Stormy Petrel – Mary Stewart

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.

13 thoughts on “Stormy Petrel – Mary Stewart

  1. I read this years ago, still have my original hardback copy and enjoyed it. Would love the full set of reprints simply as I like those covers. How fickle is that?
    Margaret P


  2. When I was in Orkney we visited a tidal island with a Broch on it (or which used to have)it reminded me so much of this book, I can't help but wonder if Stewart had somewhere real in mind when she described Moila


  3. I think that this must be one of her 'later' ones as it isn't in my original collection and I can't actually remember reading it – something I will have to remedy.
    I liked another of her Scottish books – Wildfire at Midnight which is (I think)set on Skye.
    I have just introduced my daughter who is almost 18, to Mary Stewart's novels and am glad to report that she is enjoying them as much as I did.


  4. I hadn't read Mary Stewart for nearly 30 years but the recent reprints by Chicago Review Press & now Hodder have inspired me to read her again. I love her sense of place & she writes a really good story. Liz, this is a later MS, published in 1991. Katrina, I enjoyed the Arthurian series very much but I'm not sure they're still in print. I know they're not part of this latest lot of reprints but then, I don't think the Vogue-like covers would suit Arthur, Merlin et al! Desperate Reader, I wondered if Moila really existed & thought you would know the answer. If MS made it up, she must have had some real island in mind I think. Galant, wanting books because of their covers is never fickle as I've often said. I hope you all have a chance to read or reread MS soon.


  5. The island Desperate Reader is thinking of is (I suspect) Birsay, but I have to say when I re-read STORMY PETREL recently I was struck by what a brilliant evocation it was of a Hebridean island and the islands of Orkney are very different. Given that MS wrote about Skye and lives still on the west coast of Scotland, I wonder if it was a western rather than a northern isle she based Moila on? (Coincidentally there is a Castle Moil on Skye.)

    I think STORMY PETREL is one of her weaker plots and I certainly wouldn't advocate it as a gripping read, but she demonstrates in this novel (as in all her others) her genius for making you feel as if “you are there”. Having tried to write about the beauty of Scottish islands myself, I know just how very hard it is to convey the wild and unspoilt beauty of such places.


  6. Linda, I agree that the plot isn't the best part of the novel but I do love the atmosphere she creates. Interesting what you say about the feel of the island.


  7. I've never read Mary Stewart, in fact despite studying Scottish Literature at university I had never even heard of her. This sounds absolutely charming though and I think I'll be adding it to my Wish List. Thanks for the suggestion.


  8. Louise, MS is definitely a good read & her books are very atmospheric. I'm not sure she's on the curriculum of many uni courses but she's writes excellent romantic suspense.


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