Fair Helen by Andrew Greig was published in 2013 and the setting is the Scottish Borders. Elizabeth the First of England is coming to the end of her life and James VI of Scotland is waiting impatiently to inherit the English crown.
The story is written around the Border Ballad Fair Helen of Kirkconnel Lea which is a Scottish version of Romeo and Juliet and the tale is told by Harry Langton who is Helen’s cousin and a friend of Adam, the young man Helen is in love with. But it’s a time of political turmoil, with Border reiving (raiding) still common practice amongst the families living on each side of the Border. They are all controlled by a ‘heidsman’ really just a gang leader.
Helen’s parents intend to marry her off to Robert Bell, he’s ambitious and very violent, and Harry Langton has to act as a look-out when Adam and Helen have their secret meetings. Harry isn’t exactly a hardman though and he ends up getting duffed up by Bell’s minions, but we know that he has survived to old age as he is narrating the story as an old man. Although not a natural fighter he is taught to fight and does take part in a hot-trod which is what they called legitimate hot pursuit, but of course each family regarded every raid as being legitimate. It was a means of surviving in a harsh environment.
This book reminded me of Dorothy Dunnett’s The Game of King’s although that one is set earlier in Henry VIII time. Greig’s language is earthier but I’m sure that it is more authentic. There is a lot of dialogue in Scots dialect but there is a glossary at the back of the book for those who don’t know the Scots words, it wasn’t a problem for me of course. I read Fair Helen as part of the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge.
Jack recommended that I read this book, he rates Andrew Greig’s writing very highly, I think I’ve read three or four of his books now and they have all been very different but his writing is very good, very Scottish and very literary but not in a dry way. Harry Langton is a devotee of Michel de Montaigne and other philosophers, so I was really pleased that I had recently read a book about Montaigne. You can read Jack’s much more thorough review here.