SHIRLEY McKay has written five novels in the popular Hew Cullan series, each set against the backdrop of a major political event. Cullan’s latest adventures are set in the year the Spanish Armada tried to invade England and depose Elizabeth I. There are five tales marking key points in the calendar – Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas, Martinmas, and Yule – tracing a year in the life of the young scholar, lawyer and sleuth in his St Andrews home.
Candlemas, featuring the suspicious death of Blair the candlemaker in his crackling house, introduces some of the less pleasant aspects of 16th-century life. The process by which tallow candles were made is explained, from the flesher cutting the fat off farm animals to the candle maker preparing it for his candles. Thanks to McKay’s vivid writing the foul smells of boiling animal fat and burning tallow seem to rise up from the page. Cullan’s sure and steady investigative technique discovers the truth, but it is not as black-and-white as he and his friend Dr Giles Locke might wish.
Whitsunday sees local dignitary Lord Justice Semphill dance naked during the night before transforming into a rook. As Cullen investigates, McKay weaves in the fear of witchcraft and various superstitions of the time. It is well done; understated but informative. Meg, Cullen’s sister and an expert in using herbs, helps him to unravel the mystery which includes “an ointment prescribed for griefs of the fundament”. It is an amusing story with the dark subtext of witchcraft lending it added complexity.
McKay has a splendid knowledge of the Scots tongue that comes to the fore in Lammas, with the exchanges between Elspet, in service in the harbour inn, and Walter Bone, her boss. She calls him “Sliddershanks” on account of his crippled legs, while he calls her “Mimmerkin” because of her small and slight stature. He tells her she is not the kind of woman to serve the customers in the bar, being a “pin-hippit runt”, so she works mainly in the kitchen. The Lammas Fair brings excitement and the chance of romance to St Andrews, although for some it has lost its charms. “Fairs are for lovers and bairns, and I am fair trauchled wi both,” says Canny Bett to Cullan. The fear of a Spanish invasion looms large, and as Martinmas comes around so too does Halloween. The veil between the living and dead worlds grows thinner and strange things happen in St Andrews. Cullan and his friends must discover what’s afoot. Are those ghostly figures really the beginning of a Spanish invasion?
Yule again shows McKay’s excellent grasp of the everyday lives of 16th-century Scots. Children learn songs to sing at the nativity and all through the houses the best food and drink that could be afforded is made ready. Treats like minchit pies – filled with fruits, spice and strips of flesh – coloured tarts, marchpanes and gingerbread are made, a surfeit of which causes a “belly-thraw”. However, the festive season doesn’t mean that Cullan’s skills are any less in demand.
McKay makes it easy to slip into 16th-century St Andrews, the sense of place and time is so strong. Mary, Queen of Scots, has been beheaded just the year before and her son, James VI, is King of Scots. Elizabeth Tudor is trying to avoid outright war with the Spanish by using her wits and the information her legion of spies bring her. Cullan, an honest if sometimes staid hero, stands between the old ways, full of superstitions and folklore, and the progressive ideas his education has taught him. McKay is developing Cullan’s private life with his wife, Frances, but for much of the time he is the vehicle through which the reader observes the solution to the mysteries. This means that the other characters are more active and rounded but Cullan is a likeable and reliable guide to the goings-on in Fife’s cathedral town. McKay’s novel in five books is a fascinating evocation of the everyday life of ordinary Scots in the 1500s as well as being a series of first-rate stories. Her use of language is a delight, the sinewy and expressive Scots words aiding the creation of Cullen’s very realistic world. For anyone struggling with the lesser-known words – bumbaise, caquetoire, limmar, pilliewinks – the volume includes a helpful glossary. This is an impressive addition to the Hew Cullan series, and McKay is to be congratulated for the continued quality and inventiveness of her tales.
1588: A Calendar of Crime: A Novel in Five Books by Shirley McKay is published by Polygon, priced £14.99