This year marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of Sir Walter Scott, not the least of whose achievements was the invention of the historical novel. Andrew Greig was surely aware of this when he embarked on Rose Nicolson, which has a heroine cast from the mould of Jeanie Deans in The Heart of Midlothian and Lucy Ashton, aka ‘the bride of Lammermuir’. Greig’s novel opens in 1574. Scotland, then as now, is a divided nation and at war with itself. The contentious issue, however, is religious rather than constitutional, and doctrinal differences can have fatal consequences. To voice what is deemed to be a heretical thought can lead to charges of witchery and necromancy, and that rarely ends well.
The Catholic Queen Mary is incarcerated in England, having impetuously thrown herself on the mercy of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth. Bad move. James, Mary’s eight-year-old son and heir, is being kept in Stirling Castle ‘for his own safety’. Meanwhile, John Knox, Mary’s Protestant nemesis, has gone to the great pulpit in the sky and Scotland’s governance is in the hands of a regent who, when it comes to trust, takes his cue from Macbeth. As William Fowler, the narrator, insouciantly remarks, it was ‘a fine, if challenging, time to be young’.
In common with much of Greig’s cast, Fowler is modelled on a real person. He is a wheeler-dealer: intelligent, quick-thinking, witty and ripe for adventure. He is also a writer with a quill for hire. We first encounter him in ‘Embra’ (Edinburgh), which is under siege. The novel’s