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What if Hitler had won the Second World War and Scotland was a fascist country?
That’s the theme of a gripping tale The Night Before Morning, the first novel by the Scottish historian Alistair Moffat.
Moffat, a Gaelic-speaking Borderer and author of 20 historical books, including Before Scotland, Scotland’s Last Frontier, The Highland Clans, The Sea Kingdoms, and most recently The Secret History of Here, chose a new challenge as a diversion during lockdown: writing fiction. In The Night Before Morning, he wonders what would have happened if the Nazis had triumphed in 1945?
Despite the dark subject-matter, it is superb comfort reading writes the masterful Scottish storyteller of historical fiction Allan Massie CBE in a review: ‘He might modestly call it “a shocker”, John Buchan’s term for his adventure novels. Well, it’s a very good shocker. Altogether, it’s a fine act of homage to Buchan.
‘Like Buchan he knows that action must be interrupted by quiet passages and he offers these by dwelling lovingly on the scenery and atmosphere of the Borders and St Andrews. There are brutal, chilling, and all too credible moments.’
‘This is fascism in operation in Scotland,’ Alistair told The Oban Times. One of the most horrific scenes is young people hanged on St Boswells Green. It is a reminder of what can happen here. If you think fascism is just a label, it is not. That is what happens when fascism is let out its cage.’
The tale concludes dramatically on the West Coast.
‘It resolves on the Morar peninsula near Arisaig,’ Alistair said. ‘The reason for that is because of lockdown: we could not go anywhere. I wrote this in March, April, May last year. The road from Arisaig to Morar is the most beautiful in the world. I knew it well so I was comfortable setting it. I found by writing fiction I could escape into the world of that book. I was giving myself another place to be. It stopped us going crazy. I wrote it as an escape, a yarn.’
How did he find writing fiction for the first time?
‘It is very different from writing history and non-fiction,’ he said, quoting the broadcaster and writer Sally Magnusson: “In non-fiction, if you climb to the top of a tree, the next thing you will be thinking is how do I get down? With fiction, you know you can fly.”
‘The team at [the publishing house] Birlinn told me that you must create a completely credible world. I learned the phrase ‘plot holes’. They are inconsistencies that the reader will feel uncomfortable with, that you have to fix.
‘I just had the central idea. I knew where it was going to get to. It was a real fairground ride. I just asked guys: do you want to know what happens next?
‘I just thought it was something I could do,’ he added, advising all aspiring novelists to take up their pens too. ‘Have a go,’ he said: ‘Just start. You do not know where your pen or keyboard will take you.
‘And keep going. I talk about the page 70 syndrome: you get to page 70, you think what a load of crap, give up! The hero of every scribbler is Sir Walter Scott: just get on with it. When he was bankrupt, he said: ‘My own right hand shall do it.’ You must do it. Get it down on paper and keep going.’
Alistair has now finished three more works of fiction.