Edinburgh Book Festival: James Robertson

James Robertson was introduced by the Chair of the event and fellow author, Alan Massie as “a distinguished and versatile novelist having written about topics such as slavery, Calvinism and Scottish history…In addition in his latest novel ‘The Professor of Truth’ he examines the question of truth and what is justice.” Over the next hour Robertson gave his views on many of these topics whilst also engaging in interesting debate with both the Chair and members of the audience.
Robertson opened proceedings by reading a section from ‘The Professor of Truth’ which featured a discussion between two of the characters and their views on the justice system.  Following this Robertson shared with the audience his belief that the justice system is in many regards flawed.  He believes that in the past ‘…the truth is not always achieved. Justice has not always been done. This has implications for all of us as Law is fundamental to any society. If it’s not working it is a problem for all of us’. Although both Alan Massie and Robertson were keen to point out that ‘The Professor of Truth’ is a work of fiction it is clearly based on the Lockerbie bombing and the subsequent legal case.
Chair Massie questioned Robertson about the pending appeal in the case of the Lockerbie bombers. “If it’s rejected what does it say about Scottish Law?” Robertson believes “there will be a great deal of unfinished business if the outcome is not challenged. Currently it’s a permanent stain on Scottish justice. The system has a shadow hanging over it…it’s crucial to lay to rest many of the severe doubts people have.”
As the conversation moved to talking about ‘And The Land Lay Still’, Robertson’s huge panoramic about 50 years of Scottish life, Massie asked “Where did the idea to write this book come from?”  Robertson replied that he was an active supporter of the movement for first a Scottish Assembly and then a Scottish Parliament through the 1980s and 1990s and knew that this was an “interesting time to be living in.” The seeds were sown however he felt the novel needed to go back further than this in order to give the reader some historical context. He commented, “I felt that after World War Two ended Scotland was as tied into Britishness as ever. It was a key moment with where Scotland sits within the UK…Yet by the 1980’s people in Scotland were thinking differently of where Scotland’s sits within the UK. Devolution has made the the political cultures (of Holyrood and Westminster) divergent to each other.”

From this we can see the parameters that Robertson set himself for the novel and what transpired is one of the defining novels of post war Scotland such is it’s encompassing social and political history of the nation. (Literature for Lads review of the book here)

Discussion of ‘And the Land Lay Still’ lead us neatly into a wider discussion on the impending Scottish Referendum, of which Robertson is openly a Yes supporter. Questions from the audience were varied with some proving interesting responses from Robertson. How important did he feel Scottish Literature would be on influencing the vote? “Not that great. The question of culture has barely figured. This is likely because we already have a strong sense of identity, of which culture underpins.” For James this vote is not about “head vs heart, rather it’s both. It’s our cultural background that will help the nation reach a decision.”
From culture to the impact independence could have socially, Will independence be a catalyst for social togetherness? “It’s what the referendum is boiling down to” replied Robertson. “This is our opportunity to renew a sense of social justice. It’s time to look at how we value our social services and how we pay for them…a yes vote would make us face up to these questions.”  And finally if there is a yes vote, will there still be a SNP? “For 4 or 5 years there would be but after that the SNP would split into new audiences and groupings. There is no need for it to remain once it has achieved what it set out to do.”
Robertson is an outstanding novelist and respected cultural voice in the world of Scottish Politics. Today he shared his views with a interested and animated audience who were keen to engage him in debate and discussion both on his novels and on the impending Scottish referendum. There is no doubt that whatever the outcome of next months referendum he will continue to remain one of Scotland’s leading novelists and cultural commentators.