'Doubting Thomas', an historical novel set in Edinburgh in the late 17th century, was sparked into existence by my encounter with the true story of Thomas Aikenhead, who was the last man in Britain to be executed for blasphemy. Aikenhead, a medical student, was hanged at the Gallowlee, just outside Edinburgh, in January 1697, aged around twenty-one years old. His specific crime was that he had denied the existence of God in private conversations with friends. Aikenhead’s apothecary father also fell foul of the law some fifteen years before his son’s death, when he was prosecuted for selling dangerous aphrodisiacs for women.
A major strand of my creative practice is to write research-based fiction which draws on historical events that have contemporary resonances, and also speak to my own evolving identity as a Northern Irish/Irish person from a Protestant background. The implacable Presbyterian worldview which brought about Aikenhead’s downfall was still evident in the Northern Ireland of my formative years, and his religious doubts are echoed in my own. One of the key themes of 'Doubting Thomas' is the struggle between public piety and inner doubt, and the novel develops this through my fictional rendering of Aikenhead, and through the invented character of Isobel Caruth, the young wife of the ambitious Edinburgh doctor who treats an unfortunate victim of Aikenhead senior’s drugs. The novel takes place in two parts set in two time periods. The first is in the 1680s, during Aikenhead senior’s legal troubles. The second is in the period leading up to and after Aikenhead’s execution. This movement between periods allowed me to explore the roots of Aikenhead’s ‘freethinking’ and religious doubts.