Writing a ‘woke’ historical novel was a challenge says Scottish QC Stephen O’Rourke

Stephen O'Rourke has brought modern perceptions to his writing of historical novels. Photograph: Neil Hanna
Stephen O'Rourke has brought modern perceptions to his writing of historical novels. Photograph: Neil Hanna
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“I had to be ‘woke’, giving my characters their sense of dignity while not whitewashing evils such as slavery,” said a leading Scottish QC whose debut historical novel forced him to bridge the gap between political correctness and the realities of the past.

Stephen O’Rourke’s cult novel The Crown Agent, which is fast becoming a bestseller, tells the tale of young Edinburgh doctor, Mungo Lyon, whose career is effectively over in 1829 following the Burke and Hare scandal in the city, who, with nothing to lose, accepts an assignment from the Lord Advocate to act as an undercover agent investigating the murder of a lighthouse keeper and the discovery of a schooner deserted on the Firth of Clyde, her crew dead.

However, Hare, who was granted immunity from prosecution for turning king’s evidence, is also under orders and is tracking Lyon’s every move. After a series of nail-biting dramatic incidents along the Union Canal and in Greenock, the pair become allies. Lyon ends up on a ship heading to Jamaica where the plot thickens .

Lyon thwarts a coup in the colony by a Scottish aristocrat and plantation owner aimed at raising funds for another Jacobite rebellion.

Greenock-born O’Rourke, who has a three-book deal, decided to write his novel after winning a short-story competition in a newspaper.

“I’ve always enjoyed writing, since I was a wee boy, I always had the burning sense I’d like to write. Some people like taking an MG to bits, playing in a band, listening to music. Creative writing is part of what I do. I was inspired by writers such as Robert Louis Stevenson and John Buchan, but there are aspects of their work which can cause offence. They were living in a different world and the challenge now is to make novels set in the past accessible to a modern reader.

“As a writer, if your starting point is history, it is important but also difficult, to think how to write for a multi-cultural ‘woke’ society. Do you give your characters their sense of dignity while not writing a whitewash of the time, or do you decide history is so problematic you just ignore it?

“Our society has changed, developed and matured. The gulf of time has widened to such an extent it can present real challenges .”

O’Rourke added: “I’ve included strong independent women – including a far more experienced Scottish ‘crown agent’ than Lyon.”

Because The Crown Agent reaches its crescendo in Jamaica, on a plantation run by a Scot, O’Rourke took the decision early on to donate some of the royalties from his book to the Tumbling Lassie Committee, – a campaign group set up by Scottish lawyers to address modern-day slavery and help victims of human trafficking.

The Tumbling Lassie was a young girl gymnast who was forced to perform in the streets by Reid, a travelling showman, but who ran away. The case reached the Court of Session in Edinburgh in 1687 with Reid claiming ownership. But his claim was dismissed on the grounds that “we have no slaves in Scotland, mothers cannot sell their bairns”.

Jamaica had a vast number of Scots, including Jacobite prisoners shipped there after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, and sugar plantation owners boosting the Scottish economy by the brutal exploitation of slaves.

Professor Sir Geoff Palmer, OBE, scientist and human rights activist, who was born in Jamaica, said: “I’m totally supportive of how Mr O’Rourke is writing for today’s audience but not ignoring the attitudes of the past or Scotland’s horrific record of slavery.

“He is doing what many others are afraid to do.”

Palmer, the Jamaican government’s first honorary consul in Scotland, said: “The historian Michael Fry, author of The Dundas Despotism, said we can’t criticise Sir Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, a Scot and home secretary, who in 1792 delayed the abolition of slavery in Britain by 15 years because it was ‘in the past’.

“The view that we dismiss the past and don’t try to fight it, has persisted among some academics.

“But the actions of the past have consequences and one of the consequences is racism.”