The Books Interview: James Robertson

Your new novel, And the Land Lay Still, takes in a broad sweep of postwar Scottish history. Is it a historical novel in the conventional sense?
Part of me thinks it is a historical novel, because although the action all takes place within my own lifetime, some of it does feel like it happened an awfully long time ago, even though it's only 20 years back.

Does devolution have something to do with the events in the book feeling like ancient history?
I think it does. For somebody like myself, who was quite involved with campaigning for some kind of self-determination in the 1980s and 1990s, when we got to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, it did feel like finally we had arrived at the point towards which we had been working. After that, everything does feel different, because it is a different country politically and we are in a different place.

I think that's one of the reasons it feels like ancient history. And I believe - though I might be proved wrong - that we will never have to fight those battles again. Not in my lifetime, anyway.

Among the stories you tell in the novel is the one of how Scottish nationalism became mainstream, a process that began in the 1970s.
I feel that the 1970s were a watershed between the residual bits of the Second World War (and empire, and so on) and our waking up to the fact that all that stuff was no longer going to be applicable. The 1970s were the period when people had to shake themselves into understanding that the world was no longer the way it was, and that somehow we had to find a way into whatever the future's going to be. Everything was up for grabs and shifting in that period.

One thing that emerges in the novel is how, until the mid-1970s, nationalism was regarded, especially on the left, as essentially kitsch.
There was a lot of hard-left politics around at the time, and nationalism was regarded at best as kitsch and at worst as a sort of horrible bourgeois reaction. I think that was one of the things that made the confrontations between Labour and the Scottish National Party so bitter and horrible. There was absolutely no love lost between those parties because there seemed to be all kinds of mud that could be flung from either side.

You worked as writer-in-residence in the house of the poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who also appears in the novel. What was his significance for you?
I feel he is the most important cultural figure in the 20th century in Scotland. He was ahead of his time. He was considered to be fanatical, lunatic, difficult, irascible. He described himself as being a stirrer, somebody who was there just to create trouble - and yet so much of what he
thought and wrote and said, it seems to me, has informed Scotland's cultural development of the past half-century. I think MacDiarmid's influence has been very deep and far-reaching, yet he is still not that well known.

How does his influence show up in contemporary Scottish literature?
Strangely, it's almost invisible in the work of contemporary writers. What MacDiarmid is so famed for is his revolutionary way of writing in the Scots language, and that at the moment is not particularly in favour or to the forefront of contemporary Scottish writing, although every Scottish writer has to grapple with the question of language: how do you, if you're writing about Scotland, represent the sounds we make?

Perhaps his influence is felt in the increased use of Scots demotic in contemporary fiction - James Kelman and Irvine Welsh, for instance?
I don't know if I would say that that's a direct result of MacDiarmid. Irvine Welsh, for example, has been very dismissive of him and has said that he stands for everything that was wrong about Scotland in the past. And Kelman would say the reason he writes in the way he does is that he's a working-class writer from Glasgow and that's how he gets across what he has to say. But I do think MacDiarmid's willingness to deal with the politics of language has had at least an indirect effect on many writers.

James Robertson's "And the Land Lay Still" is published by Hamish Hamilton (£18.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 16 August 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The war against science