I loved Andrew Greig’s last book, Fair Helen, a beautifully written historical novel based on a Scottish Border Ballad, so when I saw that his new one, Rose Nicolson, was going to be set in the same time and place I couldn’t wait to read it. Now that I’ve had the opportunity, I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed it just as much as Fair Helen and can highly recommend it to anyone interested in learning more about Scotland in the 16th century.
Rose Nicolson is a fictional account of the life of a real historical figure, William Fowler, a Scottish makar, or poet, and is presented as his memoir written as an older man looking back on his youth. His story begins in Embra (Edinburgh) in 1574: Mary, Queen of Scots has fled to England leaving her young son, James VI, on the throne, but the real power is held by the Earl of Morton, the latest of four regents to govern Scotland during the young king’s minority. The Protestant religion now dominates but there are still those who have not given up hope of restoring Mary to the throne and returning Scotland to the Catholic church. It is during this time of political and religious uncertainty that William Fowler, the only son of an Edinburgh merchant family, sets out for St Andrews where he will become a student at the university.
William’s time in St Andrews is vividly described: the education he receives; the enlightening conversations and debates on topics such as philosophy, religion, politics and literature; his first tentative attempts at writing poetry; and the friendships he forms with the other students as they bond over drinks at the howff (pub) or during a game of gowf (golf). As you can see, Andrew Greig sprinkles Scots dialect throughout his prose, as well as using language appropriate to the time period – apart from one or two words and phrases here and there that I thought seemed out of place – and the overall effect is a narrative style that feels authentic and convincing. There’s a glossary at the end of the book for anyone who needs it, but I found it easy enough to read without it.
You may be wondering where Rose Nicolson comes into the story. Well, she’s the sister of a friend William makes at university, Tom Nicolson. Rose and Tom are from a Fife fishing family, but while Tom has been given the opportunity to study and to pursue an academic life, that is not possible for Rose. William is captivated by her intelligence, courage and quick mind, but a marriage is already planned for Rose with a local fisherman, so despite William’s love for her it seems that she will never be his wife.
As well as the romantic thread of the novel and the academic one, we also learn a lot about the period of history during which the story is set. The reign of Mary, Queen of Scots is well covered in historical fiction, but the early years of James VI’s reign are written about less often, which is a shame as it’s a complex, interesting and very eventful period. Many of the characters William meets in the novel are people who really existed; these include George Buchanan, the Scottish historian and humanist scholar, who recruits William as a spy; Esmé Stewart, the first of the young king’s many favourites; and most notably, Walter Scott of Branxholme and Buccleuch, the clever and charismatic border reiver who becomes a good friend of William’s and really deserves a whole book to himself! As for our hero William Fowler, I knew nothing at all about him until I read this book; I resisted the temptation to look him up online until I had finished, but it seems that he led a fascinating life. Rose Nicolson only covers the early part of his career, but it looks as though there’s enough material for several more books!
Thanks to Quercus Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.
Book 37/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.