James Robertson

Scottish novelist, poet: intrigued by time, change, identity, locality, power

Born in Sevenoaks, England. Based in Angus, Scotland, UK

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Born in 1958, James Robertson has lived in Scotland since the age of six. He started writing stories and poems around then, and has never stopped. 

James studied History at Edinburgh University, then worked in many different jobs, including bookselling, before turning to full-time writing in 1993.

James is the author of six novels, four short story collections and several poetry pamphlets for adults, and many books and translations written in Scots for children and young readers, published by Itchy Coo, an imprint he co-founded in 2002.

James divides his time between rural Angus and Edinburgh.

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To Be Continued, 2016, Hamish Hamilton

365: Stories, 2014, Hamish Hamilton

The Professor of Truth, 2013, Hamish Hamilton

Republics of the Mind, 2012, Black & White Publishing

And the Land Lay Still, 2010, Hamish Hamilton

The Testament of Gideon Mack, 2006, Hamish Hamilton

Joseph Knight, 2003, 4th Estate

The Fanatic, 2000, 4th Estate

Dictionary of Scottish Quotations, co-edited with Angela Cran, 1996, Mainstream

Scottish Ghost Stories, 1996, Little, Brown

Sound-Shadow, 1995, Black & White Publishing

The Ragged Man's Complaint, 1993, Black & White Publishing

Close & Other Stories, 1991, Black & White Publishing

Extract: 365: Stories

Five Stories from 365: Stories (Hamish Hamilton, 2014) 

My Father, Swimming

Once, I was lost at the seaside. My parents searched for me in a state of panic. It was high tide and I was three. They searched along the promenade and behind the row of beach huts, and with churning stomachs they scanned the grey sea that was level with the top of the steps leading down to the beach, looking I suppose for some small floating thing that might be me. But I was dry and safe: I’d just gone for a wander, and was happily being entertained by some other family to whom I had attached myself. It was my parents who were lost and distraught, and were not found again until the moment they saw me.

I don’t remember this incident, but I do remember other things about those seaside holidays. My father used to go for long swims, when the tide was lower and I was playing on the sand along with the other children. I could see his head as he did the sidestroke or the backstroke. He was a slow, steady, powerful swimmer. How much he must have enjoyed the solitude and peace out there, away from the demands of family. There was a pier about a mile along the coast, and sometimes he would strike out for it, and I would lose sight of his head as he swam further away. I don’t think I was worried. I knew he’d come back. I can still see him in the water. I imagine him reaching the pier, swimming round its barnacled and weed-wrapped legs and heading back to us, always at the same, calm, methodical stroke and pace.

I wonder if he imagines that swim, or even remembers it. Today he needs someone to help him into the shower, to wash his back while he grips the safety handles, to dry him off with a towel and get him dressed. It’s a long distance from now to then, much more than a mile there and a mile back. I wonder if, when he’s in the shower, he ever closes his eyes and for a moment is back in that sea, strong, alone and free, and swimming away from everything.

The Coin

The man wore a tall grey hat with a bashed-in crown, a black tailcoat and striped trousers, and a stained white shirt with a cravat. He either needed a shave or was growing a beard. He looked like a lord who’d lost everything at Ascot, or a bridegroom who’d baulked at the altar and been on the run ever since.

‘Fuel?’ I asked.

‘Sustenance,’ he said, holding up a Milkybar.

‘Have you bought fuel as well?’ I said, pointing to the pumps outside.

‘I am without carriage.’ He spoke like an actor. ‘Wait,’ he continued, resisting my attempt to take the Milkybar from him. ‘How much does it cost?’

‘Forty pence.’

‘Unfortunately this is all I have,’ he said, producing a twenty-pence piece. ‘I shall buy half.’

‘You can’t,’ I said. ‘You have to buy the whole thing or none of it.’

‘Really?’ His eyebrows rose. Deftly he snapped the bar in two, tore open the wrapper and slide one half out.

‘You shouldn’t have done that,’ I said. ‘Now you have to give me another twenty pence.’

‘I am without further coin,’ he said. ‘I will return tomorrow, or the next day. For now, I am  restricted to purchasing this portion.’

I looked around for Karen, the manager, but she was through the back.

‘You can’t,’ I said.

‘I have,’ he replied, and popped it in his mouth. Then he stuck his hands in the pockets of his striped trousers, smiled, and ambled out.

I suppose I should have rung the bell for Karen, but I didn’t. He looked pathetic in his tired old fancy dress. I felt sorry for him, mainly because I didn’t think it was fancy dress.

Other people came in to pay for fuel, sandwiches, cigarettes. They handed over their credit cards and parted with fifty, sixty, seventy pounds without blinking. They didn’t seem to have noticed the man in the top hat.

I never said anything to Karen. I kept the coin and the second half of the Milkybar for a week, intending to ring through the sale if he ever came back, but he didn’t. Then I ate the chocolate and put the coin in the charity box.

The Wife of Usher’s Well

from an old ballad

There lived a wife at Usher’s Well, a woman of substance. She had three sons, big strapping boys, and she sent them on a trip across the sea.

Barely a week had passed and word came that the ship they had sailed in was lost, with all aboard feared dead.

Two more weeks went by before the awful news was confirmed: never again would she see her boys.

Then the woman made a terrible wish: that neither wind nor flood should cease till her sons came home to her, in flesh and blood just as they had been.

All summer and autumn storms raged, both at sea and on land, till about Martinmas, when a calm descended; and home at last to the wife came her sons.

They wore hats fashioned from birch bark, a wood that is said to protect the dead from the living. But the tree from which that bark came grew in neither bog nor ditch on this earth, but at the gate to some other world.

Joyfully the woman ordered a feast to be prepared. The house was swept and cleaned, and fires lit. And there was a servant girl, shy and lovely, who had been fond of the youngest son, and he of her, and he caught her eye again as she worked, and again her heart was softened.

The mother prepared a bed for her boys, long and wide enough to take all three. And through the deep night, as they lay sleeping, she sat with her cloak about her, watching over them.

Weariness at last overtook her. While she dozed, the dawn broke. The eldest son stirred. ‘Time we were away,’ he said.

The youngest son sat up. ‘Time indeed, brother,’ he said. ‘I hear the cock crowing, and the fretful worm turning in the earth. We must return to the place we came from, before we are missed.’

Softly they made their way from the room, out of the house and past the steading. And all three, as they went, cast a fond last look at their sleeping mother, and the youngest bit his lip as he thought of the girl who had kindled the fire.

Jack and the Moon

Jack is leaning out of his window one night, admiring the full moon, which is even brighter and bigger than usual. He feels he could reach out and touch it, so he does. He reaches out and touches it and the moon falls from the sky right into his open arms.

To his surprise it isn’t round like a ball. It’s a huge yellow disc made out of some kind of heavy parchment, with pencil marks on it for the mountains. Jack lays it on his bed. The room is filled with a wonderful, cool, soothing light.

‘What are ye up tae, Jack?’ his mother shouts from her room.

‘Just closin the windae, Mither,’ he says. He folds the moon and puts it in the drawer at the bottom of the wardrobe. Then he gets into bed and tries to sleep, but he’s feeling guilty about touching the moon, so he stays awake all night.

The next morning there’s consternation because the moon fell out of the sky and no one knows where it went. The tides have stopped working and the sea is dead calm and everybody’s asking what happened – everybody except Jack. Whenever he creeps up to his room and opens the drawer there’s the folded moon giving off its beautiful glow, but each time it’s a wee bit dimmer, and Jack understands that the moon is dying because like everything else it needs the sun to live.

That night, as soon as darkness falls, he sticks the moon up his jersey and slips down to the beach. The sea is flat and still. Jack unfolds the moon and lays it on the water, and gives it a wee push. And that wee push is enough to make a ripple, and the moon rides over it, and that makes another ripple, and then a wave, and Jack looks up and sees the pale edge of the moon on the horizon, and the further out the moon in the sea floats the higher the moon in the sky climbs, and he knows it’s going to be all right.

But never again will he try to touch the moon, no matter how tempting it is.

The Miner

All the stories in the world originally came from one source, a mine in a remote and desolate place where only the story-miners lived. The stories came in many shapes and sizes – some heavy and bulky, some smooth and delicate, others sharp and awkward to hold – but they had one common property: something in each one shone, or glittered, reflecting light in its own special way.

The stories were dispatched, unrefined, across the world, to people who had no knowledge of the mine’s existence. When they came across one of the stories in their own locality, they assumed that it belonged to them.

Over many centuries the mine workings grew deeper and more complex. When one seam was exhausted, another was opened. Still, it became increasingly difficult to find and extract new stories. As this happened, the miners themselves grew fewer. The older generation died. Younger families left, seeking less demanding and more rewarding work. A time came when only one miner remained – a strong and skilful labourer, but the last of his kind. One day he came up from the mine empty-handed: there were no more stories down there.

Sad though he was to see the end of a long tradition, the miner was a realistic man. He collected his tools and personal belongings, and set off in search of a new occupation.

How long he walked is not recorded, but eventually he left behind the bleak landscape familiar to him, and travelled through a country of thick forests, green meadows, rushing rivers and cultivated fields. He passed through villages and towns and spent time in huge cities. And he began to notice – lying at the roadside, or marking the edges of flowerbeds in parks and gardens, or abandoned in heaps in disused warehouses – the same multiform stories that he had once mined. He collected several of the discarded ones, and used his tools to recut or polish  them a little. Then he walked on, discreetly depositing them in pubs, churches, schools, theatres, places of work, places of play…

And when people came across one of these slightly altered stories, they picked it up and took it home, assuming that it belonged to them.