ONE of Britain's best-selling authors has turned to the Wee Free Men of Scotland for his latest best-seller, in which his kilted heroes are more like riotous Glaswegian smurfs than the dark-suited elders who still provide spiritual guidance across much of the Highlands and Islands.

Members of Terry Pratchett's outlandish clan believe they are already dead, and that they must have done something good in a previous life to be allowed to enjoy this one so much - a doctrine rare among religious traditions, not least the Free Church of Scotland.

The Wee Free Men provide the title for the latest in the Discworld series which has helped the award-winning writer sell more than 31 million books, but yesterday the former journalist insisted he was more interested in challenging a literary bias than religious satire.

Pratchett, 54, who was in Inverness to launch the book, said he was only ''vaguely aware'' of events surrounding the Disruption in 1843 which created the Free Church, but insisted we should not read too much into the title.

''I know Wee Frees refers to a presbyterian church here, but it is a nickname and I just liked the rhythmn of the words.

''It certainly wasn't because I wanted to parody the churches in Scotland, or anything like that.

''This does not reflect an ancient antagonism. In fact it seemed to me that in fantasy, everyone is English. All the goblins, elves and pixies are English. So I thought we should have a bit of regional representation so I came up with the pictsies as in Picts.

''They are rather like Glaswegian smurfs who have seen Braveheart too many times. They are incredibly brave. There is actually nothing or nobody they won't fight to the point of foolhardiness and they don't mind a drink or two.''

However, the international publishing phenomenon, whose books at one point accounted for one fifth of the entire British book sales, denied succumbing to national stereotyping.

He said: ''No it is just fantasy. I think the Scots connive in making their own image. I don't recall Rab C Nesbitt being played by a Welshman!''

The Wee Free Men speak a mixture of Old Scots, Glaswegian slang, Gaelic and gibberish, which made it difficult for Wiltshire-based Pratchett to explain to his American editor.

''But a group of Glasgow librarians who have read the book said my handling of the speech was as good as could be expected from an Englishman, which I suppose is a compliment,'' he added.

However, the portrayal of his latest characters brought a mixed reaction among the crowd of several hundred fans yesterday.

James Fraser, from Inverness, said: ''We are not all like Rab C Nesbitt. We don't all go about wearing the kilt and eating haggis.''

Professor Donald Macleod of the Free Church College in Edinburgh was not too concerned.

He said: ''I don't think the title of such a book will cause any great offence with the Free Church.

''We are not often confused with fairies or elves. Our touch is not light enough!''

Pratchett is best known for creating the Discworld series - a collection of comic fantasy novels set in a world which is supported by four elephants on the back of a turtle, hurtling through space.

Writing, on average, a book every six months, he has become a one-man industry, and inspired legions of obsessive fans, who are as much drawn to his intricate, whimsical world as to his humour and philosophical conceits.

Often regarded as more the domain of awkward, socially-challenged teenagers than serious literature, his work received critical blessing when he won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children's writing in 2001, for his book The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents.

His children's book Truckers was also the first children's book to appear in the UK adult paperback fiction best seller list.

The author is already working on a sequel to The Wee Free Men, and hopes for it to be published next May.

A further Discworld novel which he has already completed, to be titled Monstrous Region, is expected to be on sale in November.

edited highlight

Nine-year-old Tiffany Aching thinks her Granny Aching - a wise shepherd - might have been a witch, but now Granny Aching is dead and it's up to Tiffany to work it all out when strange things begin happening: a monster in the stream, a headless horseman and, strangest of all, the tiny blue men in kilts, the Wee Free Men, who have come looking for the new 'hag'. These are the Nac Mac Feegles, the pictsies, who like nothing better than thievin', fightin' and drinkin'. Then Tiffany's young brother goes missing and Tiffany and the Wee Free Men must join forces to save him.