The 2020 Janet Paisley Lifetime Achievement Award at Scots Language Awards will be awarded to the novelist and editor of the Scots language imprint Itchy Coo, James Robertson.
The award’s namesake Janet Paisley’s work as a poet, author, playwright, and radio and television script writer in Scots embodied her belief that ‘literature comes from your own doorstep and in voices that you know’.
The same can be said of Robertson’s roots in the language, who in an interview with the Telegraph said: “Three of my grandparents were Scottish and had moved south in the 1920s. My family moved back to Scotland when I was six. But these Scots words were all around me the minute I stepped out of the house, into the street or onto a bus”.
The truth is that Scots language and culture can be found at nearly every doorstep in Scotland. The 2011 census found there are one and a half million Scots speakers, using regional dialects from Shetland to the Borders. But while its speakers are the bedrock of any language, it’s also the sustained efforts of writers, educators, performers and publishers such as Robertson that ensure Scots remains relevant and vibrant and continues to be used by the next generation of Scots.
Robertson’s work as a novelist is deeply rooted in Scotland, tackling themes of history, politics, society and religion, frequently alternating between Scots and English. Scots is integral to his first published novel The Fanatic, to Joseph Knight, which addresses Scotland’s role in slavery, to his 2006 Man Booker Prize nominated Testament of Gideon Mack, and to And the Land Lay Still, a masterful piece of storytelling that encapsulates the fifty years of historical and cultural change that took place over the latter half of the 20th century. Of And the Land Lay Still, Irvine Welsh said that it: “Represents nothing less than a landmark for the novel in Scotland, and underlines the author’s position as one of Britain’s best contemporary novelists”.
Also a prolific poet, Robertson was the first holder of the Brownsbank Fellowship at Hugh MacDiarmid’s former home near Biggar between 1993 and 1995. In 2004 he was writer in residence at the Scottish Parliament. That residency led to Voyage of Intent: Sonnets and Essays from the Scottish Parliament. Among those sonnets was his Manifesto for MSPs, full of hope for the future:
Open yer airms and minds tae folk in need,
hain frae fylin and skaith the land and sea,
tak tent o justice and the commonweal,
ding doon hypocrisy, wanthrift and greed,
heeze up the banner o humanity,
seek oot the truth and tae the truth be leal.
An avowed music fan, Robertson’s work has extended to include collaborations with some of Scotland’s best known folk musicians. In 2016 he presented Pilgrimer – a Scots reimagining of the classic Joni Mitchell album Hejira at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival. The following year he wrote a posthumous biography of his friend Michael Marra, Arrest This Moment, a sensitive chronicling of the life and times of the Bard of Dundee, based on conversations the two had at Robertson’s kitchen table.
In 2013, Robertson began a mammoth writing exercise, challenging himself to write a short story a day for a whole year, each exactly 365 words long. Over the course of the following year, he released one each day online, before the collection was published by Penguin.
Reading these stories inspired something in fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, who remarked: “I loved how succinct and emotive he could be with his words. I appreciated the power of his understatement, of saying less in a world when everyone seems to be shouting more. I wondered whether there might be a musical parallel”. So O’Rourke began a mammoth task of his own – writing a tune a day in response to each of the stories. All of the tunes and stories were subsequently recorded, and throughout 2020 have been released online on a daily basis.
Robertson’s contribution to Scots is not only in his artistic output, but also as co-founder and general editor of Scots children’s book imprint Itchy Coo.
Founded in 2002 by Robertson, Matthew Fitt and Black & White Publishing, Itchy Coo produces ‘braw books for bairns o aw ages’ and aims to encourage better understanding and acceptance of Scots in education, and wider aspects of Scottish life.
Over the past 18 years, Itchy Coo has published more than 70 titles, including translations of works such as Winnie the Pooh, Asterix, Paddington, the Wimpy Kid series and many classics by Roald Dahl and Julia Donaldson. Robertson’s Scots version of The Gruffalo was a bestseller and the text has since been translated into five regional dialects: Glaswegian, Doric, Dundee, Orkney and Shetland.
In 2017, Itchy Coo published Matthew Fitt’s translation of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stane – which has gone on to become one of the most popular Scots language books of all time.
Beyond publishing, Robertson has been a dedicated promoter of and advocate for the language. He has worked closely with the Scottish Government, Education Scotland, the Scottish Qualifications Agency, Creative Scotland, Scottish Book Trust, the Open University and other organisations and agencies, as well as participating in national and international conferences.
For Robertson, this passion comes from a deeply held principle. As he has said:
“One of the things I feel very strongly is that Scots-speaking children, when they arrive in school, should not be told that the way they speak is wrong. Instead they should be encouraged and taught to be articulate and literate in Scots as well as in English and in other languages too. Language is a fundamental building-block of any person’s identity, and of any community’s identity. To have Scots in your linguistic toolbox as a human being – regardless of whether you’re a writer or not – we should always value that.”
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