective, set a template for a whole new generation of Scottish crime writers. Today, from tiny bookstores to the Edinburgh International Book Festival, Tartan Noir titles grab the reading public’s imagination like no other fiction genre.
With established Scottish Noir stars such as Ian Rankin, Dame Denise Mina and Val McDermid and exciting newcomers, such as comedian-turned-author Frankie Boyle, the genre is growing in global popularity.
Scotland's Noir Stars
Every year, in the city of Stirling, Scotland’s top crime authors and their fans gather to celebrate the dark delights of Tartan Noir. The Bloody Scotland Festival, which just celebrated its 10th year, isn’t your usual literary festival. A chance to attend readings, hear work in progress, and meet the next generation of crime writers. It isn’t only top Scottish authors who attend, the roll call of guests for the 2022 event read like a “Who’s Who” of global crime fiction.
Alan Bett, Head of Literature and Publishing at Creative Scotland who sponsor the event, said: “This 10th-anniversary programme was not only the biggest, but it also embraced a hybrid model that meant a wider audience could engage with authors, either on stage, on screen, or online.
“Bloody Scotland continues to promote the highly popular genre of Scottish crime writing to the world, while also connecting Scottish readers to the work of both new and established authors.”
Darkness and light
The festival kicks off every year with a dramatic torchlit parade through the atmospheric streets of old Stirling. Not only does it celebrate established authors but it also acts as a hothouse for new writing talent. Through its Debut Prize and New Crimes Panel, fans of Tartan Noir get to discover new books and authors.
This year, 20 new authors appeared ‘In the Spotlight’ on stage ahead of the established names.
One of those was first-time Glasgow author, Sarah Smith. Her novel, ‘Hear No Evil’, was nominated for this year’s Bloody Scotland debut prize. The book is based on a landmark case in Scottish legal history when Jean Campbell, a young deaf woman, was accused of murder. ‘Hear No Evil’ is an atmospheric exploration of early 19th century Edinburgh and Glasgow. A core theme throughout the novel looks to give voice to the marginalised.
Sarah said: “I first came across the real-life case that inspired ‘Hear No Evil’ while working at the Deaf Connections charity in Glasgow. I read about the trial in Robert Smith’s ‘The City Silent’. When I tried to find out more information about her in the transcripts of the trial, I found that she’d never been able to tell her story. So, I made one up; it’s not true but I hope it’s authentic.”
Opening eyes, and ears…
As part of this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, Sarah worked with a deaf director, and deaf and hard-of-hearing actors, to bring scenes from the book to life for both a hearing and deaf audience.
Sarah said: “It was exciting, scary, and ultimately incredibly moving to bring the story and characters to life.
“I knew I wanted to deliver something that had the deaf experience – then and now – at its centre. It was also important to me that the deaf community would feel the performance belonged to them. They gave me Jean and Robert’s story in the first place. “I knew that the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland had a unique degree programme for deaf and hard of hearing students, so I got in touch with them, and their staff and students took it on board. What they came up with made the story jump off the page and change into something completely new..”
Giving voice to all
In that same spirit, Bloody Scotland is an accessible festival, with all venues wheelchair accessible and British Sign Language (BSL) interpretation available at events on request.
To find out more about Scotland’s Tartan Noir stars, and next year’s Bloody Scotland Festival, visit Bloody Scotland
If you can’t wait until then, you can keep up to date with all the latest Tartan Noir books and authors via a dedicated podcast, at The Tartan Noir Show — The Big Light
Turn The Page
So, wherever you are in the world, pour yourself a dram, sit down, and dive into the dark world of Tartan Noir.
Don’t have nightmares!