Rose Nicolson Part 2: A student sets sail for university and St Andrew's

In the second of five installments from Andrew Greig’s new historical novel Rose Nicolson, William Fowler of Anchor Close departs Edinburgh.

Monday, 26th July 2021, 4:55 am
Andrew Greig's book, In Another Light wins the 2004 Saltire Society/Faculty of Advocates Scottish Book of the Year
Andrew Greig's book, In Another Light wins the 2004 Saltire Society/Faculty of Advocates Scottish Book of the Year

Chapter 1: A Student Departs

I hear and feel it yet under my scrieving hand, the scrape and shudder of our door as I forced it open into the Embra dawn. I stood a long minute neither fully in nor fully out – a lifelong position with me, I suppose. The wind through the Castle Gait rugged at my cloak. It would be a rough passage.

I suppressed signing the Cross, gripped my pack and stepped out. A hard yank and the door grunted like my father’s last breath. Then I was out in the not-quite darkness, heading for Leith and whatever life would bring.

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Rose Nicolson

The watchman at the Canongait port stood forth and barred me with his lance, more from boredom than alarm. The odd scuffle, shooting and stabbing apart, old Embra had gone quiet as though taking a breather. In any case I was a stripling and likely unarmed.

‘Where mak ye and wha are yer people?’

I gave him back as boldly and well-spoken as I could. ‘I am William Fowler of Anchor Close, as well you ken. I am commencing to be a student at St Andrews.’

He spat in the mud. ‘Lazy bastards aa. What’s in yer pack?’

‘Bread and cheese for the voyage.’ I made no mention of the brandy flask lest he confiscate it. ‘Also paper and writing materials.’

‘Little good they’ll do ye.’

‘You might be right there, Master Morrison.’

He chuckled and lowered his lance. ‘Your faither was a good man, for a money-lender.’

‘He was an honest merchant who advanced credit against surety,’

I corrected him.

‘Your mither will be looking for anither.’

‘She has o’er much sense than to marry again.’

We looked at each other, John Morrison and I, in the mingled lights of dawn and watch-torch.

‘Sorry aboot yer big sister, Willie. She wis bonnie.’

My feet yearned to turn back home, though there was no place for me there. My mother and remaining sister Susannah shared women’s grief I could not take part in.

‘She was that.’

‘And your big brither John wis a fine, strapping lad.’

‘So I am often told.’

We stood, heads lowered in that chill wind. ‘Pass, wee man.’

With as much conviction as I could muster, I went through the port we cried World’s End.

‘Good luck to ye!’ he called. Then, more faintly, ‘Ye’ll be needing it.’

And so I left wind-tossed Edinburgh that high-masted, tight- bound vessel of some three thousand families crammed within its walls, gaits and wynds, who all kenned or guessed each other’s business, where kindness was delivered with a rough tongue, where sweetness came wi salt, and justice and injustice alike came swiftly, at dagger point or rope’s end.

I see myself in the growing light, clutching my pack, passing the ailing Preacher’s house, sniffing the orchards and gardens of the Canongait in the morning air. Mid-September 1574, a fine, if challenging, time to be young. My mother would have been at a clandestine early Mass, or already in the Counting House. She did not see me off, whether out of indifference or too much feeling, I cannot know.

The night before, she had passed me a packet of papers, receipts and pledges, to carry out business for her in St Andrews, and help pay my fees and lodging.

Within the bundle she had slipped a wee gold garnet-pointed Cross, enough to rouse Preacher Knox from his sick-bed. Seeing my hesitation, she held up her hand.

‘Please,’ she said, one of few times I remember her using the word. ‘Pour ton âme, mon petit. It will only grow in value.’

Such were my mother’s twin passions: finance and the True Church. I had accepted the crucifix, knowing it balanced by my father’s precious Reformed Bible – plain, severe, in the vernacular – uppermost in my trunk sent on ahead.

Full light and high tide at Leith. My future beckoned through a thicket of swaying masts. I had never been to St Andrews, nor even sailed outwith the Firth of Forth. The world would never be so fresh and fair and queasy-making as when the Sonsie Quine sailed on the ebb that morning.

I stood on deck, clutching the foremast. At first exhilarated by the pitch and toss out on the estuary, as we tacked off Cramond Island I was beginning to feel distinctly off. A skinny boy with long red hair and white face abruptly emerged from a hatch. I had seen him on the quayside, flanked by two men who quickly took him below.

Now he staggered to the starboard rail to eject his breakfast. Which set me off, and for a while we were companions in misfortune. We got down to bile about the same time, and keeked across at each other. For the first time I saw that strong beaky nose, his stubborn squared-off chin and blue-green eyes. He wiped drool from his pimply face and I realised that though taller, he was a year or two younger than me. Gentry was in his dress and bearing as he leaned closer.

‘Friend, a loan of your dirk,’ he muttered, sour-breathed.

How had he noticed it, pouched within my jerkin? His voice was low, hoarse, of the Western Borders.

‘The need is great,’ he said.

I hesitated. His long-fingered hand grasped my sleeve. ‘I am asking nicely. Sois gentil.’

For a moment we looked each other in the eye. My free hand went automatically – my mother habitually commanded me in French – into my jerkin.


I slipped the dagger from its pouch, then it was gone within his cloak. He turned back to the rail to vomit again just as his escort appeared, one on either side. The taller one stared hard at me, saw only a short boy of no account, then took my companion’s arm.

‘Best come below, Master – we don’t want you falling overboard!’

They led him away. As he turned to descend the ladder, he glanced up at me, nodded. That swift hard nod nailed his face to my memory.

Tomorrow: A journey of the Sonsie Quine

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