Kirkcaldy-born author KH Irvine ponders why the Lang Toun and its surrounds has produced so much creative talent
I left Kirkcaldy, in body but never in spirit, in the 1980s with two phrases of my Gran’s ringing in my ears; ‘dinae be feart’ and ‘dinae be a blaw.’ For those in need of translation; don’t be scared but don’t be a big head. Somehow that sums up Kirkcaldy and maybe starts to explain why it prod
The who’s who’s list of The Lang Toun is awe inspiring; Adam Smith, Robert Adam, Gordon Brown, David Steele, Val McDermid, Jack Vettriano, John Buchan (before you write in, he was born in Perth but raised in Kirkcaldy), Aileen Paterson, Bob Carruthers and of course the irreplaceable Jocky Wilson. With a population 0.6 per cent of London, that’s not bad.
But I am going to start with two people who sum up the dichotomy that is Kirkcaldy and surrounding villages perhaps best, they are Jackie Leven and Ian Rankin. Both talented, both self-effacing and both in need of a new nomenclature to describe their art.
Leven was described in the English newspapers as ‘Celtic Soul’ and Rankin by US crime writer, James Ellroy, as ‘the King of tartan noir’ but it was their own description of themselves, as they took to the stage together in 2004, that is perhaps the most enlightening; ‘Twa twisted Fifers,’ as if there’s any other kind!
In his review of their performance at the time Paul Du Noyer coined ‘Levenesque’ to be ‘themes of exile, masculinity, Scottish culture, violence, drink and poetry.’ Rankin adds the reason Rebus would love Leven is ‘they’re stories about disappointed hard men. Guys who are like stone on the outside but if you chip away long enough, you’ll get to what makes them humane.’ And it is the chipping away that helps us understand the Kirkcaldy psyche.
Fighting for the underdog is in our blood (we kept electing a Communist MP for God’s sake). Rebus for all his hard talking, hard drinking violence is on the side of the angels. Anyone who listens to Jackie Leven’s the mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death cannot helped but be torn asunder by the profound melancholy and beauty in his lyrics. The fact he chose to quote Oscar Wilde in his title tells us something of the man who once said. ‘I would have been less embarrassed to say – yes, Mum I’m a drug addict, than actually I’m a poet.’
The emotional dichotomies that form the Kirkcaldy psyche are built on a history of tough, hardworking communities hewn from the back-breaking work that creates unbreakable communities in coal and fishing and coupled with an oft buried burning passion for underdogs and social justice.
Kirkcaldy has a memorial to the men who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, a war a disproportionate number of Scots, and Fifers, went to fight.
As a kid, I used to read the inscription over and over and always be stirred by the passion, commitment and bravery of those men who travelled great distances to fight for people like them they never knew. How can that NOT spawn a storyteller? To this day if asked for the phrase that best sums up my hometown I look to the hopeless romance of the Spanish Civil War and La Passionara; ‘it’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.’ A sucker for a cause and a hero.
That was the nascent thought for A Killing Sin. What is it that would ignite the fire in any one of us to commit atrocious acts? How far would you go to protect a secret? Would it be driven by love or hate?
A Killing Sin is set in London and Edinburgh in the very near future, and centres around three dynamic, flawed women who forged a life-long friendship at Edinburgh University. Through their different career paths, their lives become entwined with that of a young woman, a committed jihadist, who embarks on a horrific terrorist plot hitting right at the heart of Government.
It tackles a number of challenging themes, asking when tolerance becomes intolerable and where security measures become racial profiling. My characters are complex, flawed, funny, ferocious and with a moral compass that is etched from bitter experience. A bit like the Lang Toun. A town where ferocity simmers under the skin of the poetic, (on the surface) hard men and women only to explode into a violent egalitarianism when provoked.
It simmers through Rebus and through pretty much everything the incomparable Val McDermid, Kirkcaldy’s (nay the world’s – it’s ok to be a blaw for other people!) Queen of Crime, writes. The pathos and suffering, sense of righteousness and burning drive to right a wrong even when it puts you in a place of extreme vulnerability emotionally and physically is seared into her characters. McDermid and Rankin share a fearlessness in exploring the darkest parts of human behaviour without ever losing a sense of compassion and integrity. I hope I have gone some way, in my own way, to doing the same. Millie Stephenson, a key character hails from Fife, and like many that have gone before her relishes the assumption made around her accent, before giving the full force of a brilliant and withering intellect and wit.
We see the same simmering passion in Jack Vettriano. Never truly accepted by the art establishment Vettriano has ploughed his own furrow with a mighty two fingers all the way to art galleries across the world, on to posters and biscuit tins and a very nice place in the South of France… but like the rest of us never quite leaving; keeping a footprint and a heart in Kirkcaldy. In some ways, Vettriano is the epitome of the town. Born in abject poverty, clearly bright but with few options other than to be a miner he looked both within and beyond the town to find his voice. The darkness and passion as well as the refusal to be curtailed or care enough about affirmation from the establishment, describes not only him but also the town.
There is something about a willingness to be undefined and an unwillingness to request affirmation that runs through the veins of Kirkcaldy. Kirkcaldy means ‘fort on the hard hill’. Bounded by the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth, Kirkcaldy looks to neither Dundee nor Edinburgh for affirmation. In 2017 David Goodhart wrote his book, The Road to Somewhere, about the new cultural tribes. In part an explanation of the different way our culture is fragmenting, those that are from anywhere (about 20-25 per cent of people) who see the world from a global standpoint and typically form an elite and those from somewhere; more fixed in their thinking and being tossed on the tide of change. For me, that is too simple, and it certainly doesn’t apply to my town that is both fierce and vulnerable, melancholic and hilarious, intense and self-contained and poetic and leery. To quote Wilde again, ‘to define is to limit.’
Talking to potential publishers, I realised a ‘problem’ was that A Killing Sin was hard to define; was its ‘women’s’ literature? A political thriller? A psychological thriller? Trying to provoke? Making a point? A damn good read? A page turner? Well, let me be a blaw and say all of the above!
A Killing Sin by KH Irvine is published by Urbane Publications, priced £8.99. Out now