“Let’s go fora wee daunder.” Daunder is Scots for stroll, but means so much more.
It suggests a certain cheerful, aimless, hands-in-the-pockets quality. There may even be whistling. No one ever daundered with a scowl on their face. Inquisitiveness, too, is a key aspect of daundering; let’s-see-what-we-shall-see. It is a verb, therefore, which suits McDermid, whose 15 million book sales are the result of a restless, roving mind, a life lived on the hoof and in search of truth. She is, in short, a grand person with whom to go for a walk.
McDermid is 64 (but feels 32) with sticky-uppy white hair and a wry manner. Her walking gear includes red boots, and a black coat over a black T-shirt with a picture of a Tunnock’s Tea Cake on it. We meet by the harbour in the pretty village of West Wemyss (pronounced “weems”). It is the first day of spring. Down the coast to the south-west, late-morning sun glints off the tower blocks of Kirkcaldy, the Fife town where, in 1955, McDermid was born.
She lives in Edinburgh these days, identifiable across the water – the Firth of Forth – thanks to the landmark hill, Arthur’s Seat, rising from the city. It is part of a chain of dark dragonish humps which make it appear as if Nessie, come south for her holidays, is lurking just below the silvery tide. “Berwick Law, Fidra, the Bass Rock” – McDermid counts them off. She knows this place like the back of her hand. Literally. She holds out her left and shows a ring. Carved into the gold is an undulating line. “That’s the land and that’s the sea. It’s the coastline from Perth to Kirkcaldy.” Perth is the home city of McDermid’s partner Jo Sharp, a professor of geography; the etched coastline links their two birthplaces, suggesting a certain destiny in their meeting and falling in love.
This is the Costa del Fife
The plan today is to walk along the coastal path to East Wemyss and back, a distance of around five miles. It is better weather than forecast, and McDermid is soon removing her scarf. I, meanwhile, express a very Scottish regret: I have worn one vest too many. “Well,” she chides, “this is the Costa del Fife.”
McDermid grew up in the sort of climate which is known, charitably, as character-building. She learned to swim in these waters. “When the tide was in, we swam in the harbour basin, among the oil slicks and the boats. When the tide was out, we swam off the beach. Absolutely Baltic, but you got used to it.” Sometimes, before getting in, she would rub herself with lard.
It was an outdoor childhood, free-range, and she has tried to allow her own son, now 18, to experience something of the same sort. McDermid’s grandfather, Tom, was a miner. He lived in East Wemyss. “He was a bit like the Pied Piper. He’d go up the woods with a gaggle of children at his heels. He knew the names of all the trees and flowers and plants, and he’d make us bows and arrows and paper hats. We had this landscape of fantasy, really. Sometimes, if it was a particularly miserable day, my grandad and his pals would take us into the canteen at the pit and give us steam pudding and custard.”
He worked in the Michael Colliery, which closed in 1967 following a disaster: an underground fire cost the lives of nine men, three of whom were never recovered. To walk this landscape with McDermid is to experience absence as presence; where most people see a pleasant area of woodland, she can still make out the ghost outlines of the pithead: the winding gear, long gone, which stood proud and strong against the sky. “My grandad once took me down the pit in the cage, when I was about five or six, and it’s one of the most terrifying experiences that ever happened to me,” she recalls. “It falls like a stone. You feel like you’ve left your stomach behind. What I remember most about it was the stink. The smell of the coal dust, the smell of human waste and sweat. It was unlike anything I’d ever experienced.”
Fife’s mining culture – politically radical, socially conservative – shaped McDermid’s politics, if not her sexual politics. She has always been on the left. Since 2014, the year she moved back to Scotland after many years in England, she has been a supporter of Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon is a friend, their relationship founded on a shared love of fiction. The First Minister wrote the foreword to My Scotland, McDermid’s book on the locations which have inspired her writing.
Her 2008 crime novel, A Darker Domain, is set right around here. A pit worker has been missing since 1984, the time of the miners’ strike; years later, when a body is discovered in one of the sea caves, DI Karen Pirie – McDermid’s cold case detective – must try to solve the mystery. The Wemyss caves are real, and they are extraordinary. “This is the biggest of them,” says McDermid leading the way past the No Entry and Danger signs into the darkness. “We’re not supposed to go in, but everybody does.”
It is a huge space, supported by four tall brick pillars, its sandstone the colour of scabbed blood. This is the so-called Court Cave. The story goes, McDermid explains, that King James V, who liked to go among his people disguised as a commoner, once joined a band of gypsies here. The cave is also well known for its Pictish carvings, today spotlit by the light shining in from the mouth, which include a human figure sometimes said to be the god Thor. “This was our playground when we were wee,” says McDermid. “We didn’t pay any attention to the carvings. It was a place to go out the rain, and quite spooky as well.” She would tell scary stories in the neighbouring cave, the Doo Cave, named for the pigeonholes carved into the rock, into which she and her little pals placed candles. A fine place for a fledgling writer to begin to get a feel for her wings. What about when she hit her teens, did she still come here? “People would come down to the caves when they were winching [kissing] but I never did. By the time I was a teenager I was reading books and doing other things …”
One of the reasons I left Scotland when I did was that I realised it wasn’t possible to have the kind of life I wanted, the kind of career I wanted, as an out lesbian at that time
Just 17, she went to Oxford University to read English at St Hilda’s College. “One of the reasons I left Scotland when I did was that I realised it wasn’t really possible to have the kind of life I wanted, the kind of career I wanted, as an out lesbian in Scotland at that time. Growing up in the 1960s, early 1970s in Fife, there were no lesbians, there were no gay people. It was completely invisible. There was no template for living your life. I just felt odd, I felt different, and I didn’t know in what lay that difference. I thought it was because I wanted to be a writer and people like us…”– she means the working class – “don’t become writers.”
McDermid has spoken in the past about the rather comedic fish-out-of-water aspects of her life as an Oxford student, the difficulties she had – because of her accent – in making herself understood, her unfamiliarity with varieties of pizzas which were not deep-fried and so on. What strikes me, though, is how intense this new life must have been. I imagine the pleasure centres of her brain lighting up one by one: intellectual stimulation; new friendship; sexual desire. “Oh, yes,” she smiles. “All of these things. I genuinely felt like these people had the keys to the kingdom and I was going to get my hands on as many of them as I conceivably could.”
We are walking back to West Wemyss now. The wind has got up. McDermid puts her scarf back on. I feel glad of that vest. The equilibrium of the universe is restored.
“You got married in 2016 …” I begin to say, but McDermid interrupts. “Well, we got civilly-partnered… We very deliberately didn’t want to be part of something that has so many patriarchal and ownership connotations.”
Can she tell me, I ask, about the importance of that relationship to her life and work? “It’s been a completely re-energising experience for me. Jo is intellectually remarkable, and is just about to take up a role as senior professor at St Andrews. She’s got an original mind. Her ideas are challenging. At a point in my life when I was kind of thinking, ‘This is the gentle slope downhill,’ I suddenly find I’m being challenged in so many different ways, and that’s just so exciting. She makes me laugh, and she makes me think and, you know, she’s absolutely gorgeous as well, which doesn’t hurt.”
McDermid had been in a civil partnership before, a relationship that didn’t work out. It is striking, looking at her body of work, that one cannot tell she went through a bad patch. Her creativity and productivity seemed to continue unabated. “I’ve always been good at compartmentalising,” she explains. “I wonder sometimes if that goes back to growing up and not having a place to put myself? You know you’re different from everybody else so you split yourself into bits, I suppose.”
She is always able to get on with the job in hand? “Yes. I can always sit down and write.” There are, though, among her works, books (she won’t name them) which she finds herself unable to pick up. “Because when I wrote that my life was in the toilet and the book was the only thing that held me together.”
McDermid is fine company. She’s got stories. The time, working as a journalist, when she interviewed Leonard Cohen. The time, only last year, when Debbie Harry kissed her – “Right there, on the left hand side of my mouth.” Both of these anecdotes make me fiercely jealous.
We talk, finally, about nicknames. She has had three in her life: The Goal Mouth (in recognition of her prowess on the school hockey team), Killer (from her tabloid days, when she would always go out and bring back the story), and, more recently, Queen of Crime. Of which is she most proud? “Oh, probably the Queen of Crime. If you think of the predecessors – Agatha Christie, PD James, Ruth Rendell – all were substantial writers who have left the genre in a different place to which they found it.
“I’m only slightly uncomfortable about the title because I am fundamentally a republican.” She laughs. “The Gobby Shop Steward of Crime would be better.”