‘For in this battle, theatre is everything.’
The Unnatural Death of a Jacobite
By Douglas Watt
Published by Luath Press
You’ve just released your latest novel The Unnatural Death of a Jacobite. Could you tell us a little about it?
Crime and history meet in a rollercoaster journey through 17th century Scotland. The Unnatural Death of a Jacobite is a crime novel set in Edinburgh in 1689 during the first Jacobite Rebellion, featuring investigative advocate John Mackenzie and his side-kick Davie Scougall.
A body is discovered near Craigleith Quarry on the outskirts of Edinburgh after a summer storm. It’s identified as that of Aeneas MacLeod, a young lawyer who works in Edinburgh. MacLeod’s family believe the Lord Advocate is sitting on the case and ask John MacKenzie to investigate.
This is the 4th novel is a series. How do you approach writing a single narrative within a bigger overarching time frame? Have you planned how far your series will run?
The books are all standalone crime novels but they feature the same main characters and are set in consecutive years from 1686. The characters respond to the major historical events of the period and interact with a mix of fictional and real historical figures. In my mind’s eye I can see the general course of the next few books in the series, while focusing on the book I’m writing. I originally planned to take the series all the way to 1707 (Union of the Parliaments) and beyond, with one book set every year, but I may need to increase my pace a bit if I want to get there!
My immediate target is to reach 1692 (7th in the series) and the Massacre of Glencoe. I’m beginning to think about a plot which will place MacKenzie and Scougall in Glencoe at some point in 1692 – the theme of the book is, of course, politically-inspired slaughter. There’s lots of interesting events during the rest of the 1690s for further books: famine, Jacobite plots and the Darien Disaster, which I know very well from researching and writing a non-fiction book about it (The Price of Scotland). I’d love to write a crime story about Darien as a lived experience through the eyes of MacKenzie and Scougall.
You combine two genres in the Mackenzie thrillers: crime and historical fiction. How do you balance both genre expectations? Are you interested in subverting them too?
I think the expectations are similar for both genres: character, pace, plot, denouement. Historical crime needs historical authenticity without overloading historical description. I want to let the reader experience history with the characters in a vivid setting. I’m not aiming to subvert the genres, rather I want to use crime fiction to explore themes in Scottish History during the late 17th century.
Each book, as well as a crime fiction, is about a particular historical issue: the decline of Highland chiefs (Death of a Chief), the Scottish Witch Hunt (Testament of a Witch), mob violence in Edinburgh during the Glorious Revolution (Pilgrim of Slaughter) and political division (The Unnatural Death of a Jacobite).
The underlying theme of the series is the fragmentation of religious orthodoxy and the origins of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Which writers do you turn to for inspiration?
For history I’d turn to Samuel Pepys’ Diary. There’s not much Scottish History in it, but as a window on the world of the 17th century it’s unsurpassed.
I would also dip into John Prebble’s Glencoe which brilliantly evokes late 17th century Scotland. It was the book that got me hooked on Scottish History.
In terms of crime I’d go for Georges Simenon’s Maigret books, anything by James Ellroy and Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho novels.
Your books are set in the late 17th Why does that period of Scottish history appeal to you for a fictional setting?
I’ve always been fascinated by this period of Scottish History. The late 17th century was a paradoxical time of witch hunts, blasphemy trials and religious fanaticism, which also saw the green shoots of the Scottish Enlightenment. New ideas about science and trade sat side-by-side with older, darker notions – witch hunting, belief in magic, Satan as a real presence in people’s lives. Sometimes the old and new are found in the same individual – a joint stock investor who hunts witches, a political liberal who hates Catholics, a scientist obsessed with the occult. This clash of old and new makes the period particularly interesting from a fictional perspective.
What do you think your novels tell us about contemporary Scotland?
The novels reflect contemporary Scotland’s obsession with identity and history. They also reflect concerns about division, in terms of politics, religion and culture. Just like 1689, we live in fractured times – nationalist/unionist, Brexiteer/ Remainer. In the novels, this is highlighted by the contrast between the two major characters. John MacKenzie, who is based loosely on a real historical figure, is a Gaelic-speaking Highlander, sceptical about religion and a reluctant Jacobite. Davie Scougall is a Presbyterian Lowlander of a puritanical bent who supports the new regime of William and Mary and regards the Revolution of 1688 as a glorious one. MacKenzie and Scougall are good friends but they tend to disagree about the main issues of the day!
What are you reading just now?
Maigret and the Headless Corpse by Georges Simenon. I’m always impressed by Simenon’s economy of style, creation of atmosphere and acutely observed characters.
The Unnatural Death of a Jacobite by Douglas Watt is published by Luath Press, priced £8.99