Rose Nicolson by Andrew Greig

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.

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

Fair Helen Last year I started a little project of my own – which I don’t think I ever actually blogged about – to work through the titles shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction since it began in 2010. So far I’ve discovered some great books including An Officer and a Spy, Harvest and The Garden of Evening Mists. This book, Fair Helen, is another one that I’ve enjoyed and might never have thought about reading otherwise.

Fair Helen, by Scottish author Andrew Greig, is a beautifully written novel based on the Border ballad, Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea which begins:

“O that I were where Helen lies!
Night and day on me she cries;
O that I were where Helen lies,
On fair Kirkconnel Lea.”

The ballad goes on to tell of two rivals for Helen’s love, a shot being fired and Helen falling dead into her lover’s arms. In Fair Helen, Andrew Greig offers one possible interpretation of this ballad, retelling some of its events and expanding on it to include other aspects of Scottish history and Border folklore.

In the late 16th century, when the novel is set, ‘Jamie Saxt’ (King James VI) is on the throne of Scotland, while England’s Queen Elizabeth is approaching old age with no heir of her own. Soon the two thrones will be united under James, bringing some sort of peace and order to the Border region. In the meantime, though, the Borders remain a wild and dangerous place where clans of reivers on both sides of the English-Scottish border fight and feud, steal cattle and conduct raids.

Adam Fleming, whose stepfather is ‘heidsman’ (leader) of the Flemings, has fallen in love with the beautiful Helen Irvine of Annandale. Unfortunately, Helen has already been betrothed to another man, Robert Bell, because the Irvines are keen to form an alliance with the Bell family. Adam has no intention of ending his romance with Helen and summons an old friend from his student days, Harry Langton, to help arrange their secret trysts.

Harry is the narrator of Fair Helen, looking back on the events of the past from several decades into the future, and he is the ideal person to tell the story, being Adam’s best friend and Helen’s cousin. But Harry is also working for another, more powerful patron – someone who has plans of his own for the Borders and will have no sympathy for two young lovers who get in the way of his plans.

I was surprised by how much Andrew Greig managed to pack into the story. I was expecting a tragic romance (according to the cover, the ballad is sometimes described as the Scottish Romeo and Juliet) but it was so much more than that. In fact, the story of Adam and Helen is only one part of the story, no more or less important than the Border politics, the complex feuds and alliances between the clans, and the plotting and scheming going on behind the scenes. There’s a lot happening in this book, yet the pace never feels too rushed.

I always enjoy reading about the Border Reivers, as I live quite close to the Borders (on the English side), but so far I’ve found very few novels that deal with the subject. As I read Fair Helen I kept thinking of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Disorderly Knights – some of the same Borders families appear in both books, such as the Scotts of Buccleuch, and in both there is a dramatic Hot Trod (a lawful pursuit of a raiding party). I wish more authors would choose to write historical fiction based on this fascinating time and place in history – or maybe there are lots of books already and I just haven’t discovered them yet. I do have some non-fiction books on my list for future reading!

I’ve already mentioned how beautiful Andrew Greig’s writing is but I think it deserves to be mentioned again as it really is lovely and poetic, filled with feeling and emotion. The language used is suitable for the 16th century, with no inappropriately modern phrases finding their way into the dialogue to spoil things (one of my pet hates with historical fiction). Harry’s narration is written in the Scots dialect, which also adds to the authenticity. Definitions of unfamiliar words are not given directly in the text – you can usually work them out from the context of the sentence or if not, you can look them up in the glossary at the end of the book. Unless, of course, you’re Scottish in which case it shouldn’t be a problem at all!

Andrew Greig has written six other novels as well as some non-fiction and poetry. If you’ve read any of his other books, please let me know which you would recommend.