Today's visitor to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland finds a largely law-abiding and generally tranquil place, where serious crime, though not unknown, is enough of a rarity to attract considerable publicity when it happens. "Whisky Wars, Riots and Murder, Crime in the 19th Century Highlands and Islands" by Malcolm Archibald reveals that things were very different until surprisingly recently. As the author spells out in his opening chapter, these parts of Scotland were utterly different in the 19th Century. Huge social changes were sweeping across the land, often with traumatic and brutal consequences for those who had lived there for generations; poverty was widespread and profound; and legitimate opportunities for those who did not emigrate, voluntarily or otherwise, were few and far between.
Malcolm Archibald has produced two previous books about 19th Century crime in different parts of Scotland. His latest follows the highly successful formula used in "Glasgow: The Real Mean City" and "A Sink of Atrocity: Crime in 19th Century Dundee". Once more the author skilfully brings to life a long series of incidents and gives them a life and vibrancy that engages the reader. In doing so he avoids any tendency to the sort of over-sensational approach that can blight some "true crime" books, and the result is a perfectly balanced account that is varied, interesting, well written, and keeps you turning the page. What is particularly fascinating about the latest in the series is that the physical reality of the Highlands and Islands has changed much less dramatically than that of the city centres of Glasgow and Dundee (albeit still very significantly), and as a result it is far easier for a reader who knows the area to place many of the crimes in their modern settings.
The book takes a generally thematic approach to its subject. The whisky wars between excisemen and illicit distillers feature large in the early part of the book, as they should; and the civil unrest brought about by widespread social change and the struggle for land rights is also well covered. Other crimes less particular to the area are also given their place, with chapters on robberies, murders, nautical crime, and poaching. Crimes by women and by children are also covered, as is the development of the police service in the Highlands and Islands. Fascinating stuff for anyone with the slightest interest in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.