This week I’m recommending a romantic book – `The Seventh Swan’ by Nicholas Stuart Gray (first published by Dobson in 1962). He has always been a favourite author of mine. Sadly, most of his books now seem to be out of print but cheap paperback copies of `The Seventh Swan’ are fairly easy to find. Try used-book dealer websites such as ABE. `The Seventh Swan’ was first written as a play and then turned into a novel, so make sure that you are buying the novel. There is a great deal of humour in all Stuart Gray’s work but this story may make you cry as well as laugh. It was inspired by a European folktale often known as `The Wild Swans’. In the version by Hans Christian Andersen, a girl sets out to save her seven brothers who have been turned into swans. The only way she can break the spell on them is to weave shirts out of stinging-nettles gathered in a graveyard at night and she is forbidden to speak until her grim task is complete. A nobleman falls in love with her but his people are suspicious of her nightly trips to the graveyard. The swans arrive to find their sister about to be burned as a witch. She throws the shirts over the swans, who are transformed back into men but because she hadn’t finished the last shirt, the youngest brother is left with one swan’s wing instead of an arm.

Nicholas Stuart Gray wanted to know what happened next. How did the youngest brother cope with being part man and part swan? So he wrote a sequel set in 16th century Scotland. In this version, Agnes has saved her brothers from the spell and is happily married to the formidable Laird of Kinrowan. Agnes’ youngest brother, one-winged Alasdair, lives with them. Convinced that everyone sees him as a freak, Alasdair is increasingly withdrawn but he gets little sympathy  from Ewen, the soldier who leads his bodyguard. At the start of the book, Alasdair has just been introduced to Fenella, a chieftain’s daughter, but he abandons her in the middle of a dance when he hears wild swans flying over the castle. When Fenella later asks if she said something to offend him, Alasdair artlessly assures her `truly I never noticed what you were talking about’. Luckily, Fenella has a sense of humour . After Agnes  tells her the full story of the swan curse, Fenella is determined to help Alasdair. She persuades a reluctant Ewen to escort her to a magic well where a repulsive creature known as the Bocan shows Fenella, Ewen and Alasdair visions of their greatest fears. Fenella is then transformed by a spell which can only be broken by someone who loves her. The forces of good, represented by Agnes, an elderly bard and a Spaewife (wise woman) hope that Alasdair will forget his own problems through saving Fenella but their plan soon goes wrong. Someone will have to pay a terrible price to put things right.

Stuart Gray had a rare gift for setting up amusing situations and character-clashes. Some of the dialogue in this book still makes me laugh after umpteen readings. He also made good use of Scottish culture and folk-beliefs  in `The Seventh Swan’ (there is a glossary of Gaelic phrases at the back). For me though, the real fascination in this story lies in the three main characters, Fenella, Alasdair and Ewen, and the evolving relationships between them. Strong-minded, big-hearted Fenella is an attractive heroine who comes to love both the men in different ways. Handsome Alasdair is a tragic figure who is also annoyingly immature. He has to learn not to see himself as a victim. Most intriguing of all is bitter sarcastic Ewen (played by Nicholas Stuart Gray himself in the original production of the play), the mercenary with a mysterious past. As this trio get entangled with cattle-raiders, outlaws, curses and a long-buried secret it becomes increasingly unclear which of them needs saving the most. Not everyone likes the bitter-sweet ending of this story but it feels right to me. See what you think. Until next week…