Touch the same stone and walk the same Edinburgh streets as characters in hotly anticipated new novel from Scotland’s renaissance man
With the Queen's men holding the top of the Royal Mile and the King's advancing from the bottom, Edinburgh was a city at war with itself in the sixteenth century, a clash seldom more vividly captured than in Rose Nicolson, the new novel from Andrew Greig.
Hailed as Scotland’s 'Renaissance Man', Greig breathes life into many of the Capital's most familiar landmarks in his new novel, exploring the history and people they would have been exposed to during the city's colourful and often violent past. From the Castle to the Tollbooth, the Canongait Portal to Leith Links, where Mary Queen of Scots played golf on the morning she surrendered to the Scottish Lords, and to the White Horse tavern, Greig's narrator, William Fowler, a real historical figure, takes the reader on a gripping tour of 16th century Edinburgh
Much of the landscape captured in the book still exists today. You can put your hand on the same stone walls, walk the same cobbles and look out over the same gleaming Firth of Forth, just as his characters do.
"That's the great thing about Edinburgh," says the 69-year-old, "there is so much of that period still there, the bare bones of it still exist. When I stood on the Esplanade looking down towards the High Street, seeing St Giles and the Canongate, even looking across the islands of the Forth, I realised it has not changed.”
He recalls, "I did a lot of the research, reading online and in libraries for six months. Eventually what I needed to do was to put flesh on the bones. To just walk, hang out, get wet, get cold... to walk down past St Giles where the scaffolds for executions were set up, through the Canongate portal, past Holyrood and down on to Leith.
"That has been my experience for 30 years of my life, but knowing I was going to write this book, I could look at it through different eyes. I became very aware that these were the sights the people in that book would have seen every day, that they were real and this is where they walked; you lean against a wall and it's the same wall they may have leaned on.
"It made everything I had researched real and gave me that point of connection; place does more than setting, it prompts incidents, events and dramas in your mind."
Consequently, Rose Nicolson, which takes the form of a memoir, that of William Fowler, student, trader, makar, conduit and would-be lover, is an evocatively imagined work set in turbulent times as the opposition between the Reform and supporters of Mary Queen of Scots tangle and twist city loyalties.
It's Edinburgh in the winter of 1574. Queen Mary has fled Scotland to raise an army from the French. The fiery Reformer John Knox is dead. It’s a dangerous time for young student Will Fowler - short of stature, low of birth, but mightily ambitious - to make his name and fortune.
When he befriends stick-wielding philosopher Tom Nicolson and his untutored, beautiful and brilliant sister Rose, they find themselves entangled with the rich and powerful in a friendship in a friendship that leads Will - 'via Embra, Paris and London' - to the very centre of a conspiracy that will determine who will take Scotland’s crown.
Despite being Fowler's memoir, it is the titular Rose Nicolson who gives the book its heart, something that came as a surprise to the author, who explains, "The Scottish reformation is thought of as a very grim, dour male affair led by men in long beards - and of course there were men with long beards saying, 'No,' - but I knew I wanted to make it feel broader than that. It was also about literacy and equality and as a romantic I knew I would have at least one love story in it.
"One day I was sitting on a bollard down by St Andrew's harbour, looking across the Green with the ruins of the cathedral behind me, when I could picture this young woman, probably barefoot, mending nets just above the harbour. It was so solid and real that I believed it. So I invented her story because I believed in her, and if I believe in her, hopefully the reader will too."
He continues, "The thing about Rose Nicolson was that she started off as a very standard love interest until I realised she was far more intelligent than anyone around her, and what the implications of that were for her and her friends... I didn't know where they would lead. That's when she became a person in her own right and why she took the title of the memoir. In a funny way, she is the central energy of the book."
Brought up in Anstruther, Greig first came to Edinburgh in 1979 to study English Lit and Philosophy at university. Staying in the city for 15 years he then moved to Orkney and later Sheffield, returning to the Capital about 15 years ago - he and his wife, novelist Lesley Glaister, now split their year between Edinburgh and Orkney.
He reflects, "I got by as a full-time writer as a poet until I started writing prose in my mid-30s. That was when my life took off in a totally different direction. From living quietly as a poet, suddenly I had an audience."
Poetry and music remain Greig's core work but penning memoirs and novels is where the readers are.
He adds with a smile, "...and that means publishers will give you more money to write more books. Luckily, I have always been able to write what I want to write, which is an incredible luxury. My only boss is me, but he's a terrible tyrant," he laughs.
Tomorrow, read the first of five exclusive extracts from Rose Nicolson.Rose Nicolson, by Andrew Greig, is published in hardback, August 5, £18.99