Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Stirling: a Shire with its Share of Savagery

As the crime writing community warms up for the fifth Bloody Scotland festival, with Val McDermid, Chris Brookmyre, Helen Fitzgerald, Nicci French, Stuart MacBride and many more, William Sutton offers a guide to Stirling as a suitable spot for criminal fraternising.

It thrilled me, as a wee boy, that David Balfour, hero of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, hid under old Stirling Bridge on his cross-country quest to clear his name: the very same bridge that I passed on the way to the Thistle Centre or Stirling County Cricket Club.

From RLS to Rebus

Stevenson, author of two and half of literature’s most memorable characters (Long John Silver, Jekyll/Hyde) often stayed here (in the spa town of Bridge of Allan, along the road from my school). I later discovered Stevenson’s cave on the Darn Walk, a welcome escape for those exhausted by Stirling nightlife and the inspiration for Ben Gunn’s cave in Treasure Island. That may be a children’s book, but there’s no doubt Stevenson was a crime writer.

If you don’t consider The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde a crime novel, read over Hyde’s misdeeds again and try telling that to Operation Yewtree.

Iain Rankin was astonished how few spotted that his Rebus novel Hide and Seek was a homage to Stevenson. Rankin explored his admiration for Stevenson’s gothic masterpiece in this excellent BBC documentary.

Deceptively peaceful

Viewed from the Wallace Monument, the Carse of Stirling seems a peaceful landscape. Yet the area has its share of violence.

I grew up down the road, in Dunblane. Fiction plumbs the depths of terrible crimes. William McIlvanney, through his hero Laidlaw, urges us to treat murderers as humans: “There are no monsters…only people.” But who can imagine Thomas Hamilton’s state of mind as he drove there from Stirling on March 13 1996?

Today, you will find commemorative gardens, a community centre, and a memorial to the tragedy in Dunblane Cathedral.

On the High Street, the gold letter box celebrates Andy Murray’s Olympic victories.

Gateway to the Highlands

Seven battlefields are visible from the top of the Wallace Monument’s 246 steps. From earliest childhood, I was convinced that the Battle of Bannockburn was the crux of world history, and that Robert the Bruce’s axe cracking Henry de Bohun’s head was the most important combat of the millennium.

The back road over Sheriffmuir passes the Gathering Stone of the Clans, where the Jacobite forces struggled through marshes to an inconclusive battle. A remote luncheon at the 17th Century Sheriffmuir Inn will inspire windswept thoughts in any writer.

Stirling in fiction 

Stirling Castle, on its rocky outcrop, is the breathtaking monument that tells me I’m home.

It is also the dramatic location for Tunes of Glory, the film of James Kennaway’s psychological novel, starring John Mills and Alec Guinness, in which a suicide is misreported as murder.
Iain Banks’ underrated crime novel, Complicity, features key moment at Stirling University. Throughout this sassy political thriller Banks sows seeds of dissent in the characters’ early lives – hopes, loves and betrayals – laying down clues in nostalgic flashback.

Beside the monument and the University sits Dumyat, the beginning of the Ochil hills. Rennie McOwan’s Light on Dumyat, an absorbing children’s adventure story, may tempt to you to try the stroll up, with glorious views as far as Edinburgh – if it’s not raining.

Auld Enemies

My school history books proclaimed Stirling the gateway to the Highlands. I never understood why armies didn’t simply go around it – until I read Tears for a Tinker.

Jess Smith’s travellers’ tales unravel the secrets of the peat bogs around Stirling.

Following the clearances, destitute Highlanders were pardoned and employed to drain the bogs, in return for small patches of land. They uncovered Roman artefacts, jewellery, weaponry – well beyond the Antonine Wall – and even whale bones. It was a Labour Colony; yet this exploitation led to the area’s fruitful settlement.

Divided allegiances

Today Stirling is Scotland’s compromise town. It’s perfect for events like Bloody Scotland, with divided allegiance to the bigger cities. Stirling voted strongly to stay EU, after voting almost as definitively to stay in the UK.

Enjoy the Scotland v England crime writers football grudge match, free and unticketed at Cowane’s Hospital, 1.30pm on Sat 20th September.

The Scots will look to celebrate, as William Wallace did at the Battle of Stirling Bridge. The English will prefer to recall Wallace’s dismembered head spiked on London Bridge.

Stirling facts (via Stirling Council):

  • The British currency ‘sterling’ derived from the town mint, producing coins from silver mined in the Ochils.
  • The Black Boy fountain commemorates 30% of Stirling’s population killed by the Plague of 1369.
  • The elite S.A.S. unit was founded by James Stirling of that famous Stirling family.
  • The 1971 film Kidnapped, starring Michael Caine, was partly shot in Stirling.

William Sutton, author of Lawless and the Flowers of Sin (Titan Books), grew up in Dunblane and went to school in nearby Bridge-of-Allan.
Lawless and the Flowers of Sin is his second mystery featuring a Scots detective in Victorian London. Lawless and the Devil of Euston Square tackled the building of the Tube and sewers; the new book investigates a different kind of underworld.

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