Bestselling crime writer Peter May reveals why he chose the real-life Coffin Road as the inspiration for his latest book
Coffin Road, the title of my new book, has a certain ring to it. But much as it might sound like a good title for a crime novel, in fact it is the name of a real road in the Outer Hebrides.
The Isle of Lewis is largely flat with peat bog covering most of its interior, but as you make your way down to the Isle of Harris, a rockier landscape begins to emerge. Millennia of geological upheavals on earth formed these islands. They are the result of shifting continents clashing and cracking the earth’s crust. Erupting volcanoes spewed lava and left a trail of molten granite which forced its way through the gneiss in sheets and veins. Ice-age glaciers carved mountains and valleys out of this rock and shaped the Harris that we see today.
It is a landscape so primitive and barren that it passed for Jupiter in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Which brings us to the coffin road itself. When bedrock lies only inches beneath the skin of soil that covers the east coast of the island, digging a grave and burying the dead is impossible. So in centuries gone by, men from villages on the east side of Harris had to carry their dead over the hills to reach deeper, sandy soil on the west of the island where they could lay their loved ones to rest.
And so the coffin road of reality is not so much a “road” as a rough track hewn out of necessity. It traces a four kilometre route that climbs from Loch Airigh on the east side of the island, high up over the hills, past lochans and across rough, rocky countryside, before descending through salt marsh to the stunningly beautiful Luskentyre beach on the west coast, where the deep machair soil could accommodate the bodies of those who had passed.
It was a journey that could not have been easy for those men, carrying the dead weight of countless bodies over rocky ground in all weathers. But the long hard trek that it must have been was a necessity, a practicality, a fact of life – or death – for those folk who carved out their existence on the island. It was also a ritual, and perhaps a time when, at one with the elements, and carrying the weight of a corpse, it gave time to consider one’s own mortality.
For one man in my book, the coffin road holds many secrets – about life, and death.
When he staggers ashore on Luskentyre beach (above), apparently the survivor of a boating accident, he remembers nothing about who he is, how he got there or what has happened. But he is filled with a deep-rooted sense of dread, and a primeval drive to fill in the blanks and restore meaning to his existence.
A map, with the coffin road traced in marker pen, is the only clue he has. A route he knows he must follow to find the truth. He has no idea where it will lead him, but following in the footsteps of the dead is his only way forward.
Coffin Road (Hachette NZ) is available now. Peter May is visiting New Zealand in February and will be speaking at an event in Dunedin on Thursday 25 February. Tickets at http://www.unibooks.co.nz/