Stormy Petrel by Mary Stewart

I fell in love with a Scottish island when I was eight years old.

Looking back it was a mad thing for my parents to do, travelling so far across country with two young children, but that wanted to see Scotland, and they had been guided to a particular place by a very good friend. So if it was madness it was the very best kind of madness, and if I had to live outside Cornwall I should still choose to live on a Scottish Island.

That’s what drew me to ‘Stormy Petrel, even though I knew it was one of Mary Stewart’s later novels and not considered to be her best work; it was set on a fictional Scottish island, and island very close to and very like mine.



The story opened in a Cambridge where Rose, who write poetry for love and science fiction for money, was  a tutor of English. A newspaper advertisement caught her eye: an advertisement for cottage on the Hebridean island of Moila. It sounded perfect. Rose could have the time and space to write and her doctor brother, a keen wildlife photographer,  would love to take pictures of the rare birds that nested on the island.

Rose travelled north before her brother, and she found the island and the cottage to be everything she hoped them to be.

When Rose wakes in the night to the sounds of someone moving about downstairs she assumes that her brother has arrived. But he hasn’t, and another man is making tea in the kitchen. Both are startled, but the intruder is quick to reassure Rose, explaining that he had lived there with  foster parents, he had fallen out of touch, he had no idea that they had moved away. And then another man arrived. His explanation was that he was a visiting geologist, he had been camping, and when the storm carried his tent away he had come to look for shelter where he saw lights.

The two men claimed not to have met, but there was something in their manners towards each other that told rose that they had, that something was amiss. Rose made a sensible decision: she withdrew to her room, leaving the pair to make the best of things downstairs.

When Rose woke again the storm and her house-guests had gone. She thought that was the end of things, but of course it was only the beginning ….

I found a lot to like in ‘Stormy Petrel’.

Moila is so beautifully and lovingly described that I was transported, and I didn’t doubt for one second that it was inspired by a place that Mary Stewart knew and loved.

 ” It is not a large island, perhaps nine miles by five, with formidable cliffs to the north-west that face the weather like the prow of a ship. From the steep sheep-bitten turf at the head of these cliffs the land slopes gently down towards a glen where the island’s only sizeable river runs seawards out of a loch cupped in a shallow basin among low hills. Presumably the loch – lochan, rather, for it is not large – is fed by springs eternally replenished by the rain, for nothing flows into it except small burns seeping through rush and bog myrtle, which spread after storms into sodden quagmires of moss. But the outflow is perennially full, white water pouring down to where the moor cleaves open and lets it fall to the sea.”

I loved that Rose came to love her island as I loved mine, that she appreciated that things that made it so special. And I was pleased that she proved herself to be sensible, capable and practical.

I was pleased that the romance was low-key, and that the resolution of the story was gentle, with future possibilities simply suggested.

I was less pleased that the suspense was low-key, that it became clear quickly who was the hero and who was the villain, that the villain was not so very wicked, and that there was very little mystery to be resolved or danger to be faced.

And so I loved my trip to Moila, I loved the company, but the story – it needed something more.

16 responses

  1. I have this one on the TBR shelves, and I’ve been thinking it’s time to get back to her books. This might be the place to start, after some more intense reading I’ve done lately.

  2. I just discovered Stewart this year; the first I read was Thornyhold (also a later work), and it gave me a similar feeling. Still it didn’t put me off reading more of her books, which I’ve been enjoying thoroughly. Few authors can be on top form all the time.

  3. I’ve only seen Scottish islands on film, but I’d love to live on one, except that the cold would probably kill me. I’d never heard of Stewart before I read your post (I know!) but I checked out her wiki entry and her books sound interesting. I might try one of her earlier efforts.

    • The earlier books are definitely stronger, and I’d pick out My Brother Michael and Nine Coaches Waiting as my favourites. Scotland is cold, but so is the Cornish coast at times, and I’ve always been a cold weather person.

  4. No matter the plot Stewart always produces magic when she writes about the setting. This is one of her novels that I haven’t read yet so it might be a possibility for Mary Stewart Reading Week, although I think I’m more leaning toward This Rough Magic.

  5. I read this last year for the reading week and felt the same way as you about it – I found a lot to like, but was disappointed that there was so little suspense and mystery. The descriptions of the island were beautiful, though!

  6. Pingback: Mary Stewart – Stormy Petrel | Literasaurus

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