Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 10 Jan 2017

William McIlvanney

I recently wrote a review of Ian Rankin’s early novel starring DI John Rebus, Hide & Seek. In this I talked briefly about the genre known as ‘Tartan Noir’ and, in the process of doing some sketchy background reading on the subject, the name of William McIlvanney kept cropping up and it was frequently preceded with the phrase ‘ the grandfather of Tartan noir’ or some similar variation. It peaked my interest sufficiently to do a bit more digging and I was fascinated with what I found.

McIlvanney was born in Kilmarnock in 1936 and was the youngest son of a former miner. He went to school at Kilmarnock Academy and it seems he was something of a prodigy – his school reports had him down as a brilliant student – and he progressed on to Glasgow University where he graduated in English and went on to complete a Masters degree.

From 1960 – 1975 he worked as a teacher but always with the ambition to write novels. He was also always politically engaged and was a Socialist throughout his life – he was especially outspoken on the evils of Margaret Thatcher’s governments and turned more towards the Scottish nationalist cause when the Labour Party succumbed to the influence of Tony Blair.

McIlvanney wasn’t, however, just a crime novelist – his ambitions were considerably wider than that. His first novel in 1966, Remedy Is None, won the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize but this and his second book two years later disappeared into commercial oblivion. In 1975 he published Docherty a sort of fictionalised autobiography rather in the tradition of D.H.Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers which has steadily built a reputation as one of the outstanding pieces of Scottish literature and which, unapologetically, uses Scottish dialect in its dialogue.

However, it was in 1977 that McIlvanney introduced his Detective Laidlaw to the wider public. It was immediately obvious that this was something very different to what had been on offer until this point. Writing in The Guardian newspaper in 2015, James Campbell captures the impact of this moment:

Detectives with existential anxieties, marriage problems and a deep literary hinterland are not uncommon now, but Detective Inspector Jack Laidlaw was a bright arrival on a dull Scottish literary scene in 1977. In policing the rougher territories of Glasgow and environs, Laidlaw found many things stacked against him; what he had going for him were a realistic outlook on life, abundantly laced with wit and philosophical reflection – a voice he inherited from his highly articulate creator.

No one had previously encountered a Glasgow cop who described his regular tipple as “low-proof hemlock” and who hid his Camus and Kierkegaard in the desk drawer, the way an alcoholic keeps a secret stash. McIlvanney could say of Laidlaw, “He knew nothing to do but inhabit the paradoxes”, and make it sound like Glaswegian common sense.

Although McIlvanney was garnering plenty of praise for his creation and he had by this time given up teaching in favour of writing, making a living was still an issue. His need to earn money saw him take on all sorts of different projects, including a spell as a television presenter of a book programme ( that might have been something to see!).

It seems to be the general impression that McIlvanney was not exactly what you’d call driven or prolific. Only two other Laidlaw books were written before he turned his hand to other content and he also produced a collection of poetry. But ultimately it was the impact of the Laidlaw model on writers like Rankin and McDermid that would ensure a lasting legacy for his work – plans to make a television series of Laidlaw seem to have been on the stocks for years without ever coming to fruition.

He died in December 2015 following a short illness and his passing was marked by tributes from the likes of Nicola Sturgeon and Irving Welsh as well as the detective writing fraternity / sorority. McIlvanney was passionate about Scotland and about depicting the real life of Scotland  but he was also very much his own man:

“I write as I feel compelled to write. You don’t like it, read somebody else.”


Terry Potter

January 2017