What is Tartan Noir? - Chris Longmuir

Chris Longmuir
You’ve probably come across references to Tartan Noir on the internet and various other places, and if you walk into a bookstore in Scotland, the chances are you’ll see a display labelled Tartan Noir. But what is Tartan Noir?

The name is an odd mix. The tartan part of the name smacks of tourism, kilts, heather and bagpipes, all the stuff that attracts people to Scotland, although it is not all that relevant in today’s modern world. The second part of the title –Noir – is more reminiscent of blood and gore, and all the horrible things that happen in the darkest of crime fiction. So it is an odd mix indeed.

It was actually the American crime writer, James Ellroy who coined the name when he referred to Ian Rankin as the King of Tartan Noir in the 1990s. Since then it seems to have been taken up to describe Scottish crime fiction in general, and has now been given historical antecedents.

The origins of Tartan Noir in Scottish literature are claimed to be rooted in the works of James Hogg, Robert Louis Stevenson and William McIlvaney.

James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, written in 1824, seems to be the earliest influence. This novel has been variously described as a psychological case study; a gothic novel with elements of horror; a satire of extreme theology; plus an early example of crime fiction. It is said to be the earliest example of a novel using an alter-ego, and involves a battle between good and evil. It is considered to be an influence on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde, as well as James Robertson’s novel, The Testament of Gideon Mack, and various others.
Jekyll and Hyde, written by Stevenson in 1886 uses split personality, and continues the theme of the battle between good and evil. He claims the idea came to him in a nightmare and he called it ‘a fine bogy tale’. In her essay The Dark Threads of Tartan Noir, Carole E. Bannerman writes –

‘Like every noir writer since then, Stevenson situates evil in the heart of man, and then places that man in the heart of a city. The city becomes a manifestation of the moral hypocrisy and the mock respectability that the noir writer attacks.’

Tartan Noir was also heavily influenced by American writers such as Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and James Ellroy, who were all writing hard-boiled detective fiction, and many Scottish authors followed in their footsteps, probably beginning with William McIlvaney, who has been termed the Godfather of Tartan Noir, much to his amusement. When he wrote Laidlaw, he said he had no intention of writing a crime novel. He wanted to write a story that was real, not one where the book was taken up with a murder and whodunit. It just happened that the character he chose was a detective with a troubled past and present.

Many Scots have a fascination for gruesome events, particularly those that have happened in the past, therefore it is not surprising that Burke and Hare, the body snatchers who operated in Edinburgh between 1827-1828, and Deacon Brodie, a respectable town councillor by day and a housebreaker at night, are considered influential in the rise of the type of dark writing labelled noir. In fact, Deacon Brodie is considered to be one of the influences behind the writing of Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde.

So where does that take us in defining Tartan Noir? Is it the broad sweep of Scottish crime fiction, or is it a subset of hard-boiled and dark crime, that takes the reader to a dark and scary place?

Maybe if we look at the issues Tartan Noir novels explore, that will help us decide. These include psychological and socio-economic issues, hard-boiled crime, and dark crime. The characters are invariably flawed, often with split personalities and they are anti-heroes rather than heroes. So does this rule out cosy crime? And how dark does dark crime have to be? Or is it safer to include all Scottish crime? I don’t know. Do you have an opinion?

Oh, and before I go, would anyone like to comment whether I fit into the Tartan Noir category with my Dundee crime series of books? I’d love to know.

Links for Night Watcher

Links for Dead Wood


Great to see Hogg's Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner getting a mention here, Chris.
A fine book, deeply complex.
Hogg had a terrible effect on the publishers of his day too, his books responsible for bankrupting two of them, Goldie and Cochrane (and Cochrane bankrupted twice, both from publication of a Hogg book!)
If ever there was anyone who needed retrospective epub rescue...

William McIlvanney got me started writing short stories in 1993 at Aberdeen Uni...he did a good impersonation to the 15 of us he was teaching one day, of when he came home to find Sean Connery's voice on his answering machine...leaving a message saying he'd loved Laidlaw and would like to play him on film...but that film never happened...

Another important element of noir is the cinematic origin of the term...much has been made of the fact that the noir directors in Hollywood were, like Fritz Lang, straight out of Nazi Germany and a decade or more of oppression...these exiled film-makers then brought into the American culture a level of paranoia and darkness which, no matter the USA's social problems in the 1930s, didn't come near to reaching the level of horror seen during Hitler's rise to power.
So the American police, the legal system, business, family...all presented through a noir lens that showed America to itself, and perhaps made America and the world think it had a far darker underbelly than was really the case...because those noir directors were not really representing the USA at all, but were still channelling the demons of the country they had fled...
Then the noir vision seduced the world perhaps, taking on a life in UK cinema and crime fiction too...until, yes, Ellroy annointed Rankin with its long shadow-stain.

Which is not to say that Scotland does not have its own genuine underbelly of course, as the self-educated Ettrick shepherd Hogg would have been the first to attest (in fact he was just about the first to attest!)
julia jones said…
Fascintating, Chris. Thanks
Chris Longmuir said…
Lots of interesting information, John. I hadn't thought about the film link.
Bill Kirton said…
I reckon you fit neatly into the genre, Chris, and anyway, you;'re right, it's a bizarre term and seems to encompass all sorts of disparate offerings. But this comment mainly gives me the chance to say what a thrill and a pleasure it was to sit in the presence of William McIlvenny. You know, because you were there beside me. What charisma, what honesty, what a writer! In my opinion he's way out ahead of the rest of the moderns, and there are some great ones amongst them.
Myra Duffy said…
An excellent post,Chris and very helpful in the way it traces the origins of Tartan Noir.
I think your own books do fit into this genre -they are meaty and dark.But I wouldn't say cosy crime fits here at all-as a writer of cosy crime I think the 'noir' immediately excludes it. There is a difficulty at the moment in the broad crime genre as some readers think any crime novel set in Scotland must be 'Tartan Noir'which isn't the case.
Chris Longmuir said…
I agree, Myra. Tartan Noir seems to have become the catchall for Scottish crime. Interesting though!

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