It was a bright, sunny day in Edinburgh when Robin Robertson came to the Book Festival, but inside the socially distanced theatre at Edinburgh College of Art, it was, without doubt, a dark and stormy night of swirling mists and blighting winds.
Robertson – “I take my unpleasantness everywhere I go” – conjured an eldrich atmosphere immediately with the opening lines from his new book, the appropriately named Grimoire: New Scottish Folk Tales.
Robertson is a prizewinning poet, Booker shortlisted for his long narrative poem The Long Take, and is known to many as the influential editor who brought a generation of Scots writers (Irvine Welsh, Alan Warner and Janice Galloway among them) to a wider audience. Grimoire is illustrated by his brother, Tim, who mesmerisingly recreated some of his artworks for the camera while Robin read.
His reading – “three poems, all quite long and unpleasant” – revealed a book of dark, beguiling stories, steeped in Celtic myths of changelings and shapeshifters, violent deaths and desperate superstitions. He has been writing them for more than a decade, he said, conjuring a world of folk tradition which felt “part of life” through his Aberdeen upbringing, but was lost to him when he left to work in London, along with the richness of the Scots tongue.
But if you thought all this talk of gralloching deer and drowning changeling babies might cast a pall on the afternoon, you’d be wrong. Robertson’s words worked their macabre magic till we were (physical and online audiences, both) in their thrall, proving their mettle as cautionary tales for a modern age still beset by ancient fears.
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