The Isle of Lewis is the most remote, harshly beautiful place in Scotland, where the difficulty of existence seems outweighed only by people’s fear of God. But older, pagan values lurk beneath the veneer of faith, the primal yearning for blood and revenge.
When a brutal murder on the island bears the hallmarks of a similar slaying in Edinburgh, police detective Fin Macleod is dispatched north to investigate. But since he himself was raised on Lewis, the investigation also represents a journey home and into his past.
Each year the island’s men perform the hunting of the gugas, a savage custom no longer necessary for survival, but which they cling to even more fiercely in the face of the demands of modern morality. For Fin the hunt recalls a horrific tragedy, which after all this time may have begun to demand another sacrifice.
The Blackhouse is the first book in The Lewis Trilogy which was first published in France in 2009 and later in the United Kingdom in 2011. The premise of the book focuses on Fin Macleod, a native of the Isle of Lewis, who has been working as a police detective in Edinburgh for a number of years. When a murder on the island has similar characteristics to one that happened in the capital recently, Macleod is dispatched to investigate whether the two murders are linked. Grieving for the recent loss of his young son, Fin’s return to Lewis evokes a lot of memories, particularly since many of the people he once knew are at the heart of his investigation.
The murder victim turns out to have been a former classmate of Fin’s who was the school bully and continued to make life miserable for many into adulthood so there are plenty of suspects. As the investigation continues, the narrative moves from the present to the past as certain events trigger Fin’s memories and we learn about his boyhood on the island. I wouldn’t class this book as a police procedural because Fin spends more time reflecting than investigating and the twists are more about him than the dead victim. The pace of the book is slow which may not appeal to everyone but the writing is so evocative it draws you right into Fin’s world.
The Isle of Lewis is so vividly described you feel the harsh remoteness but appreciate the wild beauty at the same time. May is very respectful of the traditions and the culture of the island with the focus being on the annual guga hunt on the small rocky island of Sula Sgeir which features prominently in both the past and the present for Fin. Young gannets, known as guga, have been harvested annually since the 15th century and the trip has become a rite of passage for many of the young men on Lewis. Some 2,000 guga are culled over the space of two weeks by a party of ten men using the same methods as their ancestors and they shelter in the same primitive bothies. The hunt is still active today and operates under special licence by NatureScot which allows a specified number of birds to be killed for food.
As the story reaches its climax, the rocky island and its inhospitable setting play a crucial role in the plot when shocking revelations are made. The atmosphere is heightened by the inclement weather which makes Fin’s desperate attempt to reach the island all the more hazardous. A window is also opened into how the islanders mete out their own brand of justice which isn’t entirely legal in the conventional sense.
The blackhouse (taigh-dubh in Gaelic) is a long and narrow house with walls of stone filled with earth and peat which were typically found throughout the Highland regions. Crofters would live in one part of the house while sheltering their animals in the other and these houses were still being used in the 1960s. You can visit a preserved blackhouse, as well as the white houses which came after, at Arnol, Bragar, Isle of Lewis.