Colin MacIntyre is an award-winning songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer who has released six albums to date, most notably under the name Mull Historical Society.
Colin’s heartfelt and funny debut novel, The Letters of Ivor Punch, set on a Scottish island, is one of our favourite novels of the year and has just won Edinburgh International Book Festival’s First Book Award.
Just ahead of the spookiest night of the year, Colin dropped in to talk folklore, headless horseman and mermaids.
I am a native of Mull – an isle that sits in the Atlantic as part of the Scottish Hebrides – and it’s where, some might say, my novel The Letters of Ivor Punch is based. Folklore, mystery and the handing-down of stories are important to the fabric of a place and those who live there, and I think this is particularly so on Mull. It must be the surrounding sea that keeps them alive, bound up in the people and the half-light of teenage evenings.
I recall one such evening very clearly. My cousin Paul and I were perched on our BMX bikes, riding around the outskirts of Tobermory, the main town on the Isle of Mull, when we saw something unusual and menacing materialise from the darkness up on the hill. We were certain it was the Headless Horseman. The whole town knew about the Headless Horseman – it was a local myth that he would ride the hills and shorelines to the north of the island, all the way to Bloody Bay (named after a brutal fifteenth-century clan battle). Nobody I knew had ever seen the horseman – and we were treated like celebrities the next day at school, even though, I should add, the sighting was completely unverified by anyone else. It could have been a large fencepost rising from a hump of earth, or a bite in the land and a peat-cutter out on a late shift,
whatever we saw on that hill – real or imaginary – some twenty years later I knew that I needed to write about it.
I remember reading out the opening section of my novel, which features the Headless Horseman, to a writer’s group in London, where I’m now based. Jake, a boy of eight, has been taken on a hunt for fir trees (to be sold locally as Christmas trees) by his uncle Ivor and another man, Randy (who, yes, gets about). Jake notices that the men – of whom he is more than a little intimidated – have ash building up on from their roll ups which ‘falls like glitter’, and then shortly after this, lost in his own world, Jake feels the presence of the Headless Horseman. My listeners seemed to like the story and felt it keenly, authentically, as if it wasn’t supernatural at all.
I wanted to create a world where ‘reality’ is democratised; by which I mean that your sense of reality might be far removed from mine, and mine to yours. By playing around with what’s real, by using tales and settings which were authentic to me, but mysterious to others, it was my aim to achieve a space where readers can suspend their disbelief. Charles Darwin, a man famed for his factual discoveries, arrives as a visitor to my fictional island in Victorian times. Does he see the Headless Horseman? Does he believe in it? You’ll have to read the novel to find out, but I will say it was a fun piece to write and sent shivers along my spine.
In a later chapter another of the island’s sons, Alexander, who has left the island for the east coast of America, recalls how
one wild and wet evening he and a friend were visited in their car by an odd spirit, a sort of mermaid ghost. You know the kind.
I borrowed this story from a local man who told it to me and my teenage friends during a night at the Mull car rally. Huddled together and swigging a few cans of cider we weren’t supposed to have, we were captivated to hear how he’d picked up a hitch-hiker (a man, in his case) one stormy evening on the Glen Road, a bleak stretch of moorland that cuts across the middle of the island and seems more lunar than earthly. He was bone dry, the man told us, after I let him out of the car again, I knew what was wrong; he was bone dry. And it was pishing down when he got in. And so in my story, the mermaid spirit is perfectly dry – something that Alexander and his friend only realise when they bring the car they’ve stolen to a halt. I like to think that she emerged from The Looming, a neighbouring island of rock that, like a stopped clock, is only visible twice a century (a bit of my own mythology).
One of the central themes of The Letters of Ivor Punch is the island versus the global. I think we can all relate to this because we all come from smaller communities (even if raised in a section of a city) and we can draw parallels with how these communities compare to the wider world. And so Alexander, ‘like part of the sheep’s coat left on the barbed wire fence’, cannot leave the mythology of the island – because home travels, and the supernatural with it.