The Hill of the Red Fox
By Allan Campbell McLean
Many years ago, when I was a child, long before I ever visited or walked on the Isle of Skye, I felt I knew it quite well through the exciting thrillers of the novelist Allan Campbell McLean.
This author has, and not without some justification, been compared to the great John Buchan. Both told yarns of innocents in peril, both tended to narrate their novels in the first person, and both wrote present-day and historical stories. As a great admirer of Buchan, I feel that Allan Campbell McLean books belong on a nearby shelf.
The only difference is that Allan Campbell McLean wrote for a younger audience. But the best children’s books can be enjoyed as much by an adult. This author’s work certainly can. In addition to several thrillers he wrote three very fine historical novels set during the Highland Clearances.
He also wrote an adult novel The Glasshouse, based on his own experiences in a military prison during World War Two. This latter was banned from publication in the United States. I read it many years ago. A classic work of literature. The resistance to the book probably sent the author towards writing the books for which he is best known.
“The Hill of the Red Fox” (1955) was the first of Allan Campbell McLean’s Skye thrillers. It’s a novel set against the background of the Cold War in the 1950s, and is one of the best in this crowded genre.
Alasdair, who has led a sheltered life in London, beset with romantic dreams of his Scottish heritage, is sent to stay on the Isle of Skye, in a farming croft that belonged to his late father. The croft is now being run by the dour Murdo Beaton, with the help of his mother and young daughter Mairi. Alasdair doesn’t get a very warm welcome on his arrival.
And even before he gets there he has had a mysterious encounter on the train to the Highlands – rather like Richard Hannay’s railway journey in Buchan’s “The Thirty-nine Steps”. Alasdair is passed a message by a desperate spy who jumps the train, a villain in hot pursuit.
On Skye, Alasdair meets a number of friends of his late father, including Duncan Mor, a crofter and sometime poacher who takes Alasdair under his wing. Allan Campbell McLean’s depictions of Skye and crofting life, the ways of the shepherd, the peat-cutting, the weather in the mountains, are both beautifully lyrical and realistic. When I first visited Skye in 1997, I could recognise so much from my memories of this author.
I’m not going to give any of the plot away, for this is a thriller well worth seeking out – and having read all of Allan Campbell McLean’s novels I can say now that there isn’t a duff one among them – but I will look at some general themes.
Apart from the very accurate depiction of Skye, “The Hill of the Red Fox” portrays very beautifully the friendship between Duncan Mor and Alasdair. Having lost his own father and been brought up by a mother and aunt, Alasdair finds a father-figure in the crofter. He’s taught the real ways of Scotland – far from the romantic Jacobite tosh of his reading matter. As the weeks on Skye pass by, Alasdair grows up.
And he has to, for he soon finds himself in a situation of incredible danger, his life threatened more than once. Allan Campbell McLean is particularly good at portraying hurried journeys, night-time assignations, the true nature of how to follow someone and the grip of fear in the stomach when you realise you are being followed yourself.
Alasdair finds himself in a situation where it becomes hard to know just who to trust as he tries to interpret the one clue he has – a slip of paper passed to him by the spy on the train which reads “Hunt at the Hill of the Red Fox”. The hill itself – Sgurr a’ Mhadaidh Ruaidh in the Gaelic – is easy to find, but its mystery, well…
The whole chase leads to a dramatic conclusion, with the kind of accurately portrayed action that any mainstream thriller writer would have been proud to have penned. Cold War espionage is very well done here, the mistrust and fear of a time that is now – unbelievably – sixty years ago.
Allan Campbell McLean’s books were to be seen regularly on bookshelves when I was young. “The Hill of the Red Fox” is still in print, both as a paperback and eBook. Sadly, some of his other classic writings seem to be out of print, though second-hand copies are readily available from the usual online sources.
But this is an author who writes with such great ability that he deserves to have all of his books available in good modern editions. I do hope that one of the publishing houses might do that, perhaps one of the enterprising Scottish publishers.
Allan Campbell McLean’s books should be there to be found by a new generation of young – and not so young – readers.