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Val McDermid on new novel Queen Macbeth, Fife life and that football controversy

The celebrated writer behind Fife detective Karen Pirie has turned her hand to historical fiction and setting Shakespeare straight with her new novel Queen Macbeth.

Image shows: author Val McDermid who has written Queen Macbeth. Val is leaning on a window ledge and looking at the camera. She is wearing a colouful top and blue cardigan. She has short white hair and is wearing dark-rimmed glasses.
Val McDermid has released a new Darklands novel, Queen Macbeth. Image: Charlotte Graham.

Gruoch and her husband Macbeth ruled as King and Queen of Scotland for 17 years in the 11th Century. Five hundred years later, Shakespeare wrote his Scottish play, painting her as a malign influence who goaded her husband to murder Duncan. Fast forward another 400 years and Val McDermid has rewritten Gruoch’s story in her compelling new novel Queen Macbeth.

Fife-born Val McDermid is the latest author to take up the challenge of revisiting Scotland’s past for the popular Darkland Tales series from Polygon. She has chosen to retell the story of Lady Macbeth, her new novel joining the likes of Columba’s Bones by David Greig and Rizzio by Denise Mina.

Image shows: Front cover of Val McDermid's new novel Queen Macbeth which is part of the Polygon Darkland series.The book has a black background with an illustration of a rose surrounded by golden leaves.
Val McDermid’s Queen Macbeth hopes to debunk some of Shakespeare’s myths. Image: Polygon.

According to the prolific crime writer, who chats over the phone ahead of the publication of Queen Macbeth on May 2, “the notion that Gruoch and Macbeth were bloodthirsty tyrants is just not the case”.

“There’s nothing in the record at all to suggest that she egged Macbeth on to murder Duncan. He did kill Duncan, but he killed him in the course of battle,” she points out.

Queen Macbeth seen in a new light

Val was keen to bring Gruoch Macbeth out from the shadow of Shakespeare’s malign characterisation of a plotting noblewoman but she does have some sympathy for the Elizabethan playwright’s motivations in creating a story to please his king rather than stick to historical fact.

“Shakespeare was writing at the time not long after James the VI and I ascended to the throne and he was, I suppose, trying to curry favour with the monarchy,” she explains.

“The monarch had such power over their ability to perform – the theatres could be closed at the drop of a hat. In order to stay in favour of the court you had to write plays that flattered,” she explains.

“I think for most people in England, those people in London, Scotland was a far away place – it was almost like ‘there be dragons’. Nobody was going to question his account and they would have taken it as historical fact.”

Val McDermid celebrates Queen Macbeth and her companions

In Shakespeare’s Macbeth women aren’t exactly positively depicted. Characters such as the famous witches aren’t even afforded the luxury of given names. Unsurprisingly, Val McDermid paints a more sympathetic and certainly more feminist portrait of the Queen, adding subtlety, romance and drama to her story.

The three crones are transformed into fully formed and important characters – Eithne, a seer, Aife, a healer and Ligach, a weaver – on whom Gruoch Macbeth relies for companionship, support and advice.

“I mean I gave her the kind of three old women I think I’d quite like to have had around me if I’d been a mediaeval queen!”

Val agrees that some of those characterisations are simply of their time but points out that we now know that, “in the medieval period, women did have important roles to play, for me it’s important to have an identity for Gruoch that was hers, not just as the other half of Macbeth”.

“So it’s about nodding to the Shakespearean myth, but debunking it at the same time.”

Val doesn’t have a magic writers’ recipe

Amazingly, for one of our most successful and acclaimed contemporary authors, Val McDermid is never complacent about the launch of a new book, saying that every book has that: “moment of terrible tension of ‘are people going to like it?’

“Whether you have written four books or 40 it’s still the same. You have no sense of the quality of your own work, or I don’t,” she says with typical candour.

Past Lying – the seventh in the Karen Pirie series – was a case in point, says the Fifer: “I had so many terrific reviews from both sides of the Atlantic and that took me aback because I thought I’d just done a workman-like job and that people would either like it or they wouldn’t like it.

“I was blown away by the response to that one so you just never know.”

She is regularly asked the secret to her success by fans and aspiring writers at workshops and events. “People think that there’s a secret that you are keeping to yourself that you’re not telling them. But there is no secret – only persistence and hard work,” she points out.

Val has also found a community of kindred spirits in the world of crime writing. “It’s a very, very social community,” she says, pointing out that they are: “the party animals of the literary world. Well, you know at any book festival we will be the last ones at the bar!” she laughs.

She says the writers support each other rather than seeing one another as rivals: “They understand that it’s not a competition,” she remarks. “Most crime writers have come to the genre as fans. They start writing crime fiction because they love reading crime fiction and then they find themselves standing next to people whose books they have been reading for years.”

The author still has close ties to her native Kirkcaldy: “It’s where my roots are and I owe a lot to the experience of growing up there,” she says. “I did an event at the Kirkcaldy Library there a few weeks ago so I’m still connected to the place.”

Val has previously attributed her success as an author to her childhood visits to the library: “I wouldn’t be a writer if it wasn’t for the public library,” she said. “It was my home from home.”

It’s Rovers no more but onwards and upwards for McDermid Ladies FC

Until recently, that connection included being a regular at Stark’s Park watching Raith Rovers play football. That relationship turned sour when Val was unable to sit back and watch her club take on controversial player David Goodwillie. She withdrew her financial sponsorship of the club along with her personal support for the Rovers.

“No, I am not a Rovers fan,” she says, vehemently, “and most people, not just in Kirkcaldy, were entirely supportive of the position I took. People still come up and congratulate me on that.

“You know, I don’t have any ill will towards the the football team. But I certainly could never go back while the people who made that decision are still in positions of power.”

I ask whether she misses going to the games? “Of course I do,” she stresses. “It was part of my life. But, you know, sometimes you have to draw the line. The principle is more important than your own personal feelings.

“And if you are someone who is, as I am, violently opposed to violence against women and girls, you can’t just sit on your hands.”

Image shows author Val McDermid with McDermid Ladies footballer Tyler Rattray. Tyler is reading a press statement from her mobile phone while Val McDermid stands beside her. Both women are wearing Zero Tolerance football strips.
Tyler Rattray and Val McDermid pictured at the first McDermid Ladies fixture after the team disassociated with the men’s Raith Rovers side. Image: Kenny Smith/DCT Media.

She also points out that the former Raith Rovers Women and Girls team had to put up with much more than she did, after they severed all ties with the club. Val then supported them to form a new club, McDermid Ladies. “They had a lot of stick from people on the street but they did what they thought was the right thing and I’m very proud to be associated with them.

“I mean, what they did was far braver than what I did.”

Fife life still draws Queen Macbeth author in

These days, the author’s main home is in Edinburgh but she still spends a lot of time in the Kingdom, whether that’s at the second home she shares with her partner in the East Neuk or in St Andrews, which is a much-loved stomping ground.

Image shows a scene from series one of ITV drama Karen Pirie. Two young men are running down a cobbled street in St Andrews, dressed in typical 1990s clothing.
The TV adaptation of  Val McDermid’s The Distant Echo was filmed on location in St Andrews in 2021. Kenny Smith/DCT Media.

Fans will know that the first series of her Karen Pirie adaptation was set and filmed in St Andrews. The cold case detective will return to our screens later this year for season two based on the second book in the series, A Darker Domain.

Fife is the setting again, but this time the action unfolds along the coast and looks back to the time of the Miners’ Strikes.

Val McDermid’s book Queen Macbeth is published on May 4.