Set in the titular rural Scottish highland village of Blackden, McLean's kinetic novel examines the supernatural possibilities in a small town and in the complicated adolescence of observant narrator Patrick Hunter. ""Paddy"" is a fatherless, imaginative 18-year-old, left alone for a weekend while his emotionally unstable mother goes to visit his ""brainy"" sister, Helen, at university in Edinburgh. The boy is obliged to look after his fragile but loving grandparents, but he also has ample opportunity to exchange good-natured insults with his layabout mates and to cynically survey his provincial hometown. Paddy is hoping for romance with Shona Findlay, a local girl just returned from the outside world to work as a chef in the village pub. He's also drawn to her claim that she witnessed a gathering of witches in a nearby glade. Shona's occult yarn becomes Paddy's emotional outlet as he copes with his unstable home life and increasingly dismissive and disappointing friends. Eventually, he finds himself alienated from the community and agitated over unanswerable questions about witchcraft, smalltown legends and family legacies. Mired in his grandfather's eerie, phantasmic folklore, Paddy's conscious and unconscious fears overwhelm him, and his mind begins to unravel. Burning is a consistent metaphor here for the uncharted roads of adolescence, and the witches' gathering becomes a symbol for the locked gate through which Paddy must pass to gain access to the world beyond. ""I want to get somewhere under my own steam for a change,"" rants Paddy to his bewildered Aunt Heather, mingling a man's resolve and a child's fear. With a decidedly ambiguous ending, Scottish writer McLean (Bucket of Tongues) captures the ripe cadences of highland dialect, creating miasmic tension and a sturdy wit. In Paddy, he conveys the awful sensation of standing on the edge of something inevitable yet unknown. (Jan.) FYI: McLean's Bucket of Tongues won the 1993 Somerset Maugham award.