James Robertson

James Robertson is a poet, novelist, editor and translator. His novels include The Testament of Gideon Mack (2006) and And the Land Lay Still (2010). His published poetry includes Sound-Shadow (1995), several pamphlet collections and many other poems in anthologies. He co-founded and is contributing editor to Itchy Coo, which publishes books in Scots for young readers, and has written original poetry for bairns as well as Scots translations of classic children’s works. From 1993 to 1995 he was writer in residence at Brownsbank Cottage, former home of Hugh MacDiarmid.

Photo: Marianne Mitchelson


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James Robertson reflects on MacDiarmid, in a film by Carolyn Scott and Andy Sim with music by Steven Gellatly

Thu 5 March - Sun 8 March | 10:00 - 22:00 | FREE | Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Conference Room

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Meet the filmmakers, poet and musician behind Return to Brownsbank

Sun 8 March | 14:15 - 15:00 | free / ticketed | Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Conference Room

Return to Brownsbank »

Stills from a film reflecting on Hugh MacDiarmid

Thu 5 March - Sun 8 March | 10:00 - 22:00 | FREE | Byre Theatre, Abbey Street, Level 2 Foyer


The Blues at Brownbank

They come before dawn. Packed in stiff kind cardboard,
They sit outside the blue door where the slug-trails
Gleam beneath the thistle-knocker. Stone chips
Squabble briefly with the post van’s wheels;
Aggregating with the growl of lagged
Hot water bubbling in the tank above my head.
A label in the darkness: Red Lick Records,
Porthmadog, Gwynnedd, Wales. Another hour in bed.
Sheep pass. I doze, then rise and fill the long white bath
Where Valda’s oils and henna sachets still tilt at youth.
Johnny Shines, Big Walter, Lightnin’, they’ll have to wait.
The greeshoch whispers rumours in the grate.
Twenty Hugh MacDiarmids watch me dress,
Stir up the ashes and a stubborn, glow, a flame.
I start to fit my day between the portraits, books,
His pipes, her wally dugs, the desk she built for him,
The doocots where he filed his thoughts away.
Against the catalogued accretions of their thirty, nearly
Forty years, my own familiars rest, strangely assured:
A frog, with fishing-rod, perpetually, unwearily
Content that nothing bites; my grandparents in the Twenties,
In their twenties, forever laughing in the frame; Quixote’s
Eight-inch wooden stance, his unenquiring eye;
A quaich, a gift that I remember someone by;
A small, soft, ugly, hairy creature like a brownie,
Keeper of the peats and fireplace (a raffle prize);
Postcards – Lanzarote, Bellany, Morrocco, Greece –
And books, books, more and more, thickening in rows
I always mean to thin, but never do. And now these blues,
Black circles within squares, black men with their bottlenecks
And slides, in from the cold. Along with them I bring
The morning light draped powdersoft on Broughton Heights,
The grass starched white with cranreuch, greylags ticked
And arrowed on the pale November sky. Stacked
Lorries hum and rumble on the road to Biggar, southbound;
Unseen from here they are unreal, divorced, mere sound.
Like Chris and Valda, these blues come at me
From a different age. I’m grabbing what’s left of it.
The L.P.’s dead, but still these last few stiffs
Arrive to grace the Garrard deck, the amp, the deep-set
Goodman speakers. ‘is it all right to put the stereo in?’
(I live in a museum.) ‘He kept his player underneath the bed,
On casters.’ I crank the volume up: a hotel room
In Nineteen-Thirties Texas, Robert Johnson bowed
Across the strings, next-door the phonograph
To hold his voice, the men from A. R. C. who hold their breath.
Crackle. Then, from floor to wooden ceiling here, the air
Is filled to bursting with his anguish and despair.
What links a house in Clydesdale to this weird combine
Of innocence, iniquity, melancholy, sheer exuberance?
In Johnson’s blues, if anywhere, extremes meet, disturb
The mind like gargoyles grinning next to kneeling saints.
An overwhelming sense of woe is overwhelmed by
Sensuality. I hear him, dead at twenty-seven, holler
Like a hellhound in this room where a poet slept
Above the means for playing Gustav Mahler.
Greenwood, Mississippi, ‘Thirty-Eight – it came to this:
A jealous husband poisoning whisky maybe even as
He sang ‘You can squeeze my lemon till the juice run down my leg’:
And Robert dying on his hand and knees, barking like a dog.
In Valda’s room a mouse is dead beneath a spring;
Blood wells in its lug, stops after one bright drop
Has fallen like a ruby on the dull linoleum.
My guilt will rub and rub to out that spot,
But still I won’t feel good about the tiny corpse
When I free it from the trap into the ash.
I fear being overrun by the little things,
Losing the place, perspective, sense of scale, of touch.
‘D’ye mind the wife? She’d awfy rid hair’. ‘She dyed it.’
‘I was never in love with him. I loved him.’ Valda said it.
How different love and being in love were only she could say.
‘I got a rich man’s woman, but she livin’ on a poor man’s pay.’
On a morning such as this she’d wake before him,
Start to reassemble all the debris
Of the night before. At the door she’d find
A dozen Bluebell matches, and the box maybe,
Where he’d tried to strike a light; nearby the pipe, tobacco,
And further on an empty bottle, the coat discarded
At the gate; finally his teeth; all the signs of a good night,
Or a hard one. Back in past the thistle (unregarded),
At the tail-end of this bombed and littered road,
Would lie the intellect, the mass of hair upon the head
Upon the pillow of Scotland’s greatest poet. She’d assume
He’d sleep it off, the burden of his people’s doom.
Those years you were in Whalsay, Johnson
Trudged the Mississippi roads, arriving, disappearing,
Pouring out the devil’s magic of his songs.
Lying on a raised beach, trying to get at the uncaring
Stones, did you pick up the soundwaves of that eerie voice
Crying ‘Come on in my kitchen’, ‘Love in vain’?
Words flood in from everywhere: poets sending messages
Not from the sense of language but its strain.
The sleevenotes tell how hearing Robert Johnson’s
Playing could make women weep, men too. For those runs,
That pitch, you’d sell your soul or break your heart.
Only pure evil, some believed, could sound so sweet and sharp.
A yellow moon hangs like a lantern in the dark.
You wait beside a crossroads at the midnight hour.
Nervous fingers strum and pick a little piece.
And now there comes the shadow of the one you play for,
Looming like a boulder; he takes the instrument,
Tunes it with an ear for exactly what perfection’s like,
Plays a piece, and hands it back with not a word,
The ghost of a smile. Your hands touch at the neck.
In that brief exchange two certainties are found:
The blues are yours, all chords, all meaning, every sound
A gift and curse to you, nightmare and dream;
And, who the stranger is and what his fee has been.
In Scotland a man might rest a while one day
Upon a mound in summer, to bathe in the heat,
and feel a weariness come over him, drowse,
Sleep: and be carried by the fairies deep
Into the hill, drained and slaved by them,
Filled like a vessel magic-full, with secret powers,
Hidden knowledges, sight beyond the sight of other men.
Stirring awake, he’d find he’d stayed a couple of hours
Too long, and stumble home to the wonder of his guessing,
Greying friends and family. He’d been considered dead, missing
Seven long years, vanished utterly. In time to come the face
Of the earth would shun him, wary of his skills, his new grace.
MacDiarmid, you returned from Shetland as one
Who had gone into the stones, conversed with them
And overcome their silence and indifference. Scotland
Preferred you at a distance, but you came home
Out of devilment, and need, knowing your country
Could not do without you. (Fine and heroic it may be
To suffer for your art, but to suffer for another’s,
As Valda did, in some ways more impresses me.)
Here, at Brownsbank, you settled finally with the stour-
But still sending out odd letter-bombs, sniping from the door.
And in the music of the Delta sometimes I get clear
Echoes of your lives, ricochets from eternity to here.
What do I touch when I touch an object here? –
This lamp, this chair, this book with the note in his clear
Downsloping hand that says ‘To Valda with all my love,
Where would I – or Scots poetry – have been without her?’
What do I feel when I feel nothing of their presence?
This place is better than haunted, it is real, inhabited;
Inanimate, it has not felt the passing lives of cottars,
Cottars’ wives, folk of the land who sucked, shat, mated,
Fought, loved, died, age after age, after them a poet
And a poet’s wife, a widow, now me, and through it
All we are nothing to the stones. Though we build a space
From them for our lives, our lives are nothing. This we must face.
Where will we go from here? Where will I go?
Who will be here in a hundred years, will this house
Be here? Impossible to tell, or what, but worms, the walls
May disgorge in a slow seepage of stone-stored noise –
A cacophony perhaps, composed of Valda, Chris,
MacDiarmid, the Delta blues and Mahler – writers
Not in residence – rodents, crows, the wind in flow,
Spring lambs under whaups and peeweets, oyster-catchers,
Another crop of winter geese on the barley stubble,
Scots words still thick on the land, rough, kind, capable
Language enduring against the odds, douce, dour cratur-
This is one way of listening out for the future.
But what if one sound replaces all the others, drowns
Them in its appalling, unrelenting dominance?
What’s likely to survive, not in a hundred years,
Not in a thousand, but in a million? What, but silence?
As when the tree falls deep in the forest – if it falls –
What will be heard is what we can’t imagine:
Nothing. The sound of other planets. Nothing. Like a stylus
Poised above a record, or when the record-player’s broken.
Like the sound the road makes empty of cars and lorries.
Not like the snow falling, but the sound of what it buries.
Silence. This is all there will be, and you were right,
MacDiarmid, thus to end that long, intoxicated night.
* * *
A landscape without sound is like a country without names –
Mappable but desolate, inhuman, cold. ‘I didn’t see a soul
All day on the hills’ would be a chilling tale if there was
Nobody to tell it to. To name what surrounds us is all
We can do: Valda, Chris, Robert, you’ve left your signs,
And we must make what we will of them, for in due time
All we, too, can be is be remembered. This is our fate,
Or not, as it may turn out. Remember, lest we be forgot.
Though the dead are saved on vinyl or in books survive
It’s what we, the living, make of them that keeps them live.

James Robertson

From Sound Shadow (B & W Publishing, 1995)