James Robertson was born in Sevenoaks, Kent, on 14 March 1958. Though his first years were spent in England, he was nevertheless very aware of his Scots parentage. In 1964 his father took a job in Scotland, and the family settled in Bridge of Allan; Robertson was six years old, and felt as though he had come home. Stirlingshire introduced him early to a sense of Scottish history, as he says in Spirits of the Age (2005): ‘History informed my imagination from the beginning.’ He was given a portable typewriter at the age of ten, having already determined that he wanted to be a writer.
Robertson attended Hurst Grange School in Stirling and Trinity College, Glenalmond, then went to the University of Edinburgh to read history. He travelled after graduating, worked as a publisher’s sales representative and for Waterstone’s, and returned to Edinburgh University to work on a PhD on aspects of Sir Walter Scott. He started to get poems published in magazines in the early 1980s, and had a book of short stories published in 1991.
As Robertson later reflected, Hugh MacDiarmid’s death in 1978 was ‘the catalyst that set me on a journey of discovery – first of MacDiarmid’s own work, then of myself and how I perceived the country I grew up in’ (The Scotsman, 11 February 1995). It was thus appropriate that Robertson became the first Brownsbank Fellow, arriving in February 1993 to start a two-year residency at MacDiarmid’s former home. The time spent there was fruitful, resulting in a second collection of short stories, and a first collection of poems, Sound Shadow, published in 1995.
Impatient with the standard process of getting poems into little magazines, in 1999 Robertson established his own imprint, Kettillonia, to publish both poetry and prose pamphlets, bringing out five titles in that year, and setting a high standard of production and content in the growing field of poetry pamphlets. In 2002 with Matthew Fitt he co-founded Itchy Coo, an educational project aimed at getting Scots-language literature into schools, and backing the books with support for teachers. Itchy Coo produced a wide range of children’s books in Scots: picture books, plays and poetry anthologies for different age groups.
Robertson’s explorations of darker aspects of Scottish character, and political and social history feature in his novels: The Fanatic came out in 2000, and Joseph Knight in 2003, the winner of both the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award and the Scottish Arts Council Book of the Year Award. The Testament of Gideon Mack appeared in 2006, and And the Land Lay Still in 2010, another winner of the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award.
He was Writer in Residence at the Scottish Parliament in 2004. Thus far the only writer to hold the post, Robertson used it to make intelligent and long-pondered observations on the relationship between Scottish literature and Scottish history. The three lectures he gave to Members of the Scottish Parliament and a complementary series of sonnets were published in Voyage of Intent (2005), articulating his sense of Scotland’s heritage and broader hopes for the future under an increasingly independent government.
Robertson explains his use of Scots in Spirits of the Age: ‘It was not my first tongue, yet somehow it enabled me to explore ideas that I could not reach, and to say things that I could not say, in any other way.’ He has used the language in his novels and in his own poems, and extensively in making favourite children’s books available in Scots, including Winnie the Pooh, and several titles by Roald Dahl. He has made versions of Baudelaire (Fae the Flouers o Evil), and has translated from Latin and Gaelic. The 2009 pamphlet Hem and Heid includes more translations from several languages and from the Bible (‘Saws o Solomon’), and he worked with the Guatemalan poet Humberto Ak’abal.
Valentina Bold in the Scottish Review of Books in 2009 appreciated the use of ballad form in Hem and Heid and found echoes of Hugh MacDiarmid in the shorter poems; in a 1995 review in Scotland on Sunday, Stewart Conn also felt the presence of MacDiarmid: ‘Grieve looms’. These are apposite comments for a writer who was inspired by the older poet and who is so actively engaged in promoting the creative use of the Scots language.
Read the poems
Contact James Robertson at Kettillonia