I bought several of the lovely new Mary Stewart reprints a few months ago. I think I read all of her books when I was a teenager but I’d weeded all my old paperbacks long ago so I was ready for a reread. Being in the mood for all things Scottish at the moment, Stormy Petrel was the one I chose.
Rose Fenemore is a Cambridge academic & writer. She sees an advertisement for an “ivory tower” to rent on a Scottish island just when she’s feeling the need for a holiday & arranges to rent the cottage with her brother, Crispin, a doctor who also loves wildlife photography. Rose travels up to Moila in the Hebrides on her own with Crispin to join her in a few days. She soon feels at home in the cottage, Camus na Dobhrain, in a remote location but not far from the Big House, Taigh na Tuir, the House of the Tower. The House has been empty since the last owner, Mrs Hamilton, died. Crispin is delayed by a train accident but Rose is content to write, walk & explore the island.
On a stormy summer night, two men come in from the sea & take refuge at Rose’s cottage. The first, Ewen Mackay, has a key & lets himself in, much to Rose’s surprise. Ewen’s foster parents had once lived in the cottage but he’s been travelling for years & didn’t realise they’d moved away. Then, just as Rose is coming to terms with her first intruder, a knock at the door brings another. John Parsons is a geologist camping nearby while he examines a rock formation on a nearby broch or rocky island. His tent was blown away in the gale & he was lost until he saw Rose’s lights. Except that his name isn’t really John Parsons & Ewen Mackay’s charm can’t hide the fact that he has secrets of his own.
The more Rose discovers about John Parsons who is really Neil Hamilton, the heir of the old lady from the House, the more intriguing he seems. Neil has to decide on the future of the estate & the only offer he’s had so far is from a man who wants to turn it into a conference centre & resort. Ewen Mackay’s story is well-known to the locals & they’re not too happy that he’s returned. He was a wild boy who became a con artist & ended up in prison. Why has he returned to Moila? As Rose finds out more about both men, she has to decide who to trust.
I think Mary Stewart’s Scottish books are her best. She really knows & loves the landscape. The island is lovingly described, I felt I was there, especially as Neil & Rose explore the broch, accessible only by a causeway that’s cut off by the tide & home to innumerable midges & a colony of thousands of birds. The Big House, with its overgrown garden & overturned statues of Echo & Narcissus, is like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, waiting for the right moment to awaken to life.The romance is gentle & tentative but it’s the mystery of Ewen Mackay & his reasons for returning to Moila that really drive the plot. This is perfect comfort reading. A hauntingly beautiful setting & interesting characters add up to a very satisfying afternoon’s reading.