Fair Helen has attracted her fair share of interest from celebrated Scottish writers over the years. The source for Greig's latest novel is "Fair Helen of Kirkconnel" (Scott had it as "Kirconnell" in his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Burns as "Kirkconnel lee" in Where Helen Lies), which Greig describes as a "tragic and impeccably gloomy and fated reiver tale" from the 16th century.
The story that has been passed down (it is also recorded by the Welsh-born naturalist Thomas Pennant in his A Tour Of Scotland And Voyage To The Hebrides 1772) tells of Helen Irvine, who was inadvertently killed by one suitor, Robert Bell, as she tried to protect Adam Fleming, the man she really loved, whereupon Fleming avenges her death by killing Bell. "I hacked him in pieces sma/ For her that died for me," runs the ballad.
"Tragic and gloomy" the ballad may have been - Pennant describes it as "an ancient ballad of no great merit" - but Greig, cleverly filling in the gaps in our knowledge of Helen and Adam, has fashioned an engrossing and atmospheric story, a persuasive reconstruction of life in the Borders and Edinburgh of the time.
The story is narrated, decades after the event, by Harry Langton, cousin and childhood friend of Helen Irvine, and, while a student at Edinburgh, a close friend of the charismatic Fleming who, as the book opens, has been restored to his Borders home and has sent for his friend.
Langton learns that Fleming has fallen for Helen, but this is no straightforward affair. Their respective families have long been at feud; and Rob Bell, heidsman of a noted local family has set his own, aggressive sights on Helen. Not that you could blame him. As Langton says: "Even in the city I had heard the new flower of Annandale lit soul, heart, loins" and "She made all else seem a shuttered lantern". Bell, however, is a mere "Border bully in his pomp... Folk said young Robert Bell had a future, though most hoped it short".
The Langton who narrates the fateful story many decades later has become an intriguing curio, an ageing man of letters, his "eyes far gone from scrivening and scholaring", whose abiding loves have been Montaigne and Lucretius. After enduring years of necessary exile, he is now living a quiet life at Hawthornden.
The rest of his long life has, he acknowledges, "been but a coda" to those few weeks when he acted as a guard to the couple's furtive trysts. He might not have been a major player in the story of Helen and Adam, but he was at least present as a witness.
What he was at pains to keep hidden from the lovers, however, was that he was also working as a spy for an ambitious, ruthless schemer - Walter Scott, Laird of Branxholme and Buccleuch, 'new-made Warden of the Western March', whose aim it is to control and pacify the Border. Langton knows from the outset that he is playing a risky game.
The story of Helen and Adam is set in the years before the lawless Borders were indeed pacified. This was a time of the reivers, of shifting allegiances, of blood feuds, of cross-Border raids, of the law being taken into private hands. Even Langton himself, an educated man, learns how to wield a stiletto, killing a man with it in a Langholm pend.
Greig has immersed himself in the world of the ballad of Helen and has done a persuasive job in conveying life as it must have been then. Conditions for many were utterly wretched (reference is made to the "poverty and desperation and wildness" of the Borders), but those who could, ate well and loved frequently.
Greig is an adroit handler of action scenes (a cross-Border raid in search of stolen cattle is written with no little skill and economy) and also of character. His poet's eye delivers arresting phrases: "the city was torn into moonlit strips"; Buccleuch's smile "was thin as the newest moon"; a kestrel "pinned to the sky".
Helen, Adam, Buccleuch and the supporting cast, including Fleming's tough and ultra-loyal bodyguard Jed, are described with care, but the most intriguing character of them all is the narrator, Langton, a "book-intoxicated city child of artisans" who becomes a trusted friend to the ill-fated couple, a spy for Buccleuch, a man of action, a skilled observer - and also, it emerges, a man who was in unrequited love with Fleming himself.
Greig says that meeting the particular challenges of this book has been a "sair fecht" but that he is "strangely pleased with it". He has every right to be.