Where history dares - Shona MacLean interview

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17th-century Banff is the setting for a debut whodunit with impeccable credentials. SUSAN MANSFIELD meets author Shona MacLean – niece of late thriller writer, Alistair

YOU DON'T HAVE TO GO FAR IN THE town of Banff before you feel the presence of the past. The sign above the door of the Market Arms reads: 1585. The wind whips in from the sea across the remains of a pre-Reformation church. A house nearby proclaims the one-time residence of Thomas Forbes, silversmith.

Of course, it helps that I've spent the last few days immersed in the Banff of the past, the factual home of a fictional character, Alexander Seaton, a man with a murder to solve. In Seaton's time in the 1620s, the little north-east town had walls and sentries, a nosey kirk session and a fire-and-brimstone pulpit. It wasn't a good time to be on the wrong side of the law.

Seaton's creator, first-time novelist Shona MacLean, imagined her way into the story not a stone's throw from here. "My youngest child at the time wasn't sleeping in the afternoons so I used to pop her in the car and drive down to the sea front," she explains. "She would fall asleep in the car and I would look at the sea, imagining the lives of the people who used to live here."

MacLean, 42, has a PhD in 17th-century history, but in the course of her studies poring over ancient annals and parish records, her interest was captured by the men and women who lay behind the statistics. "I was studying bursaries and there was a mention of the son of the minister of Cruden (on the coast North of Aberdeen), near where we lived at the time. I found that stuck in my head, the idea of this young man who was poor enough to warrant a bursary, and I wondered what happened to him at university."

Thus began Alexander Seaton, who quickly acquired a friend, Archie Hay, the laird's son from the Castle of Delgatie near Turriff, with a background of wealth and a head for adventure. Alexander becomes one of the family in return for keeping Archie's feet on the ground, and occasionally carrying him home when he's too drunk to walk.

"I started thinking about this poor student and his aristocratic friend, these two young men from different backgrounds who became very close. There had been an incident and one had left the country, the other had stayed. Then things evolved, the incident became a murder, Archie faded and Alexander grew."

When The Redemption of Alexander Seaton begins, Archie is already dead in foreign wars, and Alexander's connection to the Hays has been severed by the same disgrace that left him robbed of his dream of becoming a minister. Doubting his faith and himself, he washes up in his home town of Banff in the lowly job of junior schoolmaster with little hope and fewer prospects.

Then the apothecary's bright young apprentice turns up poisoned in the school room, and Seaton's friend is awaiting trial for murder in the Tolbooth. He and his friend Doctor Jaffray must do what they can to unmask the real killer before more deaths ensue.

MacLean, a softly spoken mother of four, is cautious about stepping into the limelight over what her publishers, Quercus, have called "a compelling thriller and brilliant historical novel". While admitting she had "no intention of becoming a crime novelist", she says she is now working on the second Alexander Seaton book and has ideas for half a dozen more.

Perhaps it helped that there was already a writer in the family – her uncle was best-selling author Alistair MacLean who wrote The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare and a host of other action thrillers. "From when I was very little, I was aware that I had an uncle who was a famous writer, and this was something quite special. If one of his films came on the telly we would watch for his name coming up.

"The fact that there was someone from my family, from a similar background, who was a successful writer, made me believe it could be done. You didn't have to be born into a circle somewhere near Oxford or Cambridge. It gave me the belief that it was possible to do it."

When she was a teenager, her uncle came to visit her parents, hoteliers in the Highlands, and took an interest in the fact that she was good at English. "He asked me if I'd ever thought about writing. I said yes, I thought it was something I'd like to do sometime. He asked me to write a short story for him, because my sister and I were going to visit him that summer in Dubrovnik. I did write one, but I didn't show it to him. It was really cringey stuff. I'm glad I didn't."

By the time she started working on a novel, in her early twenties, her uncle had died. That project was quickly shelved as other things took priority – not least the birth of her first child, Rachel, now 17. Three more children and a PhD later, she returned to writing, and the story of Alexander Seaton emerged.

She sent the book to 12 agents and publishers before securing an agent. "It's so demoralising – I'd look at the doormat every single morning. Even when rejections came in it was quite exciting for about 20 minutes because I felt I existed in that literary world – I had a letter from an agent! – and then the gloom set in.

"I'd more or less given up on the idea that it would be published. But I'd read an article about authors and how many times they'd been rejected, and I kept on trying. When I got a message from Judith, who became my agent, asking to see the whole book, there was a period of a week or two when I was waiting to hear back from her. It was like when you're at school and have a massive crush on somebody, you can't eat, you can't sleep … It was really exciting when she said yes."

MacLean says there's no doubt that the research for her PhD – on educational provision in the 17th century – helped her create the world of the novel. Perhaps because she had already written about it in an academic context, she is able to use it lightly, sketching the society of the time without overburdening the story with facts.

Though she edited out the sections on educational theory, the reader is left in no doubt of the importance – and ambition – of educationalists in Scotland at the time. "There is a village called Fordyce, about six or seven miles from here – Greek was being taught in Fordyce in the 17th century. It doesn't even have a post office today. People were convinced of the merits of education, to help fulfil their own potential, and then to follow through and create a very worthwhile society."

Yet, in other areas of life, things were less progressive. Religious divisions are simmering under the surface, yet to become a full-blown battle between the Presbyterians and Episcopalians. With Charles I now on the throne in London, rumours of Papist spies are rife, even in Banff.

Meanwhile, a chilly Presbyterianism has inveigled itself into Scottish society, leaving ordinary citizens in fear of the Kirk Session. "People were really intensely concerned about their own salvation," MacLean says. "They would agonise over whether they grieved too much over the death of their child, because that was questioning the will of God. I've read diaries where very good, spiritual people were burning with shame because they were round at a friend's house the night before and drank too much."

It was a punitive society: in the Annals of Banff MacLean found the story of a young boy hanged for stealing washing. Life was particularly hard for those on the margins, women without menfolk, children without fathers. Women were still being tortured and burned at the stake on suspicion of witchcraft.

MacLean is careful to state that her main characters are fictional – even the Hays of Delgatie, although the Hay family did own the castle of that name. The only "real" historical characters are cameos: a bookseller, the painter George Jameson, and map-maker and Catholic sympathiser Robert Gordon of Straloch.

"I enjoyed putting him in the book because I was able to present him in quite a sympathetic light. I'd be uncomfortable attributing actions to historical characters in fiction that were detrimental to their reputation if there was no historical foundation for it."

Yet for all her care, history had one last surprise to spring on her. The book was almost complete when she discovered the name of the minister of Banff in 1626: one Alexander Seaton.

• The Redemption of Alexander Seaton by Shona MacLean is published by Quercus, priced 14.99. Shona MacLean is at the Edinburgh book festival on 23 August.

Shona MacLean on …

Women in 17th-century Scotland: "It was quite an unforgiving society, particularly for women. Women always seemed to come off worse than men. There was a lot of mention of fornication in church records, and the women seem to have had the greater penance to do than the men, who just paid their fines. The women are the ones who are seen as dangerous, who get moved on from towns, particularly if they aren't married, or are fatherless, or don't have settled employment. Of course, they're only as dangerous as the men encourage them to be."

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