Andrew Greig’s version of a Scottish Border song ‘The Ballad of Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea’ is a tense, atmospheric study of a political powder keg and the love triangle that threatens to ignite it. In one of the best historical novels of recent years, Greig dusts off the past and presents it with tremendous skill.
Although the ‘Auld Hag’ Elizabeth I refuses to name her successor to the English crown, King James VI of Scotland is poised to unite the two countries, and minor lairds are jostling for favour and position. It is this world to which Harry Langton, scholar turned reluctant spy, returns when an old friend, Adam Fleming, falls in love with Langton’s cousin, the beautiful Helen of Annandale, who is promised to a titled man eager for any advancement he can get. Greig’s story moves from the late 16th century and his narrator’s youth and naivety to his last days, when he has sought refuge in Hawthornden Castle, where he prepares to tell the truth – or at least, his truth – about the complex, contradictory woman whom folklore commemorates as Fair Helen.
Langton is the perennial outsider. He has come from a humble background but was well educated and prefers the written word to action and the rarefied atmosphere of the university to the battlefield. His ambiguous sexuality is hinted at by others, and is never fully explored, but he clearly prefers