How the story began

Ideas to discuss

Read chapter one




Traditional music is a very strong theme in The Witness. I asked some of my musician friends to write short pieces inspired by the book.

Click here to listen to a beautiful piece by gifted fiddler and composer Anna-Wendy Stevenson. It's called Lament for Hector. If you've already read the book you'll know why.



My neighbour, Fiona Ritchie, presents the Thistle & Shamrock, a hugely successful celtic music show which goes out on over 400 National Public Radio stations in the USA. Click here to hear the interview we did about THE WITNESS (running time 50 mins - there's time to make a cup of tea while it's downloading!)

how the story began




I first had the idea for THE WITNESS during the 1990s when war was raging in what used to be Yugoslavia. It seemed so close and yet so far away, so sickening and yet so easy to put out of my mind. Dreadful atrocities were being committed right here in Europe and we were watching them on TV every night, then going to bed and sleeping soundly.


At the same time, Scotland was about to have its own parliament again, and one of the first things the new powers-that-be would do was to look at who owns the land.  The Highlands are one of Europe's last great areas of wilderness and they're mainly in the hands of a small number of private landowners. Was it right that so much should be owned by so few, especially in remote places where whole communities might depend on one person for their houses and jobs? Or was that an over-simplification of a much more complicated question?


If I invented an uprising in Scotland, I thought, then I could bring some of the horrors of the Balkans closer to home and make people think hard about civil war. And what better reason for this than fighting over land, perhaps the most ancient of all causes for war. So I allowed myself to imagine that land had been nationalised, and that although at first most people had been glad, gradually they had become disillusioned as they realised that land can't be properly looked after by people who don't truly care for it. Eventually, I imagined, fighting would break out ...




So I had my background. Now I needed people. I wanted a young man who was at home in the countryside and through whose eyes we could see the Highlands. He had to be self-sufficient and tough enough to survive physical hardship, yet sensitive enough to be able to cope with the particular needs of the companion I was going to land him with. In due course that young man became John, the apprentice deer-stalker, still mourning the loss of his younger brother, in love with the hills among which he had been brought up, and with the fiddle music which connected him to his roots.


And his companion? To put extra difficulty in John's way I wanted him to have to look after someone who was utterly dependent on him, who he would be both touched and burdened by, and who would help him eventually to come to terms with his own loss. Friends have a son with Fragile X syndrome, which is similar to autism, and I have seen him be very loving and also an incredible handful. I was intrigued by the thought of how very different the world must seem to someone like this. And the possibility that he might not be able to tell other people properly who he was seemed to hold great potential for a story. So Ninian came to life.




Click here to read an article about Henry, the real boy I based the character of Ninian on, and his unusual condition. Click here to visit the Fragile X Society's website for more information about this rare genetic disorder.




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'One of the best books to come out of Scotland in ages'
 Sunday Herald