The Isle of Harris and the Flannan Isles: Background information when reading Coffin Road

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Coffin Road

by Peter May

Coffin Road by Peter May X
Coffin Road by Peter May
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2016, 400 pages
    Paperback:
    Nov 2017, 400 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Kate Braithwaite

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About this Book

Beyond the Book:
The Isle of Harris and the Flannan Isles

Print Review

Acclaimed crime novelist Peter May is famous for a trilogy of novels set on the Isle of Lewis in the Scottish Hebrides, but in his latest outing, Coffin Road, he has moved his sights south, to the harder, rockier terrain of the Isle of Harris.

Although Lewis and Harris are always referred to as if they are two separate islands, they are in fact one continuous landmass – most easily differentiated by their very different geography. Lewis is famous for its peaty soil and largely flat terrain. Harris on the other hand is much harsher, vividly displaying the volcanic and ice-age geological upheaval which shaped this part of the world.

Coffin Road May's choice of title indicates that landscape forms a vital part of the novel. Coffin Road is an actual place, if not a driveable road: it's a track that crosses the island from the rocky east coast to the more fertile, western shores. In the past when people died on the east side of the island, they couldn't be buried there because the land was too rocky and hard. As a result, the dead had to be carried for miles across, to the western side of the island, in order to be interred. Hence the name, Coffin Road. On the western side, the soil is soft and fertile, and often described using the gaelic term, machair.

The novel opens on the beach at Luskentyre on the west coast of Harris. Luskentyre has been voted as one of Britain's most beautiful beaches with miles of white sand and clear green-blue water. It's a remote part of Scotland, also famous for the production of Harris tweed, a luxury fabric, handmade from start to finish and dyed, spun and woven in the Outer Hebrides. According to an Act of Parliament signed by the UK government, Harris tweed may only be made by hand in the homes of the islanders.

Peter May also moves the drama out to an even more remote small set of islands about 30 miles west of Lewis and Harris, called the Flannan Isles or the Seven Hunters. They are named after St Flannan, a 7th century Irish saint who is believed to have preached there. All are uninhabited but on the largest island, Eilean Mor, there are two ancient ruined stone buildings – one a chapel possibly used by St Flannan, and a lighthouse.

The lighthouse, built in 1899, had only been open for just over a year when tragedy struck. Three lighthouse men mysteriously vanished. On December 15, 1900 a steamer travelling from Philadelphia reported that the lighthouse was not operating. Men were sent to investigate and found the building empty. There was no sign of the three lighthouse men or any signs of a disturbance.

The mysterious disappearance of the men at the Flannan Isle Lighthouse was commemorated in a poem, "Flannan Isle," by Wilfred Wilson Gibson and in a song by the band Genesis, "The Mystery of The Flannan Isle Lighthouse" (1998).

For more information about the history of the Outer Hebrides and the Isle of Lewis, read the 'Beyond the Book' for The Blackhouse.

Picture of Coffin Road from Visitouterhebrides.co.uk

Article by Kate Braithwaite

This article was originally published in November 2016, and has been updated for the November 2017 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.

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