James Robertson: 'I wanted to write about a vision of a place'

James Robertson spent lockdown living in an imaginary glen; his new novel makes it vividly real

James Robertson

There’s no such place as Glen Conach, so when you’ve finished reading James Robertson’s new novel, News of the Dead, which is almost entirely set there, don’t bother searching it out. It’s not a fictionalised Glen Esk, nor is it Glen Isla under another name or a disguised Glen Doll. Which is rather a shame, because after you’ve turned the final page, you might well want to go there.

You often hear novelists talking about the importance of a sense of place in their work. Oh yes, they’ll say, it’s so vital: indeed, it’s almost another character. And then you’ll read the book in question and find nothing in it that you couldn’t have discovered in seconds – and much more clearly too – on Google Maps. Robertson’s fictitious Angus glen is infinitely more than that. And if it haunts the reader’s mind so completely, it’s because he shows us it not just in the present, but in three kinds of past – within memory, beyond memory, and finally beyond writing.

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He tells the glen’s story through three characters: Conach, an eighth century Christian holy man who gave his name to it and whose exploits were described in an early medieval manuscript; a 19th century antiquarian engaged by the local laird to translate this from the Latin; and an elderly woman caught up in the Covid 19 lockdown whose own story is only fully revealed at the end.

“When I started out,” Robertson says, “I wanted to write about something I hadn’t yet articulated, a vision of a place. I had a very strong image of this glen and I knew that I had to build a story around it. I could visualise exactly what it looked like even though it is completely imaginary.”

At first, intrigued by a book about ‘fake’18th century hermits - often servants ordered to grow their hair and nails and live in newly-built hermitages on their master’s country estates - he imagined writing about such a character. There’s a sliver of that in his novel, but no more. Instead of a comedy about hermit-landowner relations, he reached back to Pictish Scotland for something else, and his book widened and deepened.

“From that point, it became a mixture of a book about a person from the Dark Ages who goes on retreat from the world in this particular place and about who would be in that place over a thousand years later.” Robertson didn’t want Glen Conach to change too much in the intervening years: it had to be a place where you could still imagine an eighth century holy man learning to worship silently, as “a deer grazing on a far hill, a slow dark river flowing, a bell without its clapper”.

“I wanted some of what Conach says to be taken seriously, and in these passages I wanted the reader to slow down, to reflect. We all need a place of refuge, somewhere we can retreat from the world - and I think that has become clearer over the last 18 months. For example, I’m quite grateful, in a way, that lockdown has stopped me rushing around like a mad person trying to do 101 different things and made me realise I maybe should do a little less but take more time doing it.”

Conach’s world is so distant that it only reaches us through a distinctly dodgy antiquarian’s translation of the Book of Conach made when he visited the glen in 1809. And this is where Robertson - who loves history so much that he took two degrees in it – has the most fun. As one of the other characters in this section points out, all these stories are lost in the mists of time anyway, so why not spice them up? Similarly, in the near-present, elderly locals amuse themselves by adapting Norwegian and Russian folk tales and pretending to visiting academics that they’d been told in the glen for generations.

“The plot device [of the translated book] allowed me to play around with a load of ideas about history and memory,” says Robertson, “about who gets remembered and who gets forgotten. The fact that history is always written by the victors necessarily distorts it. An example of that I use in the book is the Walcheren campaign of 1809 - then the biggest ever invasion of Europe and involving 40,000 British soldiers. It was a complete and utter disaster, but we don’t hear about that. We hear about Trafalgar and Waterloo, but not Walcheren.”

Walcheren - far from Glen Conach but pivotal to the plot – wasn’t a disaster because of anything the enemy did: it was plague, not the French or their allies, that killed 4,000 British soldiers. The irony of writing this in the shadow of coronavirus was not lost on Robertson.

At the end of his novel, we leave the glen in a present in which Covid 19 has stilled all travel. It is a quieter, perhaps a more reflective place. An elderly woman walks through its graveyard, past some of the characters we have glimpsed, while others we have already met have left no markers of their existence behind. We are all of us ghosts, she says, though some have found a place in life. And “if you are in your place when death comes calling, so you don’t even have to get up and open the door, then you are blessed indeed, whatever else has befallen you in the days and years that went before.”

That is, I think, is what a sense of place really means. And Conach himself, the hermit who wandered the hills of Pictland before he found a place of his own to stay and make an accommodation with the world, couldn’t have put it better.

James Robertson, Edinburgh International Book Festival, 16 August, 5:30pm. www.edbookfest.co.uk. Anthony Baxter’s short film, part of the Reading Scotland series [see belowl] will be shown at the start of the event.

READING SCOTLAND

New this year, the Edinburgh book festival’s Reading Scotland programme paired six authors with film-makers who then created short film inspired by - but not telling the story of - the author’s latest book. These films - each 5-10 minutes long and shot on location around the country, will be premiered at the start of the event. Festival organisers hope that they will encourage partner festivals in New York, Jaipur, Berlin and Sydney to programme a strand looking at contemporary Scottish writing. The project is supported by the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund.

Internationally acclaimed documentary-maker Anthony Baxter (You’ve Been Trumped, A Dangerous Game, Flint, Eye of the Storm) didn’t have to travel too far from his Montrose base to film James Robertson in an Angus glen in search of a cross-stone supposedly honouring an early Christian saint. A photograph of it has been on Robertson’s desk even before he began writing his novel (see interview) featuring a (fictitious) eighth century holy man known throughout Pictish Angus.

Monday 16 August, 5:30pm.

Poetry and aestheticism meet decadence and queer celebration in Von Reinhold’s debut novel LOTE, which is also shortlisted for next week’s James Tait Black awards. Glasgow-based artist, singer and film-maker Crewe sets the mood for its story of a ‘forgotten’ Black Scottish poet written out of the historical record of the Bright Young Things.

Tuesday 17 August, 2:30pm.

A mysterious Victorian diary is at the heart of new novel by McClory, whose 2015 collection On the Edges of Vision (“shiny, dark licorice mind candy” - Margaret Atwood) won Saltire First Book of the Year award. Ferguson, who has made music videos for bands such as Arab Strap and Ladytron as well as his own, award-finning films, shot the film in Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Thursday 19 August, 5:30pm.

Armstrong’s debut novel The Young Team draws on his own teenage experiences of North Lanarkshire gang culture. Filmed by James Price, a friend from those days who is now a screenwriter (his Dropping off Michael won the audience award at the Glasgow Short Film Festival). Their film, Infectious Nihilism and Small Metallic Pieces of Hope, is shot in Airdrie.

Monday 23 August, 5:30pm.

The youngest ever winner of the TS Eliot Prize for her second collection Nigh-No-Place, Hadfield’s new collection, The Stone Age, provides a vivid portrait of her Shetland home - as does the film shot there with Glasgow writer/director Piper, whose short film Duck Daze was broadcast last year by BBC Scotland.

Tuesday 24 August, 8:30pm.

YA author Sayers’s novel Daisy on the Outer Line (‘Life, death and time travel on the Glasgow subway’) won one of first Scots Language Publication Grants. McKeown, also Edinburgh-based, won best short film award at the 2018 Belfast Film Festival. Filmed on Glasgow’s ‘Clockwork Orange’.

Thursday 26 August, 11:30am.