"Dark Loch" by Charles P. Sharkey is a deeply evocative book that transports the reader back to a world experienced by many Scots a century ago. The first chapter starts with the birth of Callum Macnair in 1895, but we already know from the prologue that whatever happens to them in the meantime, some of our characters are going to end up living out the nightmare of the trenches in France, two decades later.
In many ways one central theme of the book is the shocking contrast faced by those who went to war in 1914 and the years that followed. The early part of "Dark Loch" is set in the fictional highland village of Glenfay, where the world revolves around the seasonal rhythms of crofting, and fishing from the harbour set on the village's sea loch. Even the nearest town of Marnock, whose railway station is for most of the book the only point of entry to or exit from the area, seems very remote. We see Callum and the other children of the community at school and at play and we are there when Callum first meets Caitriona Dunbar, the beautiful daughter of the local laird. Thus begins the second central theme of the book, which revolves around a relationship that always seems deeply unlikely to succeed and which becomes increasingly "star-crossed" as the book develops.
To modern eyes, well aware of the industrial-scale slaughter that was taking place in the trenches, it can seem surprising that for the first eighteen months of the Great War all those who joined the British Army were volunteers. Why would anyone willingly swap the safety of farming, or fishing, or factory work for the high probability of death? The onset of the conflict in "Dark Loch" brings to life very convincingly some of the factors that motivated men to volunteer for war, whether they be unhappiness at home, or simply a desire to stay together with pals who had themselves volunteered.
The latter two thirds of the book moves back and forth between the mixed fortunes of the steadily increasing number of main characters who find themselves in France and the still relatively tranquil, but rapidly and irreversibly changing setting of Glenfay. The result is to draw out the contrasts in an impressive way and illustrate the tragedy and change being felt by every community across Scotland at the time.