In the icy Scottish dawn of 16th April 1746, the last battle to be fought on British soil was just hours away. The soldiers of the Hanoverian army of William Duke of Cumberland were shaking off their brandy-befuddled sleep, caused by extra rations to celebrate the Duke’s birthday. Just a mile or two distant, the massed ranks of the Scottish clans loyal to Charles Edward Stuart, the Young Pretender, were shivering in their plaid cloaks, wet and exhausted after an abortive night march to attack the enemy.
One small group of Highlanders, however, had something else on their minds. Chancing upon a broken down wagon belonging to Cumberland’s paymaster, they discover a literal treasure chest of gold put aside for soldiers’ wages. They make off with the gold, and in doing so miss the ensuing carnage on Culloden Moor. McGillivray intends to use the riches to restore the fortunes of the Jacobite cause, but events take a contrary turn.
Modern Scotland. The Spring of 2010. Burglars break into Cullairn Castle, the ancestral home of the McGillivray clan. The present owners, and descendants of the McGillivrays, are brutally murdered in the course of the break-in. DCI Neil Strachan has to make sense of the violent deaths of Duncan Forbes and his wife, but is puzzled by the mutilations on the bodies. There is a crude copy of a clan emblem cut into the dead flesh, as well as an attempt to carve something even more obscure – a symbol which appears to be a character from the dead Pictic language, Ogham.
While simultaneously trying to discover who is stalking his girlfriend and sending her threatening text messages, Strachan works on the Cuillairn mystery and comes to the conclusion that someone has an insider’s knowledge of the McGillivray legend, and will stop at nothing until the treasure, now worth millions, is unearthed.
The Well Of The Dead is a winning combination of several different elements. It’s a brisk and authentic police procedural, written by someone who clearly knows how a major enquiry works. For those who enjoy a costume drama with a dash of buried treasure, there is interest a-plenty. Military history buffs will admire the broad sweep of how Allan (right) describes the glorious failure that was the Jacobite rebellion, as well as being gripped by the detailed knowledge of the men who fought and died on that sleet-swept April day in 1746, bitter both in the grim weather conditions and what would prove to be a disastrous legacy for the Scottish Highlanders and their proud culture.
If all that were not enough, Allan gives us a whole raft of characters, both engaging – and downright menacing , with a few in between. DCI Strachan sharp-elbows his way into the crowded room containing the swelling ranks of fictional British Detective Inspectors, but he certainly makes his voice heard above the clatter of conversation. Fans of the standard whodunnit are well catered for, as Allan misdirects readers with the skill of a long established master.
This is a huge chunk of a book of almost intimidating length. I confess that I started reading dutifully, rather than enthusiastically. It only took a few pages, however, and I was hooked. Chapter after chapter went by as Allan’s excellent skills as a story-teller worked their magic. He also has a spectacularly wide vocabulary and he is not afraid to use it. “Epicenism”? “Mordacious”? I had to reach for the dictionary on more than one occasion, but such a love of the more remote corners of our wonderful language made me smile, and I have set myself the task of recycling some of his re-discovered etymological gems in a future review. In conclusion, this is a crackerjack novel from an author who was previously unknown to me. Clive Allan is a writer whose future books I shall be anxiously looking out for. The Well Of The Dead is available now. Online buying options are here.