IN THE mid-1960s Charles Maclean – an Eton schoolboy with a family seat in Argyll, future clan chieftain and scion of one of the best-connected families in post-war Britain – was on the road in the United States with a flat-picking cowboy guitarist named Rambling Jack Elliott.
Both were singing at rodeos and lowlife bars, but on a trip to California, Rambling Jack set out to drive from San Francisco to LA to sort things out with his ex-wife. That was where, he says, things went "terribly, badly wrong".
A wild country character, Rambling Jack was actually the son of a Jewish doctor from New York named Adnopoz, who won a Grammy award in 1995, and has toured to Edinburgh. Maclean hooked up with him after he set out to make a life as a musician, inspired by his older cousins Rory and Alex "Eck" McEwen – old Etonians both – who went to the US with their guitars as Scottish folk musicians and appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
When they arrived in Los Angeles, "Jack's ex-wife's new boyfriend was sitting in a chair, in a place up Laurel Canyon, and he was a black shirt, black pants, gold chain kind of guy", he says.
"Jack was raging and ranting in a cowboy hat. He had a long-wheelbase British Land Rover, which was his pride and joy, and sat over the wheel fuming, that he couldn't believe this situation, and he drove at the house full blast, with me in the passenger seat." They stopped when he hit a fire hydrant. "It sent a jet of water into the house. It was a coup, a brilliant score … She'd called the police and I said we'd got to get out of there, and eventually he did … I was aged about 17, I should not have been there. He wasn't good with women."
According to the newspaper clipping in front of me, the sight of which makes him cringe, the 62-year-old man telling me this is the 16th Hereditary Captain and Keeper of Dunconnel in the Isles of the Sea. He is also the son of Sir Fitzroy Maclean – an Etonian, brilliant linguist, near-legendary adventurer, war hero, diplomat and author of Eastern Approaches.
Maclean is something of an adventurer himself, and certainly in his own literary journey. His first job was helping set up the Ecologist magazine, which he abandoned when his fellow Greens decamped to a commune in Cornwall; he also worked on a ranch, and as a merchant seaman. His 1972 book, St Kilda: Island on the Edge of the World, is an evocative study of the island that has never been out of print and is now published as a Canongate Classic. Other successes as a non-fiction writer included 1977's The Wolf Children, a surprising success in Russia, examining the cases of two girls in India, claimed as feral children raised in the wild.
Yet none of them, he feels, has been the book he's truly wanted to write. "I kind of feel people write one book. I haven't written mine yet, and that keeps me struggling; one book that's any good, and will be the book that survives, maybe." Martin Amis? Money. "That was the best one, and nothing else has been as good." Kingsley Amis – clearly, Lucky Jim. Giuseppe di Lampedusa's The Leopard, F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Ernest Hemingway? A bit of a conundrum, but he "changed the way we wrote".
Last year, Maclean published his third novel, Home Before Dark, a chilling thriller about a father's kill-or-be-killed hunt for the techno-stalking murderer of his daughter, an art student in Florence. He'll be talking about it at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Sunday, appearing along with the Scottish crime writer Frederic Lindsay, whose The Stranger from Home is the eighth in his series featuring DI Jim Meldrum.
"It's a very, very good novel, that is also spookily a thriller. It's got a kind of cryptic feel to it," says Maclean. "It's excellent, quite poetic in a way. The style is very good, which I care about more than most." The same might be said of Home Before Dark; the opening half of the book in particular exploits dimly-seen cyber-terror to the full, though the tension flags a little when the killer breaks into the open.
The fictional trail in Home Before Dark leads from the brutal killing in Italy of the hero Ed Lister's student daughter, Sophie, to a sinister website drawing visitors into a virtual house of fear, whose creator is an evil master of cracking and tracking through the internet and mobile phone network. The book took Maclean four years to write, and he set out to fit its components together "like a Swiss watch", creating sexual tension as Lister is drawn into a disturbing internet fantasy relationship with a woman of about Sophie's age. "What really brought me to the subject is that nobody had done it, nobody had written about the internetwhich is the biggest thing practically going on in the world," he says. "Nobody was able to write about it in such a way that it entered the dramatic structure of the story." Even Hollywood had only touched on it in films like Disclosure," he says.
Home Before Dark is now to be made into a into a four-part production for Channel 4 by Kevin Macdonald, celebrated Scottish director of The Last King of Scotland and more recently State of Play. Scriptwriting gets underway next month. A successful film could potentially take Maclean to a new level of popular success; despite strong reviews, the book has sold only about 20,000 copies in paperback, compared to perhaps ten times that for a big bestseller.
"In the language of thrillers and supermarkets, no-one has read it. It's done reasonably well in Germany. It would make a huge difference," he says.
Maclean has also written about the Scottish countryside, but he is emphatically not Charlie Maclean, the celebrated Edinburgh-based whisky writer and connoisseur, though he does actually produce a single malt, from the Creggans Inn, his family hotel, and has written on whisky himself. The two Scots have often been confused, particularly in Eastern Europe, where Maclean's books have even featured the other Maclean's photograph, and on Amazon and other search sites their books seem irrevocably intermingled. When it happens, they now have a mutual agreement to bluff it out, rather than try to explain they are different people.
That early link with America, which began with his escapades with Rambling Jack Elliot, has persisted – it was there that he met his wife Deborah, a model, and they lived in New York for ten years – but his musical career has not. He finally shed his musical ambitions at Oxford University, when he first heard the Beatles' Sgt Pepper album. "It was just such a fantastic moment in music. I thought there was no point in doing this until you are going to be somewhere in that area." It was hard to settle down; struggling to concentrate on essays, and while he dabbled in painting, he felt the draw of writing.
Maclean grew up under a huge paternal shadow, and hates newspaper articles that dwell on it. Sir Fitzroy witnessed Stalin's show trials in Russia and famously parachuted behind the lines in Yugoslavia in the Second World War to become the key contact in Britain's alliance with Tito and his partisans. Maclean's parents' social circles included the Kennedys, the Astors and the Churchills. But while he was an accomplished writer, and first took on the Creggans Inn, writing was not Fitzroy Maclean's first career, as it is his eldest son's. His "one book" was indubitably Eastern Approaches, though others included a biography of Bonnie Prince Charlie.
Maclean claims to be wary of his festival appearance. "I'm somewhat nervous, because I don't really do well in public speaking," he says. "I slightly take the view that books are for reading and authors are for writing them in the privacy of their home."
Next up is a thriller, The Blue Road. The new book takes place in Scotland and Croatia, where the family still have the house his father brought, and connections stretching back decades. The plot involves a brother and sister suspected by police of having killed their parents.
Maclean jokes about how slowly he works – he toiled on Home Before Dark for three or four years – but is aiming to turn the new one round faster. "I'm not the kind of person who can just churn them out. I don't. I can't. Maybe I could but I don't want to. I always feel that most of the writing you see on the shelves of supermarkets shouldn't have been written. There's not enough editing. Writers are under a tremendous pressure to produce the same thing again and again."
• Charles Maclean will be at the Edinburgh Book Festival on Sunday at 6:45pm