Author Talk with James Robertson - News of the Dead

Dr. Hamish Thompson Resident Director


February 3, 2022

We were delighted to welcome James Robertson to the Arcadia Center once again to discuss his latest novel, the News of the Dead, with our students. 

This novel is truly epic in the sense that it covers 1300 years of Scotland's past, all centred on a fictional glen in the edge of the Highlands.  James Robertson is as much a historian as an author. Of all his novels, this one perhaps best captures his love of history, a sense of fun about history and the importance of fiction in re-imagining the past, but ultimately presents a different kind of truth about the past. The importance of the imagined past to the present is at this novel’s heart.  

News of the Dead revolves around manuscripts, all kinds of manuscripts nesting and weaving different stories throughout the past of Scotland around the fictional Glen Conach. This leaves the reader deeply unsettled, but perpetually curious, as to what is ‘true’ in this fictional world with the background of what we take to be the ‘history’ of Scotland lurking as a subtext.  

At the novel’s core is a journal, started in 1809, of the comedic character of Charles Kirkliston Gibb, an antiquarian scoundrel who essentially ‘sofa surfs’ through aristocratic homes offering to research the past associated with those houses for board and lodging.  He has a good enough knowledge of history and classical languages as well as connections to obtain the references and introductions that enables him to move from house to house.  Charles’ ‘career’ started at a soiree on Buccleuch Place (where the Arcadia Edinburgh Center is actually located - which made the talk by James Robertson in the Edinburgh Center all the more fun!)

Charles’ ‘research’ takes him to Glen Conach to translate another manuscript presented in the novel, the ‘Book of Conach.’  This is written in the 12th century, or so, by a monk about an 8th century Christian missionary to the Picts called Conach who the locals elevate to sainthood even if he is not recognised as such by the church.  So, this story of Conach is Charles Gibb’s translation of an ancient manuscript itself lost in a fire.

But importantly, the textual basis for the novel is openly acknowledged as deeply unreliable historical sources.  Here we have a dubious journal in addition to a questionable ‘translation’ of a lost manuscript which is written by a monk hundreds of years after the life of a maybe fictional missionary called Conach.  But playfully, James Robertson incorporates some variations on ‘actual’ tales of early Scottish missionaries.  

As much as the textual sources provide a tale of Conach, the novel does not ignore the oral traditions of storytelling within the Glen. The inhabitants pass the stories of Conach through the ages in the language of Scots. James Robertson doesn't hesitate to poke fun at the reliability of oral traditions as authentic and how they might collide with textual sources. The recording of interviews of Scots at the University of Edinburgh (these actually exist) also pop up as yet another ‘historical’ source for a contemporary historian investigating Gibb’s journal.  

But it is these oral traditions that link the past within the novel to the near present of 2021 with an account of an elderly lady reminiscing on her life when a young boy visits her saying he has seen a ghost of a young girl wandering the Glen. The young boy wonders if the ghost’s appearance might have something to do with her.  This contemporary tale, set during the COVID pandemic in the Glen, bookends and threads through the novel. This third narrative sets up an overarching theme of the importance of place. It illustrates how people move and the importance of community in welcoming people as they travel and relocate. It shows how attitude to visitors shapes a community. 

Despite its staggering complexity and the multiple levels of truth with fictions within fictions presented in the story, the voice of the characters blast through. James Robertson’s superb sense of character takes the reader into, through and with the lives of them all as they develop.  The pathos of our first character in lockdown and her remembrances of her life leads into the humour of the rascally Charles that allows you to be easily drawn to him despite his flaws. Charles’ hosts in the Glen; the Baron, wife and daughter, are rich, engaging warm characters facing their own challenges. Conach himself is presented as a deeply flawed interloper to a new place who eventually comes to define a place by giving it his name.

There is a sense of dread that sustains the suspense: the title of the novel; the vulnerability of the elderly in a time of a pandemic with a ghost wandering the glen; when an individual wanders into a strange isolated place and leaves a journal, you wonder if a grim end awaits; a fire where a manuscript is lost; and finally, the lives of these early Christian missionaries rarely end well. . .   

Thanks so much to James Robertson for once again taking the time to speak with our students about this brilliant novel and his many other works. He has authored a tremendous corpus of work that gives so many insights into different aspects of Scotland’s history, identity and people.