Book review: Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

Andrew Greig’s new novel brilliantly recreates the world of late 16th century Border reivers, finds Allan Massie

Andrew Greig. Picture: Neil Hanna
Andrew Greig. Picture: Neil Hanna
Andrew Greig. Picture: Neil Hanna

Fair Helen by Andrew Greig

Quercus, 291pp, £16.99

Andrew Greig has taken the ballad, “Fair Helen of Kirkconnell” (or Kirconnell, which is the spelling favoured by Scott in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border), and made a fine novel which is both an exciting and moving romance and an intelligent and imaginative piece of historical reconstruction. The ballad itself was, Scott wrote, “handed down in a very imperfect state”, and, though the outline of the story is clear, its dating is uncertain. So indeed is Helen’s surname, which “depends upon the period at which she lived, which it is now impossible to ascertain”. Such uncertainty gives the novelist an agreeable freedom, and Greig makes excellent use of it.

The ballad’s story is simple. Fair Helen was in love with Adam Fleming, member of a reiving family, but her parents wanted her to marry another suitor, Robert Bell, described by Greig’s narrator as “every inch a Border bully in his pomp, hardened and skilled”. The lovers were therefore required to meet secretly. Bell came upon them and made to shoot Fleming. Helen threw herself across her lover and the shot killed her. In Scott’s words, “a desperate and mortal combat then ensued between Fleming and the murderer, in which the latter was cut to pieces. Other accounts say that Fleming pursued his enemy to Spain, and slew him in the streets of Madrid.” So there is uncertainty, and such uncertainty is meat and drink to the novelist.

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Greig’s narrator is Harry Langton, Helen’s cousin and childhood companion, also Adam Fleming’s friend when they were fellow students in Edinburgh. Langton, son of an Edinburgh cooper, is an intellectual, admiring reader of the Roman poet Lucretius and the French essayist Montaigne. Loyal and intelligent, small and of ambiguous sexuality – himself in unspoken love with Adam – he is an admirable and engaging narrator. Adam himself is moody and Hamlet-like, resenting his widowed mother’s second marriage to his own uncle. Helen is as sweet and strong-willed as she should be.

Langton tells his story in old age, when after years as a wandering scholar, he has found a cosy bield at Hawthornden, home of the poet William Drummond, for whose hospitality he is grateful but of whose work he has a low opinion, somewhat unfairly.

Greig has chosen to set the story in the last years before the Union of the Crowns, a political event which very soon led to the pacification of the long unruly Borders. The king, James VI – Jamie Saxt – hovers over the narrative, but plays no direct part himself. Greig fleshes out the thin story of the ballad with a detailed account of the jockeying for power between the heads of the Border families, among whom both the Flemings and the Bells are little more than bit players. His treatment of the political struggle is adroit and convincing as he traces the rise of Scott of Buccleuch, a Machiavellian figure, who combines all the sophistication of the Renaissance with the ruthlessness characteristic of Border warfare. Harry Langton catches his attention, and enters his dangerous employment.

The novel is finely atmospheric and full of action. There is one particularly stirring account of a mustering of reiving families and a raid into England in pursuit of stolen cattle; It shows that Greig can do violent action in a manner sufficiently controlled, detailed and fast-moving to awaken echoes of Stevenson and Weir of Hermiston. Like Stevenson too, he makes good use of Scots in his dialogue and in Harry’s narration. The Scots feels natural and authentic, and not culled from dictionaries; there is just the right amount of it, enough to give verisimilitude to the novel, not so much as to deter readers unfamiliar with the old tongue. Sensibly, the publishers have followed the example of the Waverley novels, and supplied a guide to the use of Scots.

There is variety and invention here. The story moves fast and compellingly. Greig has successfully thought himself into the world of the ballads while at the same time allowing his narrator to show how that world was about to disappear and why this was to be welcomed. He never pretends that even those Borderers who were educated and cultured were not also as harsh, brutal, and uncaring of human life as the Sicilian mafia.

Yet, if life on the Borderlands is held cheap, and nobody, not even our poetry-writing narrator, hesitates to kill a man, there are the redeeming qualities of gallantry and courage, and if the novel is full of bloodshed and grim deeds, its air is softened by music and poetry. Greig evokes a world in which life was usually short and death came suddenly and horribly, but one where life, while it lasted, was lived to the full.

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In his introduction to The Northern Muse, John Buchan wrote that the Border ballads were one of Scotland four undeniable contributions to world literature, along with the Renaissance Makars, Scott and Stevenson. Andrew Greig, himself a fine poet, has taken one of the most exquisite and moving of these ballads, and made something that is both new and true to its spirit. Fair Helen is a novel that demands to be read once at the gallop, and then a second time slowly, savouring the details and relishing its intelligence. One can’t praise it more highly than to say it is worthy to be set on your bookshelf next to Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border.

• Andrew Greig is at the Edinburgh Book Festival on 24 August.