Fulton Ross is a writer and journalist from the Scottish Highlands. A graduate of Scottish literature and history from Glasgow University, he has worked on national newspapers for more than a decade. Fulton now lives in Northern Ireland with his wife and three children. Inspired by Gaelic folk tales, The Unforgiven Dead is set amidst the brooding landscape of the West Highlands, the novel is envisaged as the first in a series featuring Constable Angus' Dubh' McNeil. It is also Ross' debut novel, and he recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Unforgiven Dead?
The Unforgiven Dead was born in the collision of my love for Tartan Noir and the Highland folktales of my childhood. As well as delivering a compelling thriller, I wanted to use the crime novel as a vehicle to explore how 300 years of government efforts to tame the 'wild Highlands' simply decimated Gaelic culture. Folktales are valuable, not just as nice stories, but as cultural archives and tantalising glimpses into the beliefs and customs of the ancient Gaels before Christianity arrived and swept aside the 'old ways.'
In The Unforgiven Dead, my aim was to write a Highland-set, contemporary crime novel that leveraged the area's evocative folklore and myth as part of a grounded supernatural detective story that pushed the boundaries of the genre.
Are Angus, Gills, or any of the other characters in the novel inspired by or based on specific individuals?
In a word, 'no'. Funnily enough, it was my main character—Angus' Dubh' MacNeil—who was perhaps the hardest to write. He is a character of great empathy, but he is also a tortured soul who is 'cursed' with dà-shealladh, which is Gaelic for someone who has the dubious gift of second sight. Coinneach Odhar, the Brahan Seer, is perhaps the most famous Scottish historical figure who had 'the gift,' but during the course of my research, I also read about the self-styled Highland seer Swein Macdonald, who only died in 2003. Although not based on these folk, I appropriated parts of their experiences of second sight for Angus.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
The final version of the book is a very different beast from the first draft of the manuscript. Over the course of many (too many to count!) redrafts, I honed everything from individual characters to plot and tone. What I really wanted to focus on in the second draft was drawing out the supernatural elements, so essentially, there were parallel investigations driving the action forward—the conventional police inquiry, the rational one if you like, juxtaposed with a supernatural investigation centered on Gilleasbuig McMurdo and Angus. The aim was to play a game with the reader, so they kept questioning if the killer was a 'who' or a 'what.'
In terms of tone, the book became darker with each subsequent draft, which was more consistent with the story. There's still a fair bit of dry Scottish humor in the final version, but I had to lose some of the jokes! After one round of notes, I also discovered the manuscript was almost two hundred thousand words long, which necessitated some pretty harsh pruning! I worked for many years as a sub-editor for national newspapers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, so cutting copy is something I'm comfortable with. You can't be precious about words, even your own. Perhaps especially your own. So, yes, I had to cut numerous scenes and even some characters. There was one particular scene in an early draft that involved an ancient summoning ritual called the taghairm in Gaelic. It's a pretty gruesome custom mentioned several times in old sources from the Highlands and Islands. I won't go into the gory details, but it involves cat torture to summon a demon. Perhaps it's just as well that scene didn't make the final cut!
Your Acknowledgements mention holding an MPhil in early medieval Celtic studies. So, you are familiar with a number of aspects of Scottish fairytales and folklore. Did you have to do additional research on the legends you incorporate into The Unforgiven Dead? If so, how long did it take you to do the necessary research and then write the novel?
An immense amount of research went into this book, but like an iceberg, you only get to see the tip, with the rest remaining below the surface. Certainly, the subjects I studied at university gave me a solid grounding. As well as the MPhil in Celtic studies, I completed a degree in Scottish history and literature. However, it was noticeable that folktales and customs did not feature prominently in my studies. Here was a whole sub-stratum of oral storytelling that was widely ignored, and, in part, the book was a response to this. I wanted to explore this 'otherworld' that was rarely touched upon in my studies. Other authors might work differently, but for me, research is a continuous process alongside the writing. The historian in me loves this part of the process, but you also have to be careful not to fall down the rabbit hole of research. There's also a danger if you invest too much time in research that you want to shoehorn it all into the book. For example, I wrote my postgrad thesis on Pictish standing stones. I'm fascinated with the Picts, who ruled much of Scotland from around the third to the ninth century. They left no written records but did leave an artistic legacy in a host of richly decorated symbols and stones, which historians still can't interpret. But my enthusiasm for the Picts won't necessarily be shared by my readers—in fact, it might bore some to tears! My point is that research is important, but it's the garnish, while the story and the characters are the main meal.
What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you learned during your research?
I discovered plenty of superstitions and customs that ranged from the bizarre to the sinister. One aspect of fairytales that really interested me was the idea that they were a kind of social code used in these remote places to discuss issues that couldn't be openly talked about. The changeling story, for example, features frequently in Highland folktales. These stories usually involve a healthy child being abducted by the fairies and a grouchy fairy 'mannikin' put in their place. There were various methods for 'driving out' the fairy child, most of which were brutal, such as dangling the child over the fire or pricking it with a knife. Some historians suggest these 'changelings' were actually children suffering from mental illness and that these crude methods resembled exorcisms.
Of great interest to me is also the pagan origin of many folktales and customs. If we scrape away the Christian coating, we can sometimes catch a fleeting glimpse of our pagan ancestors' belief system. Of particular interest for the crime writer were various rituals that seemed to hint at human sacrifice (although this is much disputed!) For example, there was a ritual that took place at Beltane (May 1) in some parts of Scotland right into the twentieth century. It involved blindfolded men putting their hand in a bonnet and drawing out a piece of am bonnach brea-tine, which was a Beltane cake. One of the pieces of cake was daubed in charcoal, and the unfortunate recipient of this slice would have been sacrificed to Beliunus, the god after whom the festival of Beltane took its name. In later centuries, the victim became a totem—rather than being sacrificed; his fellow revellers forced him to jump six times over the Beltane fire, for which he was no doubt grateful!
The Unforgiven Dead ends on quite the cliffhanger! And at the end of the novel, Angus seems to be entering a new chapter in his life. Will readers be able to follow him on his journey? What are your plans for the series?
Three was an important number to the ancient Celts and is a motif throughout The Unforgiven Dead. It's not necessarily a spoiler to tell readers the books starts with a threefold death! In keeping with this, I always envisioned this as a trilogy of books. At the moment, I'm almost finished with the first draft of the follow-up, which is provisionally entitled The Archer's Ghost. The main characters from The Unforgiven Dead feature—Angus, Gills, Nadia, and Ashleigh—but the story is actually set on the atmospheric Outer Hebridean island of Barra. I can't say too much, but the story involves selkies, severed heads, and a spate of abductions going back decades!
What's currently on your nightstand?
The Unforgiven Dead has been shortlisted for the Bloody Scotland Crime Debut of the Year prize, so at the moment, I'm reading the four other shortlisted authors. The prize is awarded at Bloody Scotland, which is a brilliant crime writing festival that takes place in Stirling in September. As well as the debut prize, I'm taking part in another 'New Blood' discussion panel with the other writers—Jo Callaghan, Martin Griffin, and Alex Hay—so I'm familiarising myself with their work. I also have a growing TBR pile, including Craig Russel's MacIlvanney long-listed The Devil's Playground, which I'm really looking forward to reading.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
It all started with Iain Banks for me. I wasn't a prolific reader as a child, but I discovered Banks in my mid to late teens when I read The Crow Road, and that's when the book bug caught. But in terms of crime writers, the authors who have influenced me most are, in no particular order, Ian Rankin, Christopher Brookmyre, Val McDermid, Denise Mina, and Stuart MacBride.
As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?
Perseverance! Like most published authors, I have a couple of unpublished manuscripts moldering in a desk drawer and have received countless rejection letters. Try not to take this personally! Aside from that, I would say I've developed a deeper appreciation of outlining. You don't have to plan every minute detail, but having an overarching framework for the novel definitely helped me, although, of course, all writers are different.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
I used to go on car journeys with my family as a child, and my mum would always put storybooks on the car stereo. This was pre-digital…pre-CDs, in fact! So the stories were on cassettes. Some were abridged versions of Scottish classics like Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Treasure Island, but others were folktales about giants and witches and fairies. I guess that's where my love of folklore stems from.
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
My own! That is, until it was in good enough shape to let them read it.
Is there a book you've faked reading?
No, but I used to constantly worry that I hadn't read 'all the books.' I do read a lot and try to stay on top of the new stuff coming out in Tartan Noir, but I've accepted that I will never have time to read everything.
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Within the crime genre, especially in the UK, there seems to be a recent tendency towards homogeneity in covers—often a vaguely threatening landscape and a woman with her back turned! Squeaky Clean by Callum McSorley—a debut author who is nominated for the MacIlvanney Prize—has a really cool, distinctive cover.
Is there a book that changed your life?
I remember reading The Crow Road by Iain Banks in my late teens and thinking for the first time that I wanted to be an author.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
The aforementioned Crow Road. Also, since moving from Scotland to Northern Ireland ten years ago, I've discovered some amazing Irish authors. The Sean Duffy series by Adrian McKinley is sublime!
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
What are you working on now?
I've almost completed the first draft of the follow-up to The Unforgiven Dead. It's provisionally entitled The Archer's Ghost and is set on the beautiful Hebridean island of Barra. Angus, Gills, Ash, and Nadia are all back, as well as a cast of new and intriguing characters. I can't say too much, but the story features selkies, severed heads, and a spate of abductions going back decades!